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If you have North Korea on your travel bucket list, expect the planning to be complicated and your visit to be like a school field trip.

An upcoming Russian tourist trip to North Korea is the first such inbound visit by vacationers there in four years. When people think of that country under the strict dictatorship of Kim Jong Un, they don’t think of tourism. So many will have questions about what kind of travel is possible.

North Korea is known as one of the last communist state holdouts of the 21st century. As a little-visited curiosity, it’s appealing to some Westerners.

Here’s what you need to know:

Does the upcoming Russia trip mean North Korea is open for tourism?

No. North Korea closed its border because of the pandemic in January 2020. The upcoming trip was allowed an exception thanks to an agreement between the Russian regional government of Primorsky Krai and the North Korean government.

“With any luck, it’s a kind of little experiment for the North Koreans to see that they’re still ready to receive foreign tourists,” said Simon Cockerell, a general manager for Koryo Tours, which has operated tours to North Korea since 1993.

Did Americans go to North Korea before the lockdown?

Even before the lockdown, Americans weren’t allowed to travel there. Since September 2017, the U.S. State Department has made it illegal to travel to North Korea with an American passport. 

“Travel to, in, or through North Korea on a U.S. passport without this special validation may justify revocation of your passport for misuse,” said the State Department’s website. Travelers could also be subject to “felony prosecution.”

There have been reports that some Americans with dual citizenship in another country have used their other passport to enter and exit. But it’s dangerous. Several U.S. citizens have been detained in North Korea in the past decade, and the U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens there.

How would people go about traveling to North Korea?

Travelers typically fly into China or Russia and then take a flight or train into Pyongyang. For the upcoming ski trip, for example, Russians are flying from Vladivostok to Pyongyang. 

But you can’t just book a flight and show up and explore the country. Travel can only be booked with a certified tour operator that is allowed to give tours in North Korea. The meals, hotel and guides have to be pre-arranged for every traveler, said Cockerell.

The upcoming Russian trip is with the agency Vostok Intour. Their trip package is comprehensive and includes flights, hotels and meals.

What would tourists do there?

The most visited destinations are Pyongyang and then the DMZ de facto border with South Korea, and the historical city of Kaesong. In Pyongyang, the Russian tourists will be visiting the Tower of the Juche and the Arch of Triumph. 

Travelers can visit the mountains in the far north, take a day-and-a-half train up to the Russian border, and visit some cities, but most of the country is off-limits to foreigners. 

The Russians will be focusing on a ski trip at Masikryong Ski Resort in Kangown Province.

Can I explore the destination?

Travelers have to stay with their tour guides and follow the itinerary prepared for them. Wandering isn’t allowed. It’s like traveling on a school field trip, said Cockerell.

“You can’t rent a car, you can’t couch surf, none of that stuff. You’re not trusted to go anywhere,” he said. “You’re kind of infantilized.”

Organized mass events like the Arirang Mass Games are what is most popular with Westerners. Impressive large synchronized mass events are one of the reasons G Adventures considered including North Korea as a destination before 2017, said Marceau. 

The top one is the annual Pyongyang International Marathon, said Cockerell. It’s been suspended in North Korea for the last three years because of the pandemic.

Yet restriction on traveler movements was a huge turn-off for some tour operators.

“My team was looking into [North Korea], and what pushed them away was that there was no room for wandering,” said Yves Marceau, vice president of product for G Adventures, which serves multiple Western markets.

Can I take photos and post them on Instagram?

You can take photos, but you have to ask your tour guides first. They’ll usually say yes as long as it’s not of military areas. For photos of statues of North Korean leaders, only what they call “respectful pictures” are allowed. 

“Don’t pretend to hold them in your hand,” said Cockerell. ”Don’t mimic them for a photo.”

Travelers should expect to be offline unless they are willing to spend a lot of money on a very expensive SIM card, said Cockerell. All transactions in North Korea must be done in cash.


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Tags: asia, asia newsletter, north korea, tourism

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