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Is North Korea Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

Is North Korea Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

As Korean culture experiences a meteoric rise in Western nations, traveling to the countries of the Korean peninsula is more alluring than ever.

However, the country of North Korea offers a sharp contrast to its southern neighbor. Read on to learn our top travel tips and safety concerns if you are considering a visit to North Korea.

Is North Korea Safe to Visit?

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs in the United States lists North Korea as a country on its does not travel list. The official name for North Korea is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The most common safety concern facing Americans and other foreign visitors is arrest and wrongful detention. North Korea does not report crime statistics, as their society remains very private and mysterious.

Some risk of petty theft and counterfeit items exists, but wrongful detention remains the top threat to North Korean travelers. Traveling to North Korea presents serious dangers because of a lack of diplomatic relations or an embassy in North Korea.

Needs like medical care, legal assistance, or other sources of emergency help are either not available or difficult to access for most foreign travelers to this reclusive Asian nation.

Crime in North Korea

High-profile detentions from figures like Otto Warmbier in 2017 provide a reminder of the most common threat in North Korea. Because the United States and North Korea do not share diplomatic relations, rights like due process of the law no longer apply.

Sudden arrest and imprisonment are a possibility when visiting North Korea.

Seemingly low-stakes infractions and cultural missteps, like watching banned television shows or taking an unauthorized photograph, could result in lengthy imprisonment. 

Citizens who attempt to flee the country are also tossed into prison. More than 120,000 people live in the notorious prison and labor camps within North Korea. Prisoners survive on starvation rations and are subjected to physical and psychological torture.

Reportedly, Americans receive a different experience than prisoners from other countries. Several survivors of North Korean detention say they lived in a hotel room or small private home, enduring hours of interrogation and psychological agony.

Americans rarely experience North Korea’s brutal forced labor camps. One crucial way to avoid criminal trouble in North Korea is by ensuring specific, proper travel documentation.

First, receive an appropriate passport validation from the United States government for approved travel to North Korea. This may take one to three months for approval. Most airlines need to route through China to eventually land in North Korea.

Traveling through China requires a special visa. Plan at least six months to achieve approval for a Chinese visa. Don’t forget to register your arrival in North Korea with the proper authorities within 24 hours of landing.

Your tour’s official host or hotel should facilitate your registration, but keep this regulation in mind. The Department of State provides somber advice for travelers hopeful to visit this reclusive country.

Drafting a will, discussing long-term plans for the care of children, pets, and belongings, and designating beneficiaries are all recommended by the United States before potential travel to North Korea. 

The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) sends alerts to American tourists to North Korea for up-to-date communication and to help locate you in an emergency.

While the Korean War began more than 70 years ago, North and South Korea technically remain at war. There is a small risk of the outbreak of gunfire or nuclear escalation. Always pay attention to your surroundings and monitor the news for an extended time before traveling.

Counterfeit or pirated goods allure tourists and locals alike. These products help locals connect to the outside world they are severely divorced from. Tourists see these goods as unforgettable souvenirs of the Hermit Kingdom

However, these products are illegal in North Korea. Counterfeit products are also illegal in the United States, so it is best to avoid these goods altogether.

Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods

DMZ in North Korea to help answer is North Korea Safe to Visit

PANMUNJEON, SOUTH KOREA – APRIL 9: South Korean soldiers stand guard at the Demilitarized Zone on the North Korean border on April 9, 2016 in Panmunjeon, South Korea/Joshua Davaenport/Shutterstock

Most Western travelers cannot enter North Korea with a passport alone. For example, an American passport needs special validation from the U.S. State Department. 

Because of the uneasy relations between these two nations, visitors to North Korea must be individually approved as appropriate representatives of the United States. Those who travel to North Korea do so at their own risk and expense.

For those who are not journalists, diplomats, or other specialized individuals, your visit to North Korea will be organized through a tightly-controlled Pyongyang tour.

While tourism in North Korea may seem strange, this industry is one way to generate money for a nation crippled by international economic sanctions. Official tours rarely reach outside of the capital city, Pyongyang.

Travelers adhere to a tight schedule and are kept under a watchful eye. It is challenging to enter a questionable neighborhood while visiting North Korea, as your movement is monitored. 

When you visit North Korea, it is vital to understand your privacy is not a right. Surveillance, questioning, and searching of personal belongings like cell phones are possible without warning. Straying from an official tour is not recommended at any time.

Attempting to visit the countryside or getting too close to the Demilitarized Zone could result in violence. Freedom of movement within North Korea is not a right. Your authorized tour will receive an official host. Stay within your group to maintain personal safety.

Diplomatic Relations

An armistice ended the Korean War in 1953, with a tightly-monitored Demilitarized Zone separating the newly-created North Korea and South Korea.

Before this conflict, the Korean Peninsula operated as one society with a rich, dynastic history and unique customs. Now, the peninsula is split at the 38th parallel. A fortified path marked with razor-wire and constant surveillance divides these two nations.

These two newly-formed nations could not be more different. South Korea appears like a contemporary society, balancing the traditions and culture of Eastern nations while setting the competitive trends of Western society.

Companies like Samsung, Kia, and LG all have headquarters in South Korea. In contrast, North Korea operates as a strictly authoritarian society.

Pyongyang is the capital city, perfectly staged for normal, clinical performances of daily living. Citizens of the city also display public displays of affection for statues of historical authoritarian leaders.

Outside of the city, extreme poverty grips rural villagers and farmers. Images of North Korea display a rigid lifestyle of unflinching service to their leader.

This authoritarian regime and mysterious nuclear program mean North Korea and the United States do not enjoy a positive diplomatic relationship. Many other nations, including Canada and Australia, also advise against traveling to North Korea for these reasons.

Tourists to North Korea often do not realize they are breaking the law because of the strict, unorthodox lifestyle that remains largely unknown. Then, suddenly, they are imprisoned for a minor mistake or faux pas.

Choosing to travel to North Korea means accepting a few worrisome truths. Because of a lack of diplomatic relations, the United States cannot help you should you encounter trouble. Instead, the Embassy of Sweden is an intermediary between the United States and North Korea.

This need for a middleman makes every diplomatic decision excruciatingly slow. Traveling to North Korea means you agree to take on all costs associated with needed healthcare or legal services while in the country.

Many insurance companies and plans like Medicare do not work in North Korea. Emergency services are not guaranteed within this authoritarian nation.

We recommend checking out medical evacuation insurance to help ensure healthcare in case of emergency when in North Korea. Paying for medical care would be challenging in North Korea, but money, in general, requires careful planning.

Foreigners are not allowed to use the local currency, called the North Korean Won. Instead, travelers can pay with U.S. dollars, Euro, and Chinese yuan. Credit and debit cards, traveler’s cheques, and checks are not accepted, and tourists cannot use ATMs.

Tourists must travel safely with enough cash for the entire trip in small denominations. Costs can add up quickly in North Korea, as official permits, tolls, guides, and other expenses pile up.

Natural Disasters

North Korean man with an cows in the countryside

Torsten Pursche/Shutterstock

The Asian Disaster Reduction Center (ADRC) released a report claiming that 4 out of 10 North Koreans endured the destruction of natural disasters in 2019. More than 10.1 million North Koreans suffer from severe weather events.

A sobering statistic, this ranks North Korea as the Asian nation most affected by natural disasters. Typhoons and flooding present the greatest risk.

Typhoon Lingling killed five and left 27,801 victims. This one 2019 storm caused $24 million in damages to this poverty-stricken nation. The exact opposite weather pattern, severe drought, also claims several victims each year.

The 2019 drought caused 395 per every 1,000 people to suffer. Drought causes cascading issues for North Korean citizens. In addition to the lack of water and punishing temperatures, drought kills the essential food crops grown in North Korea.

Because this nation is cut off from trade and economic activity with the rest of the world, North Korea must grow its food. This malnourished society cannot survive periods of harsh weather that threaten its crucial acres of crops.

North Korea sits on a peninsula, jutting into the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan. This location means this nation is sometimes victim to Pacific Rim earthquakes and tsunamis.

With the persistent threat of climate change, extreme weather patterns appear more frequently around the world, including in North Korea. Know how to respond to these natural disasters before you visit North Korea.

Things to Consider

Weighing a trip to North Korea and keeping yourself safe means understanding unpredictable laws and customs like:

  • Always ask for the Swedish Embassy
  • Legal rights (due process, right to an attorney, etc.) do not exist
  • Never publicly disrespect current or former government leaders
  • Keep proper travel paperwork available at all times
  • Leave 30 – 90 days to achieve a North Korean passport validation
  • Leave six months for a Chinese visa
  • Do not publicly display religion
  • Never take unauthorized photos of North Koreans
  • Do not interact with unauthorized North Koreans
  • Only shop at stores available to foreigners
  • Never possess drugs, pornography, or media critical of North Korea
  • Do not expect personal privacy
  • Do not expect proper medical care
  • Cash payment is required at hospitals; no insurance or Medicare is accepted
  • Credit cards and checks are not accepted
  • Stock up on small denominations of U.S. Dollars, Euro, or Chinese yuan
  • Do not touch or remove photography or artwork of leaders
  • No public displays of affection

Frequently Asked Questions

Tanks on front of Pyongyang during the Victory Day Parade for a piece titled Is North Korea Safe to Visit

Military tanks parade in front of waving crowds through the streets of Pyongyang, North Korea, during 2013 Victory Day parade/Jack Hoyes/Shutterstock

If you still have questions, here are the answers to some of the most frequent queries regarding North Korea.

Can people leave North Korea?

Traveling into and out of North Korea is strictly monitored. Even traveling within North Korea does not escape scrutiny. Citizens are generally prohibited from leaving the country, and emigration or immigration endures intense restrictions.

What happens if you escape North Korea?

North Koreans caught attempting to escape North Korea face extreme punishments. Imprisonment in political prisoners and forced labor camps can stretch for life. Torture, severe working conditions, and isolation are common in this environment.

What do North Koreans celebrate?

Religion is banned in North Korea, so holidays like Christmas, Passover, or Eid al-Fitr are not celebrated here. However, North Koreans party hard for the New Year. The birthday of the country’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, is also elaborately celebrated each year in April.

What year is it in North Korea?

Kim Il-Sung’s birthday also influences which year it is in North Korea. His birth year was 1912, which represents the new first year of North Korea. This means the year 1912 was called Juche 1. The year 2012 was considered Juche 100.

Is North Korea poor?

North Korea is an authoritarian society cut off from most of the world’s economy. These facts result in a nation that must rely on itself for all of the people’s needs. About 60 percent of North Korean citizens live in poverty.

Is there WiFi in North Korea?

Yes! WiFi access is available to government workers and foreign visitors. However, access will be limited. Monitoring of all online activity is standard.

Does North Korea have electricity?

The capital city enjoys electricity and other coal and hydro-powered amenities. However, only about one-quarter of North Korean citizens receive electricity.

Can you drink alcohol in North Korea?

Yes! Alcohol receives no restrictions in North Korea. While a minimum age is not determined, it is generally unacceptable for teenagers or students, including college students, to drink alcohol.

Are there sports in North Korea?

Yes! North Koreans participate in several popular sports. Professional marathoners, basketball and soccer squads, and even professional wrestlers compete in North Korea. This nation holds one golf course and many popular hockey rinks.

So, Is North Korea Safe to Visit?

North Korea’s inhumane treatment of its citizens and unstable nuclear program eliminates the current possibility of diplomatic relations between this reclusive nation and most of the world. 

Because of this lack of international cooperation, travel to North Korea is not recommended. The increased risk of unlawful detention and imprisonment and the potential for warfare or nuclear escalation outbursts make visiting this nation unsafe.

Fortunately for you, we’ve written about hundreds of other beautiful and exotic destinations that you just have to visit. Happy travels!