Introduction - North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) shares borders with China, the Sea of Japan, the Yellow Sea and the demilitarised zone (separating it from the Republic of Korea). North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, was completely rebuilt after the Korean War as a city of wide avenues, neatly designed parks and enormous marble public buildings. The Palace of Culture, the Grand Theatre, the Juche Tower and the Ongrui Restaurant epitomise the Korean variant of Communist architecture. The Gates of Pyongyang and the Arch of Triumph (built in honour of Kim Il-Sung's 70th birthday) are particularly impressive. Many ancient buildings in Kaesong (six hours from the capital by train) bear witness to Korea's 500-year-old imperial history. The town is surrounded by beautiful pine-clad hills.
Kumgangsan is the country's largest national park, consisting of a range of mountains (known as 'the Diamond Mountains') along the east coast of the country. A trip to North Korea is strictly on its government’s terms, and it’s essential to accept that you’ll have no independence during your trip – you’ll be accompanied by two government-approved local guides at all times and only hear a very one-sided view of history throughout the trip. Those who can accept these terms will have a fascinating trip into another rather unsettling world. Simply to see a country where the Cold War is still being fought, where mobile phones and the internet are unknown, and where total obedience to the state is universally unquestioned is, for many, reason enough to visit.
Area: 120,540 km2
Passport and Visa: Visitors from most Western countries who will be staying in Korea less than 15 days and have a departing ticket generally do not need to get a visa. Those planning longer stays must get a visa from a Korean embassy or consulate before entering Korea. Processing a 90-day tourist visa usually takes one day, and it is good for five years or however long you passport is valid. After the 90 days you can leave Korea for another country and return, but overstaying a visa is an expensive ordeal (starting at W100,000 for the first few days).
Health and Safety: Food and water are generally safe; however, it is always better to consume bottled water. North Korea does not have advanced medical facilities and most hospitals have provision for basic healthcare only. In case of a severe illness one will have to go to China for treatment. It is advisable to get vaccinated against hepatitis A, rabies and tetanus when visiting North Korea. There are hardly any incidents of crime so tourists need not worry about their safety. When in North Korea tourists need to be very careful. There are a whole lot of restrictions put on the visitors that needs to be observed at all points of time. It is very important to follow the instructions given by the tour guide (who is well-versed in English), failing which may lead to several unpleasant consequences for the tourist and most of all, the guide. Any statement made against the Korean culture or Kim Il Sung will, for sure, invite trouble. In particular, you are not to take photos of anything military, including personnel, or anything showing the DPRK in a bad light.
Religion: Korea has been influenced by four major religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and Shamanism.
Social conventions: Visitors to North Korea should be prepared for an utterly unique travel experience, fraught with absurdity, and with little or no personal freedom. It is impossible to be a tourist in North Korea without signing up for an 'official' (government-run) tour package - this includes two escorts (one male, one female) to pick you up from your hotel, shepherd you from attraction to attraction, and return you to your hotel at the end of the day. Note that it is virtually impossible for tourists to have a spontaneous encounter with locals - the tour packages are minutely orchestrated, so watch what you say at all times, and NEVER criticise the government. Part of the package will almost certainly be a visit to the monument of Kim Il Sung, where you will be expected to bow solemnly and lay flowers on his grave. If you are unprepared to do this, stay at home. North Korea also has draconian laws regarding what foreigners are allowed to bring into the country, and the penalties for breaching these regulations can be extremely harsh, so make sure to receive an updated list of contraband items from your travel agent before packing your bags. In terms of 'regular' social etiquette, bowing is the normal form of greeting (the deeper the bow, the more respect being shown), and you will be expected to remove your shoes when entering certain buildings or places of historical interest.
Clothing: Although most people prefer Western clothes like suits and jeans, the national costume, hanbok, is worn by many during national holidays. Traditionally, people wore white clothes, reserving colors for the upper class or during festive occassions. Rubber shoes and sandals have been replaced by designer shoes and sneakers; however, even these are removed when entering a house or other area where shoes are not permitted.
Climate: North Korea experiences long, cold and somewhat dry winters. Summer are all too brief; often hot (central and south) and quite humid. Winter temperatures (November - February) seldom rise above 32F, and temps below -10F are not uncommon. Summers (June - August) enjoy high temperatures in the 80s. Approximately 65% of North Korea's annual rainfall occurs between June and September.
Best time to visit: May and June or September and October are the best time to visit North Korea. It is advisable to avoid the busy season during from late July to August, which is also the time of most uncomfortable weather.
Money: Won (KPW) = 100 chon. Notes are in denominations of Won100, 50, 10, 5 and 1. Coins are in denominations of Won1, and 50, 10, 5 and 1 chon. Hotels tend to only accept cash payments in local currency whilst shops prefer US Dollars. Main hotels in Pyongyang will accept credit and debit cards such as Mastercard and Visa. However, American Express is not usually accepted.
Currency exchange: Currencies may be changed at the Trade Bank (Mon-Sat 0900-1200 and 1400-1700) or at some hotels. Convertible currencies include Australian, Hong Kong and US Dollars, Euros, Pounds Sterling and Yen. Travellers cheques generally not accepted. However, US Dollars are often accepted as an alternative method of payment.
Currency restriction: The import and export of local currency is prohibited. The import and export of foreign currency is unrestricted, subject to declaration on arrival.
Getting around towns and cities: There are flights from Chongjin, Hamhung, Kaesong, Kanggye, Kiliju, Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Wonsan, although foreigners are not allowed to use these. The quality of major roads is good; many are dual carriageways. All roads leading out of Pyongyang have police security checkpoints where identity documents must be produced before continuing the journey. International driving licences are not accepted and in order to drive within the country it is necessary to sit a local driving test and obtain a local licence. Pyongyang has a two-line metro and regular bus services. The extensive rail network built by the Japanese during WWII has been broken by the separation of North and South Korea, but the main passenger routes run from Pyongyang to Sinuiju, Haeju and Chongjin. Service, however, is slow. Timetables are not published and it is advised to purchase tickets through a travel agent.