Admittedly, North Korea is not the most typical place to go on a tour. But if you're reading about it here then you aren't interested in typical. Long considered the final frontier of travel, North Korea offers endless surprises for the intrepid traveler.
On a tour of this country you will see that the people of North Korea represent much more than the rogue nuclear regime that is portrayed in the news. This is a land with a rich and proud history. It is a landscape with impressive vistas and natural monuments. Most importantly, it is a nation with people who seldom interact with visitors from the outside, people like you.
No matter how well-traveled you are, in North Korea you will have experiences like none you’ve ever had. It is a place to shift perspectives and create a special appreciation for how people live in ways that few ever witness.
What many imagine and what they see on a cultural tour in North Korea are likely very different. Sure, you’ll see many monuments and memorials to the country’s leaders and acts of unquestioning devotion by the people here. But you’ll also meet a population with a rich culture influenced by both recent and ancient history.
Meeting the people of this insular country will help both you and them to build sorely needed cross-cultural connections. As you work together to make mandu dumplings and learn the steps of a mass dance, you’ll be part of a shared experience that few outsiders ever get to participate in.
In North Korea, history is palpable. Both ancient and modern history are on full display here. From ancient Buddhist temples nestled in mountain valleys to the captured American warship, USS Pueblo, you can experience the full arc of the country’s history.
You can also visit Panmunjeom, one of the last living relics of the Cold War. This small village lies in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Here you can see pillboxes, tank traps, barbed wire fences, and North Korea’s propaganda palace. It is the only place where North and South Korean soldiers face each other directly.
Perhaps as interesting as the historic sites themselves is the North Korean interpretation of that history. Tours will be heavily curated and seen through the lens of the nation’s propaganda.
Most people don’t think of North Korea as a destination for sports enthusiasts, but sharing an interest in sports is a great way to bridge seemingly insurmountable cultural barriers. Cheering on athletes at the Pyongyang Marathon or basketball games can form an instant rapport with the locals around you.
Witnessing the famous Mass Games will be like nothing you have ever experienced. This highly-politicized gymnastics event mixes Communist ideology with pure athleticism. This event is not to be missed if you want to truly witness what state-sponsored sports looks like when taken to the extreme.
North Korea also has some excellent winter sports facilities. Tours can take skiers and snowboarders to Masikryong Ski Resort where they will be some of the few outsiders to enjoy the well-groomed slopes of this mountain retreat.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit North Korea
Autumn and Spring will offer you the best weather in North Korea. You will also be treated to sweeping views of wildflowers or changing leaves during these seasons. It seldom gets too hot in the summer, but do expect a lot of rain.
Unless you are planning on participating in winter sports, it’s best to avoid that time of year as daylight hours are short and the temperature regularly drops below freezing.
What to Look for in a Tour to North Korea
Tourists can only visit the country as part of a state-run guided tour. Keep in mind that regardless of which company you book your tour with, all tours are operated by one of North Korea’s government-owned travel companies. The company you book with will make arrangements with one of the North Korean companies on your behalf.
A tour company should help you arrange all of the visa issues. These can be rather complex, so make sure they are ready to assist you throughout the process.
Find out how many other travelers will be in your tour group. You’ll likely want a smaller number so that you don’t get lost in the crowd.
Typical Tour Cost
Expect to pay around $1,000 for a simple 5-day tour that doesn’t stray far from Pyongyang. This price will include hotels, food, and transportation in and out of the country. $4,000 is a typical cost for a more extensive multi-week tour that takes you to many destinations throughout North Korea.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Your tour company will likely supply any specific gear you might need for special activities. Bring at least one formal outfit as this expected to be worn when visiting certain memorials and museums. It is a nice gesture to bring gifts for your guides and drivers. Whiskey, cigarettes, and chocolates are common gifts that will be greatly appreciated.
Bring cash. Foreign debit and credit cards are not accepted here. Many vendors do accept dollars and euros, but likely won’t have much in the way of change, so bring small bills.
With North Korea, it is as important to know what notto bring as well as what to pack. Literature and media that might be construed as oppositional to the country’s ideology will be confiscated. Large professional cameras or recording devices might be looked on with suspicion and result in extra questioning at the border.
Other Tips for Travel in North Korea
North Koreans are not forbidden to interact with outsiders, but you might find that many are reluctant to do so as the result of propaganda that promotes suspicion of foreigners. Your tour guide will likely inspect the photos you take. If in doubt about taking a picture, ask your guide.
Part of your tour will involve paying respects at monuments to Kim Il Sung by bowing and laying flowers at the statue’s feet. Not participating respectfully in this ritual could land you and your tour guide in a lot of trouble.
As of September of 2017, citizens of the United States need special permission from the U.S. State Department to enter North Korea. Contact the State Department as soon as you plan to travel to make sure that everything is in order as this process can be time-consuming.
Visas are usually approved just a day or two before the tour but are in practice rarely rejected by North Korea. You may get a phone call from the North Korean embassy to verify your identity. However, if you are a journalist (even traveling as a tourist), your visa will probably be denied.
If you are American, Canadian, or Australian, the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang will be acting as your “protecting power” while in North Korea. However, their ability to assist in case of trouble or emergencies is limited.
Health & Safety
Water is seldom treated and can lead to serious illness. Carry small bills to purchase bottled water. If you take medication, bring enough to last the entire trip as you probably won’t be able to find more once you’re in the country. Hospitals are generally poorly equipped. If you need hospitalization, it is usually advised to go to China.
Crime rates are essentially non-existent and you should feel safe whenever you go out. Do not break even the smallest law or you will find yourself in an extreme amount of trouble.
In North Korea, the greatest safety risk concerns interactions with the state itself. Do not say anything that could be construed as critical to the country's government, ideology, or people. It’s best to simply avoid these topics altogether. It is not unheard of for undercover government agents to “test” you on this.
You will be briefed on proper protocol at the beginning of your tour. Take what is said seriously, however much it might clash with your ideas of a free society. 'Thought' is heavily regulated in North Korea and getting in trouble could lead to harsh punishments for both you and your tour guide.