Written by Ryan Smith – The Wandering Vegan
The number of questions I’ve encountered both before and after my trip to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (did you know that’s the full name for ‘North Korea’?) has been impressive sometimes. Here are some of the frequently asked questions you may have, may encounter, or may want good answers to for those who will ask them to you as you prepare to go there with YPT sometime in the near future.
What is the process for getting there, and how strict are these things?
The ‘process’ usually means ‘how do I get there’, and the answer is that you must go in an organized tour. It’s a law for foreigners/tourists who aren’t there on official business. YPT takes on all of this for you. Just send in a scan of your passport with the online application, and they’ll set up the visas for you. You just show up at the pre-trip meeting. The process seems strict, but you’re not doing most of the legwork.
Are there any prohibited items?
Yes. There are. Items that are seen as insulting to the locals, culturally taboo, or could interfere with local laws are not allowed. An example of the latter would be a satellite phone or something that could skirt their internet laws. For the first 2, these things can sometimes change, so YPT will give you updated guidance right before your trip to make sure you have the most current information. I had a cell phone for taking pictures and a book to read on the plane (Oliver Twist). None of this posed a problem. Others had laptops, and these were allowed. However, anything that looks like you’re a journalist trying to go on a tourist visa (giant camera lenses, for example) won’t be allowed.
How is communication? (Do they speak English or any other languages?)
The people you will interact with either speak English (your guides) or are speaking to you through your guides (a presenter at a monument or a museum), so the language barrier was never a problem. The only times you may interact with people across a language barrier is stopping at a small shop to buy something; pointing to the number on a price tag is easily accomplished across a language barrier.
Some guides not only have excellent command of English, but other languages too!
Are there any customs that I should be aware of (no eye contact? yes eye contact? shake hands? etc.) when encountering locals?
Locals are often quite curious to see you and may or may not approach you. Follow their lead. Waving and saying “hello” is always fine. If the person seems hesitant to shake hands or talk to you, don’t force it. Eye contact is fine when respectful; staring, obviously, would be a problem. Follow what the person seems to want or not want. I never had any issues on this and haven’t heard others mentioning any issues.
Is there a specific dress code/things I should/shouldn’t wear?
Yes! Koreans dress quite conservatively most times. It can get hot in the summer, but respect their culture by not wearing things like tube tops, exposed stomachs, beach wear, etc. Also, at some places, it is required that you show respect for the seriousness of the location by wearing business casual (a polo or similar is fine). The guides thanked the one person in my group who wore a tie on these occasions. At other times, shorts and t-shirts are fine.
Are tours offered from multiple countries, or do I have to fly to a specific country/city first?
For Westerners, you basically need to go to China. The land border with Republic of Korea (South Korea) is closed and heavily guarded. There are limited flights (1 time per week) from Kuala Lumpur and Vladivostok, but nearly every country’s citizens require a tour group as part of the visa process, and these all leave from China. Even though it’s not technically a requirement, in practice you need to go to China first. However, you can get a 72-hour ‘visa free’ exemption when arriving at most Chinese airports if you demonstrate you’re leaving soon for a tour to DPRK, so this isn’t a problem. You can go to DPRK from China via plane or overnight train (not permitted for US or Japanese citizens; if you have dual citizenship, ask about possibilities).
How do I get the visa?
It’s easy! You’ll fill out an application and send a scan of your passport. YPT will do the rest. You’ll get a tourist card when it’s time for the trip to start, show this at passport control, and turn it in when you leave DPRK. If you really want the visa and stamp in your passport, arrange this with YPT, and you’ll need to go to a DPRK embassy in person to pick it up after approved.
The US has now prohibited travel to DPRK. Did you have any issues with this when returning home?
Unfortunately, US passports aren’t valid for travel to DPRK at present. This is sad, because I had a great time in DPRK. When I returned to the US, I didn’t have any stamps in my passport, but the ICE agent asked where I’d been, and I rattled off the few countries I’d stopped in on my trip. He was actually super curious what DPRK was like on a personal level. I was probably the first person who’d ever told him “I just got back from North Korea.” He was curious and not in an ‘investigation’ kind of way. As far as I’ve heard, no one has ever been stopped at passport control in the US for visiting DPRK.
Are there any safety concerns I should know about?
Crime in DPRK is extremely low. This and your guides being with you means you should just assume you won’t be robbed or accosted in any way while in the DPRK. The best explanation I got on personal safety was in our pre-tour meeting: “There are rules and laws in DPRK. Breaking a rule could result in having to pay for something you accidentally broke. Breaking a law is very serious. Follow the rules and the laws and you’ll have a great time.”
Are there any things I do at home that could be considered offensive or illegal in DPRK, so I should avoid them?
It might be common for you to make fun of your elected leaders when you think they’re doing a poor job, but this is considered extremely disrespectful and could land you in hot water in DPRK. As always, avoid disparaging your hosts. Another area people might not be used to is that some things are off-limits for your pictures. Think about all of the ‘no pictures here’ signs at passport control on your other holidays. The same applies here. When you’re at passport control or a military checkpoint, you’ll be reminded beforehand to not take pictures. Other areas are open for all the pictures you can handle.
What are some standard phrases I can use?
Great question! I always like to learn some basics before a trip to show respect. Here are a few you can start practicing: “Hello” sounds like “Ann-yeong-hasim-nikka”. Luckily, “goodbye” is just the first part: “ann-yeong.” Want to introduce yourself? Try saying “My name is …”, which is “je ireum-eun … imnida.” If you want to say “thank you,” it’s “kam-sa-ham-ni-da”. You reply to this with “anieyo”. I had a tough time with “how much does this cost?” which is “ige eol-ma-ye-yo?” Even if you say it right, you probably don’t know the numbers the person will say in response, but pointing to a price tag or the cash register will suffice. Also, you can do a slight bow to show respect when meeting someone elderly or important.
What are the hotels like?
The hotel you’re most likely to stay at is the famous Yanggakdo hotel in Pyongyang. Depending on where you go outside of the capital, there are others, but this is the hotel most tourists have stayed at. The hallways are quite utilitarian, but the rooms have TV, phone, and radio, plus shower, toilet and all of the things you’d expect. There are outlets to charge your camera and other things. You can send mail from the hotel lobby, which is great! Do that! You can also make international calls from the lobby, if you need to reach home for an emergency. The store in the lobby sells snacks and stamps, there are 2 restaurants, a mini-casino, swimming pool, 2 lanes of bowling, karaoke, a bar, a massage parlor, and endless hours of fun. It easily crept up to 2am every night on our tour.
Do you feel you had any authentic experiences while being in a group tour? I don’t like group tours.
I had a great time, even though I always avoid group tours like the plague. YPT has the tagline “Group tours for people who hate group tours,” and I found it to be true. There was much more flexibility to the itinerary. We were able to take a stroll down one of the new streets in the evening to see the buildings and apartments there. We encountered a Cuban national who moved to DPRK to be the national volleyball team coach and had some interesting conversations with him in Spanish. We were able to add a stop (brand new at the time) at a department store for shopping, and I bought a shirt. The best aspect was just seeing locals about their daily lives. To enter the DPRK you need a tour group, but I found it quite laid back. I didn’t feel like I was being ‘herded’, which is how I typically picture a group tour. It felt more like going places in a group with friends.
Is there a photograph policy?
Yes. In most places, you can take as many as you want. See above.
What’s on TV?
In my hotel room, there was BBC in English, a Russian news channel, Al Jazeera in English, and several Korean channels with music and news.
What is the exchange rate? Am I allowed to bring money home as a souvenir?
You can use Korean money in the North East on the Rason tour in a market and also at the department store on a Pyongyang tour. You can’t technically take money out of the DPRK and often don’t need it, because many stores will happily accept your Euros, Pounds Sterling, or Chinese RMB.
Are there Irish pubs/where to watch sports if there’s a game on while I’m there?
Honestly, I kind of forgot about the outside world for a few days. I actually liked this aspect. The vast majority of bars and pubs are geared toward locals who aren’t following the teams from your hometown, so you’ll probably miss the game. Sorry. That shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, though.
What are the best beers I should try?
I’m straight edge and don’t drink, but here’s the best advice from my friends: on the train into the country, there was a beer in a green bottle with a number 2 and some Korean writing. It received a unanimous “very good” rating from everyone who tried it. Taedonggang beer is the most common around Pyongyang. The bottled beers at the Yanggakdo hotel received much better ratings than the tap beers.
I’ve never met someone from North Korea in my hometown. What are popular travel destinations for North Koreans?
The most common destinations are domestic, such as going to the mountains or the sea. After these, far and away the most common destination is China, given the proximity and the train/plane connections.
Can I go off on my own to explore?
Unfortunately, no. The requirement to visit in a group tour means that you must remain with your group when leaving the hotel. This was tough for me, because I’m naturally curious. However, within the hotel, you’re free to visit the different casinos, bars, and entertainment as you please. Other than the ‘employee areas’, you can go nearly anywhere, just as you would at any other hotel in the world.
Are there any exercise opportunities?
While you can’t go off on your own for a jog, you can swim for exercise in the hotel pool in the basement. There’s also bowling for exercise, you can do some callisthenics in your hotel room, and a little bit of creativity (packing some exercise bands, for example) with your roommate could lead to a good workout while on your trip.