13 Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to North Korea (DPRK)
I heard many people and many friends whom were surprised to hear that it is possible to travel to North Korea! You can travel in every country of this world! You only have to want to go there – the means will be found later. An the answer is YES – you can travel to DPRK but there are some travel restrictions:
1. The Travel Agency
You can travel only with a travel agency. If you don’t want to join a tour and to be on a private tour, you can do it. But it will cost you a lot. One japanese guy was traveling alone and he had beside the driver another 3 guides along him! They said its for his protection. You might know that the relations betweens Japan and North Korea and very cordial!
Me, for example I joined a tour organized by the Youngpioneertours. It cost me 785 Euro + Visa 50 Euro for 5 days. Meals, transportation, guides and accommodation were included! They have the cheapest and the most completed tour between the whole travel agencies which are allowed to organize the tours in North Korea. People are young and you will have a lot of fun. If we will be guided either the Chris the Irishman or Troy the Kiwi guy, the fun will be double!
Can the americans and the japones travel to North Korea? The answer is YES, they can. For the american citizens the only restriction is that they must enter and exit DPRK by air only. The rest of the nationalities can enter or exit by train, too. Everyone is allowed to travel to North Korea; only South Koreans and journalists are usually forbidden to travel. You can add the missionary people too.
Tourism in North Korea is controlled by the regime and only up to 3500 people are allowed to visit the country every year. Thats less 10 tourists per day. For instance, the most visited country in the world, France, has over 81 millions tourists; thats more than 220.00 tourists a day!
It is safe to travel to North Korea? Yes. Being surrounded all the time by the 2 guides and not being allowed to walk freely, nothing bad can happen to you. Of course you have to follow their rules. But which country in the world does not have its own rules? Even some states in the United States have their own law that you must follow!
Right now there are 2 american citizens detained in North Korea. Last week, a guy did not followed the rules and tore apart his visa on arriving and asked for asylum in North Korea. That’s an offense to the North Korean government, even if it’s good publicity that an american citizen seeks asylum in this country.
Before entering North Korea, I received the following advices for the travel agency with whom I went to North Korea. What rules its a must to be followed and that rules are only myths, can be read in the following lines!
A quiet afternoon in DPRK – kids playing
4. Dress Code
Please prepare one formal dress/suit/shirt and pants (or at least smart casual, definitely no ripped jeans, shorts or sandals) for visiting Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (when it’s on the itinerary), to show respect to the Koreans leaders and avoid offending the local guides and people. Women should not wear skirts or shorts but dresses or trousers are ok. This was number one on the list and somehow I skipped it! I had only one pair of jeans and a shirt (a Mein Land Rammstein One) and normal walking shoes. The Sun Palace is seeing by the koreans a sacred place so try to have your best clothes even if you are traveling light! And most important, please don’t make jokes. Story to come later about this…
Photo Season at Sun Palace – North Korea
We are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea (much like Cuba) so we will be paying for things in hard currency (Hard currency by Korean terms is EURO, USD, or Chinese RMB) I would suggest RMB is the easiest to use, as getting change from a 10 Euro note after buying a bottle of water is a lot harder than getting change from a Chinese 10 RMB note. However that being said, the shops often consider 10RMB = 1 Euro which means you save more money spending Euro, as the real rate is closer to 8RMB = 1 Euro. Though some places use a more realistic exchange rate. USD is accepted but is not as easy to get change for. The exchange rate in North Korea when I was in March 201: one WON 1300 local money for one US $. I do believe its not an urban legend that there are no money in North Korea and people are still being paid in cartles and based on their salaries they can buy ( if there have from where), food. Best advice regarding the money is to have small bills. Bring as many as 1 to 5 $ bills or RMB Chinese. You can pay (at the tourist restaurants and shop) with Euro, US $ and Euro. And the change will be probably either in US $ or RMB. My advice is to not to bring Euro; for example, a beer costs 1$. If you have Euro, the beer costs 1 Euro. Or 10 RMB. You have to declare how much money you have but no one checks the amount you declare. I did not see any local currency but a friend whom just come back from North Korea told me that his guide gave me a heap of WON bills!
Casino in North Korea
6. Photo Gear
Professional Video cameras are not allowed to be taken into the DPRK, but handheld digicams have recently been allowed as long as you don’t film anything you’re told not to! Regular digital still cameras are fine, for professional cameras, lenses under 250mm are allowed- anything over that could be retained at customs until you depart. Your Korean guides will give you the ‘go ahead’ and the ‘no-no’ zones for taking photos, and it’s crucial to follow their requests. This is the most sensitive subject: the photos! Before leaving to DPRK I wanted to buy new lenses for my Panasonic DMC Mirrolens; I wanted to buy a 300mm lens but after I read the rule, I decided to buy a 250mm lenses. In the end, the online shop I wanted to buy from did not manage to bring it in time. But on the airport no one checked the camera and not even the lenses. And I am sure they don’t know how to differentiate a 250mm vs a 300mm lens.
You can not take photos to soldiers or buildings being built. By mistake I forgot the rule and I took one photo of a soldier. We were said that the soldier will be mad if they are photographed. One of the guides saw me and asked to deleted it. I pressed some buttons but in the end, don’t know how I managed to press cancel! The rules about taking photos in North Korea are not that strict as I thought. We were 12 tourists and only 2 guides. Its impossible to supervise everything. If you are clever and quick you can take some pretty good, forbidden photos. And at the end of the trip, no one is checking your camera to see what photos you have been taken. I had two cards and I put the almost empty one on my departure!
7. Phone Use
Phones have recently been allowed into the DPRK, currently only satellite phones are banned. There are allowed but you have no signal, whatsoever. Few years ago, they would have confiscated it and return it at the departure. They only look a bit on in, more with curiosity. Most of the north koreans don’t have cellular’s – you have to imagine a Nokia from the beginning – but I did see on the streets some people talking on the phones. They took my phone to be checked on arrival at the airport. But they did not opened it. They just wrote something on a piece of paper. Probably which phone type it was or just the color!
8. Books & Ebooks
E-books are fine, and normal books are OK as long as it’s not a Bible, Qur’an or any other religious text. Books on North Korea are OK as long as they are not critical of the country. The Brandt guide is often brought and is fine, as is Lonely Planet’s guide. I don’t think there are books about North Korea to describe how good the country is doing. At that moment I was reading on my e-book reader, Nothing to Envy – Real Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demik and I was a bit scared to bring it to North Korea. I also left at the hostel, 1Q84 by Murakami; being a japanese writer I was not sure how they would react. But even you have to declare what books you have, no one checks. And as long as it does not have the word North Korea in title, no one cares about it!
Book display at the People’s Library in Pyongyang
9. Gifts for the guides
We we’re strongly recommend giving an entrance gift for our North Korean guides when you first arrive at the hotel, and have a ‘sit down’. This will help you be very accommodated throughout your holiday. So for example, we suggest spending around 10 Euros on gifts for the guides. DPRK have very limited access to foreign products, so it’s a good idea to use your imagination, any local products, from where you live, or beauty products, cigarettes (Camel being the most popular foreign cigarette along with some Japanese brands such as Seven Stars) are popular amongst the men (note. Although Camel/Marlboro are much cheaper in Beijing than most Western countries, the Koreans much prefer Western ones, something to consider depending on your budget!) The gift part is a very tricky one. First is that you don’t know if their will be a female guide or a male guide. We had 2 women guides and I brought some packs of cigarettes. And I do hope there are married so they could bring it to their husbands. You can buy the gifts from the souvenir shop located at the first floor of the hotel, too!
10. Pocket Money
For your spending money in the DPRK, it depends on how much you would like to drink and how many gifts you want to buy. The time people tend to spend the most money is in the evening, a pint of draft beer at the hotel bar is 22RMB, (although bottled beers in the bowling alley, billiards room or shop are only around 10RMB), a pack of smokes ranges from 5RMB. Also we encourage you to prepare a tip for the North Korea guides, although not mandatory, this is the custom and as such is somewhat expected. The recommended tip amount is about 7 Euros per day of your tour, so if you are on a 5 day tour, then a 35 Euro tip for the Koreans to share is what we suggest, often the guides work very hard for us, and we have good relations with the guides, this road was partially paved by those who have tipped generously before you, on our tours. In 5 days I spend on total around 600 RMB which is around 60 Euro. Most was spent on souvenirs (T-Shirt, stamps and other cool things). If you are not into shopping, 30 euro will be enough to have with you.
I usually tip and I give tips only if the service was very good. Our guides (young Kim and old Kim) were very good and at the beginning of the trip had no intention of not giving them money.
You have to imagine North Korea like India in terms of casts. There are around 51 cast; only the privileged ones and loyals to the party have access to imported good, information and proper food while the rest live in poverty and darkness. On the last night of the trip, little Kim asked me some questions about some business and I found out that her father was a businessman. I already knew that he had a dentist sister and her mother was a doctor. And that they were having a 4 room flat; she said it was not downtown but she lied to us everyday. So in the end those tipping money goes to the elite people, too. Even if they have a lot of money, compared to normal north korean citizens. My suggestion to Young Pioneers Tours is to exclude the rule (even if its mandatory) and to stick only to the gifts!
11. AC power plugs and sockets
The power points in the hotel are 2 point flat or round pin points with 220v power supply. They have adaptors at the lobby but usually require you to leave your device there to charge, instead of letting you take the adaptor to your room. It’s a good idea to bring a universal adaptor if you don’t have the above pins. There is a small issue here. In the room, we were accomodated 2 persons and only one power point was available to charge our electronic dispositives. So bright 2 batteries for your camera! In Pyongyang, there were power cuts but only for 5 seconds every night, so be careful not your disposal not to get on fire!
12. Order & Discipline
At certain places especially statues of the leaders we will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs. If you have any reasons that you are uncomfortable with that please let us know before we are stood in front of the statues to avoid causing a scene. You will also be given an opportunity to buy flowers for 2 euro (small) or 4/5 euro (big), it is not expected that you do this but if you choose to the Korean guides will appreciate it. Its like going to the church. Even if you are not a religious person, you do kiss the icon (as the orthodox people do) or to the cross sign. Here is the same: if you bow in front of the statues that does not mean you do believe! You do, several time, have to bow in from of the statues of the Great Leader: Kim il-Sung and Kim Jong-un. I did it just for fun and hardly couldn’t burst into laughing! But, the place where you do have to be very serious about the bowing is at the Sun Palace, where the bodies of the two leaders are and where you must bow 3 times in front of each of them. Here I was very serious, even deep inside!
Most importantly: be nice to your Korean guides, listen to them and they’ll relax and let you do more, if you’re concerned a question you have may be sensitive – ask your Western guide first, they’ll either know the answer or know whether it’s appropriate to ask the local guides. Its very important to follow their lead or to listen to what are they saying: like when you are allowed to do photos are when you aren’t allowed.
Even if your main reason for your trip to North Korea is to catch a sensitive part of the country or the people (like people bagging, or long guens), please note that if you do something bad, the guides then will suffer too. They can lose their job or even deported to a labor camp. And not only the guides will suffer, their family too and probably the travel agency.
If you do respect all the above rules, you will be able to come back home safe and sound from North Korea! And be able to share you travel adventures with your friends!