Having covered some basic practical “pre-trip” questions in part 1, I will now focus on the experience (and restrictions) within the DPRK itself—ie. what you can expert in terms of freedom (or lack thereof,) food, accommodations, access to communication channels, etc.
I will touch on many of these questions in greater details in subsequent posts, but the following Q&A will set the stage if you’re curious about what travel to the DPRK involves—for example, often people I talk to are surprised to hear that one isn’t allowed to walk around freely on the streets… indeed that’s correct, and it’s probably something to know ahead of time 🙂
Q. Is individual travel possible? Will have I freedom of movement? What will I be able to see?
A. There is no freedom of movement for foreigners in the DPRK. Many parts of the country are off-limits, and even the showcase capital of Pyongyang cannot be explored freely, except maybe by a handful of foreign students and embassy or NGO workers, who still face tremendous restrictions.
North Koreans themselves are bound by travel restrictions. While they can navigate their city or village freely, they’re typically unable to go beyond the outskirts without a travel permit. There are checkpoints on all major roads.
Concretely, this means that you will always be accompanied by guides (whose job is as much to act as guides as it is to act as minders) and a driver. You cannot leave your hotel on your own, nor can you walk on the streets without an escort. Some of the simplest acts—wandering around, or buying a common household product from a neighborhood store—are not possible.
While individual travel (outside a group) is possible, it requires hiring a government mandated guide and a driver, which is expensive and can be oppressive. Your best bet is to go on a tour organized by a travel agency.
Visiting the DPRK implies accepting rules—the total loss of personal freedom, sometimes scripted tours, constant bureaucracy, meaningless schedules when one alternatively rushes and then wastes time for no apparent reason, limited interactions with locals, etc. It is all part of the experience. Which agency you choose, and how much trust you build with your guides has a tremendous impact on how much you will see and experience. It is an exercise of patience and relationship building which can pay off.
Q. What about food and accommodations?
As I hinted at in my previous post, as long as you don’t expect luxury, you’ll be fine.
There are very few hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. In Pyongyang, most tourists will stay at the Yanggakdo, the main (and premier!) hotel, which is conveniently located on an island, naturally limiting your potential for exploration. I have stayed at the Ryanggang hotel, which is a less upper scale place. No matter where you go, expect basic but clean facilities, and, at least in Pyongyang, relatively steady power and hot water supplies.
Most tourists eat at KITC restaurants that cater exclusively to foreigners, although good travel agencies can establish relationships with non-KITC restaurants, thereby taking visitors to more traditional places, where you’ll have a chance to dine next to (wealthy) Koreans. Food is safe (although tap water typically isn’t) and fare varies from basic to very good.
At the end of the day, you don’t get much say about where you stay and what you eat—and as you’ll find out in a subsequent post, plans can change at any time and take slightly interesting turns. But you’ll be fed well and will sleep somewhere safe. If you’re concerned about food and accommodations, you should probably not go to the DPRK at all 🙂 There are many places in the world that are less safe in this regard.
Q. Will I have access to the outside world? What about email, phone calls, traditional mail?
You should plan on being completely cut off from the outside world. There is no Internet access for the masses in the DPRK as it is reserved to the elite. The Yanggakdo may let you send an email, but the process basically involves having the staff send it on your behalf through the hotel’s email address, and you will not be able to receive a response. Obviously your email needs to be “politically correct” as it will likely be reviewed prior to being sent.
Making phone calls and sending postcards are officially possible, although in my experience both can be problematic outside the Yanggakdo. The hotels I stayed at did not offer those services. If you can make a phone call, you will be charged a hefty fee per minute, and you will most likely be monitored. Snail mail does reach its recipients (in 3-6 weeks,) as long as your prose is acceptable by the authorities.
The Yanggakdo receives the BBC, although I hear reception can be spotty. Other than that, Korean press may be available to you.
Q. What can I bring in? What should I pack?
The key when packing is to remember that generally speaking you will not be able to acquire any item that you might need once in the DPRK. You’ll be able to purchase souvenirs easily, though, at foreigners’ stores in hotels and museums, as well as bottled water and soft drinks. Make sure you have everything you need and consider bringing backups, like multiple memory cards for your camera.
A couple items that you may consider bringing:
- Gifts for your guides. Men like cigarettes, women enjoy cosmetics and chocolate. Your guides will ultimately decide how much you’ll be able to see and under what conditions, so bringing a little something can only help build positive relationships. You can simply stop by the Duty Free shop at the Beijing airport upon arriving in China.
- Currency (Euros, USD, or Chinese Yuans.) There are no ATMs in the DPRK and no credit cards either (while there is a new, very limited card payment system, it is not accessible to foreign tourists) so you’ll want to bring enough to cover incidentals and souvenirs. There is an official exchange rate between the Korean Won and other currencies, but tourists do not need to worry about it as they’re simply not permitted to use or export the Korean Won. A couple years ago the DPRK issued a special foreigners’ Won, but nowadays travelers need to bring foreign currency. You will only be able to make purchases at foreigner’s stores, and merchandise is typically sold at western prices, so bring enough cash.
- Any medications you may require.
- Laundry detergent if you’re going to stay for a while and need to do laundry.
- Instant coffee and snacks. They’re hardly necessary but I found it rather enjoyable to be able to drink decent coffee on the train—there is a hot water faucet in every carriage so you can easily make coffee, tea or instant soups.
- Tissues, as they may not be available at your hotel.
What not to bring:
- Any literature that may be derogatory of the regime. Better leave the latest book on concentration camps at home, or at best it will be taken away at customs.
- Religious literature. There’s only one god in the DPRK, and it’s not the one you believe in.
- GPS systems, which does include GPS cameras, or any camera that has a GPS mention on it, even if it is disabled.
- Cell phone, especially smart phones with maps.
- Camera lenses over 250mm.
Prohibited objects will be confiscated at the border and then returned to you (reliably) when you leave. Alternatively, they may be sealed so that you cannot use them while in the DPRK–this would typically happen if you take the train in and fly out, for example.
There is a lot of conflicting information on the web about laptops, Wifi, iPods, e-readers, etc. Those are all allowed and shouldn’t cause any issues.
At the end of the day, though, note that this list of prohibited objects is somewhat theoretical, and your mileage may vary. I’ll talk about my own experience in a subsequent post.
Q. Will I see something real?
That’s a tough question to answer. Some cookie cutter tours will just shuttle you from a monument to a museum with very little room for unscheduled activities. With the right travel agency, the right attitude, a bit of perseverance, a bit of luck, and a couple facilitating factors (for example, a non-US nationality, which allows you to take the train,) you probably will. I have lived some fascinating experiences and interacted (even in a limited manner) with real people, and it is my hope to share those precious experiences through this blog.
Q. Any other practical tips?
Wikitravel has a page at http://wikitravel.org/en/North_Korea which includes a number of tips. It is also rather interesting to read some of the controversy around travel to the DPRK amongst Wikitravel contributors at http://wikitravel.org/en/Talk:North_Korea. The latter page, to a certain extent, is an excellent demonstration of how folks may polarize around certain—real or perceived—challenges and problems in the DPRK. I must have a somewhat twisted mind, because reading such controversy only encourages me to go behind the scenes again and again and explore with my own eyes 🙂