I’ve had a lot of questions about gaining entrance into the DPRK and experiencing the level of access that I had. I think it’s possible for most people, but there’s special things you need to do, including how you behave–or else the country will become shut off to you, and your trip will not be enjoyable.
The first thing I’m going to discuss are ethical dilemmas of going to North Korea, then how to get in, and finally how to behave once you arrive.
Ethical or Moral Problems
There are two reasons NOT to visit North Korea. The first is that you are supplying revenue to the DPRK. The same government that massacres its own people in concentration camps. The second reason is because reports suggest North Koreans can be sent to the concentration camps in question for interacting and having fun with Western tourists.
I would say it would be wrong to visit the country as early as two years ago. Today, I have a strong feeling that the country desperately wants tourism, and it is inevitable that tourism brings Western influence. For them, economic reform is more important than the consequences of imperialist influence. They have placed a huge amount of their struggling GDP in recent years investing into their own tourist infrastructure. I know they’re nuts, but I don’t think they’d compromise their tourism revenue by hauling away North Koreans who inevitably interact with Westerners.
I personally feel supplying the DPRK with revenue is worth the opportunity to help expose the reclusive country to the world beyond their shores. This is a very important step that will lead to the subsequent generation of North Koreans assuming power, and perhaps reforming their country with an understanding that the rest of the world is not so bad.
In addition, there’s a small chance their new leader King Jung Un is telling the truth, and that his priority is to bring an economic recovery to stop the famine in his country. If that’s the case, I think it’s a good thing to help their economy. However, be mindful that if North Korea had more money, they may only use it to perpetuate more evil in the country. So, it’s your judgment call.
Reasons to go There
It’s irresponsible to go to North Korea just to chortle at their Kim-cult and point and laugh at the strange customs of North Koreans. Unfortunately, I feel some people go to the country with this mind-set. Those that do find the country is off-limits and very unpleasant. It’s no surprise.
You should go there specifically to connect with the people and make a positive difference, or else you are wasting your time and missing the point. If you just want to create another sensational amateur documentary repeating the same themes about how terrifying the place is, don’t go. If all you see are the negative sides of the country, then you need to learn how to connect with people and look past what’s on the surface.
Certain Western tourists, especially Americans, Canadians and British, have a reputation abroad of being very disconnected when they travel to new cultures. In other words, we tend to hang our heads out of tour-buses, snap intrusive photos, and interact like we are aliens in space-suits learning about some bizarre, primitive race of people.
This is not how you should travel, and especially not in the DPRK.
Finally, you cannot enter if you belong to a major news organization, like CNN, or MSNBC, or if you’re a known journalist. They don’t want journalists to come in disguised as tourists. You can still be a journalist in the country if you go through a different route, but it’s certainly harder than entering the country as a tourist.
With all of this taken into consideration, now we can talk about going to North Korea.
I went in with Koryo Tours. I began exploring the options roughly 5 months before our departure. This was important, not only do their limited tours book up fast, but there’s a lot you need to do before you go.
The first thing you should do is be in touch with other people going. Our group had a Facebook page setup. We had others who had been there previously, and this was a great way to get help and have questions answered.
If you are American, or Japanese, you can now go to North Korea. There is some considerations, for instance you cannot take a train into the country. But, you can still enjoy the same levels of access.
Ask the awesome employees of Koryo Tours if they have any “off the beaten path” tours available. They sometimes provide these. They have a great connection with the country, and certain tourists are given access to cool places that few other people go to. Showing enthusiasm about this is the best way to land on a more exclusive tour package, as well as by asking months in advance.
You will need to do a variety of things before you go, including applying for a double entry Chinese visa. You will also need a fresh new passport photo for your specialized North Korean passport that will be provided through the tour company. You will be given materials to study about the country, and various other things leading up to the trip.
You will need to book your own flight to Beijing. I suggest staying somewhere like the San Li Tun Hostel (just look it up at Hostelworld). This hostel is in walking distance to the Koryo Tour group office. I’d book a couple of days there in advance and maybe check out Beijing a little bit first because it’s a cool (albeit smoggy) city. It’s nice to be in walking distance to their office because you don’t want to miss their important informational meeting because you got stuck in Beijing traffic.
That being said, if you hang out in Beijing, avoid rush hour at all costs, and always negotiate flat rates with Chinese cab drivers or else you’ll get meter-raped. Actually, the Chinese love negotiating, so don’t feel shy. The city was a little intimidating at first, but I found it to be very pleasant, especially the airport.
Arriving in North Korea
At some point you’ll be taken back to Beijing airport, and you’ll have to catch a flight with Koryo Air, the North Korean airliner.
Some of their planes are apparently fossils from the Soviet Union, but ours was quite “normal”. A little cramped, and the staff are less concerned about things like safety regulations (seatbelts? who cares, put them on if you want, pussy!), but it’s not a bad airliner by any means.
You’ll arrive at a huge military warehouse that’s their equivalent of an international airport. If you’ve been paying attention to the rules about entering the country, you won’t have problems here. You’ll want to make sure that you packed fairly basic stuff. The more strange digital devices you have, the more paranoid they’ll get. I had a simple global plug adapter that an officer at the airport got really suspicious about. After some translation difficulties, he figured out what it was, and laughed at himself for being so paranoid about it. I imagine if I had something hard to identify, like an external hard-drive, it would have caused some difficulty.
You can bring a laptop. They had no problems with my tiny netbook. A professional camera is fine, too. But, you must make sure it has no GPS capabilities, or it will end up getting held at the airport until you leave. Not good. In addition, no cell phones are allowed. Yours will be held until you return. I had mine held, and it was returned to me without any problems.
Overall, North Korean customer service at this airport was not bad, despite how intimidating the place looks. The female customs officers were way more friendly than, say, Los Angeles International, or even Beijing. The guys appear a little more stone-cold, but they’re actually pretty chilled once you get to know them. If you feel tense, just smile and wave at one of the ladies, and once they start blushing you’ll immediately feel less tense about being around North Koreans.
Behaving in North Korea
The next part is extremely important. There needs to be a consensus among yourself, and your group, how to act while you’re in North Korea. If one or two people are severely out of line, the quality of your experience is going to go way, way down.
Remember how I mentioned to stay in touch ahead of time over Facebook? This is one of the most important reasons why. Everyone needs to be on the same page and agree to be on their best behavior. The reason is because you most definitely want to befriend your tour guides, and any other official. The more they like you, the more your access to the country goes up, until you can practically do anything you want. But, this must be a very slow process.
The reason people report such negative experiences in the country is because the government tries to shut off tourists who “don’t get it”. They clamp down on their photo-taking abilities, limit their tours and they make the whole thing very impersonal. Certain tourists have described their guides as “gestapo”, and i have no doubt this is a reflection of their own poor behavior in the country.
What NOT To Do
- Take photos of stuff that paints the country in a bad light. If you travel in New York City, and you encounter a dead homeless guy under a bridge, would you take photos? No. Don’t do the same in North Korea. Their justification is that too many tourists come back trying to hype up the negative sides of the country, and this hurts their image and tourist revenue. I actually agree with them.
- Take photos of North Koreans without asking. It’s not that you’re not allowed to take photos of, or with, North Koreans. It’s just that pushy tourists think they can do it without asking first. You simply consult your tour guide to see if the people would like a photo, and then you snap it. As the tour guides become more and more comfortable, it will become more possible to take spontaneous shots of citizens and North Korean lifestyles.
- Take photos of North Korean infrastructure. This includes military sites, harbors, etc. The reason is because the U.S. and other countries send spies into the DPRK fairly regularly, and they often arrive disguised as tourists. Their purpose is to chronicle their infrastructure locations. They have perfect reason to be paranoid about this.
- Ask sensitive questions. You can learn more about North Koreans by getting to know them on a personal level. You don’t have to get to know them by asking their opinions about the West, or if they hate Americans, or if they secretly hold a grudge against the Kim family. Such questions are extremely awkward for tour guides, and it will even make them fearful. You can guarantee they’ll shut down from you on a personal basis if you ask things like this. You don’t want this. It will kill your experience in the country.
- Be drunk and obnoxious. You need to be respectful. Don’t cross boundaries or be blatantly impolite.
Things TO do.
- Bring a couple of personal gifts for the guides. IF you have a guy and a girl guide, bring the guy some good alcohol. For our female guide, I brought her a turquoise bracelet from my home state of Arizona. They’re very humble when they receive a gift, they often say nothing and simply accept it. I was a little put off by this, but as it turns out she thought the bracelet was very special and wore it for the rest of the trip.
- Express genuine appreciation for their country. There’s a lot to appreciate, from the beautiful scenery, their historical temples, and even parts of Pyongyang are very nice, including their amazing subway system. You don’t have to swallow the Kim il-Sung kool-aid to like their country, but appreciate their people and culture and they’ll be really happy.
- Joke, be lighthearted. The more you banter, the more they’ll open up to you. It’s amazing the power of being playful. I think this is the single reason our group had great access, and it certainly helped that we had “banter experts” and dating coaches on the trip with us. North Koreans have a good sense of humor. Try to make the experience fun for the tour guides, and they’ll reward you for it.
- When you can, interact with North Koreans. Be, as we called it, an “Ambassador of Fun”. High-five North Koreans in crowded areas, play with children, and bring games and magic tricks to show off. Our tour guides loved that we did this. But, if we hadn’t followed previous steps, I don’t think we’d have been able to do this type of stuff. It’s kind of like being trusted by your girlfriend’s parents.
- This also helps to instill the idea in future generations of North Koreans that westerners = fun, good people. This is a very important message to convey to the country.
- Be respectful. This does not mean kissing Kim il-Sung ass. Respect, to me, is more like a fondness or curiosity about them. Treat them like people, no different than anyone else you meet. Humanity is universal, and no matter how alien your environment is, humans still largely share commonalities. You can joke about things that affect all of us, from the complications of relationships to doing embarrassing stuff when you’re drunk. Find these commonalities, and it will be very beneficial to you.
Going to North Korea as a westerner, especially as an American. places you into an important diplomatic role that you cannot take for granted. Excessive amounts of poorly behaving western tourists will only reinforce their propaganda stereotypes about the rest of the world. Your job is to break past their programming and represent your culture in the best light possible. If you cannot do this, do not go to North Korea.
Support my work chronicling North Korea and other places in the world by becoming a citizen photo-journalist yourself and purchasing a Canon Rebel t3i from my affiliate store below, and I’ll make a tiny percentage of the sale. Buying a good DSLR was one of the best purchase decisions in my life. Even with a cheap lens, I still produce great images on the t3i because this professional grade camera has such a good sensor.