HOW TO VISIT
Favorite thing: The KITC have all visits to the DPRK sewn up. Irrespective of who you book your tour though (and you can only go to the DPRK on a tour), you will be going at the invitation of the KITC.
There are numerous companies offering tours to the DPRK. As they are via the KITC all itineraries will be similar and are subject to change the moment you arrive anyway. Therefore choice is mostly down to how reputable the companies are and whether you will be opting for a long or short tour (your finances will dictate this as visiting the DPRK is no cheap excursion!). Koryo Tours (UK based) are one of the most well known, well used agencies as their prices show! I used Korea Konsult, a Swedish based company. They were slightly cheaper, had the same itinerary as some of the bigger companies, had smaller group sizes, were friendly, helpful and spoke perfect English. Going with a Scandinavian company was also a good way of ensuring space in a group with no Americans, Japanese or Chinese. This was important because, being imperialist enemies, the American and Japanese visitors are put on restricted itineraries, as are the Chinese - despite being their ally... and I did not want to be more restricted than I was already going to be!
The tour agency you choose will depend upon your level of involvement in obtaining permission and visas. Documents to confirm you are not travelling for journalistic reasons must be signed, letters from employers to confirm you are who you say you are and you do what you say you do need to be sent off. Usual personal details are required for permission to travel and visa.
As a UK citizen visas were £10 each. Everybody else on our flight had a blue visitors card which was the DPRK visa. However, perhaps because I used an agency outside my home country, I had to go to the DPRK embassy in London, in person to get visas and these were placed in our passports - this was something the DPRK passport control had not seen before (they were puzzled) and neither had our guide. However, there were no difficulties - a visa is a valid visa whatever its format. If you have to go to the embassy to collect be prepared - the embassy is a house and is not open at all times for business like other embassy's. It was a rather comical business but relatively straight forward and easy, once arranged. If using an agency in another country, a bank transfer will have to be made for payment. It is important, due to the sanctions in place, not to mention North Korea or DPRK.
Entry into the DPRK is via China - either by rail (unless you are an imperialist enemy - American) or flight, from Beijing. Some agencies have a contact at the airport to help their passengers clear check-in and get them to Pyongyang. Korea Konsult (thank goodness) did not feel the need to babysit us and so travel from Beijing to Pyongyang was the same as travelling to anywhere else.
NB: Beijng airport, especially control to DPRK, is very strict on lithium batteries (eg camera batteries). Each passenger may carry a MAXIMUM of 2 batteries and these must be wrapped and apart from each other. They may not go in the hold. They were very strict about this. Each item for the hold goes through a scanner and people were being told to remove them. The queues to check in (because of this security) are long and so there is time to rejig luggage as necessary.
I was told very specifically that 150mm was the biggest lens I could carry into the DPRK but there were also rumours that, being so strict on photography, anything looking too professional could be subject to confiscation on arrival. I erred on the side of caution and took a 135mm lens. On arrival NOBODY bothered to even look at my camera! I also had a tiny video camera with a powerful lens - I thought that would definitely be confiscated... but they were uninterested! All visitors were wandering around wielding Canons and Nikons and my lens was definitely not the biggest I saw!
Mobile phones are now allowed in the DPRK. On arrival mobile phones were removed from us. I don't know if they logged them, checked them??? but they were given straight back to us with no problems whatsoever.
before landing you have to complete entry cards. One is for official purposes (name, passport number etc...), One is for customs (how much money and in which currencies, rings, phones, cameras etc...) and the third one (which you hand in as you enter the airport building) is about any diseases you have/have had. When it asks - KITC are the people who invited you.
Once you have been processed through the airport your KITC guides will be ready to meet you and whisk you onto the bus that will almost be your home for the duration of your stay! You will need to surrender your passport, visa and travel documents to your guide. Your guide will then reconfirm your travel arrangements back out of the country and ensure your passport have the correct stamps and dates ready for exist... of course, it also mean you are not free!!!
North Korea best country to travel in ever!
Favorite thing: The DPRK (North Korea) is the single greatest hidden gem in travel, and Juche Travel Services is the only way to see it, hands down. For what is probably the most fascinating place one could ever have the opportunity to visit, the DPRK sure gets a bum wrap. Hard to really put the experience into words, but I’ll give you a bit of an idea about what you can expect, if you make the correct decision to go.
I can say without any hesitation, it was the most amazing country I've ever been to, and the probably the most amazing country still in existence. One could easily stay for a month or more; after that you still probably won’t be tired of it yet, but you will most likely start getting used to a lifestyle and reality that is dramatically different to what you will eventually have to return home to, all the pity. I was there for 9 days, and already seriously regret not signing up for the 16 day tour.
Jammed packed does not begin to describe your experience. They pack so much stuff into every day that you will be booked solid from 7am to 11pm at least, but strangely, you won’t ever really feel tired. This is certainly due to the fact that there is absolutely none of the stress that is usually part of a normal travel experience. Luckly, the DPRK is anything but normal. Unlike every other country in the world, where you are treated like little more then chattle, herded about, scammed, prodded, hassled and depleted, in the DPRK you are treated as prized visitors who will share your experience with the world. The government, your KITC guides and David at Juche Travel Services work their butts off to make sure you have such an amazing time that you not only return, but that you bring back 10 people with you. Go now dammit, before the DPRK becomes just another Thailand, full of lame one size fits all tours and drunk Cagney Brits!
In the DPRK you don't have to think about anything from the moment you step on the awesome flying museum that greets you in Beijing, to the moment it drops you safely back in the real world. David from Juche and your KITC guides painstakingly stay up till 3am every night taking care of EVERYTHING, VIP all the way.
This is a simplified rundown of a daily schedule that could just be yours.
Some really nice gal calls you up about 7:30 for a wake up call, urging you into the day with a questioning, “it is time to get up?” Occasionally you also get a rather curt, “get up!” from a rather harsh sounding gentleman, but this is quite rare. After you are awake, you just ride the elevator down to the dinning room for breakfast, which is an all you can eat buffet of really decent food, Kim Chi always included. You’re going to be a big fan of the yogurt drink, which may or may not come from a goat. You really don’t ever have to think about what you are going to eat… or really worry about indecision during your trip. They decide for you! The great food and damn fine beer are all just waiting for you when you get to the restaurant. To top it off, the meal is often accompanied by a live performance by beautiful gals in their early 20’s. As a matter of fact, the majority of your human interactions with, and the people serving and entertaining you, are incredibly attractive young North Korean gals. From a tourist’s perspective, they seem to be the fabric of society, doing everything from playing the best damn harp/drums/accordion/flute/etc. you ever heard, to ushering train cars into the station or guarding a parking lot with a polished AK-47.
Communism is awesome and you should take advantage of it while you still can. Full employment means full service! You don’t want to do it? No problem, they got someone to do everything! Who wants to call their own elevator after a night of local sucho and karaoke? No worries there, they got a guy 24 hours just sitting in front of each elevator waiting to serve your button pressing needs. Want someone to organize all your belongings in your room into neat little piles while your gone during the day? You won’t see her, but you’ll see her handy work! They got someone to pour your drinks, cut your meat, lick your stamps, butter your bread and tell you how good you look in your custom made President Kim Jong Il suite!
Back to the schedule-
After breakfast, you walk 10 feet to the comfy new bus, where you are whisked off to all the sights you will see that day. Not wanting to inconvenience you with even the thought of unnecessary exercise, they drive that bus right up to every single attraction, and I mean RIGHT ON UP! If you’re visiting a children’s school, they will drive over the playground to drop you at the door to each classroom, going about 45MPH with the horn blaring, as panic stricken adorable children in little sailor uniforms take flight for their lives.
And forget about lines, you never wait for anything, ever! When going to see a bear in a sailor uniform riding a bicycle while looking though binoculars show (yup!), the whole event waits for you. You are saved the best seats in the house, right in front (just behind the generals) and the concert does not start until you are seated…with the whole show, including the 300 people in the audience probably waiting in position about an hour for you to arrive. After the show, the audience stays in their seats and waits until you exit first. Folk, this is the kind of treatment only a president or foreign dignitary gets in most countries, and you certainly won’t find anything close anywhere else, including the Four Seasons in some boring tourist trap like Europe or Hawaii.
After the show, you are whisked off to a BBQ in the park, which has nicely been all prepared for you in advance, including the ice cold local beers in the cooler, which are fetched and poured by some very attractive gal, who also turns your skewers on the BBQ at your table. After she has seen to your every culinary need, she proceeds to produce an accordion and so begins your private concert. Did I mention she is an accordion protégée who has been studying since the age of 5….yup, that good. At this point, a couple more lovely gals emerge out of nowhere and start dancing and singing for you. It’s just that good.
From there your motorcade hits the road, off to the next attraction! You’re running a bit late from your leisurely BBQ, where you had a bit too much to drink, but no worries, your bus takes a 90-degree turn at 45 mph onto a 10-lane highway for your trip to a much anticipated turtle farm. With 10 lanes, only one other car in sight, no speed limits and a bus driver who really knows where the gas peddle is, you can just sit back, take in the rolling corn fields and know everything is going to be just fine.
Not only will you learn all sorts of interesting things about raising turtles for human consumption, but you also get to pick out your very own turtle, to be taken back and prepared for you by a chef who “majored in turtle food”.
The guides have taken it upon themselves to keep your turtles on liquid for you on in the bus until tomorrow, to preserve freshness of course. But, just maybe you want to go a different route in terms of interim turtle storage. Unlike the rest of the world, in the DPRK the customer is still the boss. Being no stranger to an odd request or two, the guides are more then willing to accommodate your desire to bring the turtles up to your hotel room so that you can turn your bathtub into an aquatic habitat. In fact, the hotel staff don’t even bat an eye when you plop down your see-though netted turtle sack on the counter and ask for a laundry price list; nor does the elevator attendant look twice when tomorrow’s lunch starts hissing when startled by the opening elevator doors. The service is just that good.
After dinner, it’s on to the Arirang Mass Games, VIP entrance of course. Honestly, your life sucks and you ain’t seen anything worth anything till you’ve seen the Arirang Mass Games. Never again in the history of the world will you get to sit in the world’s largest stadium and see 120,000 performers putting on a synchronized theatro-gymanstic performance with lock-step unity and precision. Entering the stadium, hearing the chanting and watching the endless stream of performers take the field, the power of it puts the hair on the back of your neck on end and restores your faith in any belief. Believe what you will, capitalism is incapable of creating this type of display or energy, it would never be financially profitable or possible. You may not agree with the DPRK, but after being lucky enough to see it, you won’t ever disagree that the Arirange Mass Games are the most amazing thing in the world. It never hurts to pay a little extra for your ticket and sit next to the generals either, the show was meant to be seen from the center-front… and you get iced coffee.
A bit about David and Juche Travel Services, especially in regards to the other tour choices. Not having gone on the other tours, but seeing them from a distance and meeting those who did while drinking heavily at the hotel basement Karaoke bar, I am more than able to comment on their quality vs. Juche. If you want the Wall-Mart, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, drain all the fat off the bacon sort of experience, please, by all means go with the other operators, like Koryo. Let them take you to the places where no one smiles. If on the other hand, you want a personalized, we’ll work our darndest to make all your strange and outlandish desires possible sort of experience, with service from an awesome team led by a great British fellow who takes down the frothy cold mugs with you, choose Juche Travel Services. David is the kind of guy who knows what he’s doing, knows the really interesting stuff about the DPRK (especially the really interesting stuff we read about on Wikipedia) but is not uptight and makes the whole experience more of a trip with old friends then a group of strangers.
Fondest memory: Now say goodnight to your turtles and go to sleep, cause you’ve got another packed day starting at 7:30 am tomorrow and it’s likely to be the most amazing day of you life, only to be exceeded by the day after that, and the day after that, until you leave the DPRK and return to the real world and your boring life making other people rich.
Also, cigarettes are nice, but bring some tasty rare candy bars to give out to the friendly and warm people of the DPRK.Related to:
- Historical Travel
- Adventure Travel
Favorite thing: That really depends on what you search out by matter of tour company.
If you do a self guided tour, costs will be outrageous.
But most people tour DPRK with a group, and are escorted at all times. While in DPRK, you may only spend between $0 ~ $100 USD. That is a factor of how many snacks you buy, souvenirs (options are limited) and alcohol you drink.
All costs associated with a DPRK trip are typically paid up-front in a package rate before you travel.
5-day tours range from $700 ~ $2000 USD. This includes transit from China, hotels, transportation, meals, etc. Add the cost of transit to/from China from where you are. Americans were previously charged a premium for these tours, making it around the $2000 mark. Europeans were in the next bracket about $1200~1500. And other Asians were about $700. But if the rumors are true as of 2010, Americans were be charged the same as Europeans, dropping the cost several hundred dollars.Related to:
- Historical Travel
Tips about visiting as an American
Favorite thing: The following was taken from a forum question reply in regards to visiting as an American.
1. Cost - your trip will be a prepaid package. Americans are in the highest price bracket and it will be ~$1500 (from Beijing). That includes airfare, hotels, meals, everything. The only spending money you'll need is for the souvenir (if you find anything other than postcards or books) and drinks at the hotel.
2. Reactions to Americans - They think that Americans are the infidel. Many of the hard nosed ones would wipe us out if they could. While most of our tour was cordial, one guy was spit upon while on the sidewalk.
3. Group or solo - You will not be requested to share a room if you book a solo package, but you will be with a group during the days. The largest I saw was probably about 12 people. You'll be returned to the hotel about ~6pm, at that point you're free to do what you want, provided it is in the hotel.
4. Favorite part - I spent over 3 years in South Korea. My favorite part was to see the polarities between the two as they have evolved.
5. Dress code - DPRK is one of the most conservative countries I've been to. All locals will be wearing black or sometimes grey. If you're paying for the tour, they will tolerate to some extent, but it is not prudent to be loud in your appearance.
6. Food - Have you ever eaten Korean food? That's all you'll get. Snacks only if you buy them from the hotel gift shop or the department store if you can get your guides to stop there. Beer is limited, but is a basic pilsner.
7. Guides - our guides were cordial and helpful. They have been screened and groomed to deal with foreigners. They will not tolerate any negative remarks, but will attempt to answer any questions you have. I found that behind closed doors, they did show a bit more curiosity about western life, but they cannot dare show this in public view.
8. Internet/phone - Both are illegal in DPRK. Your cell phone will be confiscated upon arrival and only returned upon departure. Your hotel may allow you to send an email, but that means you draft it, they read it, then send it from their address. Cost will be several dollars.
Travel Company to use
Favorite thing: Not long back from the DPRK and went with Korea Konsult as previously mentioned.
No matter which company you go with, its pretty much the same schedule (if you check the days etc as ones from Dandong for example can have roughly the same days but remember their is a lot of travelling taken off that)
Korea Konsult were good although it would have been good to have a "western" guide as well as the North Koreans who had done the trip several times. (they can interpret a little better as they would know whats going on and also ask for parts of trips which may not always happen if theres bad weather etc. (koryo had a Brit and and American with them).
Otherwise, Korea Konsult were excellent in their correspondence and on the other tour which accompnaied us, they had one rep.
Fondest memory: How weird it can be!!!
Outwith that, the Mass Games are absolutely amazing and worth it alone for the trip.
Adaptor plugs in N Korea
Favorite thing: N Korea uses 220V, 60Hz
Typical outlet will be the 2-pin outlet with side grounding:
This will universally accept the European 2-pin plug:
Phone, email and internet
Favorite thing: When I was there, the hotels would send emails for you. You could compose the emails, but they would be sent from their address and no doubt be read for content before sending. There was no access to internet as I know of.
Phone calls were possible from the hotels, but not from within the rooms (you had to go to the concierge desk). Phone call rates were extraordinarily high (nearly $5 USD per minute).
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Guides at attractions
Favorite thing: At a few places that we visited we were met by female tour guides who showed us around. We basically turned up at the doorstep in our bus at each attraction and were shown around by these guides. Some spoke English and some just Korean which was then translated into English for us by either one of our government appointed tour guides.
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Kim's are always watching
Favorite thing: One thing you'll notice everywhere you go in North Korea is that there'll always be at least one Kim looking down on you whether it be Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il or both. I first noticed this whilst walking around a Children's palace shortly after we had arrived from Beijing as their portraits were in all of the classrooms. They're even in every single train carriage on the Pyongyang metro! Most public buildings will also have their portraits hanging from the walls.
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The 'Great' & 'Dear' leaders
Favorite thing: You will hear and read about these two terms given to each of the Kim’s. The 'Great Leader' refers to Kim Il Sung (1912-94). He was Prime Minster of the DPRK from 1948 to 1972 and then President from 1972 until his death in 1994. Following his, he was not replaced but instead received the designation of "Eternal President". This means that no other person can ever be president and, as such, means that he still is president even though he is dead. This means he is the world's longest serving head-of-state.
The term 'Dear Leader' is given to Kim Il Sung's son Kim Jong Il (born either in 1941 or 1942), depending on what reports you believe. As his father is always president, his official titles are: Chairman of the National Defence Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army and General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea. In essence he is Leader of the DPRK. Since he is not the president, he is not constitutionally required to hold elections to confirm his legitimacy and has not done so. He is a reclusive man who rarely appears in public and reports indicate that he is seriously ill, having missed the 60th Anniversary of the DPRK celebrations in September 2008.
Video of your trip
Favorite thing: This was our tour cameraman whose name I've forgotten but who I nicknamed Mr Spielberg, during the tour. He came along with us wherever we went during our week in North Korea and filmed us visiting attractions and eating in restaurants. I was warned about this sort of thing before I left Beijing. When we arrived in Pyongyang, we were introduced to him and it was mentioned that we could buy a 2xCD set of our tour that he had filmed for €40. At first I and other tour members were a bit wary of his motives but then I thought, where else in the world would you get your own private cameraman filming you visiting a country for a week and then be able to buy that film for €40? We watched what he was filming and bought the CD's and he became a friend to us all even though he didn't speak any English.
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Favorite thing: Your tour itinerary will have been created, and therefore approved, by the state owned tourism organisation called "Ryohaengsa". This will then be posted on whichever travel agents website you choose to go with. There are only a handful of travel agents around the world that are allowed to offer trips into North Korea. I choose a Swedish company called Korea Konsult for a couple of reasons: Firstly they happened to offer a tour around the time I was going to be in Beijing (after travelling around China for a few months) and, secondly, their prices were slightly cheaper than other travel agents but still offered the tour that I wanted. Other travel agents include: Koryo Group (the most popular DPRK travel agent based in Beijing), VNC Travel (based in the Netherlands) and Regent Holidays (based in the UK).
On our first morning in North Korea, we all sat with our two tour guides (who will be with you everywhere throughout your trip) and went over a finalised version of the tour itinerary. Only the odd couple of attractions were dropped from the original travel agent itinerary and these were replaced with other "suitable" attractions. However, the whole running order of the itinerary was completely re-scheduled and our two tour guides outlined exactly where we would visit and when. I've put a day-by-day account of what and where we visited as part of the tour itinerary on one of my travelogues which I hope is of some use as to what to expect.
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Favorite thing: The North Korean currency is called the won and it is possible to obtain it when in North Korea but you can't spend it. Think of it as a souvenir. When I first arrived at the Yanggakdo Hotel, I noticed a small sign beside the reception counter saying "Exchange". My guide book (Lonely Planet) had said that it wasn't possible to exchange money for the won but along with the Exchange sign, there was also a list of foreign currencies and their exchange rates typed out on a piece of paper housed in a plastic holder. I changed 10 Chinese RMB for 175.10 won and received crisp, new notes and coins back. I was rather chuffed by this and went to tell other members of my tour party. The rates are the "official" rates but we all met an Italian guy working for UNICEF on the train back to Beijing who said that the unofficial black market rate was €1 = 4,000 won when the official rate was €1 = 192 won!
Even though it is possible to exchange for North Korea won, you can't actually spend it anywhere. I tried to approach a stall outside the Foreign Language Bookshop near the Kim Il Sung square but all I got was a horrified look on the face of the lady at the stall. Buying something with local money is a definite no-no. Take with you Euro's, US dollars or Chinese RMB and take these in small denominations as it can be quite an event to get the right change back (basically in whatever they have lying around). Practically everything was priced in Euro's.
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Visa and travel arrangements
Favorite thing: When you sign up for a tour via your travel agents website, you will have to complete and sign a visa application form for the DPRK. The details on this may be checked by your travel agent and then probably checked by the officials in Pyongyang. Your travel agent will also need a photocopied photo of you and your passport. After everything was sent I then paid for the trip and that really was that - all there was to it!
What I did was to pick up my visa in Beijing before my trip as I was in China for a few months before my trip to North Korea. My travel agent (Korea Konsult) emailed me details of where and when to go and collect the visa (basically from a North Korean guy in a hotel, the day before I was due to fly out to Pyongyang). I did this without any problems. He also gave me my flight ticket to Pyongyang, so that was all there was to it as far as the travel arrangements were concerned. Oh, by the way, you won't get the chance to keep your visa as they take them away from you before you leave.
Favorite thing: FYI, obtaining North Korean Won is illegal for foreigners. If you want some, you will have to sweet talk one of your guides, or tip them very well (but discretely).
For money collectors, currency bills can be found in Dandong China tourist shops.
Any place that you can purchase goods in DPRK will do the exchange calculation on the spot. They accept RMB, EUR or USD. Your change will be given back in the same currency as your payment.
As of 2003, USD is no longer the federal reserve security, so the USD will not get the best exchange value. Euros will give you slightly more advantageous exchange rate.
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Pyongyang, North Korea
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Staying in Yanggakdo Hotel is the most freedom you will experience in Pyongyang. You are allowed to...more
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