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Get in North Korea

Posted by in on 5-31-13

Visiting North Korea can be challenging, and you will not have the freedom to explore the country without a North Korean escort, either as part of a group or individual tour.

Citizens of South Korea are normally not permitted to visit North Korea. In addition, there have been reports of difficulties regarding Israeli, American and Japanese nationals. In January 2010, North Korea lifted the restrictions on American citizens who are now free to visit at any time of the year – but they are not allowed to travel by train (especially the train to Beijing) or to participate in homestay-programs (Choson Exchange and The Pyongyang Project are able to bring Americans into the country by train). Contrary to rumour, Israelis and Jewish citizens of other countries do not face any additional restrictions. Citizens of all countries (except Malaysian passport holders entering for 30 days or less for official, business or tour purposes who have already acquired documentation at the DPRK Embassy in Kuala Lumpur showing, North Korean business counterparts or tour and travel agency arrangements) 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. The North Koreans do not allow journalists to visit the country on tourist visas. A specialist North Korean travel agency can help you sort out the complex and ever-changing regulations. North Korea will rarely in practice refuse a visa to a tourist who meets the various requirements.

Tourists often arranged a tourist visa through booking a tour with the travel agencies that organise such tours. The travel agencies will usually deal with the visa on their behalf, although in some cases tourists are required to have a short telephone interview with the North Korean embassy in order to verify their identity and their job. In most case the interview are conducted in a friendly matter so it is nothing to worried about. Visas are often only confirmed on the day before the tour, but rarely will a tourist ever get rejected (unless you show that you are of political status or being a journalist).

North Korean tourists visas are often issued on a tourist card. If joining a tour group, group visas are often issued on separate sheets of papers containing all the members of the group, attached with a tourist card that bear the name of the tour leader. This visa is never held by the tourists, although tourists can ask to take a photo of the visa themselves. In both case, no stamp will be put onto the passport. The only way where a visa and entrance stamp will be put on the passport is when the visa is issued in European embassies, which is very rare for tourists to visit North Korea as most travel agencies operate tours out of China (and hence only arranged the visa in China.)
Kijong-dong village, in the DMZ near Panmunjom

North Korea can only be visited by an organised tour, but this can be a large group or a party of one. Prices start from around $1000/€700/£580 for a 5-day group tour including accommodation, meals and transport from Beijing, but can go up considerably if you want to travel around the country or “independently” (as your own one-person escorted group). Tour operators/travel agencies that organise their own tours to North Korea include:

Adventure Korea – Seoul
Asia Pacific Travel, Ltd – Chicago
Choson Exchange – US, UK and Singapore. Not a tour agency, rather they provide training in business and economics in Pyongyang, but they occasionally bring people to visit North Korean universities
DDCTS – Dandong
Encounter Korea- Hong Kong, Switzerland, UK – organises tours exclusively for student groups and recent graduates.
Geographic Expeditions – San Francisco
Juche Travel Services – UK, Beijing
Koningaap – Amsterdam
Korea Konsult – Stockholm
Korea Reisedienst – Hannover
Koryo Tours and Koryo Group – Beijing, Shanghai, Belgium, UK – also organises school visits and sports exchanges and has co-produced 3 documentary films about North Korea
Lupine Travel [1] – Wigan, UK.
NoordKorea2GO [2] – Amsterdam
The Pyongyang Project [3] – Yanji, China / Vancouver, Canada (Canadian non-profit that organizes academic programs, student trips, exchanges and Korean language study abroad at universities in the DPRK and Yanbian)
Regent Holidays [4] – Bristol
Shoestring International [5] – Amsterdam – for International travellers
Tiara Tours [6] – Breda
Universal Travel Corporation [7] – Singapore
Uri Tours Inc. [8] – NYC, US (runs standard and customized tours to the DPRK; also an Air Koryo ticketing agent in the US)
Viajes Pujol [9] – Barcelona, Spain
VNC Asia Travel [10] – Utrecht
Yangpa Tours [11] – USA, Korea – for all overseas Koreans focusing on food and culture.
Young Pioneer Tours [12]
Your Planet [13] – Hilversum, the Netherlands

No matter which company you decide to book with, all tours are run by the Korean International Travel Company (with the exception of a few, such as Choson Exchange and The Pyongyang Project who both work directly with various government ministries and domestic DPRK NGOs) and it will be their guides who show you around. The average number of tourists per group each company takes will vary considerably so you may want to ask about this before booking a trip.

Most people travelling to North Korea will travel through Beijing and you will probably pick up your visa from there (some agents arrange their visas elsewhere beforehand though). 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’s open M/W/F; 09:30-11:30 plus 14:00-17:30 and Tu/Th/Sa only 09:30-11:30. Bring your travel permission, US$45 and two passport photos.

Your guides will take your passport and keep it during your stay in North Korea, or at least for the first couple of days of your tour, for “security reasons” (or simply because your entry and exit dates must be registered – the black stamps on the back of your visa or passport). Make sure your passport looks decent and doesn’t differ from the most common passports from your country.

Visa-free entry from South Korea

There is one place in North Korea that can be visited without needing any kind of North Korean visa:

Joint Security Area (often called by the misnomer Panmunjom), the jointly controlled truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas, has regular one-day bus tours from Seoul for a list of restricted nationalities – see Panmunjom article for details.

{Until 2009, visa-free – actually, special group visa – tours were possible to two other places in North Korea — however, all travel from the ROK to these DPRK locations has been terminated as a result of the 2008 killing of South Korean tourist Park Wang Ja by a DPRK soldier in 2008. (All assets held by the former South Korean operators of these tourist facilities in the North were seized by the DPRK régime in 2011.)

The two tours, that have been suspended until further notice, were:

[Kaesong]] (Gaeseong) – was open to day-long group bus tours from Seoul organized by Hyundai Asan.
Kumgangsan (Geumgangsan) – was accessible by group bus tours from South Korea organized by Hyundai Asan. There were daily buses from Seoul to Hwajinpo, the marshalling area for tourists, who then went by special buses through the DMZ to Kumgang. Tours were normally 2 days and 1 night, or more appropriately for foreign travellers, 3 days and 2 nights.)

Both locations were accessible to Americans, South Koreans, and most other nationalities}

Hyundai Asan was planning to open up tours to Paektusan (Baekdusan), called Changbaishan on the Chinese side of the border, involving a charter flight from Seoul to Samjiyeon near Mt. Paektu, with the rest of the tour by bus and on foot. These never materialised though, so your options are to visit the Chinese side of the mountain (no special permits required) or add it as an expensive add-on to a standard North Korea tour.
By plane

North Korea’s sole airline, Air Koryo, currently has scheduled flights from Beijing, which depart at 11:30 every Tuesday and Saturday, and return from Pyongyang at 09:00 on the same days. Air Koryo also flies to and from Shenyang every Wednesday and Saturday, and to Vladivostok every Tuesday morning.

Air Koryo is the only one star airline on Skytrax’s list [14] which has more to do with the airline not paying Skytrax membership than an extremely bad level of service, as reviews confirm. Such categorization must be take with a grain of salt. To date, Air Koryo has only had one incident resulting in death, in Africa in 1983. The Air Koryo fleet consists largely of Soviet-made aircraft built between 1965 and 1990, plus the pride of their fleet, a 2008 Tupolev Tu-204, which now usually handles the core Beijing–Pyongyang route but has been known to fly the Pyonyang-Shenyang route. Otherwise, you’ll most likely end up on one of their four Ilyushin IL-62-Ms (1979-1988 vintage), but Air Koryo also flies Tu-154s dating back to the seventies and Tu-134s from 1983.

The only other airline with scheduled service to North Korea is Air China, a member of the Star Alliance, which flies three times weekly from Beijing to Pyongyang. Neither Aeroflot nor China Southern continue to fly to North Korea.
By train

Train K27/K28 connect Pyongyang to Beijing in China via Tianjin, Tangshan, Beidaihe, Shanhaiguan, Jinzhou, Shenyang, Benxi, Fenghuangcheng, Dandong and Shinuiju four times a week. There is only one class on the international train between Beijing and Pyongyang: soft sleeper. It can be booked at the station in Beijing, but reservations must be made several days in advance. Your tour agency will usually do this for you, unless you are travelling on work purposes. It has been increasingly difficult to book space on the Beijing–Pyongyang route, so confirm your tickets well in advance.

Once a week train K27/K28 also conveys direct sleeping cars from Moscow via China to Pyongyang and vice versa. The route is Moscow – Novosibirsk – Irkutsk – Chita – Harbin – Shenyang – Dandong – Shinuiju – Pyongyang. Departure from Moscow is every Friday evening, arrival at Pyongyang is one week later on Friday evening. Departure from Pyongyang is Saturday morning, arrival at Moscow is Friday afternoon.

Tourists from Dandong are often arranged to take the train from Dandong to Sinuiju (just across the Yalu River from Dandong), or a bus from Dandong to Sinuiju. North Korean officers come into the train to check the passport and give it to the tour guide. North Korean officers also do a manual check of the entire luggage, and will ask to look at some of the photos taken in North Korea. Tourists then change to a domestic train (sometimes a special tourist train with a/c) to travel from Sinuiju to Pyongyang. Returning from Pyongyang, tourists often take the domestic train (or again, the special tourist train) back to Sinuiju where they either buses to the border and take the bus back to Dandong or change back to the Dandong-Sinuiju train back to Dandong. Immigration procedures in the North Korean side are taken on the train or before boarding the bus.

There is also a direct rail link into Russia, crossing the North Korean/Russian border at Tumangan/Khasan. This route is served by a direct sleeping car Moscow – Pyongyang and vice versa and runs twice monthly (11th and 25th from Moscow), arriving Pyongyang 9 days later. However, since the mid-nineties this has not been an officially permitted route for tourists, and KITC refuses to organize trips using this route; two Western tourists have been successful in taking this train into North Korea, but report that further trips on this route would probably be unsuccessful.

Some agents can arrange to cross the border from Dandong to Sinuiju by minibus and then board a domestic North Korean train to Pyongyang. Usually you will be seated in a hard seat carriage with KPA soldiers and party workers travelling with their families. There is access to a restaurant car which stocks imported beers (Heineken) and soft drinks as well as some local beers and spirits. Taking photographs on this train is strictly forbidden. This train is supposed to take around 4 hours to reach Pyongyang but has been known to take as long as 14. If travelling in winter be prepared that temperatures inside the carriage can be as low as -10°C.

American and Japanese citizens are currently restricted from taking the train into and out of the DPRK due to poor bilateral relations. However, Choson Exchange and The Pyongyang Project have regularly received permission to allow US citizens to take the international train between Beijing and Pyongyang.
By boat

There is an unscheduled cargo-passenger ship between Wonsan and Niigata, Japan. Only available for use by some Japanese and North Korean nationals, the boat service has been suspended indefinitely due to North Korea’s reported nuclear testing; Japan has banned all North Korean ships from entering Japanese ports, and has banned North Koreans from entering the country. Be careful about getting too close to the North Korean border in a boat; many South Korean fishermen are still waiting to leave North Korea.

Besides the unscheduled ferry there is also a cruise ship that operates between the coast of Northeastern China, and Mt. Kumgang. Joint operated by China and North Korea the cruise line uses a 40 year old ship. The cruise trip is 22 hours long at each leg, and is 44 hours long in total, but as a person outside of China you may not be allowed to go on the cruise to Mt. Kumgang.
By bus

A bus is theoretically available from Dandong, China, across the Yalu River to Sinuiju. It’s run by the “Dandong China Travel Company” but is only open to Chinese citizens at present. You can also take a private bus from Dandong over the Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge (the same bridge ove the Yalu river that the trains take) but it is booked through the travel company you are using to enter North Korea as part of the tour.

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