North Korea: An Essential Travel Guide
North Korea is a highly nationalistic, militarized socialist country situated in-between China, South Korea and Russia in northeast Asia. The Anmok and Tumen rivers form the border with China and Russia, where as the border with South Korea is unofficially formed by the Demilitarized Zone, a two kilometre-wide buffer between the Line of Control separating north and south. The country has a planned economy with thriving free markets, and tourism only exists in the form of restrictive, preorganzied group or independent tours run in partnership with a domestic operator. North Korea has 9 Provinces and 1 Directly Governed City and 1 operational Special Economic Zone. The country is heavily forested and mountainous, and has eastern and western coastlines. It’s largely known as a political tourism destination, with strong Korean heritage and culture influenced heavily by post-war and Cold War politics.
When to Go
North Korea may be visited year round, although due to the cold weather it is least pleasant in December and January. The remote northeastern regions of North Hamgyong, South Hamgyong and Ryanggang Provinces receive significant snowfall from November through February, making roads difficult to access.
The high season for tourism runs from April through October, and peaks during public holidays in the country. Popular holiday months include February (16.2 Kim Jong Il Birthday Holiday), April (15.4 Kim Il Sung Birthday Holiday), May (1.5 Labour Day), July (27.7 Victory Day holiday), August (15.8 Independence Day), September (9.9 Republic Foundation Day), and October (10.10 Party Foundation Day). Holidays celebrating anniversaries in 5 or 10 year multiples are especially large.
North Korea has two international airports and four international border posts open to third country nationals.
Pyongyang International Airport
This is the country’s main airport for international access. Air Koryo, the national airline has regularly scheduled flights to Beijing (3 times weekly on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays), Shenyang (2 times weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays), and Vladivostok (2 times weekly on Mondays and Fridays), as well as occasional charter flights to Dalian, Dandong, Yanji, Harbin, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait City. Air China flies two or three weekly flights during the high season between Beijing and Pyongyang (normally on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays).
Kalma International Airport
This airport serves the Wonsan and Mount Kumgang region on the southeast coast of North Korea. It is only served by the occasional charter flight from China.
Borders (open to third country nationals)
Dandong - Sinuiju Crossing
This land and rail crossing is the most used access point for goods and people between China and North Korea. Daily trains run between Dandong and Pyongyang, departing at 9:30am and arriving in Pyongyang around 6:30pm (about 270 RMB one-way). Four times per week this train continues on to or connects from Beijing. Multiple buses between Dandong and the North Korean border city of Sinuiju cross the land bridge in the mornings. These buses are operated by the DPRK’s Myohyangsan Travel Company. This border is open seven days a week.
Tumen - Namyang Crossing
This remote border post connects the Chinese city of Tumen in Jilin Province with the North Korean town of Namyang in North Hamgyong Province across the friendship road bridge on the Tumen River. A nearby rail connection also connects these towns, but is for freight trains only. Currently, this border crossing is open seven days a week and may be crossed on food by third country nationals with a valid DPRK visa with Namyang specified as a valid entry point (must be requested separately).
Quanhe - Wonjong Crossing
This remote border post is situated only about an hour’s drive from the Tumen crossing on the Chinese side and is the only direct access between China and the DPRK’s Rason Special Economic Zone. A DPRK visa is not required to cross this border if you are only staying within the Rason SEZ; however, an entry letter is needed issued by the Rason SEZ representative office in Yanji, China. Shuttle buses make the trip across the Tumen River bridge in a couple minutes and cost about 10 RMB. Walking across the bridge is not permitted.
Khasan - Tumangang Crossing
This is the only land crossing between Russia and North Korea, connecting the village of Khasan in Primorskiy Krai in the Russian Far East with the town of Tumangang in the DPRK’s Rason Special Economic Zone. The crossing is a rail only crossing and it is necessary to cross by an irregular Russian train travelling between Tumangang and the Russian city of Khabarovsk (occasionally this train continues all the way to Moscow, and to Pyongyang as well). Trains typically cross 2-4 times per month and the schedule changes regularly. In order to enter of exit the DPRK at this point, Tumangang must be listed on your DPRK visa’s entry/exit points.
Since all tourism in the DPRK must be pre-arranged through local operators, they must include domestic transportation by private vehicle. This being said, there are still several domestic flights and a rail trips that may be utilized by tourists. Firstly, the DPRK has functional domestic airports in Wonsan (Kalma), Hamhung (Sondok), Sinuiju (Uiju), Mount Paektu (Samjiyon), and Chongjin (Orang). Weekly scheduled flights travel to these destinations during the summer months, and in the Spring and Fall private flights may be chartered from Air Koryo. These regional airports are largely inaccessible during the winter due to snowfall. Additionally, tourists are permitted to take the train between Pyongyang and the border city of Sinuiju, as well as from Pyongyang to Chongjin and the Rason SEZ.
The use of public transportation is not permitted for foreign tourists unless the entire bus or trolley is chartered, and while Pyongyang has many taxis, you may only use them with a local guide.
Visas and Permits
DPRK Tourist Visas
Obtaining a North Korean tourist visa is a relatively straightforward process, as it is necessary to have already booked and arranged a trip with a domestic operator or overseas partnered agency before you can get a visa (we can do this for you as well, using our online North Korean Visa Application Form).
Only after your visa invitation has been approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang can you apply directly for your visa at any North Korean consular office overseas, or use a service in China to obtain your visa for you. Tourist visas issued in China come in the form of a tourist card— an external paper visa with your photo on it that does not go inside your passport. This is helpful, as some people do not want to have to explain why a DPRK visa is in their passport, and also because only a photocopy of your passport is needed for processing— meaning you can keep your passport on you the whole time before going to North Korea and don’t have to drop it off an a DPRK embassy.
The maximum allowance for tourist visas to the DPRK is currently set at 60 days, and visas are extendable in Pyongyang, should this be necessary.
Business and study visas may also be obtained with the appropriate paperwork issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pyongyang.
Tourist visa processing time for ethnic Koreans, Americans, Japanese and Israeli citizens takes 30 days, while for all other nationalities the process takes 15 days. In reality, a visa for any nationality may be rushed in as few as 5 business days for an additional fee. The processing time is based on the amount of time it takes from when you submit your paperwork to Pyongyang and you receive a formal visa invitation letter. The actual issuance of visas takes only 2-3 days from DPRK embassies overseas once the permission has already come through Pyongyang.
South Koreans citizens are not able to obtain tourist visas for North Korea. Additionally, Japanese, American and Israeli passport holders are subject to travel restrictions within North Korea and in general are not allowed to enter the country by train from China (although certain exceptions may be made). As of September, 2017, the US Government has restricted travel to North Korea by US citizens, requiring them to obtain Special Validation Passports which may not be used for the purpose of tourism. Dual citizens who have passports in addition to their US, South Korean, or Israeli passports may travel to North Korea using their other passport without the need for a permit.
For ethnic Koreans who are citizens of countries other than South Korea, you are now required to sign a statement of guarantee stating that you will not attempt to contact any relatives or undeclared contacts within North Korea before a visa may be granted.
Rason SEZ Visit Permit
For people interested in visiting the Rason Special Economic Zone, an additional permit is required if travelling directly to the SEZ from China or Russia. The application for this permit may be submitted online, and the permit collected at the Rason SEZ Tourism Representative Office in Yanji, China on your way to Rason. Ethnic Koreans are required to fill out an additional CV form to attach with their SEZ permit application. This is not needed if entering the zone from mainland DPRK.
Chinese and Russian Visas
Remember that most travel to the DPRK requires transit through China. If entering or exiting China by land, a Chinese visa is necessary by almost all nationalities (exceptions made for Singaporeans, Japanese, Bruneians, Serbians, Tongans and a handful of others). If you are only transiting through Beijing or Shenyang airport, as long as you have a print out of your flight to North Korea and flight from China to a third country, you can obtain a 72-hour transit visa in the airport. Otherwise, it is necessary to have a double or multiple entry Chinese visa. In a pinch, Chinese visas may be obtained at their embassy in Pyongyang or consulate in Chongjin in 2 weekdays. If travelling to Russia, Russian visas must be obtained in your official country of residence.
North Pyong’an Province
South Pyong’an Province
North Hwanghae Province
South Hwanghae Province
South Hamgyong Province
North Hamgyong Province
Rason Special Economic Zone
SAFETY & SECURITY
The DPRK has a more unusual safety and security situation than most countries. While many Western nations have travel warnings and economic sanctions in place against the DPRK, it remains a safe place to visit as long as you are aware of the countries rules and political customs.
Political Crimes and Detentions
There is essentially no violent crime, and even pickpocketing is extremely rare. However, most issues foreigners may find themselves in the country are political in nature and the greatest risks include being detained by the authorities for accidentally or intentionally committing a political crime. Every foreigner arrested or detained in North Korea broke DPRK rules; their arrests, while unfortunate, were not arbitrary.
Always remember the Kim family, the Korean Workers’ Party, and National Symbols are held to the utmost respect; any political poster, image, slogan, and book is treated as holy. Touching, standing on, imitating, or damaging any of these politically holy images or statues will certainly result in problems. Punishments may range from having to write a formal apology letter to arrest, extended detainment, and hard labour.
The second type of crime foreigners have been arrested for is proselytization. While the DPRK constitution officially allows for freedom of religion, in practice, this is not the case. Foreigners may not proselytize in any way in North Korea. While religious items like Bibles are allowed into the country for personal use, they may not be shown to any North Korean, or distributed locally for that matter. The same goes for politically sensitive materials, books, films and media.
Media and Sensitive Materials
The third type of issue many foreigners may run into is carrying sensitive media and materials into the country that are critical of the regime. All media, including books, laptops, electronic readers, magazines, etc must be declared upon arrival in in the country, and Korean language content is particularly sensitive. If these materials incriminate you as an individual, you can easily find yourself detained at the borders, where laptops, cell phones, books and hard drives may be checked by customs officers. It’s best to leave all media materials at home; it’s certainly not worth the risk of bringing it into North Korea.
Illegal Entry and Visa Tampering
The last major issue foreigners have run into has been illegal entry or destruction of visa materials. Just don’t do it. If you are going to go, then go legally, with a visa, and do not tamper with your official entry documents and certainly do not illegally cross a border into North Korea.
How to Stay Safe
As with any country, you need to be at least somewhat aware of North Korean laws and customs. This will help secure your safety while in the country. Make sure to treat all political destinations and materials with respect or at the very least sensitivity and avoid overtly political discussions in public and in private in the country. The vast majority of foreign tourists travel to and return home from North Korea without incident.
Additionally, avoid bringing the following items into North Korea:
Korean language literature and media
Political books and magazines
Any book on North Korea, including travel guides
South Korean media, including tv programs, movies, books, magazines and articles
Telephoto zoom lenses above 200mm (unless you have permission before hand)
Professional sound recording equipment (unless you have permission before hand)
All types of drones
If you would like to bring a computer or phone into the country, be sure to clear it of any potentially sensitive materials and download encryption software for an extra layer of protection.
COMMUNICATIONS & FINANCE
Phones and Post
International calling is possible from almost all major international hotels in the DPRK. The rates for overseas calls depend on the country you’re calling, but generally range from about $3-$7 USD per minute.
Cell Phones and SIM Cards
It is possible to purchase both international and 3G North Korean SIM cards either at Pyongyang International Airport or the International Communications Centre (ICC) in downtown Pyongyang. Additional phone minutes may also be purchased at the Potonggang Hotel and the Koryo Hotel lobby. In order to buy a SIM card, you will need your passport, DPRK visa or tourist card, and your guide/host’s national ID, and you will have to fill our an application. SIMs are costly, especially the 3G ones with internet, and may only be used to make international calls or call other foreigners in North Korea. Your SIM cannot call any domestic numbers of cell phones within North Korea. Your SIM is pegged to the validity of your visa. If you leave the country and re-enter, you will need to have your SIM card re-registered (for free) at the ICC or airport.
It is possible to send mail from North Korea to any country except South Korea. DHL is available for parcels but is extremely costly. Stamps are readily available.
Currency and Exchange
North Korea’s currency is the New Korean People’s Won (KPW). It has an “official” rate and a constantly changing black market rate. Outside of the Rason SEZ, tourists will generally not come into much contact with the Won. US Dollars, Euros and Chinese RMB may be spent freely in the country, and they are the desired currency amongst North Koreans. The official rate for the Won is pegged to the US Dollar and is around 100 Won per USD (give or take a few). When the official rate is posted, people (including North Koreans) may only use foreign currency to purchase that item.
The black market rate is around 8,000 Won per USD, and this is the rate that local people use when spending and exchanging Won. Local prices where Won is the expected currency used in the transaction clearly reflect the black market rate. It is illegal for North Korean Won currently in circulation to be taken outside of North Korea, and if you have any left over Won in your wallet when leaving the country, customs officers will simply confiscate it if they find it.