It may seem like an unlikely tourist destination, but North Korea has become increasingly accessible to foreign visitors.
The majority of tourists are Chinese, but a few thousand Westerners visit North Korea every year. Most foreign visitors fly into Sunan International Airport (FNJ) outside the capital, Pyongyang.
I found getting a visa to visit North Korea surprisingly easy and the country has also eased travel restrictions on US tourists.
However tourism is tightly controlled. Travellers must be on official guided tours and follow a prearranged itinerary.
Surrender your phones
Visitors have to surrender their mobile phones to customs at the airport and can collect them at the end of their stay. This seems to be a pretty useless exercise as they wouldn’t work anyway. North Korea’s mobile network provider doesn’t exactly open up for roaming services!
Most people in North Korea don’t have Internet access, unless you happen to be North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un or part of his inner circle. However a nationwide intranet has been set up for local news, weather and even dating services.
Foreign radio stations and TV channels are banned, and even on radios purchased in North Korea you can only access predefined frequencies.
As a tourist, almost everything you see in North Korea will be orchestrated to a smaller or larger degree. You will only get to see certain sights and eat in certain restaurants.
I was lucky enough to be allowed to jog around the capital, without a guide. This is rare. Otherwise, expect to be accompanied by two guides at all times on your visit.
Guides are there to watch you every step of the way. But there will always be a few minutes when one of the minders needs to use the restroom and you may get to exchange some unofficial information, if you get on well.
Propaganda is everywhere and no one will speak to you (aside from your guide) unless allowed to by someone higher up in the hierarchy.
The country is very poor, but no one wants you as a foreigner to see this. Pyongyang is much better off than any other part of the country: something you may sense if venturing outside the capital.
What does North Korea have to offer tourists?
Despite its tight restrictions on travel, North Korea has plenty to offer the tourist, including a number of traditional sights.
Pyongyang is home to two giant bronze statues of former North Korea leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il, and North Korea’s own version of the ‘Arch of Triumph’.
The Mausoleum of President Kim Il-song is a must-see. Locals have to stand in long lines to get in, although you will get to pass them as a special foreign guest.
An excursion to the War Museum and USS Pueblo – the U.S navy ship captured by North Korea more than 40 years ago – is worth ticking off your list. You will rarely get to see propaganda done more explicitly.
Other places worth visiting:
The town of Kaesong, which borders South Korea has ‘special status’ as some South Korean companies have businesses here.
The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is just outside Kaesong. You will be shown around by military personnel and may have your photo taken with them – against the backdrop of South Korea. Some small cabins are placed on the border itself with half the cabin lying in each country. Negotiations have taken place here and you may be allowed to enter one of the cabins and actually physically enter South Korea.
The West Sea Barrage and the Museum of Dam Construction in Nampo, about 40 miles west of Pyongyang, is also well worth a visit.
Wish you were here?
Don’t forget to send a postcard back home. North Korea’s postcards are pieces of art. Propaganda art. Just remember to stick the postage stamp on with the image of North Korea’s leader facing the right way up.
If the image of Kim Jong-Un’s face is upside down or sideways, the stamp will be turned around by the North Korean postal service before it reaches you a month later.
As a foreign tourist, you will be used as part of the propaganda. The locals will be told that you are a very important individual from your country and have come to North Korea to study the best country in the world to get inspiration to help improve your own country back home.
Also bear in mind that North Korean’s have no idea what happens outside their own country. They will, for instance not have heard about any more recent state leaders than Mao, Stalin, Churchill and Lenin. They will not know the Beatles, Madonna, Gandhi or Angelina Jolie.
Flying into North Korea: Which airline to fly?
Sunan International Airport is served by only two regular airlines: national airline, Air Koryo with its fleet of aging Soviet-era Antonov, Ilyushin and Tupolev planes and Air China.
Unless you have a strong stomach for flying (and the worst plane food you are likely to ever eat), I strongly recommend taking the Star Alliance option and flying with Air China from Beijing.
The airport offers basic services, including a duty free outlet, souvenir shop and a business lounge.