Alright, let’s get this out of the way –
Yes, you can visit North Korea (or officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – DPRK). Yes, we have personally visited for 10 days without any issues. And no, it’s not quite as out-of-reach as you might imagine.
However, you can’t visit independently. You can only visit North Korea as an organized group with specialized tour agencies that (usually) operate out of China.
So, this means you can’t “backpack” in North Korea alone. And during your trip, you’ll always be accompanied by your local guides every time you leave your hotel.
While this means that visiting North Korea isn’t the cheapest of destinations, it is possible to visit semi-on-a-budget. And if you’re like me and you’ve read my article about the The 5 Best Tour Group Companies for International Travel, you’ll know that I like to travel independently (or backpacking-style) not only because it saves A LOT of money, but also because I think it’s a more genuine form of travel than going with an organized tour.
But in the case of North Korea, “you have to take what you can get!”
Knowing this, we did a LOT of research into the options for visiting the world’s most isolated country and found the cheapest, most laid-back option: Young Pioneer Tours.
PS: Down below, you’ll find a special bonus code for Young Pioneer Tours that’ll give you some cool freebies when you make your booking.
But first, the question that’s on everyone’s mind: “isn’t it dangerous to travel to North Korea?
Is it dangerous to visit North Korea?
In short, no.
During our year living in South Korea, we heard a ton of stories about North Korea and its dangers for visitors. That tourists weren’t welcome. That once inside, we couldn’t get out. That if we took a photo where we shouldn’t, we’d be thrown in a concentration camp.
So naturally, we were a bit hesitant. We had heard of other foreigners being detained (some who were American – just like Nikki). Besides this, there was all that “blah, blah, blah” from the North Korea leader (Kim Jong-Un) about “destroying the American imperialists without mercy!” But we quickly realized this is more political propaganda for the internal public of the country, and not stuff that affects visitors.
And after a lot of research (and a long conversation with Young Pioneer Tours), we saw that it was definitely possible to visit without too much hassle or safety concerns.
Here’s the thing – if you go to North Korea, you aren’t going to have any of the usual ‘dangers’ a tourist
can have in certain locations. For example, since you’re always with a guide in a country with almost no crime, you’re definitely not going to be robbed, scammed, mugged, etc. And if you’re considering those sort of things as dangers, then the DPRK is probably one of the safest countries to visit as a tourist.
If being detained is your concern, there’s really no need to worry here. During your brief in Beijing, your tour company will cover all the rules you need to know ahead of time. And no, you aren’t going to get detained just because of your nationality (remember, Nikki is American and she was fine) or for no reason at all. It’s actually pretty hard to be detained – you’d have to go out of your way to break the rules (none of which are really that hard to follow) that your tour company gives.
Should I visit North Korea? Won’t I be contributing to the “regime”? Is it worth going?
Before leaving, Nikki and I thought a lot about this topic. Our main concern was that the money we paid for the trip would end up in the hands of a leader that is at minimum unscrupulous, which would just help him stay in power.
Maybe it was better to isolate North Korea and leave it to sink alone.
The problem is, it’s not going to sink anytime soon. China does a lot of business with North Korea and, truthfully, the economic system in the DPRK is improving, not getting worse. (Although it still keeps the majority of the population in horrible conditions.)
Besides, North Korea is already the most isolated country in the world and has been since the Korean War in the 50s. So, just trying to isolate it really won’t make any difference as far as regime change goes.
But what is actually going to make a difference in the lives of the North Koreans and bring about some kind of change is if they have contact with the outside world…. and see that the rest of the planet isn’t as miserable and horrible as their leaders make it out to be.
It’s also important to show that us foreigners aren’t the “children-eating enemies” they’re told we are, especially because Nikki is American. And so during our whole trip, we deliberately made sure to be as kind and friendly as possible – to show that we were there to learn about the country and show a bit about ourselves, as well.
And it was obvious to see how curious the North Koreans were about our “modern” clothes, computers, digital cameras, smartphones, and gadgets they weren’t used to.
From this, it’s easy for them to realize that if these foreigners have all these things they have never seen or had themselves, it’s probably because these foreigners have a “better” life than they do in terms of economics and comfort.
In other words, simply letting the North Koreans “see” us gives them pretty solid ‘proof’ that not all their government says is correct. Even if they don’t openly voice these suspicions, it gets the gears churning which is ESSENTIAL to any hope of a changed future.
But for me, the most valuable part of the trip was to “interact” with the North Koreans. In our case, our main points of contact were our wonderful local guides. As we did two different “tours” (one right after the other), we ended up having contact with 5 guides in total. Once again, all wonderful people…and ones who gave us a very humanized perspective of the people of North Korea – which was very different from what you see on the news.
And it wasn’t just the guides. Depending on the type of the excursion, you’ll have the chance to integrate with hotel workers, normal people on the Pyongyang metro, in an amusement park, in a water park, in shops, and on the street.
And yes, for the most part, you are welcome to communicate with the locals.
I also always tried to greet anyone we saw looking at us…including waving to the soldiers. I don’t even need to tell you how cool it was to see a smile open up on a soldier’s face as he returned the wave.
I think that this contact with foreigners is essential for the North Koreans to begin to develop an idea that the world outside their country is much more than what they are taught. And maybe, in this way, in a near future, they will demand the same…which is actually something that might already be starting, but we’ll get to that in another article.
In other words, don’t feel bad about visiting North Korea. It’ll be a great learning experience for yourself and you’ll be contributing to the opening up of the country to the rest of the world. Travel and tourism have a great transformative power, as much for who travels, as for who receives the travelers. The more interaction you have between different people, the better the world will be!
And just a quick detail before the hate comments come: don’t confuse the people of a country with their leaders. Especially because otherwise, thinking about political issues all around the world today, we would have to be critical of the majority of the world’s population.
How to visit North Korea the cheapest way possible (or the closest thing to “backpacking”)
As we already mentioned above, it’s just not possible to backpack in North Korea or visit it independently. But it is possible to do it “relatively” cheaply in a way that wouldn’t be that much more expensive that paying for a tour in Europe or the U.S. for the same amount of time.
Admittedly, if you consider yourself a super budget traveler, it will be more than you are used to. Just think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and one that we found to be worth every penny).
So, you’ll have to pay for a travel package to North Korea through a specialized agency. And as we already mentioned above, after a bunch research, we ended up choosing Young Pioneer Tours.
We chose them as much for the price (they are definitely the cheapest option out there) as well as for their pretty laid-back attitude. Plus, they are geared towards people who aren’t so focused on comfort and service (exactly like us ?).
They’ve also been giving tours for 8 years to the DPRK and, in their words, to other “destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from” like Turkmenistan, Eritrea, Iran, Transnistria (well, I actually visited the last one independently and wrote about it here), and other places of questionable fame. So if you are looking for these kinds of destinations, I recommend you check them out.
To check out the tours, you can go directly to their site, http://www.youngpioneertours.com/, and see all of the options. For DPRK, there are several options with different time periods and itineraries. We did a tour that included the Pyongyang Marathon and then stayed on for a second tour to see other areas beyond the capital.
Mini-guide to visiting North Korea on a budget
- Go to Young Pioneer Tours’ website and choose your tour and dates.
- Contact them through their online chat box, email, Skype, phone, etc…to get extra information and then buy and pay for your excursion. Although they are a British company, their headquarters is in Beijing, China since that is where you will depart from to go to the DPRK.
- Mention the code DPRKOUT during your reservation to get a free t-shirt and a free North Korea guidebook (which, since it was actually created in the DPRK, you can bring into the country with you).
- Begin arranging your Chinese visa and flights early because tours to North Korea leave from Beijing in China (but if you’re going to be in Beijing for less than 72 hours, it’s possible you won’t need a visa…check here for more info).
- Your visa for North Korea will be processed by Young Pioneer Tours.
- Your tour will already include your roundtrip ticket from Beijing to North Korea, either by train or flight, depending on what you choose. (Note: For some reason, Americans aren’t allowed to take the train so they’ll have to fly both ways.)
- You need to arrive in Beijing at least one day before the tour leaves for a brief with your guides and tour group to cover some important information about your trip to one of the most mysterious countries in the world! Some of which we will give you just below…
Important things to know for your trip to North Korea (including issues of behavior)
- There are trips for all types of budgets.
From the cheapest that begins at € 445 euros for 3 days, to longer and more expensive ones that take place during holidays and military parades.
- Almost everything is included in your trip!
As we already mentioned above, almost everything is included in your trip: roundtrip transportation from Beijing to North Korea, hotels for every night, 3 meals per day, and many of the entrance fees. But still bring some extra money for souvenirs, alcohol, and for a few of the activities like the water park and amusement park.
- You and your belongings will be searched when you arrive in the country and (maybe) when you leave, so be careful with what you bring.
Items forbidden to enter North Korea with include: religious books (the Bible, the Quran, etc…), pornography on your computer, books and travel guides about North Korea*, films and documentaries about North Korea (so definitely delete “The Interview” from your computer!), and watches and cameras with GPS (honestly, as long as it doesn’t say GPS in big letters – you’re fine).
- In general, you can take pictures almost everywhere, but it’s always good to ask the guides before.
What we noticed was that they don’t like when you take pictures of military areas and soldiers (honestly, something that’s true in ANY country of the world), areas under construction, or more “poor” people. Basically, the only time they asked me to delete a photo was one I took together with a man on the escalator coming up from the metro. The man was a little more simple and almost looked homeless.
I think they basically don’t want to show the “bad” parts of the country, only the good. Keep in mind that when leaving North Korea, your camera will be searched again to see if you took any forbidden photos. And please respect the guide’s wishes when they ask you to refrain from taking pictures of something – remember, they are the ones who get in trouble if you don’t comply.
- On that note, be observant and take everything in with a grain of salt.
During your trip, they’ll try to show you the ‘good’ things about the country like new buildings and government projects (like crazy big libraries and fancy science centers) plus tell you a ton of stories about the Kim family (the country’s leaders) – basically brain-washing. Be polite and listen, but be smart and try to read between the lines.
Take note of the older buildings (the ones they AREN’T pointing out to you), check out the number of solar panels hanging from apartment windows to deal with the blackouts. Observe what the potholed roads and the total lack of cars outside the capital say about the country’s economy. Spot the people farming with oxen, detect the type of questions that don’t get answered. The list goes on.
- Ask your local guide a lot of questions, but delicately.
Our guides, at the very least, were very open and welcomed our questions (especially after we had spent more time with them). So yes, you can ask questions. Just take note of how you phrase it. For example, instead of “are there concentration camps here?,” ask something like “how does the prison system in North Korea work?” You’ll find you get much better answers this way.
- Try to befriend your local guides.
I’m serious, all of our guides were AWESOME. They drank with us and sang Karaoke! They definitely weren’t the cold, personality-less guides most people expect to have in North Korea. And, if you’re a bit more intimate with them, you can ask about their personal lives and their thoughts about the country, etc…just be subtle, please.
- Know that your trip itinerary within the country can change quickly without any notice.
This is one of the disadvantages of visiting a country where all of your movements are controlled. This happened to us when we were scheduled to visit a North Korean factory. We arrived at the factory’s entrance and waited for about 20 minutes. But, for whatever reason, we weren’t allowed in…and in North Korea, you can’t really sweet-talk your way around those rules. But after us “pestering” our British guide, she arranged a visit to a local English school where we could chat with the students…a pretty uncommon experience for tour groups, to be honest. In other words, don’t get frustrated if your planned itinerary changes a bit…it’s just part of how things work!
- Don’t worry, you’re not being watched and spied on 24/7.
Maybe you’ve heard the rumors that if you visit North Korea, you will be under surveillance constantly and they’ll wire-tap your room. My response: unfortunately, you’re just really not that important and the North Koreans have other things to do. Our group consisted of 3 North Korean guides and one foreign guide from Young Pioneer Tours. Yes, they really are there to “control” you, but these doesn’t mean they are SPYING on you to see if you’re talking badly about the leader or the country.
Obviously, you shouldn’t make heavy criticisms in front of the guides (also remembering that they can get in trouble), but on several occasions, we spoke critically about things amongst ourselves (and with other members of the group) in our hotel, at restaurants, and during our trips without having any problem. So, no need to be paranoid!
- Try to be a part of a tour that includes a trip to the DMZ (the Demilitarized Zone) between North and South Korea.
We had the chance to visit the JSA – the “Joint Security Area” – from both sides of the border. The first time, we visited from the South Korea side. The second time, from the North Korea side. After seeing both sides, I can say that it’s a fascinating and surreal experience. The funny thing is that when you visit from the South Korean side, the American soldiers (who are your guides) won’t let you turn around and take photos of the American/South Korean side. However, when you visit the North Korean side, you can take pictures of an area that was forbidden before because it’s right in front of you. Go figure….
- When you go to North Korea, do NOT call it North Korea.
Just call it Korea or DPRK. Same with the people – don’t call them North Koreans….but just Koreans. They don’t like to separate the Korean peninsula between north and south.
- You’ll also need travel insurance in North Korea!
The problem is that not all companies cover the country. However, WorldNomads covers North Korea so they’re a good option. You can learn more on our page with the 3 Best and Cheapest Travel Insurance on the Market.
In case you missed it above…
BONUS COUPON FOR YOUNG PIONEER TOURS: Mention DPRKOUT when you are booking your tour, and you’ll get a free t-shirt and a North Korean travel guide that was written and published in North Korea*
*The only type of DPRK guides you can bring into North Korea are ones that were actually written there (foreign ones are forbidden), so you can bring this one on your trip with you!
Soon, we’ll add more North Korea articles online with more than 150 photos, an economic/political analysis, surprises from our trip, and much more!
So, stay tuned!
And visit as soon as you can! Who knows what’ll happen to the region in the next years…
Would you ever visit North Korea? Any other questions about this mysterious country? Concerns about safety? Let us know in the comments area below…and remember that we respond to ALL comments!
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