The Getaway
What You Need to Know Before Traveling to North Korea

The first question you'll probably get when you tell your friends and family that you're considering a trip to North Korea is: "Why?" North Korea infamous for imprisoning political dissidents under a dictator's rule. Some people question the ethics of the tourism industry in North Korea, citing concern that money spent there could contribute to nuclear proliferation.

However, countless other people are driven to experience the world's most isolated locations first-hand. Like visiting Chernobyl or hiking Mount Everest, a trip to North Korea isn't for everyone. For others, though, it's worth almost any risk.


01 Get Permission

Starting in September 2017, the United States State Department declared that only journalists and humanitarian workers will receive visas for North Korea. In very rare cases, this rule can be waived. If you're from the United States, your best chance at getting into North Korea as a tourist is to reach out to a travel agent who specializes in North Korea travel.

Panoramic aerial view of Pyongyang, capital of North Korea narvikk / Getty Imagees

02 Sacrifice Some Freedoms

You're likely to have your cell phone and passport confiscated as soon as you arrive in North Korea. You won't have free range of the country, either; instead, an official tour guide will be with you at all times. In some cases, you may have to ask permission before taking photos.

This is part of traveling to North Korea. If you can't deal with it, then North Korea is not the destination for you.

The Grand Study Hall at Pyongyang narvikk / Getty Images

03 Insure Your Trip

Even though an armistice agreement exists between North and South Korea, the two countries are technically still engaged in war. Combine that with recent kidnappings of Americans, and you'll start to understand why travel insurance for a North Korea trip doesn't come cheap.

Your best bet, once again, is to find a travel agent with experience in North Korean tourism and see what kind of insurance package they can track down for you.

Aerial cityscape of modern Pyongyang city in North Korea Lina Shatalova / Getty Images

04 Your Tour Guide

Locals and tourist in front of the Northern Korea leader statue in a cloudy day. Pyongyang, North Korea

All tourists in North Korea take part in guided tours, and everyone has a tour guide who watches over them at all times.

Your tour guide is responsible for you, so stay on your best behavior. If you wander off or do something insulting, your guide could be punished. In North Korea, that punishment can include imprisonment, or worse.


05 You'll Be Under Surveillance

It bears repeating that when you're in North Korea, you're playing by their rules, and their rules include few of the rights Westerners are used to. While it's unlikely your hotel room will be bugged, there's no guarantee that it won't be. Expect that your conversations are being overheard at all times. Your luggage, purse, or other bags can be searched at any time, for no particular reason.

Once again, if you can't deal with these possibilities, then pick a different vacation destination.

Reunification of Korean Peninsula Memorial at the entrance to Pyongyang Tarzan9280 / Getty Images

06 Don't Ask Too Many Questions

While you're in North Korea, try to blend in with your tour group. Anything that breaks away from the norm can come under suspicion.

Even though many Westerners are used to asking challenging questions while on vacation, you'll want to take the opposite approach here and not ask any unusual questions, no matter how obvious.

Mansudae Fountain Park at Pyongyang, North Korea Jui-Chi Chan / Getty Images

07 Brace Yourself for Propaganda

 North Korean soldiers placard at the military parade in Pyongyang. Pyongyang, North Korea,

There's no way to avoid propaganda in North Korea. If you're an American, you'll notice right away that many posters feature flat-out lies.

Don't ask your guide about these posters, and by no means should you criticize them. Propaganda is part of life in North Korea; no matter how much it bothers you, don't challenge it. Bite your tongue, avert your eyes, and move on.


08 Bring Cash

The worker and farmer in a North Korea banknote for macro

Bring cash in your country's currency. As an international tourist, you won't be able to carry the local currency, and you won't be able to use ATM machines. With this in mind, don't expect to buy a ton of souvenirs for family and friends back home.


09 Forget About Instagram

Your photography opportunities in North Korea are limited. In many cases, you should ask before taking a picture. If you're taking a picture of a statue of a Kim family member, be sure to get the entire figure in the photo. Finally, avoid posting pictures of people, for instance, your tour guide, online when you get back home.

Classic communistic style statue in North Korea angusho / Getty Images

10 You'll Stay Safe

Biggest show in the world - Ariran Festival with the 150,000 people in the Pyongyang capital of North Korea

Compared with other vacation destinations, North Korea ranks very low when it comes to crime. The upside of spending your trip under constant surveillance is that you're unlikely to be a victim of a crime while in North Korea. You'll be chaperoned at all times, so you won't even have the chance to bumble into an unsafe situation.


11 Honor the Leader

North Korea has many statues honoring their current and former leaders, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung. Everyone is expected to bow before these statues and leave flowers.

As a Westerner, the idea of bowing before a statue may feel outright wrong. However, when you're in North Korea, suck it up and follow these norms. Remember, your tour guide can be punished if you fail to honor the leader respectfully.

A huge statue of a seated Kim Il Sung dominates the entrance hall of the Grand People's Study Hall. Goddard_Photography / Getty Images

12 Focus on the Good Stuff

outhern gate of the fort on the hill Teson, Daesung, 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung

It's vital to remember that you should never criticize anything you see, hear, or are asked to do in North Korea.

Praise the places you visit, praise your tour guide, or even praise the weather. Only mention the good stuff. When it comes to anything negative, suck it up. In North Korea, this suck-it-up approach can't be emphasized enough.


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