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Surprisingly many people from the USA would like to visit the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is officially called. Why? Because it's there, because it's unknown, because they have family ties there, or simply because nobody else they know has been there.
For my own reasons (curiosity; extensive experience and involvement with issues of human rights and self-determination in Kashmir -- the other partitioned country with heavily-fortified borders between two portions militarily dominated by hostile nuclear powers; a belief that we have the most to learn -- for better or worse -- from places that are most different; and the inability of most travel agents in the USA to advise would-be visitors to the DPRK) I've spent a good deal of time and effort over the years corresponding and meeting with people who have visited the DPRK, knocking on the doors (sometimes literally) of DPRK government offices, and tracking down English-language timetables and tourist literature.
So here's some background information for those who hope to visit this most insular and unusual country. Note that this information is for citizens of the USA. Citizens of most countries other than the USA or Republic of Korea (ROK), as South Korea is officially called, can obtain visas from DPRK consulates and embassies, and visit the DPRK as tourists, with far fewer complications (excepted for the fact that the DPRK has embassies or consulates in very few countries).
Many Americans assume that, as with Cuba, it's the USA that restricts travel by USA citizens to the DPRK. In fact, the situation is exactly the opposite: since 1995, the only serious obstacle to tourism from the USA to the DPRK has been the North Korean government's policy not to give tourist visas to citizens of the USA (or of South Korea, the "Republic of Korea").
Prior to 1995, the objections were greater from the USA government than from the North Korean government, and it was illegal for travel agencies in the USA to arrange travel to the DPRK. As with Cuba, however, it was possible for USA citizens to get to the DPRK with relatively little risk of USA government retribution provided they made all arrangements through an intermediate country, usually China, and I know a few people who went that way.
The (USA) "Trading With The Enemy Act" regulations were revised in early 1995 to create a special exception for travel-related spending by USA tourists in the DPRK of up to US$300/person/day; the per-diem spending limit was later eliminated entirely. Since then, licenses from the USA Treasury Department have not been required for travel-related spending by USA tourists. It is now legal for travel agents in the USA to arrange tours and transportation to the DPRK.
(Most business dealings and financial transactions between the USA and the DPRK for purposes other than travel and tourism remain embargoed by the USA government, however, and require advance permission from the USA Treasury Department. But tourism is now the exception.)
Details of current USA government policies and advice concerning travel to the DPRK and business with the DPRK are included in the Consular Information Sheet for the DPRK from the USA State Department, and the Synopsis of OFAC Sanctions for the Travel Industry from the USA Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) -- the significnat aspect of whihc is that is does not mention ay sanctions against travel to the DPRK. (Citizens of the USA may also be surprised that, although there are some sanctions against Iran and Libya, most tourist travel to Iran or Libya by USA citizens is permitted without the need for any special permisison from OFAC or any USA agency.)
A few groups of ordinary USA-citizen tourists visited the DPRK legally in 1995, and during that time the KITC (the North Korean government travel organization) worked with USA travel agents. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity lasted only about 6 months before it was closed from the DPRK side. In August 1995 the DPRK suddenly stopped issuing any visas to tourists travelling on USA passports, and the KITC stopped dealing with USA travel agents. My requests for reservations or further information regarding arrangements for a group I had been planning to escort to the DPRK went unanswered.
Even a group that had been promised, by the DPRK Mission to the U.N. in New York, that they would receive visas, were turned away at the DPRK embassy in Beijing, and returned to the USA without ever getting to the DPRK.
No explanation for the 1995 change in policy was given, but my speculation is that it was a response to extremely anti-DPRK publicity produced by some stories in the USA press written by USA reporters who visited the DPRK in the guise of tourists during this period. The most detailed and embarrassing was a long article in a Korean-language USA-based newspaper by a (South) Korean-American USA-citizen reporter.
(Many journalists try to visit the DPRK in the guise of tourists. This further alienates the DPRK government and reduces the chances of real tourists being given visas. The DPRK will not knowingly issue tourist visas to journalists of any nationality, and reputable tour companies will not knowingly jeopardize their ability to provide services to bona fide tourists by assisting journalists masquerading as tourists.)
Since then, so far as I know, the only tourists who have been able to visit the DPRK have been a few groups invited for "Arirang", a special government-sponsored festival held at irregular intervals of several years.
In 2006, Asia Pacific Travel, an established tour company based in the USA, organized (expensive) tours to the DPRK during the "Arirang" festival for USA citizens, with visas to be issued by the DPRK embassy in Beijing during a stopover en route to the DPRK. The promise of visas could be withdrawn at any time. But I believe that this is a legitimate tour offering sanctioned, at least as of now, by the DPRK government.
I can't afford to go myself, but I would welcome reports from any of my readers who do go on these tours. One reader, Paul Karl Lukacs, was in Beijing in 2007 on an around-the-world trip and took a side trip to the DPRK for Arirang, as part of a tour group. He described his visit in a series of posts beginning with this one in this category in his excellent blog, The Nomad Lawyer (Go to the category page and keep clicking on "older posts" to page back through the blog entries from his visit to the DPRK in 2007.)
The USA and the DPRK still do not have diplomatic relations. The DPRK Mission to the U.N. -- the only official DPRK representation in the USA -- does not issue visas, arrange tours, or provide any tourist arrangements. They have declined to comment on any of my or other would-be tourists questions related to tourism or tourist policies. I went to the DPRK embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam in October 1995 to try to ask about the policy toward US-citizen visitors, but was turned away. Others have found other DPRK embassies similarly unresponsive.
From time to time I have heard a variety of rumors regarding intermediaries in various countries who might be able to arrange for tours and/or tourist visas to the DPRK for USA citizens, but despite my best efforts I have been unable to confirm any of them.
Some USA citizens have been issued business visas for a variety of purposes:
Tourist visits to the DPRK by citizens of most countries other than the USA remain possible, although difficult. A DPRK travelogues from 1995 by Paul Bakker, who I later met when he was in the USA, originally posted to the rec.travel and rec.travel.asia newsgroups, is available at http://www.koreanwar.org/html/nkbakker.htm. (Please note that this travelogue has not been updated recently, and included obsolete contact information both for the author, Paul Bakker, and for myself.)
Some other travelogues and collections of information about the DPRK by academics, aid workers, etc. are at:
A change in policy might not be publicly announced. But if it is, official news releases from the DPRK's "Korea Central News Agency" (which would likely include any public announcement of a change in DPRK visa policy) are available in English at: http://www.kcna.co.jp/index.htm.
Citizens of countries other than the USA and the ROK (South Korea) may visit the DPRK as tourists, but must arrange travel and visas through agencies or DPRK representatives outside the USA or ROK. (It is possible that USA citizens who are also citizens of another country other than the ROK may be able to visit the DPRK using their non-USA, non-ROK passport, but such travel would have to be arranged through intermediaries outside the USA, and I have not been able to confirm whether it is possible.)
One PRC-based company that arranges such tours (for citizens of countries other than the USA and the ROK, and with a special warning to journalists against attempting to apply for visas as tourists), Koryo Tours, has an English-language web site with sample itineraries and prices at http://www.koryogroup.com. It's interesting, but unsurprising, that despite the fact that visas are not being granted to USA citizens the tour and ticket prices on this and many other Web sites are specified in US dollars.
If you can get a visa, you still have to get to the DPRK. As with visas, this poses special problems for those coming from the USA or ROK (as the contestants found out on the reality-TV show The Amazing Race, you can't travel directly between the ROK and DPRK), although unlike the visa problems the transport problems shouldn't be insurmountable.
Since 1999, the national airline of the DPRK, Air Koryo, also known as Chosonminhang (IATA airline code "JS") is no longer embargoed by the USA government. (Cubana and Libyan Arab Airlines remain embargoed; among other airlines more recently removed from the embargoed list are Iran Air and Lebanon's Middle East Airlines. The status of Syrian Arab Airlines remains unclear: it isn't on the U.S. government list of "Specially designated nationals" subject to sanctions, but computerized reservation systems inhibit U.S. travel agencies from making reservations or issuing tickets on it.)
Although it has joined IATA, the international airline association, Air Koryo has no representation in the USA and does not participate in any of the USA-based computerized reservation systems or airline financial clearinghouses. So, as a practical matter, it is impossible for USA travel agents to make reservations or obtain tickets on Air Koryo except by having a local agent buy them at a Air Koryo office in some country to which they fly. So the only likely way to be able to obtain Air Koryo tickets would be as part of an air-inclusive tour package to the DPRK from China or Russia.
In addition to its domestic routes, Air Koryo flies only (so far as I have been able to verify) from Pyongyang (IATA airport and city code "FNJ") to Beijing, Moscow, and Khabarovsk (in the Russian Far East). A variety of air routes are available, via either the Atlantic or the Pacific, between the USA and Beijing, Moscow, or Khabarovsk. (Ironically, the most direct and commonly-used air routes from the USA to Khabarovsk are via Seoul, ROK.)
There are also international trains between Pyongyang and Moscow (on either of two routes, one of which is the longest continuous train route in the world), Beijing (via Shenyang), and Ussuriysk (in the Russian Far East, between and with onward connections to and from Vladivostok to the south and Khabarovsk to the north). The route via the Russian Far East, crossing between Khasan (Russia) and Tumangan (DPRK) is the shortest but least used by foreign tourists. It's not apparent on any but the most detailed maps, but the DPRK and Russia have a very short land border along the coast; the DPRK-Russian Far East train does not pass through China at all.
Helmut Uttenthaler, an Austrian railway employee, travelled with a friend from Europe to the DPRK by train via Russia in September 2008, and has posted a detailed account of his trip, in English, intended particularly for railroad aficionados and including extremely precise details and photos of the border crossing. With respect to the rules for entry (for Austrian citizens) on this route, he wrote me that, "We used the train route from Russia via the border crossing Khasan/Tumangan (which is also mentioned on your site). Since the mid-90s this route is officially not approved for tourists and KITC (the DPRK state tourist company) doesn't offer this route. Also every travel agency told us, that going via Tumangan is not possible. So we had to do it without telling them in advance, and I think we have been the first tourists for some years enetering North Korea at Tumangan (apart from Russians, who can visit special tourist restorts in the Rajin-Sonbong special economic zone)."
For details of these rail routes, and other information, the best topographic maps of the DPRK available in the USA are the US Air Force Tactical Pilotage Charts, available from Maplink (http://www.maplink.com) and other distributors. The only other widely-available map with decent detail of the DPRK, based on the TPC's, is the Nelles "Korea" sheet (also available from Maplink and elsewhere).
Schedules (not necessarily up to date, but they don't change that often) for these trains are given in the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable, available at many libraries, in Table 5000 (Moscow-Pyongyang, both routes), Table 5250 (Beijing-Pyongyang), and table 5255 (Ussuriysk- Pyongyang). Pay no attention to the purported prices given in the Thomas Cook timetables; there is no way to anticipate how much tickets will cost on any of these routes.
None of these trains can be booked or ticketed in advance from outside the DPRK, Russia, or China, except as part of a tour package to the DPRK. Travel agents in the USA can arrange flights to Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Moscow, or Beijing, but you would probably have to make arrangements locally for onward train tickets from one of those places to the DPRK.
All of these routes are subject to change, of course. Most of these flights and some of these trains are only once a week, and almost all routes to and from the DPRK involve layovers of at least a night in each direction in Russia or China. Both China and Russia require visas from citizens of most other countries including the USA, so you would need 2 visas, or a double-entry visa, to one or the other or both of these countries as well as a visa to the DPRK.
Chinese visas for USA citizens can be had for the asking, on payment of the applicable fee, and are easier to obtain in the USA than in most other places (including in particular Hong Kong).
Russian business or tourist visas require local sponsorship; if you prepay for hotel accommodations, the hotel can sponsor you for a visa for the specific dates for which you have prepaid. Russian transit visas can only be issued once you have confirmed tickets in and out of Russia, but do not require prepayment for accommodations nor sponsorship. Allow ample time (at least a month) for processing of your application for a Russian visa, even a transit visa. Expedited processing by Russian consulates or embassies is expensive. In my experience, the Russian consulates in San Francisco and Seattle are considerably less overworked, and more cooperative, than the Russian consulate in New York or the Russian embassy in Washington, DC.
All things change, and I hope the information here will change as well, to make it easier for me and others from the USA to visit the DPRK. If you get there, send me a postcard -- and let me know how you managed it, so I can update this advice for others.
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