North Korea is of course firmly in the news right now. It may seem absurd to suggest visiting a nation whose rulers, not for the first time, threaten nuclear war on the world. But with the international spotlight firmly on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, interest in this mysterious country has never been higher. So how about a holiday in Pyongyang?
Updated: 8 April 2013
Why would anyone want to go there?
Good question. Two weeks in Majorca is a more likely holiday option for most of us, but North Korea has long held a certain allure to the more adventurous traveller. The biggest draw of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (what most of the world refers to as North Korea) is the very fact that it’s so cut off from the outside world. Nicknamed the Hermit State, it’s an isolated country, almost entirely untouched by tourists (fewer than 2000 foreign visitors are admitted each year).
North Korea was formed in 1948, when the Korean Peninsula was divided into north and south following the Korean War and has been off limits to outsiders ever since. Considered the last true outpost of communism, North Korea makes a very unique travel experience to a place which in some ways resembles George Orwell’s vision of the state controlled future in his book 1984. Today Kim Jong-un continues the ideological regime of his father, whom the DPRK’s people refer to in revered tones as Mr Kim.
What is there to see?
Most visitors will spend the majority of their time in capital Pyongyang, reportedly one the strangest cities on the planet. Its most obvious attractions are its vast architectural wonders, including statues, towers and buildings that were created to showcase the achievements of the Kim rule, offering a fascinating insight into the products of a totalitarian dictatorship. BBC Radio broadcaster, Andy Kershaw, describes North Korea as “the greatest possible adventure” and “mind-blowingly wonderful”. (Listen to his fascinating radio documentary about North Korea here).
Some itineraries can be extended to also include a visit to Paekdusan, the highest mountain in the country at 2744m and one of the most impressive sites on the Korean Peninsula, with a vast crater lake in the centre. There are also chances to visit the incredible spectacle of the Mass Games (which involves 100,000 performers) and the hot springs resort of Nampo.
Danger and difficulty
Even outwith the present heightened state of security, independent travel in North Korea is impossible. All visitors must be accompanied by official guides or drivers at almost all times, and contact with everyday North Koreans is extremely limited. However, there are several companies offering tours to North Korea who can help arrange a visa as well as accommodation, food and transport.
In terms of crime, North Korea is ranked as one of the safest countries in the world to visit, and it’s highly unlikely that you would have any problems with pick-pockets, muggings etc.
However, you will need to watch your tongue and where you point your camera; insulting or criticising the ‘regime’s leaders is illegal and could get you and your guide into serious trouble (think fines, prison or even death) so keep your thoughts on North Korea’s political system to yourself. (Read more: Life and Travel in North Korea: 9 secrets of the Hermit Kingdom).
What’s the current situation?
Despite the current tensions, with the North Korean government issuing warnings that it cannot guarantee the safety of foreign nationals in the event of the outbreak of war, the UK Foreign Office says: "Our overall assessment is that there is currently no immediate increased risk or danger to those living in or travelling to the DPRK as a result of these statements."
Koryo Tours, the leading travel company specialising in travel to the DPRK are currently still operating as normal.
Should I visit North Korea?
Apart from the obvious threat of nuclear war, there are some who believe North Korea should be boycotted by visitors due to suspected human rights abuses. However, although contact with locals is limited, meeting North Koreans is likely to help dispell preconceived stereotypes, and therefore benefit their understanding of the West and vice versa – which in our opinion, can only be good thing.
Read more on the world of War Tourism here.