What’s touring North Korea like?

October 8, 2011 by Joshua
in Freedom, NorthKorea

Continuing writing about my North Korea trip

The next most common question after how to get to North Korea and its legality is what it’s like. This blog will cover the experience in depth. For now some overall conditions of touring North Korea. Later posts will cover the sites and experiences. This post covers the basics of how the tour goes.

Limited choice

The North Korean government gives you a limited choice in the places you can go, basically choosing from a list of a few dozen government-approved places. Want to go elsewhere? Not likely.

If you read where others have gone, you’ll hear the same short list almost each time and see pictures of the same places. Since almost no one knows what North Korea is like, I don’t think you’ll consider this limitation a problem. If you go, you’ll see what everyone else saw.

Then again, the organizers of Koryo told me that they consistently ask their North Korean counterparts about new places and from time to time get permission to take tours there. This change is one of my main reasons for believing tourism can help open up the country.

Escorted everywhere, almost no direct contact

You must be escorted by government guides everywhere you go. Forget about spontaneity or exploring. You’re going to have company. Forget about interacting with people directly. The guides mediate nearly all contact. Almost the only other people you see are the government employed local guides and gift shop employees.


The tourist-accessible places seemed totally safe. I saw no signs of unrest, felt no menace from police or security. Of course, we strictly followed the government rules. I have no idea what would happen if you snuck out of the hotel at night or tried to leave the group.


We heard unsubstantiated rumors that may yet be accurate said our hotel rooms were bugged. I forgot to check my room for bugs or cameras, not that I would know what to look for. The Wikipedia page of our hotel — the same hotel every tourist stays in — suggests it had cameras in the rooms, but who knows?

No outside contact

You have to surrender any cell phones at the airport. You have no internet access while in North Korea. Our hotel rooms had a BBC channel (apparently the floors hosting our guides did not have this channel). While we were in North Korea, a hurricane hit New York City and rebels overtook Libya, but we heard almost nothing of it.

The North Korean government seems to fear and hate journalism more than anything else. I’ll post at length about why, in case you haven’t already figured it out. Koryo warned us against doing anything resembling gathering data to report on North Korea. The far bigger concern, I believe, is doing anything resembling sharing information from the outside world with North Koreans.

If you can’t go without contacting someone at home for a few days, visiting North Korea won’t work for you.

Group bus tour only

You can only get places by bus with your group. Still, you can still see a lot from the bus. Obviously, we have all heard reports of places the North Korean government denies existing. You won’t see those. But you don’t see those in your own country either. If you want to see those, you will probably want to start by taking an official tour anyway.

In a place as isolated as North Korea, no matter how little you want to see from a bus window, you will constantly see things unlike your world. Seeing the consistency of North Korea is part of understanding the place.

You will get to know your tourmates

If you spend a week there, like we did, you will get to know your tour mates. I recommend having a group as awesome as mine. Either go with someone who can organize a great group or organize it yourself.

Left to my own devices, I tend to think more than plan and implement activities, so I jumped at the chance to go with people who would balance my tendencies with planning and action. Then my roommate tended to be more thoughtful too. Having a couple celebrities and a model added spice too.

You can influence your tour

Despite the rigidity the above implies, you can influence your tour.

For one thing, with all the time you spend with your guides, you can talk to them a fair amount. If you try to get them to organize off-tour activities, you won’t likely get anywhere, as I didn’t when I tried to get a guide to agree to have a party between her friends and our group. If you talk to them about their lives, you’ll get to know at least that person’s experience. You can determine for yourself how much they represent the country.

Members of our group knew we wanted to take plenty of pictures with cameras with big lenses, something Koryo told us the North Korean government doesn’t allow. We brought plenty of duty-free liquor, tobacco, and chocolate on our way out from Beijing and tipped with them. And what do you know, we never had a problem with taking pictures.

You can organize major changes

Another group that went at the same time as we did organized the first ever ultimate frisbee tournament in North Korea. As I’ll write about, most of the people who participated, including North Koreans, considered the tournament the best part of the trip. That says a lot considering many of us considered the trip the best trip of our lives.

Here is a short version of the pre-trip briefing Koryo gives before entering North Korea. We sat through a similar briefing, although with more like a hundred people at the time.

Tomorrow: the ethics of visiting North Korea


EDIT: I included much of this post (edited and polished) in my ebook, Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country. I wrote the book to help increase understanding, communication, and freedom.

Joshua Spodek Understanding North Korea cover

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5 responses on “What’s touring North Korea like?

  1. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » Common questions about visiting North Korea, part 1

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