Travel Advice FAQ
Is it Safe?
The DPRK does not appear on any lists of countries where it is dangerous to visit and is probably one of the safest countries in the world you can visit. In over eleven years experience and over 500 tours we have never felt that our groups were in any danger. We have never had any problems with the Korean authorities, experienced any thefts or felt in any way threatened. All of Europe (apart from France) and countries such as Canada, Australia etc. have diplomatic relations with North Korea and they support tourism. We are always welcomed by the Korean people and are seen as guests in their country. Certainly if you are willing to smile and be courteous you will receive a very positive response. It is one of the last places on the world where there are virtually no visitors and you can have a big impact on whom you meet. No specific vaccinations are required for visiting the DPRK but we ask you to check with your doctor for advice before you travel.
The cost of the tour?
The tours are extremely good value for money because they are all inclusive, we employ the best guides and pack the itineraries with exciting places to visit and things to see. The price includes travel from Beijing to Pyongyang, accommodation, meals and guides and are in relative luxury. We provide the best possible tour itinerary and our experience tells us that if you cut any corners you end up missing the best sites and get a second grade trip. We are aware that tours are expensive but the basic reasons for this are the restrictions on foreign visitors to DPRK; there is limited choice of transportation and hotels that are available to foreigners, all expensive ones. It should be noted however that the tours we sell are all inclusive form Beijing to DPRK and back to Beijing, covered in the price are plane and train tickets, hotel accommodation, meals, guides, transport around DPRK and entrance fees to the places visited, extra money is only required for airport taxes, extra drinks with your meals, tips and souvenirs/general spending money. Therefore the tour cost is not as unreasonable as you may think. We also offer discounts to students and to groups of people booking together.
Should I travel to North Korea?
Travel broadens the mind and no more so than in North Korea. There are no restrictions for you to visit and the United Nations, European Union and other agencies see tourism as a positive way of engagement. Very few journalists are allowed into North Korea so the amazing experiences you will embrace there are rarely publicised. It is not a country that many people visit, and there is virtually no information available about it. New Korea Tours has been responsible for opening up destination such as Wonsan to tourism but perhaps the greatest impact is that which we have on the Koreans. Any contact we have with the Korean people has to be beneficial in breaking down barriers, particularly as many people outside Pyongyang have not seen let alone interacted with foreigners. On our tours amazing things happen; last year one of our tours joined in folk celebrations with the Koreans on their day off. Tourists have experienced the most magical times such as impromptu football match with workers, playing with Korean children, being approached by Koreans who practice broken English on them. In the West we portray the Koreans as a very humourless and robotic people, however this stereotype is soon broken if you travel there, they are a very proud people and although their life is a struggle their humour and warmth is unsurpassed.
How long does it take to get a visa?
We ask you to complete application for the tours one month before the departure date, in some cases (if you live in Beijing for example) this can be reduced but one month is the optimum time. The visa can be issued in Beijing just before the tour. You have to attend the pre-tour briefing in our Beijing office 1 day prior to your tour at 4PM. You do not have to surrender your passport.
Can I take pictures/video?
There are restrictions on photography that have to be obeyed in DPRK, however you can take pictures of most things and everyone who visits always takes many more pictures than they think they will (extra digital memory cards and sticks are NOT available in DPRK so be sure to take plenty of those). The Koreans do not examine your film or force you to develop the films you have taken. Video cameras can be taken now, again restrictions as to their use do apply.
What is the food like…and the food situation in North Korea.
DPRK is a country that has suffered severe food shortages over the last decade and although the famine situation has been largely relieved with the help of many western NGOs it is far from a culinary land of plenty. However as a visitor and guest in the DPRK you will be well fed with 3 meals a day including meat and fish. The food in DPRK is far from fantastic but is not too bad, some meals are very good and some are just good enough. Vegetarians can be catered for and Vegans also to an extent although it cannot be guaranteed that utensils used to touch food will not have touched meat, or that cooking oil does not contain animal fats.
Fruit and chocolate is scarce in the DPRK so if you need this while you are on the tour then you should take it with you from Beijing.
The food situation for the normal people of North Korea is still in a critical state, the mass starvation of the mid-late 90s has abated but the supply of food still barely reaches the demand so the situation is still very tenuous and malnutrition is extremely serious. We have contacts in the major and minor NGOs involved in helping with the problems so if you were interested in more information or making a donation we can assist you in any way you need.
Can we go anywhere we want?
There are many restrictions on the movements of foreign visitors to DPRK. You basically have to be accompanied wherever you go (apart from if you just have a stroll around near the hotel) and much of the country is off limits even to NGOs and diplomats. The standard locations we take in on our tours include; Pyongyang, Nampo, Mount Myohyang area, Kaesong and surrounding area, Panmunjom/DMZ, Wonsan and surrounding area, Kumgangsan and area, Paekdusan, Samjiyon, Sinchon, Mount Kuwol and area, among other places. We can also arrange for tours to visit other less common places such as Hamhung, Mount Chilbo, Sinuiju, and Rajin-Sonbong free trade zone.
Can we talk to local people?
Contact with local people is possible but is difficult for several reasons; the main reason is the language barrier (foreign languages are not widely spoken in DPRK) and other reasons are that the people are generally very wary of foreigners and also are very shy (and careful with drawing attention to themselves). You are free to attempt a dialogue with a local but do not be surprised if they are not interested in talking to you, however it can be very rewarding when you do manage to make some human contact and your guides will make every effort to enable it.
What happens if I need medical attention?
Pyongyang has a foreigners hospital which is of higher quality than the other hospitals in the country, if you need any medical treatment above the order of a few aspirin or a plaster/band-aid then you would be sent here (Note that Koryo Tours cannot be held responsible for any medical costs). In dire emergencies you should check that your insurance company has a provision to have you airlifted back to Beijing and a western standard of hospital eg SOS Beijing.
What are the hotels like?
The hotels we use in Pyongyang are the deluxe class hotels; the Yanggakdo Hotel (usually) and the Koryo Hotel (occasionally) these hotel are western ¾ star equivalent and are equipped with bars, restaurants, shops, swimming pool, bowling, casino, and other entertainment facilities (including Karaoke of course). The hotels in Pyongyang always have reliable electricity, heating, air conditioning, hot water, and now have foreign TV channels including BBC World and Japanese and Chinese TV. The hotels we use outside of Pyongyang are less well developed and have temperamental supplies of electricity and hot water, however there are some spectacular hotels in other places in DPRK such as the traditional Korean style Minsok (Folk) Hotel in Kaesong and the Pyramidal Hyangsan Hotel near Mount Myohyang
How many tourists go to North Korea every year?
It is estimated that less than 2000 western tourists visit DPRK every year and although this number is rising it is still an exclusive club to be a member of. There are 20 - 30,000 Chinese visitors a year, many of them do not go to Pyongyang but the most common other tourists that you are likely to see will be Chinese. Occasionally we meet a group of American Marines in DPRK who are there on the MIA/POW mission (retrieving the remains of US soldiers killed in the Korean War) which is always interesting as they are perhaps the last people you expect to meet in Pyongyang!
Is there an expat community in North Korea?
There are now as many as a few hundred resident foreigners in Pyongyang, most of them are Russians or Chinese from their large embassies there but also Embassy staff from all the other countries including an increasing amount of Europeans, a lot of NGO workers and UN, World Food Programme, etc staff and assorted others including 3 English teachers at Kim Il Sung University, a Bank Manager, and even the one remaining US defector to DPRK, Pyongyang's longest serving foreign resident and the subject of our next documentary film 'Crossing the Line'.
Have there been any changes in recent years?
Since 2002 some economic reforms took place moving the Won (DPRK currency) to a more market oriented valuing system; as a result of this people are now expected to pay for many services and in return they are paid money for working. This has meant that things like small kiosks along the streets selling items such as bread and drinks have started popping up and North Korea's first official market has opened in Pyongyang with more planned. These changes may not seem like much from the outside but they are fairly radical when viewed in the context of the DPRK. It is difficult to know how far these reforms will be continued if at all.
Will I be spied on?
Despite claims in various newspapers it seems to us (although we don't know for sure) very unlikely indeed that the Koreans would bug the hotel rooms of western visitors. Paranoid fantasies aside, what can the average visitor possibly have to say that would be of interest to the Korean authorities? If they want to hear a foreign viewpoint on something they can watch BBC World News in the hotel! Nevertheless as in all places in DPRK it is best to restrain your criticisms until having left the country. Phone calls and postcards made and sent from DPRK should be treated as not secure.
Will the guides try to brainwash me?
The guides, like all North Koreans, have very strong beliefs which probably differ quite starkly from most tourists, however they will not try to brainwash you for perhaps the simple reason that their system of 'Juche' socialism is intended for those of Korean blood only. They are not into spreading world revolution through the mouths of their handful of western visitors. They express their beliefs and faiths very strongly and these are held universally throughout the DPRK so it is both impolite and futile to argue certain points with the Koreans. Something to remember when visiting is that they will not try to brainwash you, so don't try to 'liberate' their minds in return, it would only breed resentment and cause irritation.
What are the guides like?
We work with a small core of the best guides available, they are employees of KITC (Korea International Travel Company) and range in age from early 20's to late 40's. They are all fluent English speakers (we can also provide guides who speak French, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and other languages) and have a lot of experience in dealing with foreigners. We can say honestly that they are good people, great fun and as normal as you can get…. not the robotic 'minders' you may be expecting.
What are the trains and planes like? Are they safe?
First the trains; there are 4 to 7 international trains a week (seasonal) between Beijing and Pyongyang and back again, some are Chinese and some are Korean, they are more or less the same. There is only one class of accommodation available for the 24 hour journey and that is soft sleeper class meaning 4 beds to each berth, 12 berths to each carriage. Each carriage has 2 western style toilets and a samovar for boiling water available for the whole trip. The trains are safe and although the 2 international carriages are attached to a very large local train when in China only the international passengers can get into the international carriages so there is nobody wandering around who shouldn't be.
Note that there is not a passenger train to Vladivostok at the time of writing, this service has been suspended.
Air Koryo is the oficial airline of DPRK.
The Planes are modern Russian models, usually a Tupolev TU-204 (for the charter flight to Paekdusan a small Antonov 12 is used). They have a perfect safety record and are well maintained and the western diplomatic staff in Pyongyang use them and so do various pilots we have taken in and they love them!. The seats are pretty comfortable with moderate space in economy class but it is possible to upgrade to business class and after all the longest flight you can take with Air Koryo is only one and a half hours. Food is served on the flights and magazines and newspapers and handed out for free. There are 5 flights a week to Beijing, 2 to Shenyang (In North East China) and one to Vladivostok in Eastern Russia. Occasionally there are charter flights also to Hong Kong, Macau and to Bangkok but not as often as Air Koryo's timetable claims them to be. Air China is also available for independent tours 3 times a week.
Can I write about my trip?
North Korea does not issue visas to journalists except in special circumstances where they are invited by the authorities. Occasionally this restriction is relaxed and we are able to take journalists, if you are a journalist wanting to go then please contact us and we can try on your behalf or we can add your name to a list to be informed as and when you are permitted to go. In the past some journalists have tried to sneak in to DPRK by submitting false details, when this happens the company they travel with is held responsible and there are grave consequences. Please do not compromise our work in North Korea. We require each of our tourists to sign a form stating that they will not publish any articles about the tours without our express permission, we are required to insist upon this by DPRK law. If you are interested in writing a travelogue or report on the tour for a personal website or something similar then we have no problem with this as long as you discuss it with us beforehand and have our written agreement.