If you read some of the testimonies from people who've travelled to the DPRK with us then you'll soon see what an amazing experience awaits. But you probably still have some questions. Here are our answers to some of the questions we get asked — frequently. Welcome to our FAQs...
Is it possible to visit North Korea?
In short: yes. Despite what the majority of people think, it's possible to visit North Korea as a tourist, and we have been doing so since 1993. The only nationality restricted from travel to North Korea as tourists are citizens of the Republic of Korea (ROK). American citizens are legally allowed to visit by both the DPRK and the US governments — although it should be noted that the US Department of State strongly warns US citizens not to travel to North Korea.
Is it safe to travel to the DPRK? I have seen news stories about tourists getting detained in North Korea — will this happen to me?
Safety is our number one priority, and, as we have done since our first tour in 1993, we take every step to ensure and maintain the safety of everyone who chooses to travel with us — providing crucial information, briefings, and warnings about the risks of travel to North Korea, which is a destination, more than any other, that one should be fully prepared for before making a visit.
When you travel to the DPRK with us you are legally entering the country as a tourist, and therefore must obey the local laws to ensure your safety, and that of the group. Breaking the rules is when safety becomes compromised. But, based on our experience of running tours for the last 24 years, as well as our continual consultations with those inside and outside of the country with valuable input on these matters, if no rules are broken there will be no issue with tour safety, or how you are treated.
We are a British-run company and continually take advice from the British Embassy in Pyongyang. Since they are based in North Korea it's our view that they have the most up-to-date and relevant advice for tourists wishing to visit the country, and which you can see here:
Please familiarise yourself with your government's advice before booking a tour as it involves a very explicit warning to US citizens not to travel to North Korea, and it is only right and proper that you are fully aware of that statement, and its content, when making the decision to travel with us.
We take this extremely seriously, of course, and make sure that — because of our thorough tour briefings, our experienced and professional staff, and our unparalleled understanding from over two decades in the country — we continue to conduct our tours to North Korea in a responsible manner, and that they remain safe for anyone and everyone who travels with us — regardless of nationality.
However, as we cover on our website, and via email, and in the information we send out after receiving your booking, as well as at the mandatory pre-tour briefing — it is *very* important to note that offences that would be considered trivial in other countries can incur very severe penalties in North Korea, particularly actions the authorities deem to be disrespectful towards the North Korean leadership or government, or those involving religion.
We have all heard of visitors to North Korea — including tourists — being detained in the country. These extremely rare cases are all on the public record, have made international news, and have been extensively reported. It is advisable to familiarise yourself with these cases and to be fully informed about the level of risk that comes from falling foul of the law when in the DPRK.
Punishment for what are seen as crimes there is disproportionate and exceedingly harsh. This is not something that should be whitewashed or downplayed at all. However, the maxim that, if you obey all of the country’s laws and rules, then you will face no punishment or problems at all, remains true — whatever your nationality may be.
We don’t take the situation in the DPRK lightly, but we don’t want to sensationalise the risks involved in visiting, either. Rather, we continue — as we always have done — to take a sober and informed view. Our staff are in North Korea most weeks, where they have mobile phone contact with our office in Beijing, and regular contact in Pyongyang with the British and Swedish Embassies — the latter of which looks after US interests there.
We started tourism to North Korea in 1993 and, to this day, still take in the highest percentage of Western tourists to the country.
Will I be spied on/will the guides try and brainwash me?
Despite claims in various newspapers and blogs it seems to us (although we don't know for sure) very unlikely indeed that the Koreans would bug the hotel rooms of western visitors. Paranoid fantasies aside, what can the average visitor possibly have to say that would be of interest to the Korean authorities? If they want to hear a foreign viewpoint on something they will ask you! Nevertheless as in all places in DPRK it is best to restrain any criticisms until having left the country.
The guides, like all North Koreans, have very strong beliefs which probably differ quite starkly from most tourists; however they will not try to brainwash you for perhaps the simple reason that their system of 'Juche' socialism is intended for those of Korean blood only. They are not into spreading world revolution through the mouths of their handful of western visitors. They express their beliefs and faiths very strongly and these are held universally throughout the DPRK so it is both impolite and futile to argue certain points with the Koreans. They will not try to brainwash you, so don't try to 'liberate' their minds in return, it is disrespectful, will breed resentment and cause irritation.
Will visiting North Korea affect me travelling to other countries in the future?
Not at all. There are no countries who will refuse you entry because you have travelled to North Korea - including the US and ROK. In any case, for most people there won't actually be any evidence that you have travelled there anyway as the visa is on a separate piece of paper and this is what gets stamped rather than anything going in your passport.
I have a South Korean stamp in my passport - will this cause a problem?
No, the DPRK authorities do not care if you have visited South Korea before so having a stamp in your passport won't cause any problems.
What are the hotels like?
It is not possible for tourists to stay in back-packer/hostel-type accommodation so the hotel we usually use in Pyongyang is the deluxe class Yanggakdo Hotel. It is roughly a western 3 star (Chinese 4 star) equivalent and equipped with bars, restaurants, shops, swimming pool, bowling, casino, and other entertainment facilities (including Karaoke of course). The hotel has reliable electricity, heating, air conditioning, hot water, and now have foreign TV channels including BBC World and Japanese and Chinese TV. There are some slightly cheaper options in Pyongyang but the drop in standard is generally not worth the reduction in cost.
The hotels we use outside of Pyongyang are less well developed and have temperamental supplies of electricity and hot water, however there are some spectacular hotels in other places in DPRK such as the traditional Korean style Minsok (Folk) Hotel in Kaesong and the Pyramidal Hyangsan Hotel near Mount Myohyang.
What about the food?
As a visitor and guest in the DPRK you will be well fed with 3 meals a day including meat and fish. The Koreans take the role of host very seriously so they will always over-cater! The food in DPRK is far from fantastic but is not too bad - some meals are very good and some are just good enough. Vegetarians can be catered for although it cannot be guaranteed that utensils used to touch food will not have touched meat, or that cooking oil does not contain animal fats. If you are a vegan then we would need to discuss this with you before your trip. Fruit and chocolate is scarce in the DPRK so if you need this while you are on the tour then you should take it with you from Beijing.
Which airlines do you use and can I take a train in/out of the country?
All our group tours use Air Koryo which is the national airline and has a fleet of various Russian models acquired over the years. On flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, Air Koryo uses one of its two recently bought Tupolev Tu-204-300 planes (essentially a Russian 757) which date from 2008 and 2010. Air Koryo is a safe airline and has been in operation since 1956, in that time not one fatal accident has occurred.
Air China also flies to the DPRK several times a week so for independent tours you are welcome to use these, however we prefer to use the Air Koryo fleet. Travelling Air Koryo means your holiday starts as soon as you get on the plane - the red uniformed Air Koryo hostesses, the in-flight DPRK magazines, the packed lunch and the North Korean history announcement over the tannoy are not to be missed.
For those on group tours, it can be arranged for you to use Air China if necessary but this will likely necessitate extra nights in Pyongyang at the start and end of the tour and therefore an increase in cost.
On the majority of our tours there is the option to take the 23 hour train ride out of the country back to Beijing (unfortunately, this is not possible for American citizens). We use the soft sleeper class meaning 4 beds to each cabin. Meals are available in the dining car.
Will there be a military parade?
Military parades are held a lot less frequently than people think; less than once a year and only on major anniversaries. Up until 2012 western tourists were not allowed to attend the military parades but we managed to get special access to the one held on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday (15th April 2012) – not in Kim Il Sung Square itself but we watched as it passed through the streets joining the locals as they cheered on the tanks! We were also able to see the same thing on Victory Day 2013 so we hope that this remains an option for future parades although there are no guarantees.
What exactly are the mass games?
The name mass games is actually a bit of a misnomer as they weren't actually games at all. It was a performance lasting 90 minutes which involves around 100,000 performers. Think the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games but on a much larger scale. Unfortunately, the mass games are not currently being put on with no indication when they are likely to return, and the May Day stadium where they were held has been reconfigured for sports events. We will let you know if this changes though.
What happens if I get sick in North Korea?
Pyongyang has a foreigners’ hospital which is of higher quality than the other hospitals in the country, if you need any medical treatment above the order of a few aspirin or a plaster/band-aid then you would be sent here (note that Koryo Tours cannot be held responsible for any medical costs and we require that all our tourists are covered by medical insurance - we can provide this). In dire emergencies you should check that your insurance company has a provision to have you airlifted back to Beijing where there are international hospitals available. We recommend taking a simple first aid kit with painkillers, medicine for diarrhea, etc as these are not easily available.
Can I write about my trip afterwards? Is it ok to put pictures online?
There is no problem with you writing a travelogue about the tour, posting pictures on Facebook or other social media, or other normal and conventional methods of telling people about the journey. As for blogging this is generally not a problem either although the North Koreans would consider DPRK-focussed blogs to be a form of journalism so please do contact us if you are concerned that you may fall into this classification and we can advise. We are often sent people’s blog postings and travelogues after the tour so that we can fact-check or provide any more info for them and are always more than happy to help out in this regard.
There are people who say that visiting a country such as North Korea is wrong and that all we are doing is supporting the government - is this true?
We don't believe this to be true. The amount of money the DPRK government receives through tourism is very minimal and certainly not enough to fund a nuclear programme or the like. Travel broadens the mind and nowhere is that truer than in North Korea. We believe that there is a benefit to be gained by both those who visit and those who are visited from increased human-level contact between both sides. Just as most North Koreans have hardly any experience of interacting face to face with foreigners almost nobody outside of the DPRK has ever met a North Korean. We would like to see that ratio change over time and believe that non-governmental tourism is the best way to go about this. There are very few restrictions on who can visit and the United Nations, European Union and other agencies see tourism as a positive way of engagement.
Can I talk to locals?
Contact with local people is possible, it’s allowed and is legal both for you to talk to locals and for them to talk to you. However it can be difficult for several reasons; the main one being the language barrier (foreign languages are not widely spoken in DPRK). Other reasons include the fact that people are generally very wary of foreigners and also are very shy, conservative and careful of drawing attention to themselves. You are free to attempt a dialogue with a local but do not be surprised if they are not interested in talking to you. However it can be very rewarding when you do manage to make some human contact and your guides and tour leader will make every effort to enable it. We make sure we take you to the best spots for mixing with the locals, for example the May Day games in the park or at the Kimjongilia flower show. In terms of finding locals at ease and more willing to interact with foreigners we suggest visiting the country on a national holiday; at these times people are often more willing to chat, dance, and share home-made drinks and so on. A day off work and a little liquid social lubricant works wonders to break the suspicious veneer!
Once I am there, am I free to go where I want?
No, tourists are not allowed to travel around freely so at all times other than in the hotel, you will be accompanied by 2 guides and a driver regardless of how many people in your group. Please remember this is not a policy set by the travel company but by higher powers and there is no way round this. Any attempt to sneak off from the guides will have serious consequences for them and for you.
Can I take photos there? How about using a video camera?
You can certainly take pictures although there are many restrictions on photography that have to be obeyed in DPRK, however even sticking to the rules you will come out with a great set of photos. Everyone who visits always takes many more pictures than they think they will (extra digital memory cards and sticks are NOT widely available in DPRK so be sure to take plenty of those). The Koreans do not examine your film or force you to develop the films you have taken (although the customs officials at Sinuiju may ask to see your pictures if you take the train out). Video cameras can also be taken into the country but should be used carefully. In the recent past there have been some limitations placed on cameras with GPS functions. Enforcement of this policy is rare though.
How do I get there?
The only way to travel as a tourist is to join a tour. You can either sign up for one of our group tours or we can design a private tour for you. You need to get yourself to Beijing and arrange your own accommodation there (we can provide recommendations and help with bookings). We then take care of all the rest!
How far in advance do I need to be in Beijing?
We only need you here in time for the pre-tour briefing which is held at 4pm the day before departure. This is an important part of the travel process and ensures that you are fully prepared for your trip and will therefore get the most out of it.
Will I need to give you my passport at any time?
No, all visas are issued using a passport copy and passport photo which we ask you to send us when you apply for a tour. The visas are then issued in Beijing on a separate piece of paper so there will be nothing stuck in your passport.
I would like to have a visa in my passport - is there a way to get one?
The only way is if there is a DPRK consulate in your country of residence. We will then arrange for the visa to be issued there and once it is ready to be collected you will need to make an appointment to have it issued.
Which is better, a group tour or an independent tour?
This all depends on you. Many people shy away from the idea of group tours but actually, we like to think of ourselves as a company that runs group tours for people who don't usually do group tours! The truth is that it is the least expensive option for visiting North Korea and it is actually a lot of fun to travel with a group of like-minded people. Also, all of our group tours are accompanied by one of our western staff who are experts in the DPRK and add real value to the tour.
Independent tours are more expensive but do have the added benefit that you can choose your own travel dates and we design the itinerary to suit your requests. You also get to fit more in as you are able to get round sites more quickly and some people also like the fact that you have much more one-on-one time with the guide.
Please remember though that there is nothing that you can do on an independent tour that can't be done on a group tour.
How do I sign up for a tour?
Once you have chosen which tour you want to do then you need to complete the online application form. In addition to this you will also need to email us a scanned colour copy of your passport (full double page) and recent passport photo. Please note that the passport copy has to be clear and all the information easy to read when printed out or it will not be accepted for visa issuance so please test it out before sending! We will then send you the tour confirmation and invoice so you can pay the deposit. Once we have received that then we can go ahead and apply for the visa.
How do I get the DPRK visa and how long does it take?
We usually issue the visa here in Beijing using your passport copy and photo. It is issued on a separate piece of paper and not stuck into your passport. If you live in a country that has a DPRK embassy then you have the option of getting the visa issued there, in which case it will be stuck into your passport. This is more work from your side as you have to arrange to take your passport to the embassy, however, it is a good option for visa-junkies! All tours need to be applied for 4 weeks in advance - this can sometimes be shortened but in order to avoid running into any problems it is best to stick to this deadline.
Do I need a visa for China?
This depends on how long you are planning on spending in China before and after the trip and also whether you will be taking the train out of North Korea back to Beijing. Usually, tourists require a double-entry visa for China but it is now possible to visit Beijing with no visa for up to 72 hours (for most western nationalities) if you have an onward ticket to another international destination from Beijing.
If you qualify for this then let us know and we can send a copy of the DPRK plane ticket and visa to you in advance). If you return from the DPRK to Beijing by plane then you can again transit with no visa for up to 72 hours if you have an onward ticket (which must be from Beijing, must be to an international destination, and must be direct – you cannot fly for example from Beijing to Guangzhou and then abroad, this is not considered to be in transit and would require a Chinese visa). If you enter China by train from the DPRK then you would need a Chinese visa.
It is possible to obtain a re-entry visa at the Chinese embassy in Pyongyang, however this can be quite expensive (EUR 60 - 160 depending on your nationality and how quickly the visa needs to be processed). This should be a last resort.
How much does a trip cost?
You can find all the prices on the tour pages Group Tours or Private Tour alongside the itineraries. All our prices are in EUR but you are welcome to pay in USD, GBP or Chinese RMB if that is easier for you.
It seems like a lot of money - what do I get for that?
The tours are actually extremely good value for money because they are all-inclusive from Beijing to DPRK and back to Beijing [see in detail what the tour cost covers]. We employ the best guides and pack the itineraries with exciting places to visit and things to see. We provide the best possible tour itinerary and our experience tells us that if you cut any corners you end up missing the best sites and get a second grade trip. We are aware that tours are expensive but the basic reason for this is that tourists to the DPRK are obliged to have a full service package. Only two airlines fly to Pyongyang so there is almost no competition to keep prices down. There are only 4 trains a week with very limited capacity and there is a limited choice of hotels that are available to foreigners. If you choose to travel with Koryo Tours you can book secure in the knowledge that you are getting the best deal for the best tour of the DPRK available. Why Choose Koryo Tours
Do you offer any discounts?
Yes, students get 10% off and there are also discounts for groups of people booking together.
I am a journalist, can I visit?
North Korea does not issue visas to journalists except in special circumstances where they are invited by the authorities. Occasionally this restriction is relaxed and we are able to take journalists, if you are a journalist wanting to go then please contact us and we can try on your behalf or we can add your name to a list to be informed as and when you are permitted to go. In the past some journalists have tried to sneak in to DPRK by submitting false details, when this happens the company they travel with is held responsible and there are grave consequences; in 1997 we were shut down for 9 months when a British Channel 4 journalist came on a tour with fake details - this not only caused us and our Korean guides problems it also created problems for two aid agencies we had introduced to the country. Please do not compromise our work in North Korea. We require each of our tourists to sign a form stating that they will not publish any articles about the tours without our express permission. Something we are required to insist upon by DPRK law.
Are there any other special events tourists can attend?
We do get access to celebratory events such as Mass Dancing in public spaces. We cannot guarantee what celebrations will take place on a national holiday until quite close to the date and in some cases only on the day. Mass dances usually take place on national holidays but no advance notice is given but the guides will be able to find out when and where they are happening on the day itself. Please contact us and we can update you with what activities are expected. May Day (workers' day off) is often a great time to attend festive celebrations with the people (team games such as tug of war competitions in the park) and mid-April is the Pyongyang festival for Peace and Friendship where entertainers from around the world (mainly the socialist countries) come and perform. There is also the Pyongyang Film Festival held once every two years in September. We always manage to attend the best event that it is possible to attend on festival days.