Tuesday 27 September 2016

North Korea: How to visit the world's most secretive country

Pyongyang calling

Natalie Paris & Hugh Morris

Published 11/05/2016 | 02:30

NORTH KOREA: Traffic officer in Pyongyang, where there are no traffic lights. Photo by Eric LAFFORGUE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
NORTH KOREA: Traffic officer in Pyongyang, where there are no traffic lights. Photo by Eric LAFFORGUE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Pyongyang, North Korea: Children celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. Photo: Deposit
Pyongyang skyline. Photo: Deposit
Democratic People's Republic of Korea - vector map
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (AP)
An image from North Korea's new tourism website, DprkToday.com
An image from North Korea's new tourism website, DprkToday.com
Pyongyang, North Korea

As long as you follow rules, don't travel independently and are not a journalist, entry to North Korea is possible. Here's how.

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North Korea's decision to expel BBC journalists from the country seems at odds with a regime increasingly courting tourists from around the world.

The country said it expelled the BBC team, reported to included Carlow-born producer Maria Byrne, for allegedly "insulting the dignity" of the authoritarian state.

While the ethical implications of tourism in such an undemocratic country are debatable, as long as you're not part of the media, getting into North Korea is not actually too difficult. Just don't hope to travel independently and be prepared to follow certain rules.

Last year, tourism officials said North Korea wanted to attract  two million tourists a year by 2020. It currently welcomes just 100,000.

“Contrary to popular belief, the process of obtaining tourist visas for North Korea is actually very simple,” said Dylan Harris from Lupine Travel (lupinetravel.co.uk), a UK-based tour operator going to North Korea.

Pyongyang, North Korea: Children celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. Photo: Deposit
Pyongyang, North Korea: Children celebrate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. Photo: Deposit

“The only requirement is that you are booked on a pre-planned tour with two North Korean guides for company.”

The guides have to be specially appointed by the country’s Ministry of Tourism and associated with one of the three travel services based in the capital, Pyongyang.

Even those travelling alone on a private tour must be accompanied by two guides.

It is, however, not possible to travel independently in North Korea.

Carl Meadows, senior travel specialist at Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk), said there is generally no problem in securing visas for clients, but it can take around 6-8 weeks.

Mr Meadows, who has been to the country at least 20 times, said: "North Korea is slowly opening up in terms of what is possible. If you went 10 years ago and spent 10 days in the country you would probably be able to see everything a foreigner is able to see, but these days you could probably stay another month as new cities and villages have been opened up."

Pyongyang skyline. Photo: Deposit
Pyongyang skyline. Photo: Deposit

Even with visas secured, and accompanied by guides (who hold your passports), there are still certain requirements expected of visitors.

Travellers should abide by the rules within the country, which include not walking around unaccompanied and refraining from taking photographs at certain locations if requested.

"The Koreans are slowly waking up to see tourism as a potential source of income and are taking steps to increase the number of tourists visiting and where they can visit," said Mr Meadows.

Cox and Kings (coxandkings.co.uk) is another UK tour company that offers trips, with attractions including the statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a micro-brewery in Kaesong and light trekking to Mount Kumgang.

The operator said it keeps in regular contact with its ground agents and follows the advice of the UK Foreign Office when deciding if it remains safe to travel to the country, as do the other companies contacted for this story.

The Irish Department of Foreign Affairs advises citizens to avoid "non-essential" travel to North Korea, with the added recommendation that visitors "always stay in permitted areas and obey immediately any instructions from North Korean officials".

The UK Foreign Office advice states that most visits to North Korea are trouble-free and that there is no immediate increased risk or danger to those living or travelling there.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (AP)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (AP)

It does warn that the situation could change quickly, however.

"However, the North Korean authorities have arrested other legal visitors, including three US citizens during recent years," the advice says.  

What to visit in Pyongyang

  • Mansudae Grand Monument, to lay a wreath of flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung in Fountain Park
  • Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery
  • Kim Il Sung Square and the Arch of Triumph (built to commemorate the Korean resistance from Japan between 1925 and 1945)
  • Mangyongdae Native House (where Kim Il Sung was born)
  • Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (Kim Il Sung’s Mausoleum - smart dress required)
  • Juche Tower - a symbol of national self-reliance, based on Kim Il Sung’s "Juche Idea"
  • Military Exhibition Centre
  • Taedong department store and local micro-brewery
  • Golden Lane Bowling Centre (with ten pins, as you would expect)

What to visit elsewhere

  • North-South Korean border and DMZ
  • Pohyon Temple and the International Friendship Exhibition, which is home to thousands of gifts presented to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong ll
  • Lake Sijung – a retreat during the Yi dynasty
  • Ulim Waterfalls
  • Mount Kumgang for light trekking
  • Samil Lagoon

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