In 2010, North Korea lifted the restrictions on American citizens traveling to the country. They are now able to visit anytime of the year, but they cannot travel by train and are not allowed to participate in homestay programs. Tourists do not have the same freedom as in other destinations, and they must be part of a tour and have a Korean escort. All visitors need a visa, which will be issued once a tour is booked, approved by authorities and paid for. It sounds a bit daunting, and travel is certainly limited, but that doesn't appear to be detering guests.
According to Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, about 3,500 Western and 40,000 Chinese tourists went to North Korea in 2011. And the number is expected to grow this year, especially as the image of the country continues to change under the rule of Kim Jong-un, who took over in December after the death of his father, Kim Jong II.
Tour companies, like Koryo, said there are many misconceptions about North Korea and its people, but the country offers a variety of great experiences just like any place else...tourists just need to give it a chance. Another common belief is that all tourists must have the same fixed itinerary that the government dictates, but there are a variety of tour packages available. Koryo, for instance, offers itineraries that include museums, parks, monuments and other areas around the capital Pyongyang; the demilitirized zone on the North Korean side of the border of South Korea; and Hamhung, an industrial city that was opened to tourists in 2010.
There are plenty of other tour groups that offer itineraries to North Korea, and the price of the vacation will vary depending on group size, trip length and sightseeing options.
Even though the country has opened its doors a crack to tourists, indicating that it is becoming a little less rigid on government control, there are still plenty of restrictions placed on guests. Visitors cannot use cellphones, send email, walk down the street without an escort, talk to strangers or take pictures of people or places that are not approved by the escort. (For an interesting account from a reporter, check out this article from the Washington Post.)
Juche TowerI realize that some of this might be putting a few of you off the idea of visiting North Korea, but if you're still with me, here are a few places that are highly recommended to see once you are in the country--and hopefully the tour you booked takes you to these places:
- Kim II Sung Stadium
- Kim II Sung Square
- Tower of the Juche Idea
- Daedong River
- Koguryo Tombs
- Arch of Reunification
- Geumsusan Memorial Palace
Mass GamesOne of the best attractions in North Korea is the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, popular festivals held at the Kim II Sung Stadium. The events run for two months and held annually on Kim's birthday. The whole thing is kicked off by over 30,000 school children holding colored cards that create a massive mosaic. Guests can witness complex and highly choreographed group routines by dancers and gymnasts.
There is a lot of great information on more attractions in the country at the official Korean Tourism website, which mostly features travel in South Korea. Still, there is a section dedicated to the spectacular sites of North Korea.
Despite the wonderful sites of the country, and the changes that are being made within its government, I am not completely sold on taking a trip there. I am all about spontaneity when I travel, being able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, and the restrictions set by North Korea definitely hinder my ability to explore freely. Given that fact, I'd say I'll hold off on traveling to North Korea until it gets a little more lacks with tourists--though that's not likely to happen very soon.