How to visit North Korea

So, you’ve heard all sorts of crazy and weird information about North Korea in the media and now you have a desire to go to there and see how the country actually looks like from inside? Or perhaps you’re a dedicated traveler dreaming about visiting as many countries as possible (if not all of them) and hence DPRK has automatically landed a spot on your bucket list? Or you might simply enjoy visiting non-touristy, original, strange destinations off the beaten path?

 Whatever your motivation is, you might have also heard that traveling to North Korea is extremely difficult if not impossible at all. Well, I’m glad to say that this is definitely not true! While you can’t explore the country on your own, traveling to DPRK with a tour group is a piece of cake and doesn’t take much preparation. And while I usually try to stay away from organized tours, I’ve got to say that the whole notion of travelling in “controlled” environment only makes the entire DPRK experience more unique, so vastly different from other travel destinations on the map.

 
Let’s start from the beginning though and describe step by step how to get ready for your amazing trip to North Korea.
 

1. Choose the tour company

There are literally dozens of tour companies offering tours to DPRK these days. There is one catch though – all of them have to follow the itineraries set by North Korea’s solely national tour operator – Korea International Travel Center (KITC). This means that as soon as you arrive in Pyongyang, all your guides and drivers will be employees of KITC, not of the tour company of your choice.
This means that there is relatively little variation between what different tour companies offer. However, “little” does not mean none at all! The most striking differences are the choice of hotels, amount of sights seen in certain time, “extracurricular” activities (eg. Tasting sessions in the breweries, visiting funfairs etc) and last but not least – price.
 
I usually do my best to travel on a relatively low budget therefore the price was a major factor I took into account when choosing the tour operator. What is more, I ideally prefer the “backpacker-friendly” tour structure, which involves visiting a lot of interesting sights, a bit faster travel pace, doing some cool stuff like swimming or hiking and of course – long fun-packed nights in bars, karaoke joints etc.
That’s why I decided to stick to Young Pioneer Tours. Last time I heard about those guys was around 3 years ago. They immediately caught my attention with their lower prices (by saying ‘lower’, I mean hundreds of Euros cheaper!) and the backpacker-oriented corporate philosophy. Based on the experiences of some of my friends who travelled with YPT to North Korea, all the positive reviews the company received on Tripadvisor were definitely justified.
 
From my personal experience now I can say that YPT are definitely offering excellent value for money. Another crucial thing not everyone mentions is that their relationships with local guides are truly outstanding. For you as a tour member this means that you will probably enjoy a bit more freedom, more photo opportunities and of course, find it easier to befriend your guides and the driver!
 

2. Choose the tour

So, you’ve found the ideal tour company and now it’s time for you to choose which tour you want to join. With so many choices it can indeed be a daunting task to find the itinerary most suitable for you. My personal recommendation is – unless you are really short of time or financial resources, DO NOT go for the shortest, “ultra-budget” options. You will seriously regret not spending more time in DPRK and anyways, 3 days will definitely not be enough to make any friends there or at least get to know the country slightly better.
That’s why I recommend you should go for at least 1-week long trip or even longer. I personally decided to stick to the 12-day long “Summer Tour”. During our trip we visited all the major sights in Pyongyang and on top of that travelled to several exciting destinations around the country such as the DMZ, Kaesong, Sariwon, Nampo, Pyongsong, Wonsan and Mount Myohyang. I have to say I was fully satisfied with the itinerary and the things we did and saw. I doubt I would have been so happy should I have decided to go on a shorter trip.
 
Regarding the cost – since I did some travelling in the Northeast China prior to my visit in DPRK, I joined the tour in the Chinese border city of Dandong and that’s where I also finished the whole trip. This made the whole tour a bit cheaper, saving me 100 Euros worth of return tickets between Beijing and Pyongyang. As a result, including the North Korean visa fee of 50 Euro, I paid in total 1645 Euros for the whole tour.
 

3. Send an email to the tour company

Ok, you know which tour you want to join and now it’s time to secure your place. Or perhaps there are still questions you want to ask. Maybe you want to add the extension to your trip. Or, like me, you are based in China and don’t want to start the tour from Beijing but would rather opt for Dandong or somewhere else? Or you may have tons of other questions concerning safety, equipment allowed, itinerary, quality of beer etc?
No worries! At least speaking from my experience, the tour company will be more than happy to instantly answer all these questions for you. As soon as you declare your interest, they will also send you a set of documents. One of them is the tour booking form. Another one is the leaflet containing all sorts of useful travel info concerning DPRK such as things you can and can’t bring to the country, do’s and don’ts etc. Then there is the North Korean visa form. Don’t freak out – it’s actually very simple and straight-forward to fill in.


 
IMPORTANT – whatever your actual job is, DO NOT EVEN THINK about writing “journalist” in your visa application! “Writer” will probably look much better.
 
The best thing is that the company takes care of your visa application (a very quick and painless process) meaning that unless you really want to visit DPRK embassy (provided there is one near you), there is absolutely no need for you to worry about the application process.
 
The last document is the sort of agreement you need to sign to declare that you will not publish any articles nor photos and videos taken during your trip in any media outlets such as newspapers, TV, news portals etc. However, you are free to publish nearly anything you want on your Facebook or personal blog.
 
NOTE: Do not publish anything (even on your own Facebook) which might be perceived as particularly offensive content. These mainly include the sneaky shots taken in restricted areas such as military checkpoints or – much worse – Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, probably the most “sacred” place in the whole country. Even if you somehow managed to take some sneaky shots in these “no-no” zones, please DO NOT publish them anywhere – you risk putting the travel company and your Korean guides in serious trouble. Keep them for yourself or for the beer drinking sessions with your buddies.

 

4. Send the documents back

As soon as you got all the paperwork from the tour company and received the answers to all your questions, it’s time to fill in and send those documents back. Don’t forget to include the scans (good quality photos are fine) of your passport info page, Chinese visa or residence permit page (if you reside in China) and a passport-type photo of yourself. As soon as you send all the documentation back (no need to print anything – you can fill in all documents, including the visa form and travel agreement pages on your computer) it’s time to…

5. Make a payment

If you book the tour well in advance (more than 30 days before the tour begins), you don’t need to pay the whole sum at once. You can choose to pay the 50% deposit first. There are several ways you can use to transfer the money such as Moneybookers, Paypal, Alipay (Zhifubao), bank transfer or direct deposit. Payments can be made in Euro (Moneybookers), USD (Paypal) or Chinese Yuan Renminbi (Alipay or direct deposit). If you reside in China, the best way is definitely to pay through the direct deposit, since it does not incur any additional fees.
 
On the other hand, if you are abroad and don’t mind paying the whole sum upfront, it is actually the way to go since you pay the relevant transaction fee only once.
 
After finishing the payment, it would be a good idea to send some kind of confirmation to the tour company to expedite the whole process. In my case I simply sent them a photo of the ATM deposit slip.
When everything is confirmed, the company will send you the official PDF invoice to your e-mail address. And now, the last thing you need to do is…
 

6. Enjoy your trip!

Yes! This is all! From this point you don’t need to worry about anything. No trips to the embassy, no phone calls, no train or flight bookings, no further preparation. The only thing to do is to get to Beijing (or any other place you’re starting the trip from) on time and join your tour! The tour company might organize the introductory meaning beforehand to explain some more things about traveling to DPRK. However, the attendance not compulsory. Therefore there is no problem if you meet your tour group at the airport or at the train station, just before the tour starts.
 
See you in Pyongyang!

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