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North Korea (officially Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK) is a country in Eastern Asia. It occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula that lies between Korea Bay and the Sea of Japan. It borders China and Russia to the north and South Korea to the south.
Travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour. Independent travel is not permitted.
In 1910, Korea was annexed by Japan. Japanese occupation lasted until 1945 when Japan was defeated by the Allied Forces at the end of World War II. In 1950, a civil war erupted on the Korean peninsula and a United Nations force led by the United States fought to stop the whole peninsula being overrun by a Communist army. A truce was finally agreed to and Korea was split, with the northern half coming under Communist domination and the southern portion becoming Western oriented. Kim Jong-Il has ruled North Korea since his father and the country's founder, president Kim Il-Sung, died in 1994.
After decades of mismanagement, the North relies heavily on international food aid to feed its population, while continuing to expend resources to maintain an army of about 1 million. North Korea's long-range missile development and research into nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and massive conventional armed forces are of major concern to the international community. In December 2002, North Korea repudiated a 1994 agreement that shut down its nuclear reactors and expelled UN monitors, further raising fears it would produce nuclear weapons.
The climate is temperate with rainfall concentrated in summer. Late spring droughts are often followed by severe flooding. There are occasional typhoons during the early fall.
Mostly hills and mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys; coastal plains wide in west, discontinuous in east. Mountainous interior is isolated and sparsely populated.
Visiting North Korea is a bureaucratic nightmare, and your every move will be monitored by your guides. There are those who have called for a boycott on tourism to North Korea, due to widely suspected human rights abuses in the country or how tourism may help finance the government. Others cite the possible benefits of Westerners engaging with North Korean citizens, particularly in a positive, friendly manner (i.e. contrary to the stereotypes of Westerners presented by internal propaganda) — although your guides will generally do their best to stop you from actually meeting any ordinary citizens. Regardless of political beliefs, North Korea is generally acknowledged to be a unique place to visit. The traveller must make his or her own mind up about the rights and wrongs of visiting the country.
Citizens of the United States of America, Israel, South Korea and people of South Korean origin are normally not permitted to visit North Korea, although exceptions are occasionally made for special events such as the Arirang Mass Games. Citizens of all other countries will need a visa, which will only be issued after your tour has been booked, approved by the North Korean authorities and paid for. Journalists (or those suspected of being journalists) require special permission, which is quite difficult to obtain. A specialist North Korean travel agency can help you sort out the complex and ever-changing regulations. It should be noted that North Korea will rarely in practice refuse a visa to a tourist who meets the various requirements.
Most people travelling to North Korea will travel through Beijing. It is most likely you will pick up your visa from there. The North Korean consulate building is separate from the main embassy building at Ritan Lu, and can be found round the corner at Fangcaodi Xijie. It is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 0930-1130 and 1400-1730, and on all other days except Sundays from 0930-1130. Bring your travel permission, US$30 and two passport photos.
There are two places in North Korea that can be visited without actually needing a North Korean visa:
Both are also accessible to Americans and South Koreans, although a different list of restricted nationalities applies for Panmunjom (see article).
North Korea's sole airline, Air Koryo (http://www.air-koryo.com/), currently has scheduled flights from Beijing, which depart at 1130 every Tuesday and Saturday, and return from P'yŏngyang at 0900 on the same days. Air Koryo also flies to and from Shenyang in North East China every Wednesday and Saturday, and to Vladivostok every Tuesday morning. In the Summer there are also flights (usually twice weekly) to Khabarovsk, also in Russia.
Train services connect to Beijing in China via Tianjin, Jinxi, Dandong and Shinuiju approximately four times a week. There is only one class on the international train between Beijing and Pyongyang: soft sleeper.
There is also a train line into Russia, but it is currently not used.
All your transport needs will be dealt with by your tour company. There may be some opportunities to see local public transport, especially the P'yŏngyang metro (http://www.pyongyang-metro.com/). Enquire with your guide to see if this is possible.
The official language is Korean. Note that North Koreans are quite picky about referring to Korean as Chos?nmal, not hangukmal. Unlike South Korea, North Korea has abolished Chinese hanja characters and uses hangul characters, known as Chos?n'g?l, exclusively.
In 2002 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) were abolished and along with them went all the different coloured currencies. Now there is just the standard North Korean won, which officially trades at 165 or so to the Euro. Black market rates (especially in northern China near the border) are more favorable, but importing or exporting Korean won is strictly forbidden. Conversely, were you to sneak out some won, they are practically worthless outside the country, but make unique souvenirs.
In reality, foreigners are expected to use Euros or as an alternative Chinese RMB, US Dollars or Japanese Yen. Getting the local money is possible, but it is difficult to use as the shops all want foreign currency. Currency handling is often bizarre, with a frequent lack of change and a number of rule-of-thumb conversions leading to highly unorthodox transactions.
There are numerous hard-currency only souvenir shops at tourist sites. Interesting souvenirs include propaganda books and videos, postcards and postage stamps.
Despite severe food shortages in North Korea, you are unlikely to have any problems getting food. Your guide will order all your food for you, and you will eat in hard-currency only restaurants. Vegetarians, and people with food allergies/dislikes of common foods such as seafood or eggs will need to make arrangements in advance. A visit to a "real" local restaurant may be possible; enquire with your guide. Note that although your food is better than what 95%+ of the population eats, it's still not necessarily great. Shortages combined with the typical use of Korean cooking styles mean that there is a relatively limited variety of food, which can get wearying on tours of more than a few days.
The local speciality is insam-ju, Korean vodka infused with ginseng roots. Locally made Taedonggang beer is very good (brewery imported from Ushers in the UK) and some of the Sojus are not bad either. Local alcohol is inexpensive; a 650mL bottle of beer is 0.5 euro.
This is likely to be your principal expense while in North Korea. You may only stay at "designated tourist hotels", for which you will need to pay in hard currency. There may be discounts if you ask for lower class accommodation, if you are travelling as part of a group, or if it is low season (November - March). Costs for your tour, which will include accommodation, all sightseeing activities and meals, will range from US$70 - US$200 a day, depending on these factors.
If you are interested in teaching in North Korea, you may find success by contacting the North Korean UN Mission in New York, or contacting a North Korean university directly. Your odds of success are, however, quite low: there are only 3 foreign English teachers in DPRK, all provided by the British Council and all work at Kim Il Sung University.
Stay safeCrime levels are practically zero, at least to tourists on a strictly controlled tour. However, pickpockets are the least of your worries. The secret police are very touchy, and you need to watch what you say. Just do what the guides do, praise every stop on your tour, and remember the "if you can't say anything good, say nothing at all" rule.
Drinking water might be safe, although sticking to bottled water is recommended. Medical facilities are basic, and if you fall ill you might be better off returning to China for treatment.
It is important to emphasize that the government of the DPRK -- in particular the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il -- are very highly revered in North Korean culture. While slavish devotion is not necessary (for tourists, at least), insulting them in any way is not appropriate.
Most, if not all, tour groups to the DPRK are asked to solemnly bow on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. If you are not prepared to do this, do not visit North Korea.
Any trouble you cause as a tourist will likely be blamed on your tour guide's inability to control you, and they will bear the brunt of the penalties.
Other than your tour guide, you will likely not meet anyone else in your trip who speaks English; a few Korean words and phrases are a nice internationalist gesture.
Despite the sharp political difference, North and South Koreans generally share a common culture; the various tips in the South Korea article under respect (such as using two hands to pour drinks) will also help here.