Have you ever contemplated visiting North Korea but felt unsure whether it would be safe to go or not?
A quick check of the Google search bar reveals that you are not alone with your concerns.
Decades of negative news coverage (especially since Otto Warmbier) have created a perception of a country seemingly unsuitable for tourism. And yet, every year a few thousand Westerners cross the border with China to experience the last true remnant of the Cold War, before returning home unscathed, a fact the broader public doesn’t seem to acknowledge.
Is it possible that North Korea isn’t such a scary place after all, or are these people (including me) just lucky to have survived this reckless excursion?
Since the DPRK seems to open up its borders again (after a two-year pandemic-induced shutdown) and renowned tour companies Koryo and Young Pioneers will start to bring visitors back into the country from April 2022, I will try to answer these questions and give you all the necessary information, so you won’t end up in a North Korean prison camp.
Probably. Depends on your well behaviour.
THE KOREAN CONFLICT
The biggest concern for aspiring North Korea tourists is the (seemingly) volatile, geopolitical situation of the country.
Although, the Korean War ended nearly 70 years ago, an official peace treaty has never been signed, leaving the peninsula in an ongoing state of conflict. Luckily, the Korean people have not experienced any major combat operations since, however, the peace is fickle and tensions are in a perpetual flux, with relations shifting between convergence and open hostility in a matter of months.
Nevertheless, the security situation has been relatively stable in the last decades, despite the rhetorical sabre-rattling and regular nuclear weapon tests undertaken by the regime in Pyongyang.
Although relations took a massive hit when North Korea blew up the joint liaison office in Kaesong (June 2020), given the current situation, travellers contemplating a visit to the DPRK shouldn’t be too concerned though.
The pandemic, a tanking economy (Kim Jong-un admitted that the recent five-year plan failed in “almost every sector”), natural disasters, and the worst food shortage in years do not paint a picture of a country ready for offensive warfare.
The DPRK can simply not afford a full-blown war.
It would be nothing but suicidal.
WHEN IN NORTH KOREA, DO AS THE NORTH KOREANS DO!
The DPRK is definitely not your typical tourist destination.
Hence, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that rules and laws will differ greatly from those of your home country. What might seem minor or irrelevant (especially) for us Westerners, might have grave consequences, ranging from house arrest to an end of the trip, or even incarceration, if not abided by.
Even though, you will be given a thorough briefing by your tour company before the trip (every credible company should have such a briefing!), at the end of the day it is your responsibility to follow these laws and stay safe while inside the country.
However, travelling the DPRK is not traversing a minefield of hundreds of unfamiliar rules and regulations, bound to blow up in your face and send you straight to a North Korean labour camp.
If you adhere to the rules listed below you won’t have anything to fear about.
- Never criticize the government or the state ideology!
- Never make fun of the current and past leaders! (North Korea has established a personality cult and its former leaders enjoy a near godlike status in society)
- Treat the North Koreans and their believes with respect. (e.g., bowing down in front of statues of their leaders when asked; not striking funny poses for photos in front of statues/pictures of their leaders, etc.)
- Always listen to your guides.
- Don’t wander off on your own. (doesn’t mean you have to hold hands all the time, but your guides should be able to see you are still around. At the end of the day, it depends on your Korean guides how much “freedom” they give you)
- Don’t leave the hotel at night or go places you are not allowed to.
- Don’t take photos of the military or people doing hard labour. (e.g., people working on construction sites, in the fields, etc.)
- Don’t take pictures in places you are not allowed to. (e.g., Victorious War Museum)
- Don’t try to outsmart customs and bring anything into the country you shouldn’t. (e.g., books on North Korea, religious texts, pornography, etc.)
- Don’t try to sneak anything out of the country! (e.g., propaganda poster)
Crime targeting tourists is unheard of in North Korea (an “advantage” of having a rigorous, autocratic regime heavily focused on security and control, I guess).
While the DPRK is one of those countries you could easily flaunt your wealth without a care in the world, I urge you not to though, out of respect for the North Koreans.
When travelling inside the DPRK you might be worried about certain things, however, petty theft or assault shouldn’t be one of them.
SO, HOW DANGEROUS IS NORTH KOREA?
If we ignore the potential (albeit unlikely) threat of nuclear war for a second, the DPRK presents itself as an astonishingly safe country to visit. Not only that but the complete absence of petty crime crowns North Korea as one of the safest countries in the world for tourists in general!
In fact, probably the biggest threat to their well-being poses the visitor themself, by not adhering to the North Korean laws and provoking the response of the authorities.
That doesn’t mean travelling to the DPRK comes without risks, though. While Korea is not a battleground anymore, the conflict is still ongoing and has the potential to escalate quite rapidly, given the oftentimes very impulsive actions of the North.
A glimpse into the past reveals, however, that even during times of political tension tourism to the DPRK has never been negatively affected.
Nevertheless, when planning a trip to North Korea you should always keep an eye out regarding developments on the Korean peninsula and confer with your travel agency should you feel uncertain about the current security situation, as they will always have the most recent on the ground information.
Visiting the DPRK is not your ordinary Sunday trip, however, you are not visiting an active warzone either.