© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
Although the last American President considered North Korea in a less than favorable light, to say the least, and North Korean claims of nuclear weapons capability don't help make tourists feel at ease, getting to North Korea isn't quite as hard as it used to be.
If you are determined, you don't carry a South Korean passport, and you aren't a "journalist", you should be able to venture into North Korea without joining the army. Once there, you'll discover a government focused on idolizing former president Kim II-sung with statues, stadiums, monuments and the title of Eternal President, even though he died in 1994. There are also a range of historic and cultural attractions in the showcase capital of Pyongyang, the old capital of Kaesong in the south, with its access to Panmunjom in the DMZ, the port city of Nampo to the west, and the refreshing mountains of Myohyang to the north.
For information about the pre-North Korea era, also visit the Brief History of South Korea section.
The history of North Korea formally begins with the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948. In the aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Korea which ended with Japan's defeat in World War II in 1945, Korea was divided at the 38th parallel in accordance with a United Nations arrangement, to be administered by the Soviet Union in the north and the United States in the south. The Soviets and Americans were unable to agree on the implementation of Joint Trusteeship over Korea. This led in 1948 to the establishment of separate governments, each claiming to be the legitimate government of all of Korea.
In 1949, a military intervention into South Korea was considered by the Northern regime but failed to receive support from the Soviet Union, which had played a key role in the establishment of the country. The withdrawal of most United States forces from the South in June dramatically weakened the Southern regime and encouraged Kim Il-sung to re-think an invasion plan against the South. The idea itself was first rejected by Joseph Stalin but with the development of Soviet nuclear weapons, Mao Zedong's victory in China and the Chinese indication that it would send troops and other support to North Korea, Stalin approved an invasion which led to the Korean War.
© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
Since the ceasefire of the Korean War in 1953 the relations between the North Korean government and South Korea, European Union, Canada, the United States, and Japan have remained tense. Fighting was halted in the ceasefire, but both Koreas are still technically at war.
Kim Il-sung died in 1994. His son, Kim Jong-il, who already had key positions in the government, succeeded him as General-Secretary of the Korean Workers Party. During Kim Jong-il's rule, North Korea's economy has continued to deteriorate and the standard of living of its 23 million people has continued to fall. From 1996 to 1999 the country experienced a large-scale famine which left some 600–900,000 people dead. The fundamental cause of this decline is that the state, which runs the entire economy, is bankrupt, and cannot pay for the necessary imports of capital goods to undertake the desperately needed modernization of its industrial plants. The inefficiency of North Korea's Stalinist-style collective agricultural system also contributed to the disaster.
Both North and South Korea signed the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration in 2000, in which both sides made promises to seek out a peaceful reunification. Additionally, on October 4, 2007, the leaders of North and South Korea pledged to hold summit talks to officially declare the war over and reaffirmed the principle of mutual non-aggression.
In 2002, United States president George W. Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil" and an "outpost of tyranny". By 2006, approximately 37,000 American soldiers remained in South Korea, although by June 2009 this number had fallen to around 30,000.On June 13, 2009, the Associated Press reported that in response to new U.N. sanctions, North Korea declared it would progress with its uranium enrichment program. This marked the first time the DPRK has publicly acknowledged that it is conducting a uranium enrichment program. In August 2009, former US president Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to secure the release of 2 US journalists.
© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
North Korea is the northern part of the Korean Peninsula and is a mountainous country bordered by China and Russia in the north, South Korea in the south, the Yellow Sea in the west and the Japanse Sea in the east. Borders with China and Russia (only 19 kilometers by the way) are natural, with the Amnok and Tuman Rivers respectively. The border with South Korea is a heavily guarded 4 kilometre-wide area full with mines, a thick concrete wall and electric fences. The holy Mount Paektu stretches the border with China and on this mountain a volcanic lake marks the border. This is also the highest point in North Korea, which consists of 80% mountains. The northeast is the most mountainous part, the most fertile areas are in the southwest and along the east coast and farmers live in cooperative farms working the land. Many areas see heavy deforestation and as a result floods have become worse lately.
North Korea shares international borders with Russia, China and South Korea. The only overland option at the current time is with China. For more information read the article: Overland Border Crossings In China.
© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
The De-Militarised Zone (DMZ) is probably one of the best known sights in the whole of Korea. It is a 4-kilometre wide area on both sides of the actual border of North and South Korea, called the Military Demarcation Line. Unlike its name, it is not demilitarised at all and actually is one of the most heavily guarded zones in the world with loads of mines as well. The DMZ is south of Kaesong, near the town of Panmunjom. The actual border is in the Joint Security Area, where soldiers from both nations keep a close watch on every move. As a visitor you will visit one of the huts in this area, called the Military Armistice Commission Conference Hall. In the middle of this hut, the actual border is drawn on the floor and across the table, and technically you can cross into South Korea in this hut but don't cross the border outside on the concrete line or leave the hut on the South Korean side or you will be in big problem...or worse!
© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
There are many statues and even more portraits of Kim Il Sung then you could ever imagine, but the best known and the biggest is the official Mansudae Grand Monument with a much larger than life statue of the Great Leader. The bronze statue was erected in 1972 along with the neighboring museum, in honor of President Kim's sixtieth birthday. The statue measures around 20 metres and in the back is a 70-metre wide mosaic of Mount Paektu. Literally every visitor to the country will pay a visit to the statue and you are expected to pay your respects by leaving flowers at his feet. If you arrive by air, this will be the first stop on your way to your hotel. No one just drives by the first time!
Paekdusan (Mount Paektu) is located in the northeast of the country on the border with China (you can also approach the mountain from the Chinese side) and is an extinct volcano with a crater lake (called Chonji) at its centre. It is the country's highest mountain at 2,744 metres above sea level. Paekdusan is sacred to all Koreans, because according to Korean mythology it is where the 'Son of the Lord of Heaven' descended to earth and the first Korean kingdom began. More recently, according to the legend, Kim Il Sung is supposed to be born here as well.
Myohyangsan is a mountain range several hours north of the capital Pyongyang and is a good place for trekking. Most people who visit this place on guided tours though go to the International Friendship Exhibition where thousands and thousands of presents by many international leaders for both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are to be admired, including cars and expensive jewelry and vases.
Kumgangsan is the best place in the country for walking in the beautiful mountains and along rocky landscapes and waterfalls. The are is located in the southeast of the country, south of Wonsan towards the border with South Korea.
© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
Several other places which are on the list of guided tours are:
The Arirang Mass Gymnastic and Artistic Performance in Pyongyang is sometimes incorrectly called the "mass games", as it is not a game at all - there are no teams, no winners, and no losers. Instead, it is a spectacular show with over 100,000 performers staged in the May Day Stadium, which holds over 150,000 people, now recorded in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest such performance in the world. Normally these performances are held six nights per week from August 1 through September 30 with some variations in start and end dates depending on various internal factors in North Korea. The 2014 Arirang Performance is rumoured to be cancelled and may not resume until 2015.
The celebration of the life of North Korea’s founding father, Kim il Sung, is held every year on April 15. The capital, Pyongyang, sees military parades and parties, while smaller events take place across the country.
International Workers’ Day is celebrated in North Korea, as it is elsewhere in world, on May 1, with Pyongyang seeing a huge folk festival in Toesongsan Park along with sporting events and parades.
Dragon boat races are as popular in North Korea as they are in China, with the annual Dragon Boat Festival taking place at the beginning of spring in early June. A visit to the major event in Pyongyang is an approved tour activity.
This important festival on July 27 marks the day on which the Korean War armistice was signed, and involves mass dancing and military parades.
Liberation Day is a national holiday in North Korea, held on August 15 as part of the huge Mass Games festival in Pyongyang’s main stadium.
This event celebrates the founding of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, a cornerstone of the country’s ruling elite. Held on October 10, it is a chance to see one of the country’s Mass Dances as well as the last days of the famed Ariring Mass Games in Pyongyang.
© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
North Korea has a continental climate with four distinct seasons. Winters are cold and can bring heavy snowfall. Summers are hot and humid as there is a rainy season in the summers beginning usually from the beginning of July and tapering off during the initial weeks of August. Temperatures can reach 35 °C for days on end and in winter temperatures can plummet way below zero. Therefore, autumn but especially spring (when it's usually dry), are the most pleasant times to visit North Korea.
Sunan International Airport (FNJ) near Pyongyang is the country's only regularly operating international airport. In 2013, Air Koryo has announced that they will maintain five regularly scheduled flights a week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday) between Beijing and Pyongyang and two flights per week (Wednesday and Saturday) between Shenyang and Pyongyang, in old but apparently properly maintained Ilyushin or Tupolev aircraft. The flight takes about two hours and one hour respectively. Air China, the Chinese air carrier, operates three flights per week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) between Beijing and Pyongyang using Boeing 737 aircraft. Unfortunately, they cost more than Air Koryo and will cancel flights if their load factor is too low. There are also regularly scheduled flights between Vladivostok and Pyongyang, along with a number of chartered routes including Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait.
Train K27/28 leaves Pyongyang for Beijing at Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays around 10:00am. From Beijing, trains leave on the same days at around 5:30pm. It takes 24 hours in both directions, including formalities at the border towns of Sinuiju (North Korea) and Dandong (China). Trains travel via Shenyang and Tianjin to reach Beijing. As of March, 2010, Americans are still not allowed to take the train either way. The train from Dandong leaves every day from Dandong to Sinujiu and there you'll change trains to Pyongyang, departing at 2:00pm, arriving in Pyongyang at around 7:00pm Passenger train travel across the DMZ, between North and South Korea, is currently not allowed.
Once a week train K27/K28 also conveys direct sleeping cars from Moscow via China to Pyongyang and vice versa. The route is Moscow - Novosibirsk - Irkutsk - Chita - Harbin - Shenyang - Dandong - Shinuiju - Pyongyang. Departure from Moscow is every Friday evening, arrival at Pyongyang is one week later on Friday evening. Departure from Pyongyang is Saturday morning, arrival in Moscow is Friday afternoon.
It used to be possible to cross the DMZ from South to North with two tourist packages. Both of these routes are currently closed to tourists, pending the resolution of a dispute between the North and the South. In the west, there was a day tour from Seoul to Kaesong while in the east there were tours of 2 to 4 or more days to the special tourist zone of Kumgang. Travel through the DMZ along these roads, operated by a South Koreans company, were solely for these two tours. There is no other public transportation across the DMZ. As of March, 2010, these tours were still suspended due to disagreements between the two sides over a South Korean female tourist being shot to death by a North Korean soldier in July, 2008 in Kumgang.
In order to visit North Korea you must use a travel agent. It is better to use a travel agency/tour operator owned by a western company because if the trip gets canceled, which has happened in the past, primarily due to weather problems, you should still be able to get a refund. There are a lot of travel agencies based in Dandong where is very close to North Korea. If due to weather problems or other things that can not get on the tour still can get a refund. Here is a partial list of travel agents/tour operators that arrange North Korea trips:
Getting around North Korea by yourself is not allowed, unless you have been granted long-term foreign resident status. Every tour "group," whether of only one person or dozens, will have at least two guides per vehicle, as well as a driver. If you are part of a tour, you'll be traveling either in a small van or larger coach bus depending on the size of the group.
If you have the possibility to take a taxi, there are now about 400-500 taxis in Pyongyang and they can be hailed or called. It costs about $US10 to cross town.
All visitors going to North Korea need visas and these will be processed after you book an organized tour with an authorized travel company. Visas are not just "issued." You must have approved arrangements in North Korea, through a host organization. Approved travel agents work usually with one of three state-run agencies: Korea International Travel Company, Korea International Sports Travel Company, Korea International Youth Travel Company. It is best to know that your visa is "approved" prior to leaving for Beijing, the normal entry point to the DPRK. Once in Beijing (although there are other points of entry), one needs to pick up the physical visa, either a separate piece of paper, or a visa stamp in one's passport (if your country has friendly relations with North Korea). Whoever is arranging your travel for you should be handling these arrangements for you so it is not a problem. It is best to allow a full day in Beijing prior to entering North Korea to be sure there are no problems with your visa and/or air tickets (Air Koryo tickets can usually only be gotten in Beijing also, although there are Air Koryo offices and sales agents in the U.S., Malaysia, and Berlin to name a few).
Occasionally various countries get into disagreements with North Korea and there are then possible problems for their nationals to get a visa to North Korea. Usually these disruptions are short lived. U.S. citizens are permitted to travel to North Korea
See also Money Matters
The won (W) is the currency of North Korea. It is subdivided into 100 chon.
There are coins of W10, W50, W100 and banknotes of W1, W5, W10, W50, W100, W200, W500, W1,000, W5,000.
Short term foreign visitors are not allowed to use the local currency. But most stores will accept USD, Euros and RMB. Bringing small change is advisable as some vendors may not have exact change.
If you are interested in teaching in North Korea, you may find success by contacting the North Korean UN Mission in New York, or contacting a North Korean university directly. Your odds of success are, however, quite low: there is only a small team of 4 English Language Instructors dealing with teaching and teacher training, with a Project Manager leading the team of three, placed in Kim Il Sung University, Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and Kim Hyung Jik University of Education.
There is an opportunity to teach in the Pyongyang Summer Institute during summer time when it is opened to foreigners. It's voluntary, unpaid work, though.
It can be difficult for foreigners to become students in North Korea, although University exchange programmes may be possible.
The Pyongyang Project arranges tours of North Korea with an academic focus, with the aim of participants learning about the country rather than just sightseeing.
Yanbian University, in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture in north eastern China is closely affiliated with other universities in North Korea and can offer relevant courses for learning about North Korea.
Korean is the national language of North Korea. It is similar to the Korean spoken in South Korea, but vocabulary, intonation and local dialect may differ.
Your guides will speak fairly decent and understandable English (some better than others) and will translate something if you wish.
Despite severe food shortages in North Korea which have left millions dead, you will not have any problems getting food. Your guide will order all your food for you, and you will eat in hard-currency only restaurants. Vegetarians and people with food allergies or dislikes of common foods such as seafood or eggs will need to make arrangements in advance. A visit to a "real" local restaurant may be possible; enquire with your guide. Although your food will be better than that which 95% of the population eats, it's still not necessarily great. Shortages, combined with the typical use of Korean cooking styles, mean that there is a relatively limited variety of food - and this can get wearying on tours of more than a few days.
There are a few western food options now in Pyongyang and these restaurants can usually be visited if arranged with the guides in advance. They will usually require additional payment though (unless you have discussed this already with your tour operator) as the costs are not included in the per diem fee charged by the Korean Travel Company. There are two Italian restaurants (one on Kwangbok Street which is near the Korean circus where the pizza is great, and they have imported a pizza oven and all the ingredients so the quality is very high; and one near the USS Pueblo) and two burger restaurants (the more accessible is in the Youth Hotel).
In Pyongyang, many tourists will stay in the Yanggakdao Hotel in Pyongyang while you travel to North Korea. It is similar like a 4-star hotel in China. It is a very nice hotel. It has a restaurant, karaoke, coffee bar and post counter where you can post postcards or letters. On the 47th floor there is a restaurant and you have views of Pyongyang. Rooms are nice. You can get CCTV channel and BBC channel as well.
Normally when you register on a tour the hotel room is included. But if you would like to stay in single room you have to pay single room supplement fee. Normally this will cost RMB300 per night.
Soju is the national choice of liquor in both North and South Korea. Soju is a distilled liquor made from grains. It can be sipped or taken in shots. It's particularly good with meat dishes, and locally recommended to kill bacteria when eating cold dishes.
North Korea makes some good home-grown brews. The Yanggakdo Hotel has its own microbrewery, as does the Paradise Microbrewery in Pyongyang. Surprisingly, the Kumgangsan Hotel also has its own microbrewery that is quite good. The trendiest bar in Pyongyang is the Taedonggang No. 3 bar along the Taedong River in Pyongyang. It's got a number of different kinds of brews, all very good!
Visit the Vienna coffee house, which is on the river side of Kim Jong Il square, for a pretty good coffee served like you would get in Europe.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to North Korea. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to North Korea. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months. Only in rare cases is vaccination against Japanese Encephalitis recommended.
Malaria does occur in North Korea, but only in remote areas along the border with South Korea. Malaria pills are not necessary; just use mosquito repellant and wear long sleeves if you can when it is dark.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
© All Rights Reserved Utrecht
See also Travel Safety
Although travelling to North Korea still will certainly raise eyebrows by many people, it is one of the safest countries in the world for tourists. Crime against travellers is almost unheard of and because of the fact that the total trip is extremely well organized you won't be able to run into problems at all. That said, if you do intend to do something stupid like trying to cross into South Korea (yes, that happened!), you can be shot, so don't try your luck and don't come here if you can't stand organized tours.
The official policy is that you are not to wander around on your own. You are expected to get permission and/or have a guide accompany you if you are leaving your hotel on your own. This will vary depending on what hotel you are in. The Yanggakdo Hotel is on an island in the middle of the Taedong River in Pyongyang. Therefore you can walk around the area a little more freely than if you are at the Koryo Hotel right in the centre of town. You should always be friendly and courteous to your guides and driver who will normally reciprocate by trusting you more and giving you more freedom.
For taking photographs, one needs to exercise restraint, caution and common sense. If you appear to be looking for negative images of North Korea, the guides will not be happy and will tell you to delete any questionable images. In particular, you are not to take photos of anything military, including personnel, or anything showing the DPRK in a bad light.
Under no circumstances whatsoever should you say anything that could possibly be perceived as an insult to Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-Un or any of their family, the North Korean government in general, the North Korean military, the Juche ideology, the Songbun policy, the North Korean economy, or North Korean citizens. Simply avoid these topics if you can.
You should bear in mind that anyone you speak to will be affiliated with the North Korean government, and you should always respond accordingly should sensitive topics arise. You and your guide could potentially face serious trouble if you answer incorrectly, although your guide will probably bear the worst of it. North Korea is known for extremely harsh punishments which range (for the guides) from lengthy prison sentences to a lifetime of severe mistreatment and torture, while you could be sentenced to prison, deported, and banned from re-entering.
In February of 2013, Koryolink announced that mobile 3G internet will be accessible by foreigners. It is currently possible to access 3G internet in North Korea by purchasing a SIM card in Pyongyang, but the rates can be hefty and some higher data plans require monthly plans for frequent travelers or foreign residents. Through the 3G internet, you can access most websites including Facebook, Twitter and all other social media sites. It's not recommended to access banking information from North Korea, as financial institutions can track your IP address and will block your account.
See also International Telephone Calls
In January 2013, Koryolink announced that foreigners can now bring their cell phones into the country and can purchase mobile SIM cards, which allow you to make international phone calls straight from your phone. The rates are expensive (about $5 per minute to call overseas). SIM cards can usually be purchased at the Koryolink counter found in the Sunan International Airport, but there are days where the counter is not staffed.
In Yanggakdao Hotel in Pyongyang you can make international call but it will cost around €1-3 per minute, depending on where you are calling.
You can post international postcards or letters from the Yanggakdao Hotel in Pyongyang. It takes about 10-15 days to reach your destination.
You can purchase postage and postcards in several souvenir shops. The best place for postcards is at the Korea Stamp Shop in Pyongyang next to the Koryo Hotel or at the Koryo Stamp Shop in Kaesong. International postage is about €1 Euro and postcards are usually €1.20.
Ask Utrecht a question about North Korea
One of the most bizar countries I have been to, ask for information if you want, about places but also about the rules in this country and how you manage to get there in the first place.
Ask MAW1993 a question about North Korea
North Korea is a Communist Country, Should the US and the EU Lifting sanctions on North Korea?
Ask andrea_uri a question about North Korea
I'm a Korean-American and a frequent traveler to both Koreas, North and South. I love to help fellow travelers on trips to Korea, although I've become more of an expert on North Korea than South over the years. Both sides are equally amazing as a travel destination, and I can be a resource to anyone interested.
Ask peking1000 a question about North Korea
Guided (local guide) tours in North Korea. Ask booking conditions.
Except where otherwise noted, content of this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License