By Henrik Jeppesen.
I am a traveller from Denmark who has visited every country in the world before turning 28. One of the questions people have asked me a lot of times is: Have you been to North Korea? The answer is, of course, yes, as I have been to every country and it’s not that difficult to visit. You don’t even need to visit a North Korean embassy to get your North Korean visa, but you probably need to visit an embassy if you want to visit North Korea properly. Before Covid-19, there was a way for some nationalities to visit without having to obtain a Chinese visa in advance.
The 144-Hour Chinese transit visa allowed the following nationalities up to 6 days in China without applying for a Chinese visa in advance under certain conditions: Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom and the United States.
This article contains information about different ways you can visit the country and a lot of other information about North Korea, which, in my opinion, is the most interesting country in the world to visit as there is no country or travel experience like it.
The easy way to visit North Korea
All you really need to visit North Korea is a double-entry Chinese or Russian visa, and the tour operator will take care of the rest. That is if you want to visit it the proper way, as there is an option to technically visit North Korea, without actually entering the country, but more about that later. Please note this may not apply to all nationalities at the moment, but you will obviously find out if you mention your nationality to your tour operator of choice. In 2019 it was reported that North Korea’s state carrier Air Koryo would begin twice-weekly service from Macau to Pyongyang, and that might make a visit to North Korea easier in the future.
There is nothing like North Korea
Having visited all the world’s countries, it’s easy for me to conclude that one country is completely different from all the others, and that is North Korea. There is nothing like North Korea, and from a travel perspective, it is very interesting. Bhutan, Eritrea and Turkmenistan might also be unique in their own way. Still, the total lack of travel freedom and no internet access for tourists is only ‘experienced’ in North Korea.
Below are four options I know of on how you can visit North Korea. It is not among the most challenging countries to visit as it’s relatively straightforward, but if you want a proper experience of North Korea, it is not going to be cheap. If you want to visit North Korea, it is important to check yourself if the below options are up to date. Some options might no longer be available, and new opportunities may have arisen.
The ‘Stupid’ Option: DMZ, South Korea
Some travellers have travelled to the South Korean side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, spent some seconds or minutes in a room that is technically in North Korea and have then counted North Korea as visited. I call it a stupid option as you, in my opinion, don’t experience North Korea, but it is an option and a possibility if all you want to do is to say you have technically been to North Korea.
I apologise if the word stupid is too strong. You might have thought a lot about the ethical aspect of visiting North Korea and might still have a dream to visit every country or as many countries as possible. With the DMZ option, you can actually say you have been to North Korea without supporting North Korea’s regime. You just, in my opinion, can’t say that you have experienced North Korea then. After having visited the country properly myself, I can say you would then be missing out on something special and unique, but I fully respect if you don’t want to support the regime in any way.
You might also just be visiting South Korea and think; Why not see the South Korean side of the DMZ and have that experience in itself? So yes, you can (at least in a way) visit North Korea without any support to the regime, so I decided to include this option on the list.
Ultra Budget Option: Day trip
You can take the train from China and spend a day at the border town of Sinuiju on a group tour. You, of course, need to book through a tour operator. Young Pioneer Tours have prices as low as RMB 1.390 / USD 211. I guess this is comparable with a visit to a smaller town in England without going to London. Koryo Tours also has the day trip, but at a higher price. I haven’t been to Sinuiju myself, and while it’s definitely a visit to North Korea by all means, a lot of the excitement of visiting North Korea, like Pyongyang and the DMZ will be missed.
Group Tour Option: Ultra Budget Tours
It is possible to have a proper experience of North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours starting at just 445 Euros for three days/two nights, focusing on Pyongyang’s top sights. You can also pay more for longer trips in group tours with Young Pioneer Tours or Koryo Tours. Koryo Tours is excellent based on my experience, but more expensive than Young Pioneer Tours, which I haven’t experienced myself. If you go for this option, you would still have to obtain a double or multiple entry Chinese visa. There isn’t enough time to apply for a Chinese visa in Pyongyang, and the special 144 Hour Chinese Transit visa doesn’t allow entry by trains.
The Best Option: Private Tour with Koryo Tours
I did a private tour of North Korea, and it was one of the most interesting travel experiences of my life. North Korea is much more than impressive buildings. The countryside is stunning and to have many sights for yourself is to me much preferred. You can do everything at your pace and fully explore the sights instead of constantly depending on travellers. I loved the experience and can highly recommend it. Just please note it’s the most expensive option. If your budget can allow it, I believe it will be well worth it. For many travellers, visiting North Korea will be a once in a lifetime experience, and it is, of course, preferred to have the best possible experience.
So there you have it. The options on how you can visit the single most interesting country by far, in my opinion.
It is Probably Not Healthy to Visit North Korea
Per capita, North Korea’s air pollution mortality rate was the world’s highest, according to a 2017-report from the World Health Organization (WHO). The leading cause of air pollution is burning coals, the major energy source in North Korea. North Korea is, in my opinion, the most interesting country to experience, but at the same time, the country in the world where I would least like to live. The country with the least amount of freedom and the worst air pollution is not a great combination. To visit is entirely different, and I don’t know how bad it is for health to visit for some days.
Is it Ethical to Travel to North Korea?
I understand if you ask. I had a dream to visit every country in the world, not every country except the ones with government or regimes many people don’t like in the Western part of the world. There are potentially many countries in the world critics would consider it unethical to travel. Still, I am sure North Korea could be on top of such a list together with Qatar and probably Saudi Arabia. In many countries, even if the government isn’t of the preferred kind, a lot of money goes to local people to feed their families.
I understand that money still goes to governments in the countries you visit, but where do you draw the line? Are you not OK with someone visiting North Korea, but you, yourself, happily, visit other countries where governments have done things that infuriate western countries? If yes, couldn’t that be considered double standards? Many people, unfortunately, find it necessary to judge others, especially anonymously, in front of a screen and tell their opinion. Before judging anyone that would like this unique travel experience in their life, it might be a good idea to think about if you have done anything in your life that wasn’t ethical before judging. Even if you can’t think of anything, maybe it is a good idea to consider if it is really necessary for you to judge others.
So to answer the question; Is it ethical to travel to North Korea? I guess it depends where you draw the line on what is ethical when it comes to travel. Some might even only consider local travel or travel by foot or bike the only ethical way to travel because of CO2 emissions. I would just like to finish by pointing out that it isn’t illegal to visit North Korea, and it isn’t a crime to have a desire to have unique travel experiences.