Without a doubt, one of the most politically cut off and difficult places in the world to visit, North Korea's self-proclaimed state as a 'worker's paradise' really couldn't be further from the truth. Though information getting in and out of the country is heavily filtered, it is a well-presumed fact that the country is on the very brink of either mass starvation or nuclear aggression, or both. While the governments of a number of countries have issued no official travel advisory for North Korea, most of them warn that travel in the country is not routine and that significant precautions should be taken prior to and during a journey here. All that said, travel to North Korea is possible and, with only about 1,500 western tourists visiting each year, those who do make it to the Hermit Kingdom will have stories to tell that almost no one else they know will have. Travellers should be prepared to shell out a little more North Korean won than expected, perhaps; given that travellers must go on (and pay for) guided tours and can go nowhere in the country every without their (paid for) tour guides, even in those places where visitors are allowed to travel, North Korea can be one of the most expensive places in the world to visit. Visas are required for everyone, and while few applications outside of those for journalists and South Koreans are denied, the process is lengthy. Finally, travellers should be careful where and how often they point their camera: photography is strictly controlled and what in actuality is a shutterbug trying to get the best shot possible of a monument may be construed as spy activity for 'western imperialists' and could land you in a spot of trouble. Speaking of trouble, travellers should also keep in mind that it is a criminal offence here to mock, ridicule, joke about or disrespect in any way the current and past presidents of the DPRK; doing so can and likely will result in a different kind of travel story, one that no one ever wants to tell. ~ Samantha McDonald-Amara
[Editor's note: The name of the Kim may have changed since this article was written, but we believe the "paradise" remains the same!]
In April, 2008, I was able to travel by bus across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to the North Korean city of Kaesong. It is an industrial city of about 250,000 that lies just north of the border. To go there, you have to apply to the North Korean government for a visa, usually through a tourist company. Also, I should note that tours to North Korea can be unpredictable in that whenever there is a dispute between the South and North, the tours are usually cancelled for a few months. ~ Travis Kendall
When people ask why I would ever consider going to a country like North Korea I usually say because so little is actually known about it and because almost no outsiders ever go there. I think that it is partly the danger factor that made me want to go. I am not just being dramatic when I say that this is a place where stepping off the main path can literally get you killed; just after I was there in 2008, a South Korean tourist was shot and killed at the Mount Kumgang resort. Still, to be able to see even a tiny bit of a country that is so shrouded in mystery and rumour was an absolutely irresistible opportunity. Going to North Korea was a very eye opening experience, one that I would definitely recommend.
The biggest rule for being in North Korea is to only take pictures in designated places; my group violated that rule as soon as we left the customs building. For some reason we wanted to take a picture of an empty, grey field. As the tour guide said no problem, we all took out our cameras. All of the sudden a burly North Korean border guard, complete with AK-47, charged across the road swearing at us at the top of his lungs; I know most Korean curses, and this guy was really mad! After all the guides were roughly assembled and yelled at we were told, with a smile and thumbs up, “Cameras, maybe later, ok?”