Tomb of King Tongmyong, Pyongyang, North Korea
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Tomb of King Tongmyong, Pyongyang, North Korea

© Creative Commons / yeowatzup

North Korea Travel Guide

Key Facts
Area

120,538 sq km (45,540 sq miles).

Population

24.9 million (2014).

Population density

206.1 per sq km.

Capital

Pyongyang.

Government

Communist Republic.

Head of state

First Chairman Kim Jong-un since 2011.

Head of government

Premier Pak Pong-ju since 2013.

Electricity

240 volts AC, 60Hz. European-style plugs with two round pins are commonly used.

Perhaps the world's most insular, provocative and challenging country, North Korea is hardly the archetype of an alluring holiday destination. Yet more and more foreigners are signing up for tours of the socialist state. The reason? There's simply nowhere else on Earth quite like it.

North Korea – or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) – is a totalitarian socialist state with an elaborate cult of personality built around the Kim dynasty.

Its isolation and ideology means that independent travel is impossible. Instead, there are a number foreign agencies that offer tours of the country with government-approved guides, regaling sightseers with propaganda-skewed tales of local history, while steering them clear of interaction with the general public.

All approved tours begin and end in the country's capital, Pyongyang. A city of more than 2.5 million inhabitants, the long working hours and strict curfew can often make it appear empty – yet there's an abundance of socialist sites for the foreign visitor to enjoy.

Highlights include the flame-topped Juche Tower (a monument to the state's socialist ideology), the Mansudae Grand Monument (bronze statues of former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il) and USS Pueblo (an American ship captured in 1968 and now on permanent display).

Beyond the capital most excursions include visits to Myohyang-san (a mountain with a palace carved into it), Panmunjom (the tense military border between North and South Korea) and Mangyongdae (a North Korean village said to be the birthplace of Kim Il-sung).

And then there’s the food. Sharing a culinary heritage with South Korea, the North boasts a similar smorgasbord of delicacies, offering visitors an authentic taste of this most inauthentic of countries.

North Korea might not be the most easygoing destination, but if you can accept its tyrannical leadership and take everything you are told with a pinch of salt, there are plenty of incredible experiences to be had in the world's most mysterious country.

Travel Advice

Last updated: 30 July 2015

The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. 'We' refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.


Crime

Crime against foreigners in North Korea is rare. Take sensible precautions to protect your belongings.

Fire safety

A recent incident at a hotel in Pyongyang has highlighted a culture of low safety awareness. You may wish to check hotel fire procedures or consult your tour operator.

Local travel

Tourists can normally only travel to North Korea as part of an organised tour. Independent travellers will need a sponsor and permission from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This is normally only possible for business travellers.

Travel within the country is severely restricted. Whether you are visiting on business or as a tourist, you will almost always be accompanied by a guide and will only be allowed to go where your guide is content for you to go. For travel outside Pyongyang, it is your guide’s responsibility to get the necessary permissions. Military checkpoints at the entry and exit to all towns usually include ID checks.

In 2008 a South Korean tourist who strayed into a restricted military area was shot dead. Take care to remain in permitted areas and move away immediately if asked to do so by North Korean officials.

Foreigners living in Pyongyang are usually able to travel freely within the city, but permission is often required for travel outside Pyongyang.

It is not possible to travel directly to South Korea from North Korea, unless you are making an official visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

Road travel

Taxis are sometimes available from hotels or outside department stores, but they will be reluctant to take you without a local guide or interpreter.

International Driving Permits are not valid in North Korea. Foreigners living in North Korea must get a local driving licence by passing a local driving test.

Rail travel

The domestic network is small, equipment is old and trains are subject to delays because of electricity shortages. There is a rail service between Pyongyang and Beijing via Sinuiju/Dandong (North Korean and Chinese border towns) 4 times a week, although delays are frequent and facilities on board are basic.

Air travel

Most travellers enter North Korea on direct flights from Beijing to Pyongyang operated by Air China and Air Koryo, the North Korean national airline. Air Koryo also operates regular international flights to Shenyang and Vladivostok and occasional flights to other, mostly domestic, destinations.

All aircraft operated by Air Koryo, with the exception of two Tupolev Tu204, have been refused permission to operate services to the EU because they do not meet international safety standards.

Air Koryo is still used by some members of Pyongyang’s international community, including businesspeople, diplomats and International Organisations. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff avoid using Air Koryo unless it is operationally essential.

Political situation

Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula has been divided by a de-militarised zone (DMZ) separating the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. Peace has been maintained under an Armistice Agreement.

The level of tension on the Korean peninsula can change with little notice. It increased after the sinking of the South Korean Navy Ship Cheonan and an artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island in 2010; when DPRK carried out two missile tests in 2012; after a nuclear test in 2013; and during regular South Korean-US military exercises.

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