North Korea Travel Guide – Everything You Need to Know

Tourism in North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), offers a glimpse into one of the world’s most isolated and enigmatic nations. With its tightly controlled and government-guided tourism industry, North Korea provides a unique opportunity for travelers to explore its propaganda-filled capital, Pyongyang, visit historic sites, and witness carefully curated cultural displays. While tourism in North Korea is tightly regulated and often limited to guided tours, it allows curious visitors to see a side of the country that is rarely seen in the international media. However, it’s crucial to note that traveling to North Korea involves strict rules and limitations, and visitors are accompanied by government-assigned guides throughout their stay.

What’s the Best Time to Visit? ๐Ÿ“…

The best time to visit North Korea as a tourist is during the spring (April to June) and autumn (September to October) seasons. These periods offer the most favorable weather and comfortable conditions for travel:

  1. Spring (April to June): Spring is considered one of the best times to visit North Korea. During this season, the weather is mild, and the landscape comes alive with blossoming flowers and greenery. The temperatures are generally pleasant, with daytime highs ranging from 15ยฐC to 25ยฐC (59ยฐF to 77ยฐF). This season is ideal for outdoor activities and sightseeing.
  2. Autumn (September to October): Another excellent time to visit North Korea is in the autumn months. The weather remains comfortable with mild temperatures, and the changing foliage adds a beautiful backdrop to your travels. Daytime temperatures range from 15ยฐC to 20ยฐC (59ยฐF to 68ยฐF). This is also a great time for cultural events and festivals.

It’s important to note that North Korea experiences harsh winters with extremely cold temperatures, especially in December and January. Summer, from July to August, can be hot and humid, making outdoor activities less comfortable.

Travel to North Korea is highly regulated and can only be done through authorized tour operators. Additionally, political and diplomatic situations can change, affecting travel access and safety. Always check the latest travel advisories and consult with the relevant authorities or tour operators before planning a trip to North Korea.

What’s the Best Way to Get Around? ๐ŸšŒ

In North Korea, tourists are generally accompanied by government-assigned guides throughout their stay, and their movements are closely controlled. As a result, the best way to get around North Korea as a tourist is through organized tours offered by authorized tour operators. Here’s how transportation typically works for tourists in North Korea:

  1. Guided Tours: All tourists in North Korea must join guided tours organized by authorized tour operators. These tours are meticulously planned and supervised, with itineraries determined in advance. Travelers are accompanied by North Korean guides who ensure that they follow the prescribed program.
  2. Chartered Transportation: Tour operators in North Korea typically arrange for chartered transportation for their tour groups. This includes buses and sometimes domestic flights within North Korea. These vehicles are usually exclusive to the tour group, ensuring privacy and control over the travel schedule.
  3. Public Transportation: In some cases, tourists may use public transportation for short trips within Pyongyang, such as the Pyongyang Metro or local buses. However, these instances are limited, and tourists are closely supervised by guides during such activities.
  4. Domestic Flights: For tours that include visits to cities outside of Pyongyang, domestic flights may be arranged. These flights are typically on North Korean airlines and are part of the tour package.
  5. Walking and Sightseeing: Within cities and at various sites, tourists often walk or engage in sightseeing activities. These activities are usually part of the guided tour and allow tourists to explore specific attractions while accompanied by guides.
  6. River Cruises: In some cases, river cruises on the Taedong River in Pyongyang may be included in the tour itinerary, providing a unique perspective of the city.
  7. Private Vehicles: For special arrangements or custom tours, private vehicles may be used for transport between destinations. However, this is less common and may come at an additional cost.

It’s important to note that tourists in North Korea are subject to strict regulations and are not permitted to travel independently or deviate from the tour program. All activities and movements are supervised, and photography is often restricted in certain areas. Visitors are expected to follow the guidance of their North Korean guides and adhere to local customs and rules. Travelers interested in visiting North Korea should do so through authorized tour operators and should be aware of the unique and controlled nature of tourism in the country.

What’s the Official Language?

The official language of North Korea is Korean, specifically the dialect known as “Pyongyang-speak” or “Pyongyang accent.” While English is not widely spoken in North Korea, and the use of foreign languages is limited, here are some basic Korean phrases that tourists may find helpful during their visit:

Common Greetings:

  1. Hello – ์•ˆ๋…•ํ•˜์„ธ์š” (annyeonghaseyo)
  2. Goodbye – ์•ˆ๋…•ํžˆ ๊ฐ€์„ธ์š” (annyeonghi gaseyo) [when someone is leaving]
  3. Thank you – ๊ฐ์‚ฌํ•ฉ๋‹ˆ๋‹ค (gamsahamnida)
  4. Yes – ๋„ค (ne)
  5. No – ์•„๋‹ˆ์š” (aniyo)
  6. Excuse me / Sorry – ์ฃ„์†กํ•ฉ๋‹ˆ๋‹ค (joesonghamnida)
  7. Please – ๋ถ€ํƒํ•ฉ๋‹ˆ๋‹ค (butakhamnida)
  8. How much is this? – ์ด๊ฑฐ ์–ผ๋งˆ์—์š”? (igeo eolmaeyo?)

Basic Phrases:

  1. My name is [Your Name] – ์ œ ์ด๋ฆ„์€ [Your Name] ์ž…๋‹ˆ๋‹ค (je ireumeun [Your Name] imnida)
  2. I don’t understand – ์ดํ•ดํ•˜์ง€ ๋ชปํ•ด์š” (ihaehaji mothaeyo)
  3. Help – ๋„์™€์ฃผ์„ธ์š” (dowajuseyo)
  4. Where is…? – … ์–ด๋””์—์š”? (… eodieyo?)
  5. I need… – … ๊ฐ€ ํ•„์š”ํ•ด์š” (… ga pillyohaeyo)
  6. Water – ๋ฌผ (mul)
  7. Food – ์Œ์‹ (eumsik)
  8. Bathroom / Toilet – ํ™”์žฅ์‹ค (hwajangsil)
  9. Hospital – ๋ณ‘์› (byeongwon)
  10. Police – ๊ฒฝ์ฐฐ (gyeongchal)

Numbers:

Learning numbers can be especially useful for basic transactions and understanding prices:

  1. One – ํ•˜๋‚˜ (hana)
  2. Two – ๋‘˜ (dul)
  3. Three – ์…‹ (set)
  4. Four – ๋„ท (net)
  5. Five – ๋‹ค์„ฏ (daseot)
  6. Six – ์—ฌ์„ฏ (yeoseot)
  7. Seven – ์ผ๊ณฑ (ilgop)
  8. Eight – ์—ฌ๋Ÿ (yeodeol)
  9. Nine – ์•„ํ™‰ (ahop)
  10. Ten – ์—ด (yeol)

Keep in mind that English proficiency among the general population is limited in North Korea, and communication can be challenging. Tourists are typically accompanied by government-assigned guides who speak some English, which can help bridge the language gap. Additionally, showing respect and courtesy through gestures and body language can go a long way in communicating effectively while visiting North Korea.

Where to Stay? ๐Ÿจ

In North Korea, tourists are typically accommodated in state-approved hotels and lodgings that are prearranged by authorized tour operators. The options for where to stay as a tourist are limited, and visitors are not permitted to make independent lodging arrangements. Here are some of the hotels and accommodations commonly used for tourists in North Korea:

  1. Yanggakdo International Hotel (์–‘๊ฐ๋„๊ตญ์ œํ˜ธํ…”): Located on Yanggak Island in Pyongyang, this is one of the most well-known and largest hotels in North Korea. It offers a range of facilities, including restaurants, bars, a casino, and even a revolving restaurant on the top floor.
  2. Koryo Hotel (๊ณ ๋ คํ˜ธํ…”): Situated in central Pyongyang, the Koryo Hotel is another option for tourists. It has restaurants, a coffee shop, a bar, and a gift shop. The hotel has hosted various international events and foreign delegations.
  3. Ryugyong Hotel (๋ฅ˜๊ฒฝํ˜ธํ…”): Known for its distinctive pyramid shape, the Ryugyong Hotel is one of Pyongyang’s iconic landmarks. While it was under construction for many years, it has reportedly opened for some foreign tourists, although details can vary.
  4. Chongnyon Hotel (์ฒญ๋…„ํ˜ธํ…”): This hotel is located near the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang. It offers basic accommodations and is often used by budget travelers.
  5. Sosan Hotel (์†Œ์‚ฐํ˜ธํ…”): Situated in the port city of Wonsan on the east coast of North Korea, the Sosan Hotel is used for tourists visiting this region. It has facilities such as restaurants, a casino, and a karaoke bar.
  6. Hotels in Other Cities: When visiting cities outside of Pyongyang, tourists may stay in local hotels or accommodations designated by the tour operator. These options can vary in terms of comfort and amenities.
  7. Homestays: In some rural areas, tourists may have the opportunity to stay in local homes or guesthouses as arranged by their tour operator. This provides a unique cultural experience.

It’s important to note that accommodations in North Korea may not meet international standards, and the availability of amenities can vary. Tourists should be prepared for a different level of service compared to what they might experience in more tourist-friendly destinations.

Travelers to North Korea must be part of an organized tour with an authorized tour operator, and accommodations are typically included as part of the tour package. All aspects of the visit, including lodging, are closely monitored by North Korean authorities, and tourists are accompanied by government-assigned guides throughout their stay.

What to Eat? ๐Ÿฝ๏ธ

North Korean cuisine is characterized by its unique flavors and traditional dishes. While tourists in North Korea are typically served meals as part of their organized tours, here are some must-try North Korean foods and dishes you might encounter:

  1. Kimchi (๊น€์น˜): Kimchi is a staple Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables, often featuring Napa cabbage and radishes. It’s known for its spicy and tangy flavor and is served at nearly every meal.
  2. Rice (๋ฐฅ): Rice is a fundamental component of Korean cuisine. It’s usually steamed and served as a side dish with various accompaniments.
  3. Bibimbap (๋น„๋น”๋ฐฅ): Bibimbap is a popular Korean dish that consists of rice mixed with vegetables, often including carrots, mushrooms, spinach, and bean sprouts. It’s topped with a fried egg and spicy gochujang sauce.
  4. Japchae (์žก์ฑ„): Japchae is a dish made from stir-fried glass noodles (usually sweet potato noodles) mixed with vegetables and seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil. It’s a flavorful and colorful dish.
  5. Naengmyeon (๋ƒ‰๋ฉด): Naengmyeon is a cold noodle dish typically served in a cold broth. There are variations, but Pyongyang-style naengmyeon features buckwheat noodles in a refreshing, tangy broth with toppings like cucumber and slices of beef or pork.
  6. Pyongyang Cold Noodles (ํ‰์–‘๋ƒ‰๋ฉด): Pyongyang is famous for its cold noodle dishes. These noodles are made from wheat flour and are typically served in a cold beef or chicken broth with various toppings.
  7. Mandu (๋งŒ๋‘): Mandu are Korean dumplings, often filled with ingredients like minced meat, vegetables, and tofu. They can be served steamed, pan-fried, or in soups.
  8. Korean Barbecue (๊ณ ๊ธฐ๊ตฌ์ด): While not exclusive to North Korea, Korean barbecue is a popular dining experience. You grill thinly sliced meat, often beef or pork, at the table and wrap it in lettuce leaves with condiments.
  9. Pajeon (ํŒŒ์ „): Pajeon are savory pancakes made with scallions and various ingredients, such as seafood or kimchi. They are crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.
  10. Samgyetang (์‚ผ๊ณ„ํƒ•): Samgyetang is a hearty chicken soup made with a whole young chicken stuffed with glutinous rice, ginseng, and jujubes. It’s believed to have health benefits and is often consumed on hot summer days.
  11. Dotorimuk (๋„ํ† ๋ฆฌ๋ฌต): Dotorimuk is a dish made from acorn jelly, which is sliced into cubes and served with a savory sauce. It’s a unique and texturally interesting dish.
  12. Kimchi Pancakes (๊น€์น˜์ „): Kimchi pancakes are made by mixing kimchi with batter and pan-frying it until crispy. They are a popular snack or appetizer.
  13. Korean Sweets: Try Korean sweets like tteok (rice cakes), yakgwa (honey cookies), and hangwa (traditional sweets made from rice and honey).

Keep in mind that the availability of specific dishes may vary depending on the region and the tour operator. North Korean cuisine offers a mix of flavors, from spicy and pungent to mild and savory, and trying local dishes is an essential part of experiencing the culture during your visit.

What to See? ๐Ÿ”

North Korea offers tourists a range of unique attractions and sites to explore, providing insights into the country’s history, culture, and political system. Here are some must-see places and attractions in North Korea for tourists:

  1. Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (๊ถŒ์ˆ˜์‚ฐํƒœ์–‘๊ถ์ „): Formerly the residence of Kim Il-sung and now a mausoleum, this grand building houses the embalmed bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Visitors are required to wear formal attire and follow strict rules when entering.
  2. Juche Tower (์ฃผ์ฒด์‚ฌ์ƒํƒ‘): This iconic tower in Pyongyang stands at 170 meters (560 feet) and is dedicated to the Juche ideology, which emphasizes self-reliance. Visitors can take an elevator to the top for panoramic views of the city.
  3. Kim Il-sung Square (๊น€์ผ์„ฑ๊ด‘์žฅ): Located in central Pyongyang, this massive square is named after the country’s founding leader. It is often the site of grand military parades and mass rallies.
  4. Arch of Triumph (๊ฐœ์„ ๋ฌธ): This arch, larger than its Parisian counterpart, was built to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japanese rule. Visitors can climb to the top for views of the city.
  5. Mangyongdae Native House (๋งŒ๊ฒฝ๋Œ€์ถœ์ƒ์ง€): Visit the birthplace of Kim Il-sung, which has been preserved as a museum showcasing his early life.
  6. Pyongyang Metro (ํ‰์–‘์ง€ํ•˜์ฒ ): Experience a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, known for its deep tunnels and elaborately decorated stations. The metro is often referred to as the “world’s deepest.”
  7. Korean War Museum (์กฐ์„ ์ธ๋ฏผ๊ตฐ์—ญ์‚ฌ๋ฐ•๋ฌผ๊ด€): Explore the museum dedicated to the Korean War (1950-1953), featuring extensive exhibits and artifacts from the conflict.
  8. International Friendship Exhibition (๊ตญ์ œ์šฐ์ •์ „์‹œ๊ด€): Located in Mount Myohyang, this vast underground complex houses gifts and tributes received by North Korean leaders from around the world.
  9. Demilitarized Zone (DMZ): Take a tour to the DMZ, the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea. Visitors can see the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the Korean War armistice village of Panmunjom.
  10. Pohyon Temple (๋ณดํ˜„์‚ฌ): Located in Mount Myohyang, this Buddhist temple dates back to the 11th century and features beautifully preserved architecture and statues.
  11. Mount Paektu (๋ฐฑ๋‘์‚ฐ): The highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, Mount Paektu is a significant symbol in Korean folklore. It offers hiking opportunities and stunning landscapes, but access may be limited.
  12. Wonsan Beach: If visiting the eastern port city of Wonsan, relax on one of its sandy beaches along the Sea of Japan (East Sea).
  13. Chongjin: Explore the city of Chongjin on the northeastern coast, known for its industrial history and access to scenic areas like Mount Chilbo.
  14. Hamhung: Visit the coastal city of Hamhung, known for its historical sites, beaches, and the Hungnam Fertilizer Complex.
  15. Kimjongilia and Kimilsungia Flower Exhibitions: These annual flower exhibitions, featuring specially cultivated blooms named after the country’s leaders, are held in Pyongyang.

It’s important to note that travel to North Korea is tightly controlled and can only be done through authorized tour operators. Visitors must adhere to strict rules and regulations, and their activities are closely monitored by government-assigned guides. The availability of certain attractions may also depend on the current political and diplomatic situation.

What to Do? ๐Ÿ“ธ

As a tourist in North Korea, your activities and experiences are typically tightly controlled and guided by government-assigned tour guides. While your itinerary may be predetermined, there are some must-do things and cultural experiences you can expect during your visit to North Korea:

  1. Visit Kim Il-sung Square: Stand in the heart of Pyongyang at Kim Il-sung Square, often the site of grand military parades and mass rallies. It’s a symbol of the regime’s power and ideology.
  2. Explore Pyongyang: Take a guided tour of the capital city, Pyongyang, where you’ll see monuments, landmarks, and government buildings. These may include the Arch of Triumph, Juche Tower, and the Party Foundation Monument.
  3. Ride the Pyongyang Metro: Experience a ride on the Pyongyang Metro, known for its deep tunnels and ornate station designs. You may visit several metro stations during your tour.
  4. Attend Mass Games (Arirang Festival): If your visit coincides with the Arirang Festival (also known as the Mass Games), attend this grand spectacle featuring thousands of performers, coordinated movements, and colorful displays.
  5. Visit Museums and Historical Sites: Explore museums such as the Korean War Museum and other historical sites, which provide insight into North Korea’s official narrative of its history.
  6. Interact with Locals: While interactions with locals are limited, you may have opportunities to interact with people in controlled settings, such as at a school or cooperative farm.
  7. Try North Korean Cuisine: Sample North Korean dishes, including kimchi, bibimbap, and Pyongyang cold noodles. Meals are often provided as part of your tour.
  8. Learn About the Juche Ideology: Gain an understanding of the Juche ideology, which emphasizes self-reliance and independence. You’ll likely hear about this concept throughout your visit.
  9. Visit Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il Statues: Pay respects to the statues of North Korea’s leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, often located in central squares.
  10. Attend Cultural Performances: Watch cultural performances, such as traditional music and dance shows, to get a glimpse of North Korean arts and culture.
  11. Take a Trip to the DMZ: Join a tour to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Joint Security Area (JSA) to see the border between North and South Korea. You may have a chance to step into the JSA buildings and interact with South Korean soldiers.
  12. Participate in Local Celebrations: If your visit coincides with North Korean holidays or celebrations, you may have the opportunity to observe or even participate in festivities.
  13. Photography: Capture the unique landscapes, architecture, and cultural scenes, but be aware that photography may be restricted in certain areas.
  14. Visit Mount Myohyang: Explore the scenic Mount Myohyang region, known for its natural beauty, historical sites, and cultural attractions.
  15. Learn About Propaganda: Observe the prominent role of propaganda in North Korean society, from posters to monuments.
  16. Attend a Local Market: Visit a local market, such as the Kwangbok Supermarket in Pyongyang, to see everyday life and commerce in action.

It’s essential to remember that travel to North Korea is highly controlled, and visitors must adhere to strict rules and regulations imposed by the government. Tourists are accompanied by government-assigned guides throughout their stay, and independent exploration is generally not allowed. Additionally, the availability of certain activities may be subject to change based on the political and diplomatic situation.

Culture and Safety ๐Ÿฆบ

Traveling to North Korea as a tourist presents unique cultural and safety considerations due to the country’s highly controlled and authoritarian nature. It’s essential to be well-prepared and informed before visiting. Here are some cultural and safety tips for tourists in North Korea:

Culture:

  1. Respect for the Leadership: Show respect for the country’s leaders, especially Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as symbols and monuments associated with them. Avoid any disrespectful behavior or comments.
  2. Dress Code: Dress modestly and conservatively. Avoid wearing clothing that is revealing, provocative, or excessively casual. Formal attire may be required for certain locations, such as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
  3. Photography: Ask for permission before taking photos, especially of military personnel, infrastructure, or anything the guides deem sensitive. Photography rules can be strict, so always follow your guides’ instructions.
  4. Political Discussions: Avoid engaging in political discussions, criticizing the government, or expressing opinions that could be considered disrespectful or offensive.
  5. Behavior in Public: Be aware of your behavior in public spaces. Public displays of affection, such as hugging or holding hands, may be frowned upon.
  6. Interactions with Locals: Interactions with local people are limited and often occur in controlled settings, such as at schools or cooperative farms. Follow your guides’ instructions during these interactions.
  7. Gifts and Souvenirs: Consider bringing small gifts from your home country to offer to your guides or hosts as a gesture of goodwill. Common souvenirs include North Korean propaganda posters and stamps.

Safety:

  1. Travel with an Authorized Tour Operator: North Korea allows tourists only through authorized tour operators. Choose a reputable operator with experience in North Korean tourism.
  2. Travel Advisories: Check travel advisories and safety information from your government’s embassy or consulate. Be aware of the political and security situation in the region.
  3. Register with Your Embassy: Inform your embassy or consulate of your travel plans and contact information in North Korea. Registering can be crucial in case of emergencies.
  4. Follow Government Guidelines: Abide by the rules and regulations set by the North Korean government and your guides. Non-compliance can have serious consequences.
  5. Restricted Access: Recognize that certain areas may be off-limits or closely monitored. Access to information and communication with the outside world may also be limited.
  6. Travel Insurance: Ensure you have comprehensive travel insurance that covers potential medical emergencies, evacuations, and unforeseen situations. Verify if North Korea is covered in your policy.
  7. Currency and Transactions: Familiarize yourself with the local currency (North Korean won) and the restricted nature of currency exchange. Use official channels for financial transactions.
  8. Health Precautions: Consult a healthcare provider for vaccinations and health precautions before your trip. North Korea may have limited medical facilities and access to certain medications.
  9. Respect the Guides: Develop a respectful and cooperative relationship with your guides. They are responsible for your safety and adherence to local rules.
  10. Avoid Sensitive Topics: Steer clear of discussing topics that could be considered sensitive or offensive, including politics, religion, and human rights.
  11. Know Your Limits: Recognize that you are a guest in a highly controlled environment. Avoid pushing boundaries or attempting independent travel or activism.
  12. Emergency Contacts: Familiarize yourself with emergency contact information for your embassy or consulate in Pyongyang.

Traveling to North Korea is a unique and challenging experience. It’s essential to approach your visit with cultural sensitivity, respect for local customs, and a clear understanding of the safety and political considerations involved. Always stay informed about the latest developments and follow the guidance of your tour guides to ensure a safe and respectful visit.

Conclusion

In conclusion, visiting North Korea is an unparalleled journey into a secretive and tightly controlled nation, offering a unique perspective on its culture, history, and propaganda-filled society. Travelers to North Korea should be prepared for a highly structured experience, with government-assigned guides overseeing every aspect of their visit. While it provides a rare opportunity to see a side of North Korea not often revealed in international media, tourists must adhere to strict rules and limitations imposed by the government. It’s a destination that intrigues the adventurous traveler but requires a deep understanding of its political and cultural complexities.