DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) is not democratic but an isolated, strictly-controlled, oppressive state. It is a hostile and totalitarian country guided by a religious sect-like Juche ideology. I travelled to DPRK to meet the people, not the state. Access is prohibited for individual tourists so you need to travel with a tour group. There are many tour groups travelling to DPRK. They mostly offer the same package, albeit at slightly different prices. I travelled with the highly recommended Young Pioneer Tours.
The facts: Roughly 8,000 Westerners visit DPRK every year. Every North Korean adult receives 600 g rice every day. They also receive vouchers for food and clothes. GDP (2015) is estimated to be $16B, a figure similar to Iceland. However, all parallels end here as North Korea has a population close to 25 million and Iceland has a population close to 325,000. Productivity is poor as several North Korean's are motivated to do the job of 1 Westerner. They excel at waiting...waiting for the next coded instructions perhaps. North Korea remains enigmatic to Westerners, especially South Koreans. However, Chinese people see North Korea as a poor neighbouring country and, although nearly 100,000 Chinese tourists visit North Korea every year, they mostly visit Sinuiju for 1-2 days only. Bizarrely, North Korea is not a popular holiday destination for the Chinese.
North Koreans see the Korean peninsula as one country. They believe, that in 20-30 years, North and South Korea will unite under North Korean rule. GDP per capita for South Korea is around $35,000 compared to $580 in DPRK. Unsurprizingly, South Koreans don't understand what they are talking about. North Koreans will tell you that Sinuiju is the 10th largest city in their country. The truth is that it is the 4th largest city in North Korea and the 10th largest city in the Korean peninsula.
Things you should know about being an Extreme Tourist in DPRK (GMT + 7.5).
1. How do you travel around DPRK?
There is only one 10 AM 3-carriage train that leaves Dandong Station every day and crosses the Friendship Bridge over the Yalu River. Even allowing for a 2 hour customs stop, it takes a further 4 hours to reach Pyongyang. Travel through DPRK is by state-driven bus. Each tour group has 2 guides, courtesy of North Korean Travel, watching every step you take. After a warm welcome, they tell you the do's and dont's on the bus:-
No photos of military personnel,
Take whole body photos of Kim Jong-Un and Kim Jong-Il.
No walking beyond the hotel confines if you don't want to encounter unexpected outcomes (the guide's words exactly!).
No handing out of religious objects or text.
Handle all North Korean publications with care. Even DPRK marketing brochures have biblical status.
How much time you want to spend in North Korea depends on what you want to know about North Korea. Day trips are available from Dandong (China border city 850 KM from Beijing). The cost for 1 day guided tours to Sinuiju (North Korean 4th Largest city) is about 1400 RMB (est. $200) for Westerners. I know an excellent English-speaking local Chinese guide, David, based in Dandong. He can arrange your stay in Dandong and all tours to Sunuiju, DPRK. Good hotels such as Hilton Garden Inn are not expensive in China. Contact him on email@example.com. You wont regret it. Why spend 3 days in Beijing when you can see the Great Wall of China and DPRK from Dandong. A recommended 2 night itinerary is as follows:
Day 1: Depart Beijing South Station approx. 2 pm - Arrive Dandong approx. 8 pm. Stay overnight in Dandong.
Day 2: Visit Sinuiji (DPRK) for 1 day. Stay overnight in Dandong.
Day 3: Visit Great Wall of China and the Broken Bridge across the Yalu river in the morning. Lunch at North Korean restaurant.
Depart Dandong Station approx. 4 pm- Arrive Beijing South Station approx. 10 pm.
2. Is Pyongyang a safe city?
Even though locals receive 30-40 RMB per month, and although untested, this feels like the safest city in the world.
3. Do many locals speak English?
Even though tourists are not allowed to engage with locals, hardly any North Koreans speak English. Many of the guides are from wealthy and privileged diplomatic families and speak good English. They are used to meeting Westerners and are highly trusted by the DPRK Politburo. Guides earn minimum 200-300 RMB per month excluding tips. They are also rewarded with free holidays to China every year. When we did have contact with the local people, they were friendly and very courteous. Contrary to reports in the Western media, we encountered no hostility at all. North Koreans are really nice people! They're just stuck between an ideological rock and a hard place.
4. What essential stuff do I need to bring that cannot be bought in DPRK?
Everything. If you are only visiting Pyongyang, you will be staying in one of 8 tourist hotels. Sosan Hotel has been recently renovated and is probably one of the best. You can purchase basic toiletries in reception. Unfortunately, the iconic and conspicuous 105 floor 330 m high Pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel remains unfinished. Construction began in 1987 and it remains not only the tallest building in North Korea but the world's largest unoccupied building.
5. Can you recommend any restaurants?
No! The only recognizable restaurants are at the airport. You don't see many passengers at the airport partly because there are no scheduled flights. You never eat alongside North Korean locals. You have very little direct and meaningful contact with locals. Any contact was mostly limited to waitresses in restaurants and sales assistants in tourist shops. We only ever saw Westerners eating in restaurants.
6. Can I jump into a local taxi in Pyongyang?
North Koreans need permits to travel within DPRK. In Pyongyang, taxis are for the privileged few. Taxis can only be paid for in dollars and used by wealthy North Koreans. Most North Koreans walk or use the 17-station subway. You cannot buy cars in DPRK. Cars are handed to VIPs such as the military, scientists and Olympic gold winners! As ownership is highly cherished, all cars and taxis are in immaculate condition.
7. DPRK Roaming?
Your phones don't work in North Korea so why risk having it confiscated at the border. There is no internet either.
8. How do I change money in DPRK?
There are no ATMs in North Korea. Most places tourists are taken to accept Dollars, Euros and Chinese RMB.
9. How do I get a visa to visit DPRK?
I suggest you get a double entry visa for China as most tour groups leave from Beijing. The tour group will arrange the North Korean visa for you. Either meet the tour groups in Beijing or Dandong depending on your route into DPRK. At the time of writing, China had stopped all flights between Beijing and Pyongyang so the only reliable route into and out of DPRK remains the Dandong-Sinuiju border control.
9. Why visit DPRK via Dandong?
Don't waste time in Beijing. Dandong offers the most Easterly point of the Great Wall of China, known as Tiger Mountain, the Friendship and Broken Bridges on the Yalu River and Sights of Sinuiju, DPRK. And when you are peckish, you have high quality North Korean restaurants served by North Korean waitresses close to the Friendship Bridge.
10. Can I travel to Seoul from Dandong?
Combine your trip to North and South Korea. There is no need to travel to South Korea via Beijing. Be smart and get an overnight ferry from Dandong direct to Incheon, South Korea. The local Dandong Chinese guide, David can help organize this for you. As a side, most North Koreans will flee to South Korea as South Korea (and not China) will offer them political asylum.