Labor camps, abandoned cities, frequent threats of aggression… North Korea certainly doesn’t have the sunniest reputation, but even with that and your parents’ negative reactions waving a giant red flag, the country still holds a pull over curious travelers. But once you decide to go, what’s next?
First off, buying a tour package is expensive. The cheapest one (depending on your tour operator; I’d recommend Young Pioneers) usually lasts about five days and will set you back about US$1,350. The package includes everything except for your travel to Beijing. You can choose to take the train or plane from Beijing to Pyongyang and back, or one each way. In Beijing, the foreign guides will set you up with your group (usually between 15-20 people), and you’ll be briefed on what’s kosher and what’s not once you’re in NK. Since the China-based travel companies want to stay on North Korea’s good side, they’re usually the ones to explain and enforce the rules.
If you take your cell phone to NK, expect it to be held at the airport for the duration of your stay. If you take the train, they’ll seal it in a mountain of Saran Wrap and stamp it. You can keep it with you, but it’ll be obvious if you’ve used it when they check it again upon leaving the country. Most obviously, if you’re a journalist, keep that information under wraps.
Tour schedules are packed, although there is almost no chance to interact with locals (not that there’s much of chance they’d speak your language, anyway). Even if two sightseeing spots are a minute’s walk away, the guides will come up with an excuse why the group can’t walk to see it. You’ll be with your group and guides at all times. Rules like not leaving your hotel without your group are strictly enforced. Only certain hotels are foreigner-approved, so again, not much of a chance to see anyone beyond other visitors. Because of the rules, there’s really more danger from doing or saying the wrong thing than from just being a woman on her own. As long as you don’t talk politics and remember to bow in front of the statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, you should be okay.
What you do on your tour depends on which one you buy, but most will include the basics like the Mansudae Great Monument, tons of halls and palaces, and the DMZ. The exhibition halls are way less grand when you realize they’re empty and have no electricity, but it’s a stark reminder of where you are. If you go for a national holiday, you might also see a military parade or other local festivities. There’s also a chance to go to a theme park! When buying gifts (or rides at the theme park), you can use US Dollars, Euros or Chinese Yuan. There isn’t much of a chance to get your hands on North Korean Won. You’ll also eat like a king – most of it is standard Korean fare, but expect a sampling of dog as well.
Just like when you enter, guards will go through your things, and how thoroughly they do it depends on the guard and his or her mood. They’ll delete any pictures of the military. You can pick up your phone at the airport if needed, and then, that’s it! Before leaving, don’t forget to tip your Korean guides.
Have you gone to North Korea? Would you go?