With tensions between North Korea and the West constantly strained, it’s surprising to many people when they find out that, yes—you can travel to North Korea as a foreigner. It’s actually quite easy if you know what you’re doing, and as a tourist to the Hermit Kingdom, you’re visiting a country that has been a black hole of information for decades.
First off, you need to choose a tour operator to travel with. While the idea of backpacking across the North Korean countryside, meeting locals and sleeping in barns, is a lovely concept, North Korea is still a state-controlled dictatorship—and dictatorships don’t like having foreigners wandering around unsupervised. However, there are a number of tour operators willing to show you around, and packages range anywhere from express tours (three days, and unavailable to Americans) to three week volunteering stays, where you get a chance to work with a local North Korean family. Another common option is a week-long tour that is incredibly popular, and allows you to see a decent cross-section of the DPRK.
The cheapest tour operator is Young Pioneers, and they have a great reputation in the international community, along with friendly and well informed guides. However, because they are the budget option, the accommodation and group size is going to be different than if you went with a different company. There are also plenty of places that will take you on personal tours—if you’re willing to pay.
Second, the tour is absolutely a propaganda show, and it’s in your best interest not to talk politics while in North Korea. The DPRK is a country that has been aggressively fighting off what they deem “western imperialism” for decades, and they want nothing to do with a Westerner’s political views, especially if that Westerner is being vocal about them. In terms of crime, North Korea is one of the safest places on Earth, but you will definitely get arrested if you don’t listen to your guides about what you can say and where you can go. The entire time you’re in the country, there are government handlers present to make sure you stay in line.
This shouldn’t be a discouraging factor, as some of the highlights on the trip more than make up for keeping your politics to yourself for a couple days. For example, you can have the chance to tour the USS Navajo, the only US warship currently still in the hands of a foreign power. Your guides will take you to the DMV, where you can have the chance to take a picture with a soldier on the northern side of the most heavily fortified border on earth. Afterwards, you can take a tour of local microbreweries in the capital, Pyongyang, and check out some of the imposing statues of the Kim family, the ruling family of North Korea and the central figures in a cult of personality in the country.
A tour to North Korea is as much about the nature of politics and propaganda as it is about anything, and should you get the opportunity to go—jump at it. It is a fascinating insight into what life is like under a dictatorship, and how saturated a culture can become with propaganda. Especially in the West, we get an endless stream of negative press about North Korea, and it’s only fair to take a look at the other side of the coin.