North Korea Tour – my Travel Experience

“A country that, takes care of all people, gives work to everybody, where health care doesn’t cost you anything…” This is what I heard from pro-Fidel Cubans some years ago while traveling to Cuba. Would I hear this kind of comments in North Korea also I wondered? How would it compare to the GDR (Eastern Germany) that I witnessed over 20 years ago? How do people live in North Korea? What are your restrictions on a North Korea Tour, etc…

As little information is available about North Korea, I try to summarize all information that I think could be of help for anybody traveling to North Korea or being interested about traveling there.

The information gathered here I did get personally from 6 different people, while I was traveling in North Korea. I won’t will quote persons individually because I don’t want anybody getting in trouble sharing something with me.

I will embed some pictures from my trip, to get even better ones I highly recommend you to visit this site:

North Korea Tour - 128

Time Magazine
Eric Laffourgue

+++ Preparations +++

Travel type : you can only take part in an organized North Korea tour. So although it is a really interesting trip it’s not a risky trip at all in my opinion. Stories like here from the german magazine spiegel (translated version), make you believe something else, but in this case the writer seems to be a show-off.

Tour to North Korea 86

Visa: You need a Visa to get to North Korea. We got it without any complications, it didn’t even have a cost (we got it from the North Korean embassy in Berlin, Germany). From what I’ve heard this shouldn’t have an influence on your future visa applications to the US, but I also heard a different story. What is your experience concerning this, please comment.

Cellphones are not allowed to take to North Korea. So just leave them at home. In case you forget, you have to leave them arriving and will get it back leaving the country. Alle other electronic equipment is allowed, so you can take laptops, iPods, etc. to North Korea, no problem!

Donations: at viventura we advise our clients to what to take along to South America in order to help local people. As officially North Korea doesn’t need any foreign help, in the official travel documents no such information is included. But you do can help. North Koreans love outside clothes (primarily for the better clothes). They prefer 2nd hand western cloths to new clothes available in North Korea. But westerners are not allowed to hand something to North Koreans. So what could you do? a) bring second-hand clothes and leave them in the hotel you are staying b) give clothes to your guides/drivers / leave them in the bus saying, that you have no more use for them… When taking clothes, this clothes shouldn’t be clothes easily identifiable as foreign clothes, so it shouldn’t have any brands or foreign words printed visible on the chest etc… (you are allowed to give the guides/drivers tips at the end of the trip).

+++ Traveling in North Korea +++

Most tourists in North Korea come from China. Just 2500 “westerners” come here per year. This number will raise this year and especially next year. A big german touroperator (Studiosus) just started to offer a tour to North Korea and I expect just them to send 500 tourists to North Korea in 2011.

Personal freedom: you never are allowed to be on your own outside the hotel. Depending on your guide, the guide will accompany you outside the hotel, in rural areas this seems to be easier than in Pyöngyang.

2010-north-korea-64

Photography: you can make pictures, as long as no military is being on your photos. Your guides are advised not to let you make pictures of poor houses, hard-working people. They won’t understand, why you would make pictures of this anyway, because it’s not nice, but they also know, that westerners want to photograph exactly this. Always ask your guide, if pictures are allowed, this will prevent your guide getting in trouble. We were told, that stopping the car and getting out is not allowed (we did it twice anyway). Also you’re not allowed to take pictures of things, that are being restaurated.

Eating: Food is really good, but it’s a matter of taste. I personally love Kim Chi. My wife Adriana had a hard time with the food and wouldn’t call it great at all. As I mentioned, that I love Kim chi, I got it every single time :) In our case, the guides could eat twice with us, they would have liked to do it more often, but according to my information, they tourist meals are to expansive to also buy them for guides & drivers.

North Korea Tour 48

Shopping: Stores remind me of GDR stores in the eighties. All of the items are displayed in glass vitrines. Products are imported from around the world. We saw brands like “ja” a store-internal brand from Germany, juice from Singapore, chinese junk food, etc…

Local Currency: the local currency is the North Korean Won. Foreigners won’t be able to use them. There is an official exchange rate nevertheless of 140 WON for a EUR. Foreigners are just allowed into international currency stores. Here you can pay with EUR, USD or CNY (Chinese Yuan). You can ask your guide for some currency notes as souvenir.

International News: the tourist Hotels in Pyöngyang provide you with international News channels as BBC, Deutsche Welle etc…

+++ General Curiosities +++

How does a Tour to North Korea start? When traveling by air to Pyönyang (from Beijing) with North Korean Airline Koryo I set next to a North Korean Person. According to him, he arrived from India, where he worked for 4 years and know ill see his family again after 4 years. He asked a lot of questions about my visit in North Korea. After telling him, that I’ve been to South Korea before, he even asked to see my passport. After arriving in Pyöngyang he chatted with other people on the train, no sign of his wife/kids. I had the impression, that we were investigated on. Also during the flight the stewardess came to us about five times asking us if we were a couple, where we were from, ho many times we have been to North Korea for, etc… After answering she always went back to the first row talking to a man…

Personal at Pyöngyang airport are well equipped. Most of them have a little speaker in they ear.

All North Koreans have a little red badge with a counterfeit of their “great leader”: Kim Il-Sung. This is similar to China some decades ago, when they had Badges of Mao attached to their clothes. Not everybody was wearing the badge but approximately 95% of the people.

2010-north-korea-15

Foreigners: Westerners living in North Korea are not allowed to have contacts with local people. So during a North Korea Tour it will be very hard to talk to a local person other then your guide. There are also about 300 foreigners, most being chinese, but also 15 germans among them. They have their own little district, where North Koreans are not allowed to go in. Some countries have embassies in Pyöngyang (Germany being one of them).

There is lots of speculation about North Korea. For example: do they really have a metro? I wonder why would you question this. Would you think they’d build that many stations on the streets and make the train run just one station, employing thousands of actors just to make some tourists believe Pyöngyang has a metro? Well I don’t think so, Pyöngyang definitely has a Metro, you can watch this Video also:
(Video will follow)

Cleanness: overall all places we went to were very clean. On the one side there is little plastic being sold in North Korea. On the other hand I could observe lot’s of people sweep the streets.

As North Korea has no right to transmit the World Cup games, that would start in a couple of days (2010 World Cup South Africa), the games will be transmitted one week later. As North Koreans have no other News Source, they won’t no the result before…

When paying for something in a “currencystore” you get the change often in another currency. You buy a drink in EUR and get back some USD…

The restaurants have big common rooms but also private rooms, where you can eat just with your friends or family (same concept as in china)

Political views: Germany is a good country, because we paid we paid the debts caused by wars imposed by Germany to other. The rest of the world: good. China: really good, as they support North Korea. Japan: really bad because of the 40 years, that Japan occupied North Korea. USA: very bad because they prevent a united Korea.

+++ Daily life / General topics +++

Agriculture: North Korea is an agricultural country. I’ve never seen a country that used that much terrain for agriculture as North Korea. In our whole trip I couldn’t see any opportunity where they could cultivate more. During the harvesting season also all office workers need to go to the countryside to help getting the crops. This is done on Fridays. Workers participate on the success of the harvesting, as they get a “share” of the harvest depending on the crops success.

North Korea Tour 27

Wages: Not all North Koreans earn the same. According to our guides students get a salary of about 50 EUR, normal workers 150 EUR and people in higher positions 250 EUR a month. All North Koreans get a free apartment, health care, education and the rent.

Power/Water Supply: the state has a serous problem generating sufficient electricity and supplying enough water. For most people in Pyöngyang you can just get water 2-3 hours a day (in that time they fill up tanks to save water for the day). The Tourist Hotels in Pyöngyang have all-day water supplies though. Electricity seemed to be working fine in Pyöngyang, as you can see on this picture:

In other areas, in Kaesong for example, we were noticing electricity problems at night. The costs for electricity & water is around 3-5 EUR a month.

Transport: The roads in North Korea are quit empty, nevertheless lot’s of people are driving in cars. It’s forbidden to have a car privately (you can just one a motorcycle or a bicycle privately), but people in good positions get a car for their job. I would guess, that there would be around 20.000 cars or so in Pyöngyang. Apart from cars you have the metro, Taxis, streetcars, buses, bicycles and motorcycles in Pyöngyang.

Businesses: Everything is state owned in North Korea. I know of three Joint-Ventures though. a) FIAT is cooperating with Pyöngyang to manufacture cars in North Korea, in total the have two brands built in North Korea: Hwiparam & Ppeokkugi

b)a Joint Venture with a german company getting Internet to the hotels
c) a Joint Venture to modernize the cellphone network with an egyptian company, part of the deal is also to finish the 105-floor hotel in the middle of Pyöngyang until 2012

Military: The military is really important in North Korea, the military boss is the second most important person in North Korea. On the street you see a constant presence of military. You also have the Youth Organisation, like the Free German youth (from the former GDR)


(here kids prepare for the kids day on the 7th of june 2010)

Corruption: It’s hard to tell to which level corruption exists in North Korea, in my presence two military officers accepted cigarettes in order to do a favor (leaving the hotel, taking a picture)

Situation with South Korea: for me it’s interesting to see that our guides / the local military guide at DMZ never talked about a conflict with South Korea. They always refered to a conflict with the United States. And interestingly, the armistice was negotiated with North Korea on one hand and the US on the other and not South Korea. According to the military person at DMZ, the US tries to stay long-term in South Korea, in order to strengthen their position in demanding long-term presence they blame North Korea for sinking a submarine.

Fashion: for Adriana it was a shock to see that fashion seem to have stuck in the seventies? There is no individualism at all. Even people without a uniform seemed to be dressed a kind. No written words I have seen on any shirt. The clothes remind me of movies made about the GDR.

Smoking: Smoking is ridiculously popular in North Korea. According to our guides 99% of male North Koreans smoke. Even in closed places like in the restaurant. This was totally surprising and sometimes uncomfortable.

Education: It was amazing to see how well our guides spoke english/spanish. They have never been to an english/spanish speaking country, but nevertheless speak fluently. A thing that North Koreans seem to be great in: Singing.

+++ Communication +++

Internet: North Korea doesn’t have Internet yet. A german company is setting up Internet at this time, so that high-ranking military people, important business man and other VIP in North Korea will get it soon. According to my information soon the Hotels for international guests will have Internet Service.

Email: North Korea has a tiny Email infrastructure. For example our guides have email access through the companies email account, there is no such thing as personal email accounts. The email adresses have the domain silibank.com, the domain is registered to LiaoNing ZhongTian Real Estate Develolpment Co.LTD from China. Attachments like PDFs can be read, pictures can’t be sent (it’s unclear if it’s for the size or security).

Cellphones: the cellular network is working for almost 2 years in North Korea. A limited network of people have access to it (and use it a lot), like tourism guides, people who do important business, politicians and military people. Tourists have no right to use cell phones.

News: North Koreans don’t have a free press, all news are emitted from the state. Before arriving to North Korea tensions were high because of the submarine incident with South Korea. North Koreans were aware of these tensions and were informed about the incident. They knew the South Korean/US Version of the story (ship was shot), but believed the North Korean Version of the story (ship ran into a rock). I talked about this incident quit a bit and could into more details if requested in the comments…

I booked my tour with www.tschollima-reisen.de and I was really pleased with there service (it’s a german operator).

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About

Loves to make things happen, make the world a little better place. Born in Germany, has worked and lived in Peru & Colombia. Founder of viventura and Co-Founder of trip.me & viSozial foundation. Andre is a passionate traveler, loves Photography is married to his wonderful wife Adriana and has an amazing son. And he's known for his passion of Peruvian Food and dancing Salsa...

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24 comments on “North Korea Tour – my Travel Experience
  1. Stefan says:

    I liked reading your article a lot! Very unknown terrain, so one doesn’t know much about it. I wonder if there are hidden microphones in hotels, so they might hear if you’re “dangerous” …

  2. Morten says:

    Thank you very much for a very interesting and inspiring description of North Korea. Personally, I am hoping to go next year (2011) and your info has been very helpful. Thank you.

  3. Andre says:

    This was a fascinating read. I am particularly glad to know that they can speak Spanish , since I am writing this to you from Santiago, chile :)

  4. Dawid says:

    Hi,
    I am writing dissertation about North Korea.
    Is there any chance that I could get in touch with you and ask you a few questions?
    Here is my e-mail address:

    student.mdx@gmail.com

    D.

  5. lia yulian says:

    hi… im leaving in Pyongyang for 2 year ahead (till the end of 2012). if you need some informations about North Korea condition (except politic or war ;) ) please send ur email to: hasna_zakiyah@yahoo.com

  6. mr. potts says:

    what a biased and anti-american article! silly koreans, blaming america for their problems, when maybe they should drop the past and start fixing their country’s infrastructure now!

  7. Andre says:

    Hi Mr. Potter. I don’t really know where this article is anti-american (you mean “Anti United States?)? This article is about North Korea and also their (sometimes strange) view of things…

  8. lol says:

    Yeah South Korean ship ran into a rock…If only they saw the picture of the ships hull after they pulled it out of the water.

  9. sufriday says:

    Thank you to share information, I’ve been to South Korea but never been to North Korea.

  10. J Howard says:

    I am surprised you wrote “All North Koreans get a free apartment, health care, education and the rent”, as if living under a Stalinist regime is some sort of Shangri-La. How do you know this? Why then, is there widespread famine in N Korea? Why can’t N Korea feed itself? Why are N Koreans escaping from camps and starvation into China and reporting it to the western world? Are they lying, or are you naiive?

  11. jfornadise11 says:

    Wow,you have a great experience by traveling in North korea..You share a lot of information about North Korea..I am planning to go North Korea and your info has been very helpful to me. Thank you.

  12. Jim S says:

    Thanks for your personal and open sharing of your trip to N Korea. I was looking for information on the depth of internet censorship in China this morning, then switched to NKorea. Obviously, no need to censor the web as there isn’t much of one at the moment. However, a similar concept came through your article in terms of restrictions on foreigners: no contact with local NKoreans, the existence of a foreigner district that is off limits to NKoreans, no movement outside the hotel without a guide, no use of the Won, purchases only in currency stores, no use of a cell phone … Thus, you are to be congratulated for an informative view of things under the tight control of your guides. However, it seems clear that you were seriously limited in the opportunity to obtain details about NKorean life style, living standards and opinions. Were you frustrated by this? Would it be fair to say that the opinions you did hear came largely from your official guides and other foreigners? At the moment, this situation has diminished my desire to visit NKorea, although my wife (Chinese) may do so and report what she sees. One question remains, and it is the same as that of J Howard above. How did you verify that NKoreans get “free apartment, health care, education and the rent”? What kind of quality would you judge these state gifts to be? How does food rationing fit into the picture? Unlike Howard, I don’t think you to be naive, but I do think your guides are willing to present a much-shaded and excessvely positive view of the NKorean government and its suffering country. The unwillingness of some government employees to present the full truth was illustrated one more time around the funeral of Kim Jong Il; pictures of the funeral procession doctored by the NK Central News Agency and distributed to outlets in Europe (see. http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/12/29/144420031/north-korean-funeral-photoshop-faux-pas). The desire to present a perfect and surrealist view of North Korea illustrated here most certainly has its counterpart in the behaviors of your guides. Would you agree?
    In any case, thanks again. Great job. I remain very appreciative.

  13. Ben Reed says:

    Sounds like an interesting place to go but the thought of being detained for something you didnt commit still hangs on my mind :/

  14. Teresa says:

    I agree very much with Jim S. I’m Korean-American and born and raised in NJ but my mom has great-aunts and uncles in North Korea. It’s hard to read something like this because it just seems like such a censored experience. We don’t really know much of anything about how it REALLY is. But i guess that’s the point. That’s how they do things over there. State-owned EVERYTHING.

    I understand J Howards frustrations. The truth IS that people DO starve everyday. It is sad over there and that’s the real truth. But this guy is just stating what the guides have told him. It wasn’t meant to sound any sort of way. He’s just stating it.

    It was an interesting read though .. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Khanii says:

    Dear all,
    I would like to contact my korean friends. but i failed to contact because there is no internet and no other facility, i miss my friend. because she love. i met her in another country very recently. so request you all to tell me some point and hints to contact her. i have her landline number and cell phone but not possible to contact. and she also want to contact me but she also cant contact. I am pakistani

  16. Khanii says:

    i will wait for your openion and advise that how i contact them or some should send my message to her. i will be very grateful to you. regards

  17. FieryLocks says:

    The officer in the first picture is gorgeous! I have to admit I have a bit of a crush on him. Was he your guide at the DMZ? If so, what was he like?
    This is such a nice photo of him.

  18. Andre says:

    Hi FieryLocks. No he was not our guide, he was a military person watching after us. Usually you can’t take pictures of Military Personal, but our Guide brought some cigarettes along ;)

  19. FieryLocks says:

    Hi Andre. Well I’m sure glad you got to capture this particular officer with such a nice smile. Thanks for posting it…it’s one of my favorites from your Flickr stream.

  20. Saharnaz.sh says:

    I live in Iran and I hear every day that Iran is like north korea and it’s just a better version of it. but now that I read more about this country I have to say: God! no! Iran is not in such a bad situation!!! I thanked God for all the things that we at least have! the internet, although heavily filtered, at least exists in Iran. we all have cellphones, we CAN travel abroad, we have news resources. we can talk to tourists and we can nearly do everything that people in other countries do, exept wearing what we want( we have to wear Hijab) and talking angrily about the goverment with foreign news agencies. Of course we are not satisfied but now I see that Iran’s government is at least not the worst government in the world!! :D

  21. Saharnaz.sh says:

    and thanks for the grat information!

  22. psy Gangnam Style says:

    Wow.. so good posting.
    Hello .Im S korean.
    It is Good ficture for Nkorea.
    Usually Skorea hate N korea.
    Because kim jung eun…. who N korea president?.. boss…
    We want unification. But. Kim doesn’t want that…. ?.?
    ??Please love N Korea! Too.

  23. Francis says:

    When I initially commented I appear to have clicked the
    -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is
    added I get four emails with the same comment. There has to be
    a way you can remove me from that service? Many thanks!

  24. Logan says:

    It was hard to find your page in google. I found it on 17 spot, you have to build some quality backlinks ,
    it will help you to get more visitors. I know how to help you, just search in google – k2 seo tricks

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