Rules: what we could and couldn’t do in North Korea

December 11, 2011 by Joshua
in Freedom, NorthKorea

People often ask what the government let us do or not. Koryo prepares you for what to expect so we knew all these things before leaving Beijing. Here is a small selection of the rules.

No pictures without permission

North Koreans seem to resent having their pictures taken when they aren’t performing. I once forgot this rule and took a picture of some people on the street. They got annoyed. One of our guides noticed and chastised me.

We weren’t supposed to take pictures of military anytime, but we ended up taking a bunch. The Demilitarized Zone had several picture-taking opportunities designed for tourists. Come to think of it, I don’t remember having trouble taking pictures of military people.

You can only visit sites they allow

I understand Koryo constantly asks for new places, which I believe contributes to opening the place up. In the meantime, we didn’t have many places to choose from.

You can only eat in approved restaurants

Also, our guides ate separately and ate different food.

Not a rule for us, but many eating occasions featured live singing performances from them. At first I thought it was a contrived tourist thing, but since then I’ve come to believe it might be a deep cultural value to entertain guests at meals. Like maybe they genuinely feel strongly about it and did so genuinely.

We could only exchange currency at the official rate

The official rate was about twenty to thirty times higher than the black market rate, meaning if we exchanged a dollar for one unit of currency, that person could then go around the corner and exchange the dollar they just got from us for twenty or thirty units.

I forget the exact numbers.

We could not use North Korean currency

I got the idea their purpose for allowing us there was to get hard currency — U.S. Dollars, Euros, or Chinese Yuan.


This practicality suggested the hatred of the United States may have had a bit of posturing that they could drop when doing business.

We had to stay on different floors of the hotel than our guides

We once got off the elevator on a non-tourist floor. Some North Koreans on that floor saw us and curtly and deliberately made sure we left. We understood the televisions on their floors showed regular North Korean television, whereas ours had BBC and other stations. In the time we were there, New York City had an earthquake and a hurricane and the revolutionary tides had turned in Libya, but we barely knew.

You could not leave your escorts

Government-trained escorts had to chaperone you everywhere. None of us even considered leaving the group. Maybe someone who looked North Korea might have felt more comfortable venturing on their own, but not us. Diplomats from other countries can move about on their own, but we weren’t them.

You can’t use the internet

Note that I didn’t say you may not use the internet. You can’t. They have no internet to connect to. Even before our trip, our contact at Koryo would sometimes email us saying she was entering North Korea and would be unable to reach or be reached until she returned.

On the other hand

Our guides were very friendly and accommodating. Though we couldn’t choose many places to visit, you could see a lot from the bus and hotel.

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