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North Korea

Photo © Utrecht

Travel Guide Asia North Korea

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Introduction

Statue of United Korea

Statue of United Korea

© 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.

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Brief History

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.

North Korean farmers

North Korean farmers

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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.

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Geography

Juche tower in Pyongyang

Juche tower in Pyongyang

© 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.

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Regions

  • Central north and northeast - contains the provinces of North Hamgyong (borders Russia), South Hamgyong, Ryanggang and Jagang. This part of North Korea is not visited often by travellers, except for Mount Paektu along the border with China, which is the holy mountain where Kim Il Sung is supposed to be born according to the legend.
  • Northwest and central - containing the provinces of North Phyongan, South Phyongan and the capital province of Pyongyang. Apart from Pyongyang the main points of interest here are the harbor city of Nampo, Mount Myohyang and trains to China travel towards the border at Sinuiju in North Phyongan.
  • Southwest - containing the provinces of North and South Hwanghae, with Mount Kuwol and Sariwon being the main places to visit.
  • South and southeast - containing the provinces of Kangwon and Kaesong, stretching the border with South Korea. Wonsan, Kaesong and the Demilitarised Zone are the main sights.

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Cities

Lonesome biker in Kaesong old streets

Lonesome biker in Kaesong old streets

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

  • Pyongyang - the capital and largest city;
  • Kaesong - in the south of the country, near the DMZ/South Korean border;
  • Wonsan - along the east coast;
  • Nampo - harbour city along the west coast;
  • Sinuiju - in the north, near the border with China;
  • Sariwon - known as a folk town;
  • Hamhung - along the east coast, north of Wonsan;
  • Rason - in the northeast tip of the country;
  • Chongjin - northeastern city that is now open for tourism.

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Sights and Activities

De-Militarised Zone (DMZ)

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!

Kim Il Sung Statue

He will show you the (wrong) way

He will show you the (wrong) way

© 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

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

This 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

This 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.

Other sights and activities

Special north korean cartoon

Special north korean cartoon

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

Several other places which are on the list of guided tours are:

  • Nampo - port city in the west. There is a huge 10-lane highway between Pyongyang and this place which is almost empty!
  • Anti American Museum - you won't believe it till you see it.
  • Cooperative Farms, beaches and lakes near Wonsan.
  • Pyongyang - the capital Pyongyang itself is an attraction of its own.
  • Masik Pass - In 2014, North Korea is slated to open a new ski resort called the Masik Pass in the eastern coastal part of the country near Wonsan. Although prices for the ski resort have not yet been announced, the country has set a completion date for the end of 2013. Once the ski resort is open, it will be accessible to foreign tourists.

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Events and Festivals

  • 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.
  • Different activities in parks in Pyongyang on the first of May (Labour Day)
  • National holidays in North Korea are widely celebrated and visiting the country during these times is a great opportunity to see a lot of people in the streets, mass dances, parades and picnics. The major North Korean holidays are Kim Jong Il birthday celebration in February, Kim Il Sung birthday celebration in April, Victory Day in July, National Day in September and Party Foundation Day in October.
Acrobat in the North Korean circus

Acrobat in the North Korean circus

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

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Weather

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.

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Getting There

By Plane

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.

By Train

Trains leave 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.

By Bus

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.

Travel Agents

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:

  • Explore North Korea - They are based in Dandong,China and they offer train rides from Dandong, China to Pyongyang and return tour which is far more interesting than fly into North Korea.
  • Korea Konsult is a Swedish agency specializing in North Korea tours.
  • Koryo Tours leads great trips to North Korea. They specialize in arranging tours for the Mass Games held every fall. The owners are British and have their headquarters in Beijing.
  • North Korea 1on1 is the most experienced American tour operator to North Korea, having been arranging travel there since 1995. They are authorized by the Korea International Travel Company in Pyongyang to arrange group and individual travel year round for citizens of all countries except South Korea (who have a separate government department for their arrangements).
  • Uri Tours is an American provider of North Korea tours based in the New York City area. They are also the exclusive ticketing agent for Air Koryo in the Americas. They offer year-round tours to North Korea and they work directly with the Korea International Sports Travel Company in Pyongyang.
  • Young Pioneer Tours is a British-run agency based in Xian offering budget tours to North Korea all-year round.

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Getting Around

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.

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Red Tape

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

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Money

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.

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Language

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.

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Sleep

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.

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Drink

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!

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Health

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.

North Korean propaganda wall

North Korean propaganda wall

© All Rights Reserved Utrecht

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Safety

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.

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Keep Connected

Internet

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.

Phone

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.

Post

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.

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Quick Facts

North Korea flag

Map of North Korea

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Capital
Pyongyang
Population
22,466,000
Government
Communist state
Religions
Buddhism, Confucianism
Languages
Korean
Calling Code
+850
Nationality
Korean
Local name
DPRK 조선민주주의인민공화국

Contributors

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North Korea Travel Helpers

  • Utrecht

    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 Utrecht a question about North Korea
  • andrea_uri

    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 andrea_uri a question about North Korea
  • peking1000

    Guided (local guide) tours in North Korea. Ask booking conditions.

    Ask peking1000 a question about North Korea

This is version 76. Last edited at 17:21 on Nov 12, 13 by Utrecht. 26 articles link to this page.

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