North Korea

Ryugyong Hotel by Joseph Ferris III
[CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The more I read about North Korea the more fascinated I become. I've also read many people who have been there say it's the most fascinating unique place they've ever been. After lots of research, I propose a trip!

How long for?
I'm thinking 6 nights in the country, but could be persuaded otherwise.

Ideally the last week of July so we will be there for Victory Day (July 27, which this year is the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War), and the mass games (July 22nd or 27th to September 9th) which is the number one thing I want to see. If not then, possibly over August 15th (Liberation Day).

What will we see?
Lots of things - the itineraries are generally pretty packed. Highlights include the mass games performance, seeing the mausoleum of the Kims, the International Friendship Exhibition which contains hundreds of thousands of gifts from foreign dignitaries, the DMZ, lot of monuments and the general craziness that is everyday North Korean life. Depending on how many people want to come, I propose either joining a group tour such as Group B of or making a private independent tour which would cover similar things.

How much will it cost?
About EUR 1350 (AUD 1700 or USD 1750) for the North Korea tour (including flights to and from Beijing, visa, guides, transport, accommodation, food, attractions, cheap seats at the mass games, standard tips for guides etc). You might want extra money for souvenirs, better mass games seats, drinks above the standard beer and water provided at meals, or a few optional activities such as rides at the theme park or bowling (usually under EUR 5 each).
If we get at least 6 people and decide to get a private tour, costs will be slightly more.
In addition, you will need flights to and from Beijing and probably some accommodation in China (depending on flight timings). Chinese transit visas are complicated, and may not cover this trip so you may need to apply for a multi-entry Chinese visa.
You should also get travel insurance.

Will the trip be comfortable?
Hotels are comfortable; 4* in the capital with 24h electricity, air conditioning, hot water etc plus a bunch of "luxuries" - pool, revolving restaurant, karaoke etc. If we end up staying outside of the capital, hotels are 3* with sporadic electricity and hot water are (though you may be able to upgrade to a better hotel). The food will be satisfactory but not amazing. It might be problematic if you are vegan. The planes may be old.

Can I go?
Yes, unless you are South Korean, live in South Korea, or are a professional journalist or photographer. (Before 2010, US citizens could only go during the mass games but can now go anytime. US citizens must fly into and out of the county; they can not take the train).

Will going prevent me from going to other countries later?
No. In fact, North Korea doesn't stamp your passport. If you go by train, you will get a China stamp that could give it away, but I can't find any reference to any country caring.

Isn't it dangerous? Didn't tours all get cancelled a few weeks ago?
No, it's not really dangerous and even with the recent event almost no western tours were cancelled (some day trips for Chinese tourists were cancelled).

Is there anything I can't do while in the country?
Yes, for example:
Go anywhere unless accompanied by a North Korean guide.
Take photos of anything not "allowed" (e.g. military everywhere but at the DMZ, anything that makes North Korea look bad, closeups of people, lots of other stuff...).
Communicate with the outside world. Technically, there are ways to, but they are complicated, monitored and expensive so you're probably better off assuming you won't. You will however get international TV in your hotel room.
Argue with propaganda told to you.

What can't I bring into the country?
The usual things most countries don't like - weapons, drugs, pornography, large amounts of cash etc
Anything overly American or South Korean (e.g. nationalistic tshirts)
Be careful about bringing professional looking cameras, particularly video cameras or DSLR lenses over 150mm (may or may not be allowed).
Until January this year, mobile phones were confiscated at the border. This is no longer the case, but note that you won't have any reception in the country.

What must I do?
Pay respect to the Kims, including bowing at various statues or laying a wreath of flowers.
Wear nice clothing when visiting the Memorial Palace and somewhat nice clothing when visiting the DMZ (same rules apply from the South Korean side).
Follow all the guide's rules (e.g. about not taking photos).

Will I get to interact with any North Koreans?
It's possible, e.g. on the subway, at the park, but many are shy and few speak any English. It is more likely you can during a public holiday, hence the timing of the trip.

Can I write about my trip?
Yes, so long as you are not a professional writer/photographer or have a very popular blog or a blog devoted to North Korea.

What's the minimum effort to get on this trip?
Tell me you want to go. Transfer some money somewhere at some point. Send details (including a scan of your passport page and a recent passport sized photo) for the North Korean visa at least a month in advance. Get flights (and possibly accommodation) for Beijing. Oh, and maybe a Chinese visa. (Yes this question was a legitimate question about the Galapagos trip).

What about seeing some of China too?
I probably will. Obviously this will increase the costs (additional accommodation, meals etc) and will definitely require getting a Chinese multiple entry visa too.

Can I invite my friend along too?

Going to North Korea is morally questionable.
That wasn't a question.

What happens if I don't get my visa/the trip is cancelled?
You will get a full refund (less bank fees if there are any).

I've done a bunch of research and think we should go with company X, see Y, fly from Russia, catch the train out rather than fly, <insert suggestion here>.
That wasn't a question either. But obviously you should let me know what you think.

Tell me more fascinating things about North Korea.
No one has ever asked me this. But since it's my blog and I will briefly tell you about the Ryugyong Hotel from the photo at the top of this post. It was set to be the world's tallest hotel when construction began in 1987. In fact, it still would be one of the world's tallest except that it hasn't actually being finished yet. Similarities between the Ryugyong Hotel and the fictional "Ministry of Truth" from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four lead some to believe that it was used as a semi-blueprint.

Your task
Please let me know in the next week if you are possibly interested in wanting to do this trip and any additional questions or requirements you might have.

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