North Korea’s official name is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK. Given that North Korea is under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Il, the official name may be misleading. The country is a mystery to the outside world and its people are reclusive.
Visiting North Korea is nowhere like visiting other Asian countries like its sister South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Tokyo. It’s a place not for the typical tourist who expects first class amenities, lots of places to explore on their own and freedom to just click or snap away with their digital cameras. To become a tourist in North Korea means to give up one’s notion of a grand vacation and all around good time.
This is not to say that it is a country that you should scratch off from your list. In fact, traveling to North Korea should be in a serious traveler’s bucket list. The lifestyle of the people in the country is totally different from the rest of the world. While, communism has fallen in many countries, North Korea continues to be partly communist. According to the CIA FactBook, the country is classified as “communist state one-man dictatorship.”
How to get there
Getting into North Korea is not as easy as travelling to Spain, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt or other countries across the globe. The North Korean government strictly regulates all tourism into the country via the government run Korea International Travel Company. Tours in North Korea are strictly guided. North Korean tour guides are with visitors all the time. Interaction with locals and picture taking are heavily controlled. Tourists have to follow a set itinerary. Deviations are generally not allowed.
Technically, anyone can travel to the country except for South Koreans. South Koreans can be granted special permission but they can only go to specially designated areas. Journalists are also routinely denied entry. There was a time when Americans were not welcome but things have changed. Still, getting a visa into North Korea is not easy. But there are travel agents worldwide that specialize in North Korean tours. They can help would-be visitors secure the right tours, visas and permissions.
What you can see
One of the best times to visit North Korea is in August during the Arirang Mass Games. You will see a show like no other. More than 100,000 North Korean performers participate in impressive choreographed performances that entertain and mesmerize. Another good time to visit is during “The Day of the Sun,” April 15, which commemorates the birthday of Kim Il Sung. During special holidays and events, mass presentations and other performances can be seen.
The places to see in North Korea are the highlights of its capital Pyongyang, the Demilitarized Zone, City of Nampo, Kaesong, Lake Shijung, Mt. Myohyang and a host of other areas of the country. You can learn more about places to visit through the different North Korean authorized tour companies.
The Demilitarized Zone or DMZ is of special interest because this is where the two Koreas come face to face with each other, literally. In fact, when you enter the meeting room where discussions between the North and South are held, the center of the long table lies exactly on the border of the two countries.
Respect is your key to having an uneventful trip
You want your trip to North Korea to be as uneventful as possible. In other words, you don’t want to get yourself, your fellow tourmates or your North Korean tour guide or driver into trouble. Be ready to keep your opinions to yourself and avoid getting into ideological arguments with anyone. Insults against their leaders, their culture, people and way of life are not taken kindly.
The North Koreans are devoted to their deceased eternal president, Kim Il Sung and to his son Kim Jong Il, who sits as head of government. If a visit to a national monument is part of your tour, be ready to bring flowers and bow solemnly in front of Kim Il Sung’s statue. When taking pictures of his statue, make sure to photograph the whole statue. It is best to ask your tourist guide regarding proper decorum in all the places you visit.
You can bring your analog or digital photo-camera into North Korea but not your video camera. Mobile phones can be left at the airport locker. Only laptops without wireless devices are allowed in. MP3 players, CD players and PDAs are likewise allowed. Never bring GPS enabled gadgets, radios, weapons, explosives, drugs, pornography of any sort, mass printed propaganda and of course plants and animals into North Korea. Keep in mind that the immigration authorities will inspect all your things so be prepared.
Going on tour in North Korea is a surreal and unforgettable experience. You will see places and events that the North Korean government wants to showcase. Make the most of your visit but remember that “Big Brother” is watching you all the time. If you are not one to stick to rules don’t bother visiting the country. But if you want a vacation like no other, see North Korea and get a glimpse of a country far different from your own.