Flying into Pyongyang’s new Terminal 2, you may find yourself questioning if the reports about North Korea’s ailing infrastructure are even true. The brand-new facility, opened last July, resembles a modern terminal with expansive glass, jet bridges, spacious boarding areas, duty-free shops, and flat screens all over. Even signage is written in English, and there’s an “Internet room” for surfing the Web (if only it was actually hooked up).
The photos, released by North Korea’s state media agency, shows the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, touring the terminal. While the photos – and the airport itself – is part of North Korea’s propaganda machine, used to promote the country under a different light, the terminal does seem to have a legitimate purpose of accommodating the influx of tourists.
In a nation known for its totalitarian rule and harsh punishments for anyone who defies it, tourism might be the last thing anybody thinks about. But thousands of tourists do visit the Hermit Kingdom each year, and many arrive from Western countries.
Travelling to North Korea isn’t as relaxed as a flight to Tahiti, but it’s doable – albeit with a lot of guidelines. Tourists must go through approved travel agencies, and visitors’ movements are tightly controlled and monitored. Even camera photos, particularly of Western tourists, are inspected before they leave. But for the adventure seekers who want to experience a destination only a few have, here’s how you can buy a ticket into Pyongyang’s shiny new airport.
So you want to visit North Korea? Think twice
In case you haven’t heard, the United States and North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) don’t exactly get along. It’s also worth considering the ethics of travelling there (human rights violations, economic inequality, etc.) Many Americans have also been arrested and detained for whatever reasons North Korean officials can come up with. According to the U.S. Department of State, North Korea has even detained Americans who were visiting legally and part of organized tours.
The State Department heavily advises citizens against going there. Unlike many Asian and European countries, the U.S. has no diplomatic relations (i.e., embassy) with North Korea, so you’re mostly on your own if something goes wrong.
So you still want to visit North Korea?
Despite the advisory and scary language, U.S. policy doesn’t actually restrict citizens from vacationing in the DPRK (customs and border control might ask you a lot of questions when you get back). If you do make it there, the State Department encourages citizens to check in with the U.S. embassy in Beijing (most flights into Pyongyang originate from China) and the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang. (Journalists and citizens of South Korea, however, cannot utilize the tourist visa.)
Don’t even think about crossing into North Korea via the Chinese border.
While North Korea has eased its policy on foreign visitors, you must go through one of the authorized travel agencies. Uri Tours, which facilitated former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Dennis Rodman’s visits, is your best bet. The U.S.-based agency has a terrific website that explains the ins and outs of travel in North Korea, and is the only U.S. agency that handles flights for Air Koryo, North Korea’s airline. All bookings are done online (PayPal accepted), and tours start at around $500 per person.
Nearly every foreign visitor requires a visa for entry (they will also need visas when transiting through China). Don’t even think about crossing into North Korea via the Chinese border; otherwise you might end up in a situation like journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling did. If you want to play it safe, the key things to remember are to follow your tour guide’s instructions, take photos of things that are permitted (nothing involving the military), and never wander off.
Flying on Soviet jets is part of the charm
Uri Tours describes Air Koryo as an airline with a “history of over 50 years in flight.” Others call it the worst airline on Earth. Skytrax, the airline-ranking agency, lists Air Koryo as its only one-star airline. But, since Pyongyang International is the airline’s hub, Air Koryo services nearly all flights to the new terminal, so you don’t really have a choice (Air China, a Star Alliance airline, does offer some flights.)
But flying on Air Koryo does present the rare opportunity to ride on Soviet-made aircraft, like the Tupolev Tu-204 or Ilyushin Il-18. Even Russia’s Aeroflot has retired these planes and opted for Boeing and Airbus jets, so flying Air Koryo is a bit of a step back in time – which in itself is part of the fun (we hope).
Technology circa 2000
North Korea isn’t a technology wasteland, but its IT infrastructure is going to feel a bit dated. Koryolink, the country’s only wireless provider, runs a 3G network, so don’t expect blazing speeds.
According to Uri Tours, the 3G network does allow access to the Internet, so you could send an email, tweet, or post a photo to Instagram. Uri Tours claims it has tested the service and that it works. There’s also Internet access (after all, this is the country accused of masterminding the Sony hack), but don’t expect the same experience as you would stateside.
Seeing how the DPRK censors everything, the government will monitor all your online activities. To avoid any extra scrutiny, it may be best to leave the smart devices and computers back home, and travel as low-tech as possible. Just because you can bring in an iPad or laptop, doesn’t mean you should.
Next page: North Korea’s must see tourist destinations
Things to see
Those highly choreographed stadium performances you’ve seen in pictures and videos? That’s the Arirang Festival, which is one part arts showcase, and one part gymnastics event. It’s sort of like the Olympics, except most of the world does not participate. This is possibly the DPRK’s grandest spectacle.
Dominating the Pyongyang skyline is the Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-story skyscraper shaped like a giant sci-fi pyramid. Under construction for more than 20 years, it still hasn’t opened for business.
Those who want to experience some North Korean powder can hit the ski resort at Masik-Ryong. Uri Tours offers ski packages, and the slopes look like any other around the world – except you’re probably trailed by real DPRK spies, just like in the Bond films. (Not so) fun fact: North Korean army labor built the resort in just 10 months.
It’s one of the world’s cleanest and most lavish subway systems, but that’s because few ever get to use it. Still, several stations are open to tourists, and they’re so deep, they double as bomb shelters.
For war history buffs, the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ or Panmunjom, is a must-see. But don’t worry about missing it, because your tour guide will probably force you to go – regardless of how you feel about this sad period in history.
Interactions with North Korean citizens are highly regulated, but according to Lonely Planet, this bowling alley is a good place to meet some locals.
This giant supermarket was the setting for Kim Jong Il’s last public appearance, where he continued to “look at things.” Tell your tour guide you insist on paying respects to the “Dear Leader.”
Part of the charm of international travel is sampling what other countries interpret as your country’s cuisine. But what does a closed-off society that has a nearly zero relationship with the world know about international eats? As Epicurious experienced first-hand, pretty much nothing, even though Kim Jong Il sent a team of chefs to Italy to learn how to make an authentic pie. Still, when in Rome (or not).