How to get into North Korea

Dear Reader,

It’s time to answer some of the biggest questions that many travellers wonder about: how to obtain visa and access to North Korea! So here is my experience or better yet, my holiday adventure!

Entering North Korea (DPRK) is a very unusual and restricted process that requires months to be completed before actually receiving the green light.
Entering North Korea is very easy, but few things can get you in trouble or on the black list: your nationality and your profession.
If you are South Korean and/or Japanese, be sure that the authorities will never let you in. Historically, even the Americans wouldn’t be allowed in as they are still considered as the Empire which invaded and made a mess. But as America is symbol of money, now they are allowed because they are big part of the DPRK tourist consumption.

North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.
North Korean countryside on my way to Kaesong.

You can fly to Pyongyang from three places: Beijing, Vladivostok and a city in Malaysia that I cannot recall right now (perhaps its capital). However, the overwhelming majority of foreigners travel to Pyongyang from China, either by train or flight. Me and my friends traveled via Air Koryo, although I heard from my other tour fellows that the train experience is quite something.

Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.
Inside the airplane on Air Koryo on my way from Beijing to Pyongyang.

The only way you can enter the country is by joining an authorised tour from an authorised company. When I signed up for the Young Pioneer Tours, all I had to do was filling an application form.

Of course the DPRK authorities reserve the right to reject your application for X,Y, Z reason, and luckily, that wasn’t my case.

I did managed to enter so you’re probably wondering “Ok, but how easy it is to get to DPRK from China?”, and my answer is… It is an absolute pain mixed up with lots of bureaucratic issues and in some cases even many visits to the Chinese Consulate.
Anyway, it all happened two weeks before my departure… I was told “Do not go to the angry Chinese girl, but instead the grey-haired Italian man!”. Sadly, by the time I went the Italian man was gone, the Angry lady (if angry) was still there, but luckily there seemed to be a different Italian there as well. So I sad “I won’t go against the odds, so I might want to try someone more familiar”. I wish I thought this through a bit more, because the Italian guy who attended me made the whole process a lot more complicated and frustrating than I thought.

My entry visa to North Korea.
My entry visa to North Korea.

Basically there was no issue at all until the North Korea tour came up in the conversation with the Man. He had checked all my papers, requested a booking for every single night I was going to spend in China, flights details and bla bla bla, so to sum up I was entitled to a touristic visa. But as there was gap he wanted to know where I was going to go. The minute he heard me saying “North Korea! :)” he freaked out. He took back my tourist visa and nervously said “We cannot guarantee you be safe in there, so we cannot grant you a touristic visa. People cannot go to North Korea…” to which I impatiently replied “Yes, people can, I’m going since I’m in a tour plan, departing from Beijing. See? It is possible”. My inner patience thermometer was reaching a dangerous level, at some point he even said to me “It is not possible to go to North Korea, you need to go talk to the North Korean consulate, I cannot give you a tourist visa if you plan to go there, I mean… it’s a dangerous place, we cannot take responsibility for you”. Not wishing to be rude, I demanded to talk to Angry Lady as she dealt with my friends’ application and simply said “Can you please help us here? He evidently has no clue on what to do and you helped my friend getting everything done, so your help in here is much needed”. In the end, I signed 6 declarations, 6! All aiming to exonerate the consulate from any responsibility during my trip. Angry and all, the lady took one minute, and I got my two-entry visa. Yayy!

Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.
Teen soccer players on their way to pay respect to the Dear Leader.

So, as the hardest part is over, let’s go back to the North Korean entry process. After getting the visa and having indeed flown over to China, you must be aware of the following pieces of advice:

  1. Always show respect to the Koreans leaders and avoid offending the local guides and people. At certain places especially statues of the leaders we will often bow to show our respect according to the local customs.
  2. You are not allowed to use the local currency in North Korea. In fact, you won’t even see a local bill or coin. Most of transactions are made in RMB (Chinese currency).
  3. Professional video cameras are not allowed to be taken into the DPRK, but handheld digicams have recently been allowed as long as you don’t film anything you’re told not to! Regular digital still cameras are fine, for professional cameras, lenses less than250 mm are allowed- anything over that could be retained at customs until you depart.
  4. E-books are fine, and normal books are OK as long as it’s not a Bible,Qu’ran or any other religious text. A couple of people were in trouble because they were bringing Bibles with them, so e-hem, no religious text book.
  5. It is strongly recommend you bring gifts for your North Korean guides when you first arrive at the hotel, and have a ‘sit down’.

Having said this, you are ready to go and enjoy the most hermetic country on earth!


2 thoughts on “How to get into North Korea

    1. There are several that are frowned upon, and they might even vary from time to time. In general terms the Journalist is seen with crossed eyes because they tend to sneak into situations and ask questions regarded as inappropriate. Although this is sort of a generalisation.

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