Backpacking North Korea
Looking for important travel information while backpacking around North Korea? Here you will find information on working in North Korea, entry visas, North Korea hostels, and much more.
Table of Contents
Facts About North Korea
(Democratic People’s Republic of Korea)
North Korea is seen by many as a somewhat Orwellian state, particularly due to the feel of the capital; Pyongyang which is home only to government supporters. Many however overlook the excellent tourist opportunities that are present in this rapidly developing country.
In the capital itself are plenty of beautiful monuments such as the Palace of Culture but in other areas, you can find the spectacular Kumgangsan national park, which encloses the Diamond Mountains or the ancient buildings of Kaesong which is set against a stunning vista of the countries pine-forested foothills. The only drawback is that it is somewhat difficult to gain entry to this closed country.
- Currency: Won (NKW) = 100 jon
- Time Zone: GMT + 9
- Language: Korean
- Telephone Services: Country code +850, Direct dial is not available, international calls must go through the operator
- Emergency Numbers: Not present
The climate is moderate and unlike much of Asia has four distinct seasons. The hottest summer season also contains the monsoon season which usually runs from July to August.
The winter is generally chilly but can be quite severe in the northern parts of the country. Spring and autumn are generally the best time to visit when the weather is mild and dry.
Things to do in North Korea
The capital Pyongyang is at once one of the most spectacular and unbelievable attractions of the country. The capital is very tightly controlled by the government to project an air of progress and above all discipline.
Only government supporters from a high class background are even allowed to live in the city which means that you won’t see any of the things that are typical of asian cities such as bicycles, street markets, animals or even the elderly.
Attractions include two fountains situated in the Taedong river which reach a height of 150m making them the tallest fountains in the world. Landmarks include the Arch of Triumph which was built to commemorate Kim II-sung’s victory over the Japanese, the impressive Tower of Juche Idea and the Taedong Gates.
Kaesong, formerly the country’s capital during the Koryo Dynasty is definitely an essential stop on any tour of North Korea. In its heyday Kaesong was a fabulously wealthy imperial metropolis but was destroyed during three wars and is now only a shadow of its former glory.
Now it is however the site of some of the country’s most ancient buildings. Of particular note is the Tomb of King Kongmin just outside the city which is an impressively decorated 12th-century tomb. The old quarter of the city itself boasts several attractions such as the Songin Monument at the 11th century Sonjuk Bridge.
Also of interest is the Koryo Museum which houses a number of exhibits, mostly of Korean pottery or of Buddhist relics.
The most unique site of the country lies right on the border with China and takes the form of an enormous extinct volcano. The 2744m Mt Paekdusan boasts a lake at its summit called by the locals Chonji of the “Lake of Heavens”.
This spectacularly beautiful natural landmark is said to be the site where the Son of the Lord of Heaven descended from the heavens and established the first Korean Kingdom, as a result the site is somewhat sacred to all Koreans, North and South.
How to Travel Around North Korea
Travel inside North Korea is tightly controlled by the government, there are some scheduled domestic flights but these are closed to foreigners. Similarly, there are some trains which service the major tourist destinations but the timetables are not published and tickets must generally be arranged through a tour operator.
There are hardly any public buses in the country either so the most likely way you will be able to get around is by car, in the accompaniment of an official driver and guide.
Accommodation in North Korea
Unfortunately, the strict rules of the country mean that you are unable to choose your own accommodation in North Korea. Foreigners must stay in designated tourist hotels.
These hotels come in four flavours; deluxe, first class, second and third class and all are of a reasonable standard. In general, your tour operator will organise accommodation for you so even in cities where there are more than one hotel of each type you will not often be given a choice.
Health and Safety in North Korea
The electrical supplies to hospitals even in Pyongyang are not constant and the standard of healthcare is substantially lower than in Western Europe. As a result all invasive procedure should be avoided and it is essential that your travel insurance is sufficient to cover any costs of repatriation.
Cholera is a risk in the country and up to date medical advice should be sought regarding the necessity of a vaccination prior to travel. Vaccinations against polio and typhoid are highly recommended and can be obtained from your local GP for around ₩40.
Malaria risks are relatively low and there are no reports of strains resistant to chloroquie or mefloquine. You should consult your doctor about the most appropriate malaria treatments to carry with you.
All water should be regarded as a potential health risk and where possible bottled water should be used for all washing and consumption. Where tap water is used it should be boiled or appropriately sterilised.
Milk is unpasteurised and as a result, all dairy products should be avoided. Meat should be well cooked and served hot and vegetables should be cooked and peeled.
Entry Visas for North Korea
It is very difficult to get entry to Korea, visitors are only accepted as part of officially organised tours. This also means that throughout your stay you will have the dubious pleasure of being accompanied by an official guide.
All visitors require a passport, visa and a return ticket. Visas can be obtained from officially recognised travel agencies or from the local People’s Republic of Korea Embassy.
A tourist visa usually costs about ₩30 but prices can vary according to nationality. Even if you are obtaining a visa from the Embassy you will probably need to have your application “sponsored” by a state recognised travel country.
There you have it, the ultimate North Korea backpacking guide. We hope you have found all the information you need for backpacking around North Korea.