A tour of the DPRK is unlike any other tourist experience in the world, and many people regard it as a highlight of their international travels. We want all our customers to enjoy their tour and get the most from it, so we have prepared the below travel guide which we hope will answer many of the common questions we are asked by customers, and provide some guidance on what can be expected during your time in the country.
It is important to note that DPRK tourism has its own unique style of operation which must be followed and respected by visitors. We therefore urge all potential visitors to the country to carefully read and appreciate the below in order to get the most from their tour. If you have any questions, please ask us and we will be happy to answer.
Tours to the DPRK are Guided Tours
All tourists to the DPRK, no matter which company you book with or what tour you take, will be accompanied by two KITC tour guides, who will escort you at all times from arrival to departure. This applies whether you are travelling in a group or just a single traveller. You are not allowed to travel independently around the country. Your tour will follow a pre-arranged itinerary which is largely fixed in place prior to your arrival.
Although this approach may seem somewhat odd to many, in reality, it sounds far more daunting and onerous than it actually is, and in some ways adds to the uniqueness of a DPRK tour. KITC guides are intelligent, friendly and resourceful people and many customers find that their interactions with the guides are often the highlight of the tour. You may find they may hold somewhat different views to the average western tourist, but they are also human beings with a sense of humour like anyone else, and many travellers become good friends with their guides by the end of the trip. Likewise, having a fixed itinerary may seem an anathema to independent travellers, however it does generally mean a lot of ground can be covered during the tour as each day is pre-planned and organised.
Conduct and Respect
The DPRK possesses a unique social and political system, and travellers to the country are asked to respect this. Regardless of your own views, the people of the DPRK hold the eternal President Kim Il Sung, his son General Kim Jong Il, and the country’s present leader Kim Jong Un, in extremely high regard. Any outward criticism, sarcasm, or negative comments about these individuals will not be tolerated. It will result in you losing the respect and trust of your guides, and both you could face severe consequences. There will be occasions such as at the Mansudae Grand Monument and the Kumsusan Memorial Palace where you will be expected to either offer flowers and / or bow out of respect for these people, as is the custom of the DPRK. We would also strongly recommend packing one set of smart clothing if visiting the Kumsusan Memorial Palace.
The Korean War of 1950-1953 was an epochal event in the country’s history and it remains a highly sensitive subject for the DPRK. It is important to note that no peace treaty has ever been signed to officially end this conflict, only an Armistice. More than sixty years on, this truce is still all that technically prevents North Korea and the US, along with its ally South Korea, from resuming the war. We ask our customers to always bear this in mind if conversation does turn to the War, and to remember that although time has passed, it is still a subject that invokes very strong feelings from your Korean hosts.
During the tour, there may well be times when you find yourselves strongly disagreeing with the DPRK’s official stance on various matters, or how a certain event in history is portrayed. In such a case, we suggest you are diplomatic in your approach. It will do you and your guides no favours at all to start arguing and criticising; you will find yourselves out of favour and unable to get the best from the tour. Instead, we strongly recommend going with the flow, putting up with the country’s idiosyncrasies, and saving any criticism you may have until you are back in your home country. By doing this, you will get the most out of your tour and have a far more pleasant and productive experience.
Although tourists are generally free to take photos during their tour, you will find your guides are sometimes quite sensitive about certain photography, especially if it is of something deemed to ‘misrepresent’ or paint the country in a negative light. Please be respectful and understanding when taking photos. Always ask permission, and if refused, please be reasonable and accept this. As we say above, the DPRK is a unique travel experience unlike anywhere else in the world, and comes with its own peculiarities. By adhering to these, you will gain the respect and trust of your guides.
Visa, Customs and Nationality
All travellers to the DPRK require a tourist visa, which normally takes a few weeks to prepare. This will all be arranged by us from the information provided on your application form. More detailed information can be found in the ‘Apply’ section, but the actual process is very simple and straightforward.
Contrary to what you may have heard, pretty much anyone can visit the DPRK as a tourist. At the present time, only the following categories of people are not permitted:
- South Korean nationals;
- Professional journalists, photographers, broadcasters and the like (feel free to contact us for clarification on this);
American tourists are permitted to visit the DPRK however they can only enter or exit the country by plane, not by train.
Customs exclusions include the usual items; drugs, arms, pornography etc. A customs declaration is required to be filled in upon arrival, this also lists electronic items you are carrying and how much currency you are brining into the country. Please note below about excluded electronic items also.
Money and Tipping
Kindly note that credit cards are not accepted and there are no ATMs in the country, therefore please bring sufficient cash to last for your stay. For personal expenditure in the country, we recommend taking Euros in cash. US Dollars and Chinese Yuan are also permitted, but Euros are generally preferred. Be sure to take small denomination notes with you, as change is often not available for larger notes. Tourists are not permitted to use the local currency (Korean Won).
Given the close proximity and relationship you will develop with your guides during your stay, we would advise tipping these two people generously, as well as something for your driver. The DPRK is a developing country and therefore any extra hard currency you can provide will be gratefully received. In terms of gifts, you will find most Korean men smoke like chimneys and Western cigarette brands will be gratefully received. For the ladies, some perfume will go down well. Western alcoholic drinks, chocolates, make up, confectionary and so on are other options.
Books and Publications
Any books or publications that are critical of the DPRK should be left at home; otherwise you could face serious consequences. Kindly note that the DPRK customs authorities have recently begun to confiscate some DPRK travel guides upon entry to the country, including Bradt and Lonely Planet. Therefore we do not recommend taking these with you on your tour. Due to recent incidents which have resulted in the detention of tourists, we strongly recommend that customers do not take any religious publications or material with them during their tour, including but not limited to bibles.
Communications and Electronics
Under new rules introduced at the beginning of 2013, it is now permitted for tourists to bring their mobile phones into the DPRK and keep hold of them during the tour. However, you will not be able to actually use it for international calls unless you purchase an international dialling SIM card. This costs EUR 50 and we are told that international call charges will be around EUR 2-3 per minute. You may also use international land line telephone, fax and email, to contact the outside world, which can be arranged from your Pyongyang hotel. The internet is however not permitted for tourist use, so if you want to send an email it will be from the hotel’s server. Hotmail, Gmail etc. cannot be accessed.
Laptops, Ipads, Ipods and other MP3 players are OK to bring in to the country and use. Personal style video cameras are also permitted.
Voltage in the country is 220 Volts. Plug types vary; some hotels have Western European two pin, whilst other have the Chinese two pin type. We suggest taking any adaptors you require with you, as they may not be available locally to purchase. A small torch may also prove useful, as there are occasional power cuts.
Food and Drink
The standard of food available to tourists is generally good. For the majority of time you will eat Korean cuisine, although there are opportunities to enjoy ‘Western’ style foods, especially in Pyongyang. Please let us know if you are vegetarian or have other dietary requirements, so this can be arranged accordingly.
There is a full range of beverages, both alcoholic and non alcoholic, and bottled mineral water is always available. Of the local beers, Taedonggang is very pleasant. Soju, the Korean spirit, is drunk in large quantities, especially by the male Korean guides, and is something of an acquired taste. The brand Songak is noticeably smoother than other sorts.
Tap water is NOT drinkable – only drink bottled water, which is available everywhere at minimal cost.
Medical provisions for tourists are limited, therefore please ensure you bring adequate supplies of any prescription drugs and medicines that you need, plus any usual travel medicines and lotions (such as stomach upset relief, sun cream etc) as a precaution.
Valid travel insurance is essential for all visitors to the DPRK. Medical facilities available to tourists are limited, and for any major injuries it will be necessary to be evacuated back to China for treatment. Make sure your policy covers travel to the DPRK.
The DPRK is a continental climate with 4 distinct seasons. Winters can be bitterly cold, often with snow and minus temperatures. Summers are hot and humid, with occasional heavy rainfall during the day. Consequently, the most pleasant times to visit are Spring and Autumn, providing milder temperatures and a more conducive climate for sightseeing. Nevertheless, the country can be visited at all times of the year, and each season brings with it its own visual rewards. As there saying goes, ‘There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing!’
If you are a journalist and wish to travel to the DPRK, I am afraid we are not the people to help you. We are a tourist agency and consequently are permitted to take only genuine tourists to the country. If you are a journalist, we suggest you contact your local DPRK Embassy to help arrange your visit. If you are a journalist, please, do not try and sneak your way in to the country by pretending to be a tourist. It will create all sorts of problems for yourself, for us, and worst of all, for your Korean hosts.
If you have any further questions about the above matters or on un-related issues, we are only an email or telephone call away and welcome the chance to answer them – feel free to get in touch!