There are a lot of misunderstandings out there about issues to do with traveling to North Korea, and so we’ve tried to assemble some of the more common questions and issues and to provide hopefully helpful answers to them.
Our answers are based on our own first hand experience of North Korea, supplemented, where necessary, by what we deem to be the most reliable of the sometimes very conflicting information sources about the country.
You might find it interesting and helpful to also read the extensive North Korean Trip Diary and Photo Journal I created after visiting North Korea with a group of 35 Travel Insiders in September 2012.
If you have more questions, please let us know and we’ll add your question – and our answer – to the list.
You’re welcome to simply read through all the questions and answers, or click a link to jump directly to that question and answer.
It is true that North Korea is a poor country (although we didn’t really see any up-close signs of poverty ourselves) but that does not mean that crime is at all prevalent. We felt as close to 100% safe in North Korea as we ever have, anywhere in the world. We even had to explain to guides what pickpocketing was, because it was a concept they’d never heard about!
In the hotel, several people reported their in-room safes weren’t working, but after some thought, pretty much everyone ended up leaving their valuables either slightly obscured in their suitcase or alternatively, in plain sight. No-one reported anything stolen from their rooms.
So – based on our experiences and what we’ve heard about other tourists in North Korea, crime is totally non-existent and not a problem at all.
Well, most of the time, they don’t automatically know we are American. All they know is that we are western and Caucasian. They probably can’t tell our accent from that of anyone else.
Generally they are curious and interested to see foreigners, and react positively. When guides at attractions have discovered us to be American, they have sometimes been slightly embarrassed or hesitant to trot out the official statements about things, as if they know they are slightly one-sided versions of the truth and as if they also know we know better than them about such things.
There was on evidence of any hatred of Americans at all, quite unlike what you could see visiting some Muslim countries. While the political leadership does indeed view the US as a scapegoat/enemy, and possibly the public accepts this on a government to government level, when things reduce to a person to person level, it becomes a non-issue. A smile from us elicits a broader smile from them.
We never felt uncomfortable when around the local people, we never felt any hatred, and neither did we feel any threats to our safety.
In a word, no [update July 2017 – the US has now banned its citizens from traveling to North Korea, the only country in the world to do so]. There are no restrictions on our ability to visit the country – unlike Cuba, the US government in no way restricts our ability to go to North Korea.
And as for the North Koreans, while we have to apply for a visa to enter their country, we ‘quality control’ that process for you as the tour operator, and you only need to fill out a very simple short form. Almost everyone gets a visa, and the very very few people who are declined are refused for an obvious and fair reason.
We don’t like the idea of totalitarian dictatorships any more than you do, although we should also point out that the people of North Korea show little or no sign of discomfort themselves (see the point after next, however).
However – here’s the curious contradiction. The US, South Korea, and other countries currently donate food and other aid to North Korea, entirely for free. So may we answer a question with a question – if it is okay for our government to give aid to North Korea for free, surely it is okay for us as ‘citizen ambassadors’ to go visit the country too.
The concept of citizen ambassadors dates back to President Dwight D Eisenhower and his founding of the People to People program in 1956. He said, at that time
I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations require mutual respect between individuals
President Kennedy echoed the sentiment when he said of the program
… all assert a single theme—the power of people, acting as individuals, to respond imaginatively to the world’s need for peace
Note that although we are absolutely not affiliated with the formal People to People Ambassador Program, we simply share with them the concept that individual level contact between the people of different nations helps to defuse the tensions and misunderstandings between our respective governments.
When North Koreans see that we are not ‘American Devils’ but ordinary and friendly decent people, it is harder for them to hate us, and when we in turn see a nation comprised of ordinary decent hardworking individuals, it is harder for us in turn to feel negatively about their country too.
You say the North Koreans like their government. What about all their imprisoned and/or escaped dissidents?
We’re moving out of travel related issues and into political ones here, but to give a quick couple of comments in reply.
First, when it comes to people imprisoned, the US leads the world. We have 730 prisoners per 100,000 of population. North Korea is estimated to have between 150,000 and 200,000 in its prison camps, which gives it a comparable percentage of its population who are incarcerated. Neither country has a positive record in this respect.
Second, the number of refugees who leave North Korea is less than the number of people who would leave East Germany during the division of Germany.
From those two numbers, we of course agree that there are significant numbers of people imprisoned, and also some people who escape the country due to being unhappy with the regime. But probably most of the people in the country are appreciably more content and happy with their government than the percentage of people in the US who are happy with our government (only 16% of the population here believe Congress is doing a good job).
Surely the poverty in North Korea is a self-evident indictment of their government and economic policies?
Now we’re pretty much 100% into political issues, and it is not our intention to become North Korea’s apologist – however, neither is it our intention to overly simplify complex situations and to unfairly vilify North Korea, either. For sure, the question is a fair question, and it has a surprising answer that is very much obscured from our awareness most of the time.
There are doubtless many reasons for the relatively poor economic performance of North Korea compared to South Korea. One is unavoidable – there is less good quality arable land in the north than in the south.
Another reason is to do with the respective choices of ‘friends’ made by the two nations. South Korea is allied with the US and western world, North Korea is/was allied with the Soviet Union and Communist China. As such, South Korea has been an enormous beneficiary of western investment, and western support, and western trade, right from the end of the Korean war through to the present day.
If the North had thrown itself on the US’ mercy at the end of the Korean war, it too would probably have been massively rebuilt, the same as the south, and the same as (eg) Japan and Germany were after WW2. But instead, North Korea chose to continue its previous alliances, and while the Soviet Union was a generous friend, the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1990 and since that time, North Korea has received very little ongoing aid or trade with the remnants of that one time vast empire.
It also has to be conceded that North Korea’s ‘bad boy’ actions and the resulting trade embargoes and sanctions it has experienced has held back the country’s ability to develop and grow. If/when the country becomes more repatriated into the international community of nations, we expect that it will then enjoy a surge of development as western companies rush to take advantage of the country’s well-educated and very low-cost workforce, exactly the same as they have previously done in South Korea, China, and many other countries in the past (remember when Japan too was a low-cost source of goods?).
So North Korea’s current poverty, food shortages, and low GDP, both in absolute terms and compared to South Korea, are due to a number of different factors. Any political system does well when enjoying international trade and investment (eg China) and any political system does not do so well when such positive factors are withheld. North Korea’s problems aren’t only due to internal policies as they are also due to its international policies.
Restrictions on photography are much less extensive these days than was formerly the case. Perhaps the government are finally starting to realize that anything they might wish to not be photographed as already been photographed – and video taped – hundreds or thousands or even millions of times, and can be found on a Google or Youtube search.
Indeed, within minutes of first meeting us, our guide for the 2012 tour told us ‘You can take any pictures of anything you want, any time you wish – there is no need to ask for permission first’. She did then slightly qualify it, by adding the guidelines for no pictures of military personnel or installations, and no pictures that would be likely to ’embarrass’ North Korea.
As for your choice of camera, we had people with all sorts of cameras from tiny pocket-sized cameras to large DSLR cameras with matching large zoom lenses. When taking video, most people simply shot video onto their main still camera (just about all still cameras these days allow video taping too) but if people had wished to do so, there are few if any restrictions on bringing in and using video cameras either.
This is partially true, but how you see it depends on if you’re a ‘glass half full’ or a ‘glass half empty’ type of person. Everyone goes to North Korea as part of a group, and every group has its own coach, driver, and two guides. Even if you are going by yourself, you become ‘a group of one’ and have your own mini-coach, driver and probably two guides. Your itinerary would be planned in advance with you, and you’d have to reasonably stick to it during your time in-country.
That’s not to say, however, that the group experience is totally rigid, and certainly in our 2012 tour, we were making changes to our itinerary every day, either based on group requests or my own direct daily discussions with the guides. We would also offer our people options – sometimes giving people a choice of either of two different activities, or the ability to choose upgrades on meals, or to choose a restaurant, or whatever else might have been the case.
We could walk around the hotel’s extensive grounds on the island it was located on if we simply wanted some personal time and some outdoors fresh air, too.
The experience really was not all that much different to what you get on most group tours, pretty much anywhere in the world, indeed you’ll likely our Travel Insider type group touring in North Korea more flexible than you’d experience on a typical European (or anywhere else) tour, because our focus is on interactively adapting and improving the experience to meet the changing situations of weather, group interests, etc, rather than mindlessly following a pre-printed tour itinerary that can never be varied, no matter what.
There are very few restrictions on what you can bring with you into North Korea. The two main exclusions are cell phones and GPS devices.
If you do have cell phones and/or GPS devices with you when you arrive into North Korea, you simply hand them over to the Customs authorities upon arrival [update – western cell phones are now generally allowed], and they’ll hold them during your time in the country and return them to you when you leave. This system seems reliable and safe, and no-one has reported having any items lost or damaged while they have been in the safekeeping of the Customs officers.
It is true that increasingly cameras and tablet devices also have GPS receivers built in to them. The Customs people don’t seem to care about this, but it is best to obscure any lettering that might boldly say ‘GPS’ on such devices so as not to force an issue with them.
If you have ‘professional grade’ cameras or video recorders, this might cause some problem too, but most normal and even ‘pro-sumer’ grade electronics should not be a problem at all, and the worst case scenario is simply that they are kept at Customs and returned to you when you depart again.
Something else to avoid would be political materials and things in general from South Korea. Particularly the former sorts of things would probably not be allowed in to the country, and depending on what they are, items from South Korea may be deemed to also inherently contain political messages too.
You can bring in as much food, drink, and gifts as you wish (subject only to airline luggage allowances and fees!).
In terms of taking stuff out of the country, there are probably some restrictions on exporting antiquities and other national treasures, but you’re unlikely to be running afoul of those things if all you’re taking out of the country are things you’ve purchased in souvenir shops.
Wow. That’s a tough question which requires a very big value judgment. However, you did ask, so we will give a best guess answer.
It seems from what we’ve gleaned from people who have visited North Korea regularly over many years that the country is slowly modernizing. It also seems that this process of modernization may be accelerating with their new leader, the young and Swiss educated Kim Jong-Un, who succeeded his father in December 2011.
Some signs of the country’s evolution can be seen by tourists, others are less obvious. Some signs are only apparent to people who have visited before and who can therefore compare and contrast the country from one visit to the next, others are immediately obvious even to a first time visitor.
For example, the growing prevalence of cell phones is immediately apparent, and not only is cell phone service apparently reliable throughout Pyongyang, it also works further afield (eg Nampo and Kaesong/DMZ too).
Less obvious to a first time visitor are changes such as the addition of hair driers into the bathrooms at the hotel. A small enhancement, but a welcome one, and also indicative of a greater amount of available electricity to power them.
Also less obvious to a first time visitor is the toning down of the political rhetoric and the invective earlier directed towards the US.
Another subtle change that is occurring in the background are shifts in the country’s political structure and economy. Some observers perceive that the country’s ‘military first’ policy is being slowly and carefully de-emphasized, and of course, it is necessary to appreciate that any changes to the status quo by the new and possibly still far from unchallengeable leader need to be gradual and slow rather than sudden and severe.
There are now 300 – 400 students at a Pyongyang unversity who are studying capitalism and western economics – that’s another change in the making.
Another huge change that is evolving is allowing farmers to keep some of their farm production for themselves, and allowing them to privately sell this as they wish. This step is likely to massively boost farm productivity, and legitimizes part of the private market economy that has been in a grey zone of ambiguity over the last few years.
After some years of negative GDP growth, it also seems that the economy as a whole may now be restarting, and international trade with both Russia and China is showing strong increases.
And, to end this section with another small but, we feel telling, statement, even the country’s movies are starting to lighten up, as indicated by this recent production – a film that for many years had failed to get official blessing.
In other words, we see a slow improvement in North Korea, and we hope that the rate of economic and social change may be accelerating.
Is there any evidence of bribery and corruption in the country? Will we have to bribe Customs Officials? Police Officers? etc.
There is doubtless bribery and corruption in the country, the same as in just about any/every other country in the world. But, and in common with other Asian countries, the culture is more based on influence rather than on bribery – people build up relationships with each other and trade favors, rather than buy favors per se, at least at the level of ordinary citizens rather than senior government officials.
That’s not to say that an occasional payment between strangers might not change hands to expedite or avoid an issue/problem/solution, but it isn’t the norm and isn’t as ingrained into the culture as it is elsewhere in the world.
Tipping is generally never done, although your tour guides do rely upon tips for a large part of their income (your tips don’t only support the guides you see, but they are distributed on to other members of the guides’ extended families too).
You are unlikely to ever encounter a police officer, and if you do, his/her interaction will almost certainly be with your guide rather than with you. On the other hand, you will of course encounter Customs officers, but they will not be looking for any bribing and it would be a mistake to offer them money in any circumstance.
The country does have some fairly stringent requirements which it imposes on its citizens, but almost none of these apply to you as a foreign visitor.
But you will be expected to be respectful of the country’s leaders and political system, and on a couple of occasions you may have to formally bow at statues of the two past leaders. Whether you’re actually bowing or spontaneously bending over to look at something on the ground is of course something that only you will know the truth about!
If you do something that offends or if you break one of their laws, the chances are that you’ll not be sent to jail. The worst case is likely to be being summarily ejected out of the country on the next flight to Beijing (and we don’t know of that happening to anyone but it is a possibility), and the real punishment would be inflicted on your guides for not having done a better job of informing you about the required behavior in North Korea and ensuring you acted appropriately.
It is possible that if you do something that the locals find particularly offensive, you might be required to write a letter of apology, and part of that would ideally be a statement that your guides were not at fault.
There have been high-profile cases of Americans being arrested, tried, convicted, and sent to North Korean prison, due to having contravened various North Korean laws. But, as far as we can tell, this has never been the result of an innocent mistake/misunderstanding. It has been a result of people who should know better choosing to deliberately break the clearly understood laws of behavior that apply in the country. You do the crime, you do the time – the adage applies the same in DPRK as it does in all other countries.
So you should act respectfully and be considerate of the social mores of North Korea, but small mistakes are not likely to result in draconian penalties, if for no other reason than North Korea being keen to protect and grow its foreign tourism.
It is true that different sources can give very different answers to some fairly basic seeming things about North Korea. There are a couple of reasons why this might be.
First, to be fair, the North Koreans themselves don’t really coordinate or provide much official information about traveling in North Korea, and so there are no clear ultimate references for people to rely upon. A related point is that some people tend to discount official statements from North Korea and to actively seek the opposite opinion, much of the time.
This leads to our next point. North Korea is a controversial country, with some ardent supporters and equally ardent detractors. Both these groups tend to one-sidedly focus only on the points of view and things that support their views of the country, while ignoring facts that contradict their personal beliefs and values. So ideology colors the information you get.
A related point is that people who have been to North Korea sometimes choose to focus on the negatives and the differences, while overlooking and ignoring the similarities and the positives. This is partly human nature, because we all tend to remember things that are different and to forget things which are normal, and some people choose to be more boastful by further focusing on some of the more extreme parts of their travel experiences. We’ve even seen this in people we’ve traveled with – in North Korea and elsewhere.
A related point is that people see in North Korea (and other countries too) that which they look for and wish to find. People who wish to confirm a bad opinion of the country will find plenty to confirm that, while people looking for the positive and the uplifting and the hopeful will find plenty to confirm their hopes, too. Depending on who you talk to will depend the type of answers you get back.
The next point is that North Korea isn’t one consistent homogenous whole. It is a mix of different experiences, sometimes without a great deal of quality control. One person’s tour might have bad guides – and also problematic fellow travelers, making for a somewhat difficult experience for all. The next person might be blessed with great guides and positive fellow travelers, making for a greatly different experience.
Another issue is that there is a huge difference between the theory and the reality of traveling in North Korea. People who approach things respectfully and positively will get, in turn, more cooperation and help from their guides. People who give problems to their guides will be ‘put on a short leash’ and will have less freedom and flexibility in their travels, and will get to see, do, and experience much less.
Finally in this long answer to your short question, North Korea is changing. What was true one, two, and five years ago is not necessarily true today and will probably be even less true next year. Information also needs to be viewed in the context of when it was obtained and the conditions that applied then as compared to now.
Our group of 35 suffered no major health issues. One person had a bit of a tummy upset one day, but still enjoyed the full day of touring, and another person came down with some sort of bug and went back to the hotel for the latter part of one afternoon.
It is true that North Korean healthcare is not as advanced as in the west (or, for that matter, not as advanced as in South Korea or China). Most of us chose to take out travel insurance that included air evacuation as may become necessary, so that in the event of a major medical emergency we could be stabilized in North Korea and then flown by air ambulance to Beijing or somewhere else for any necessary surgery. This is available either as a separate standalone policy (for about $50) or as part of a general travel insurance policy.