A Travel Guide to North Korea
North Korea may not be the first country that comes to mind when planning an overseas trip. Although it's not entirely closed to outsiders, you can't just buy a plane ticket and fly there whenever you want. Everyone needs a visa, which is only obtainable after paying for a tour, which in turn must be authorized by the North Korean government. What makes North Korea so intriguing is its self-imposed isolation and total lack of creature comforts. Seeing a place where cable television, mobile phones, MP3 players and fast food outlets are unknown makes for a surreal experience. North Korea's openness, however, isn't without caveats.
Don't even think about trying to enter North Korea from South Korea. It's impossible for tourists to go from one to the other freely. The only way in to North Korea is through Beijing and there are two transportation options from the Chinese capital. You can take a train, or you can fly. Air Koryo with its antiquated fleet of Soviet jets is the North Korean airline and flights come and go regularly from Beijing to Pyongyang. If travelling by train, the journey will take about twenty-four hours. When on the North Korean side of the border it may be tempting to snap photos of train stations, but it's important not to do this because it could put you in trouble.
Upon arriving in Pyongyang you will be met by a state approved tour guide who will take you to your hotel. The North Korean capital is a place where you would never see street hawkers or traffic jams. These things simply don't exist. The skyline is dominated by the unfinished pyramid-like Ryugyong Hotel, which has been under construction since 1987. Your guide will take you to the Mansudae Grand Monument, which is a towering bronze statue of Kim Il-sung who was the North Korean President from 1972 until his death in 1994. Everyone is obligated to bow and show appropriate respect to the Great Leader. Visitors who openly criticize North Korean leaders can suffer serious penalties, so bite your tongue.
The DMZ, otherwise known as the Demilitarized Zone, is the other big area of interest in North Korea. Technically, the two Koreas are still at war and both sides have itchy trigger fingers. There is little action here apart from soldiers on both sides watching each other with sharp eyes. One day excursions are possible from Pyongyang and you should always ask your guide before taking any pictures of this place.
While you're in North Korea there will be little to buy. The major hotels in Pyongyang will have souvenir stores but there won't be much available other than postcards, propaganda books and stamps. The preferred currency is the euro, and be prepared to pay for everything you buy in North Korea with cash. It's fine to give tips to your guide and gifts of imported liquor will be appreciated. Despite the well publicized shortages of food in North Korea, tourists will never go hungry. The food is good but not outstanding.
If you can accept the stifling regulations and strict codes of behavior, then North Korea will be a trip to remember for a lifetime. One thing that tourists will never have to worry about in North Korea is crime. Theft is virtually non-existent and passports will be kept by the guides, so there's no danger of losing them.