So, how about a little trip to the DPRK? There’s a special deal on Expedia.com! Well, not exactly. Traveling to the “North” isn’t quite like booking a vacation to Hawaii. Yet, in many regards, planning is surprisingly easy since you don’t have to (read: can’t) do much yourself and have to go through an agency.
In this series of two posts, I’ll paint a broad picture in a Q&A form on how to go north of the DMZ and what it involves. I’ll drill further into some of these topics in future posts—this Q&A is intended as a quick and unofficial reference, should you be planning a trip yourself or simply wondering how the magic happens.
In part 1, I’ll focus mostly on how to get to the DPRK, while in part 2, I’ll answer questions around what to expect once there.
Q. Does the DPRK let foreigners in?
A. Yes. Tourism is a relatively new thing in the DPRK—while there has always been travel between the DPRK and the ex-Communist bloc, as well as regional travel (from China, Japan, Russia) western tourists are still a bit of a rarity. Not so long ago, US imperialists were not welcome. However, things have been changing over the past few years, primarily because tourism is a reliable source of hard currency. In fact, there is evidence that the DPRK is attempting to further develop tourism (a cruise has been announced, as well as new special zones.) Currently, the number of tourists is simply limited by demand, as it appears that Pyongyang may not be everyone’s top destination choice.
It should be noted that very specific provisions apply to journalists, and that travel to the DPRK for news reporters is extremely restricted. Journalists who try to pass for tourists take significant risk.
Q. Is travel to the DPRK legal?
A. Unless you’re from South Korea, the answer is likely to be affirmative.
- While the US has traditionally restricted travel to Cuba, there are no current restrictions involving the DPRK. The US Department of State strongly discourages travel to the DPRK in ominous terms (“Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal outside the DPRK, including involvement in unsanctioned religious and political activities, engaging in unauthorized travel, or interaction with the local population.“) but doesn’t prohibit it in any way.
- Several European countries have embassies in Pyongyang and travel is therefore legal.
- South Korea does impose restrictions on its own citizens, however, and it is said that they may deny entry to anyone who has been to the North.
If you’re interested in travel to the DPRK, check with your government, as this blog has no official character whatsoever, but you may be surprised to find out that there are very few restrictions overall.
Q. Will I need to hide evidence that I have traveled to the DPRK?
A. I’ve been asked multiple times if I had to accidentally lose my passport after my trip 🙂 No. In fact there is, to my knowledge, virtually no obvious evidence of my trip. Most foreigners who enter the DPRK as tourists as part of a group do not even get their passport stamped. Tourist visas are typically a standalone foldout form which needs to be showed in conjunction with one’s passport and is returned to the authorities upon leaving, so that it may not even be kept as a souvenir.
Q. Can I fly to Pyongyang from my hometown?
A. No, unless your hometown happens to be Beijing or a handful of other places.
There are very few ways to enter the DPRK, especially as a tourist.
- Virtually all visitors go through Beijing, China, which offers air and ground (train) links to Pyongyang. Air Koryo (the DPRK’s national carrier) and Air China each operate a couple of flights a week. The 24 hour sleeper train from Beijing to Pyongyang is another fascinating way to travel, although there are few trains, few seats (only 1-2 cars actually cross into the DPRK), and some restrictions—for example, US citizens are required to fly, the rationale being, most likely, that one can see too much from the train.
- Air Koryo also offers air service from Shenyang, Vladivostok, and Kuala Lumpur, although the latter flight is seasonal. Beijing/Pyongyang remains the most regular route and is usually served by the most modern aircraft (a Tupolev Tu-204.)
Note that going in and out of Beijing means that visitors need at least a double-entry Chinese visa. For those who enter the DPRK with a single entry visa, the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang can arrange return visas for approximately 80 Euros.
Air or rail tickets cannot be booked online or by most travel agencies, and can only be obtained through specialized tour operators which are typically based in China. Air Koryo is a member of IATA but does not participate in the central computerized booking system.
Finally, for the creative minds out there, there are potential, yet very unofficial ways to cross the border on various other trains from China and Russia. Train schedules are poorly documented, service may be unreliable, and obtaining tickets as well as the proper documentation is challenging or impossible as tourists are not supposed to travel on these routes. Travel agencies will often ignore or deny the existence of cross-country trains besides the Beijing to Pyongyang route. If this peeks your curiosity, I highly recommend that you read “The forbidden railway: Vienna – Pyongyang,” a fascinating blog written by two world travelers and train aficionados who successfully made it from Vienna to Pyongyang through Russia. Unfortunately, it appears that the loophole that they’ve used is now closed.
Q. Can I cross the border from the South?
A. No. There used to be a handful of highly supervised tours to national parks and other natural areas from the South, but they have been discontinued due to incidents and tensions between the two countries. Should you wish to set foot in the DPRK from the South, your best bet is to tour the DMZ where you can stand in the blue UN buildings on the North side. I do not recommend attempting to venture any further, unless you want to make the front page news.
Q. How do I book travel to the DPRK? Do I need a visa? How much does it cost?
To book travel to the DPRK, you’ll need to go through a specialized agency and purchase an all-inclusive package. There are various agencies, often based in China. All agencies organize their tours through KITC (Korea International Tourism Company,) the North Korean arm of the government in charge of tourism. KITC will make your hotel and restaurant reservations, provide transportation, a driver and a guide, and approve of your itinerary.
The Korean Friendship Association, which maintains what amounts to the DPRK’s official presence on the web (http://www.korea-dpr.com,) offers tours, although membership is required, which is something that one might legitimately be uncomfortable with. The most well-known traditional agency is Koryo Tours. I used a very small company that specializes in hardcore travel and caters to a younger, more adventurous crowd. They have a rather unique character which can be controversial and isn’t necessarily for everyone but happens to suit my tastes nicely. They’ve established close relationships with KITC guides and have the ability to offer more access than other agencies overall. Travel in the DPRK is tightly controlled, so small details can make all the difference. For example, all tourists get to ride two stations on the Pyongyang subway, leading to widespread rumors that the subway is a fake propaganda artifact, a loop between two unique stations, with actors posing as passengers. Our itinerary mentioned that we’d ride five stations. We ended up riding six–I couldn’t find anyone on the web who rode that many stations with another agency.
For a number of reasons I’m not going to disclose the name of the agency right away, although it’s probably exceedingly easy to figure it out. I had a great experience with them, but I want to ensure that what I write in this blog isn’t a source of trouble on their end.
In terms of costs, travel to the DPRK isn’t cheap. Plane tickets are excessively expensive – a one way Pyongyang/Beijing 440 euros, or over $550 for a 90 minute flight, and the DPRK charges western prices for all accommodations. Some companies are cheaper than others, and the length and dates of the tours impact prices. Inquire with an agency for further details.
In addition to the double-entry visa you’ll need to go in and out of China, you’ll need a visa to enter the DPRK. This part is actually surprisingly simple if you deal with a competent agency. I merely had to email a form and attach a copy of my passport as well as a scan of a photo. To obtain a visa to the most reclusive country in the world, I never provided a single original document.
Q. Is there a risk in going to the DPRK?
A. The notion of risk is very personal. Reactions from friends and family varied greatly when I announced my plans. My personal assessment is that one takes a far greater risk in life by driving to and from work daily than by traveling to the DPRK. It’s a simple question of math—lookup the number of yearly deaths on your local roadways, and then compare to the number of reported accidents or incidents that have occurred to tourists in the DPRK. To stick to an apples-to-apples comparison, I believe that travel to South America, for example, while much more mainstream, is significantly more risk prone for a wide variety of reasons. Let’s face it: for all the evil talk about the DPRK government, they have no interest in killing or imprisoning a mere tourist—it’s only a source of trouble, and frankly they’d rather take your cash, inflict a quick dose of propaganda on you, and then let you out.
- There is no crime (petty or serious) targeted to foreigners in trhe DPRK, as perpetrators would suffer severe consequences.
- In terms of food and health safety, the DPRK is not more unsafe than numerous places in the world. Infrastructures may be lacking but as a tourist you’ll be fed correctly if not well, and you will reside in clean, working facilities. Access to hot water and electricity should be by all measures, reliable and sufficient enough. Obviously, you should not go if you’re sick—access to modern medical facilities is questionable especially outside the capital. The flagship hospitals in Pyongyang have welcomed tourists occasionally, and as a foreigner, should a need arise, you might be able to purchase medicine with the help of your guide, but you definitely want to avoid being in that situation. There is no travel or repatriation insurance valid in the DPRK according to my research, then again, there is always a risk inherent to travel, and the DPRK isn’t off the charts by any measure.
- In terms of transportation, the risk of flying Air Koryo is difficult to assess. The airline is infamously banned in Europe, most of it equipment dates from the 1950s, and there is no independent or reliable data on aircraft maintenance practices. Yet Air Koryo hasn’t had an accident since 1983 and does fly modern aircraft (Tu-204s) on their flagship route between Beijing and Pyongyang. If you choose to take the train, the risk is probably negligible overall. Once in the DPRK, as a tourist you will be transported in modern vehicles and on highways with zero traffic. Again, road safety is probably worse in your home country 🙂
- As long as you abide by certain basic rules (for example, not making any derogatory comments about the leadership) you will most likely have a safe, fascinating and enjoyable experience. If you’re not willing to abide by those rules, don’t go. It’s a matter of common sense and respect.