North Korea is a unique place on the planet. It is known to be a secret country where any contact with no contact with the outside world. Many stereotypes and facts about it are true. However, some are completely baseless claims and rumours spreading in our side of the world. As a tourist, all I can speak about is from a traveller’s experience. So here’s a reality check!
You can’t visit North Korea on your own: True
Taking an independent trip to North Korea is impossible. All tourists must come and leave with a tour company. I am not a big fan of organised tours as I like to do things independently. But for North Korea, it was different. I chose to go with Koryo Tours as they are very organised and recommended by many people.
Read more: How to Visit North Korea
You only see what they show you: True
The Hermit Kingdom is well known for its secrecy. However, it is not a secret to be fully escorted by guides during the whole trip. Although I must say that they try to show what you signed up for as much as possible, which is true for any tour you would book in any other country. So you get what you signed up for. However, there is no free time to explore alone as it could be the case elsewhere. This makes this fact true, you only see what they show you. But that’s what you sign up for on the tour at the end!
You can’t take pictures in North Korea: False
This is absolutely false. I took hundreds of pictures in North Korea. I was free to take photos at all times except photos of soldiers in the streets (exception for soldiers doing guided tours). The weird thing is that they don’t like pictures of construction sites to be taken. This is due to the fact that a journalist took a photo of the pyramid hotel “Ryugyong Hotel” under construction and fabricated a bad story, which means bad PR for the DPRK (North Korea), so they weren’t happy about it. How about photos of people? The rule is common sense, not to take close up shots of people without their consent. I was quite happy to obey these simple rules but they didn’t mean that I couldn’t take any photos at all! I used all my memory card!
You can’t talk to North Koreans: False
This is absolutely false. I had many opportunities to talk to people. I don’t count the guides and all people that were meant to meet us but I’m talking about people in the streets. Although contact can be limited, there is still an opportunity to speak! However, the language barrier is an issue as I don’t speak Korean and they don’t speak English. The talk turns into smile and waves! One particular moment when I had an opportunity to speak to people is during a ride at Pyongyang Metro. During the rush hour, people were smiling that we were all squeezed into the carriage, it was really fun!
There are no people in the streets in North Korea: False
I saw so many people out in the streets. The streets of Pyongyang were quite active with many pedestrians, cars and buses. So it’s not true, there are people in the streets in North Korea. Even smaller cities I visited like Sariwon, Pyongsang and Kaesong were alive! However, I rarely noticed people sitting and doing nothing or relaxing at parks. Everyone seemed to be using the streets to go from point A to B, rather as using the streets for their own leisure.
You are not free to criticise the leadership: True
North Koreans can’t criticise their leaders and this applies to all tourists visiting. I think it’s very stupid to want to criticise the North Korean leaders once you are in there. In our world, we are free to criticise them so I think that tourists should by all means abstain from doing so when visiting North Korea. This fact is true, as visitor just as much as the locals, there is no freedom of speech.
North Koreans are rude and cold: False
North Koreans are warm people and they like to engage in a form of contact with people. They are curious about the outside world. Even tour guides who are used to work with foreigners, do ask questions about our lives and want to know more. They smile a lot and can also be very shy which proves how warm they are. In Pyongyang, just as in every other big cities, there are different types of people. Those who are rushing during the peak hours and ignore everyone else, and those who are slower and like to engage with visitors. At traffic lights, when our tour coach was in the traffic light, nearby buses were full of people waving at us! It was magical!
You need a visa to visit North Korea: True
As a Moroccan passport holder, I need visa to many countries around the world. So it is not a surprise that North Korea is one of them. However, everyone foreign visitor needs a visa, regardless of their nationality. To take a North Korean visa, you need to apply for a tour there and the company will take care of it. Koryo Tours, the company I travelled with, charges 50 euros for visa fees. The only document required is a copy/scan of the passport and they take care of the rest.
You can’t use internet: True
This fact is mostly true. Once I crossed North Korea, my phone went to “No Service” mode. My UK sim card was completely useless, so I had no signal and no internet. My phone battery actually lasted for 3 full days due to inactivity, which is normally not the case. The hotel where we stayed didn’t have any WiFi either. However, our Koryo Tours tour leaders had internet on them. When I asked, they said that it’s a special sim card that they get from the authorities but it costs so much! So it’s not entirely true that you can’t use internet but as regular visitor, you are not likely to get such sim card from the authorities so easily.
You can’t call your family from North Korea: False
As my UK sim card was on “No Service” mode, the only was to call the outside world was through telephones installed at the hotel reception. The calls are super expensive but it could be worth spending 5 euros for a one-minute call to reassure your family that you are safe. I abstained from calling, because I wanted a full de-connection. However, I alerted my family that for 5 full days during my stay in the DPRK, I will not be giving any sign and that they should start getting worried only 3 days after my trip ends. It did work so well, they didn’t expect a sign from me for 5 days of the trip + 3 days after.
You can’t talk about South Korea: False
North Korea and South Korea are technically at war. But it’s possible to talk about South Korea. Although it’s preferred to stick to some topics like peace, reunification and the Korean War, rather than tell them how advanced South Korea is, how free it is and how different it is.
You can’t take religious books to North Korea: True
It’s not very clear to me what religion people of North Korea practice. However, what I know for sure is that it’s none of the monotheist religions I grew up in. So it’s strictly forbidden to bring a Quran or a Bible and any other religious books. Some religious signs like a cross might be ok to wear. Hijabs for Muslim women is also accepted (I saw one on our flight from Beijing to Pyongyang).