What makes Korea, North a unique country to travel to?
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea or the DPRK) is a highly regimented, repressive Communist state located on the Korean Peninsula between northeast China and the Republic of Korea (South Korea or the ROK), sharing land borders with China, Russia, and South Korea. The border between North and South Korea is closed. The United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea. The Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang acts as the United States’ interim protecting power and provides basic consular services to U.S. citizens traveling in North Korea. For additional information, please refer to the section on “Special Circumstances” below.
North Korea does not release crime statistics. Violent crime is rare, and street crime against foreigners is uncommon in Pyongyang. Petty thefts have been reported, especially at the airport in Pyongyang.
Do not buy counterfeit and/or pirated goods, even if they are widely available. The purchase of counterfeit and pirated goods is illegal in the United States and may be illegal in North Korea.
The North Korean system does not operate according to the rule of law, and foreigners should harbor no expectations regarding due process. Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal outside North Korea, including involvement in unsanctioned religious and/or political activities (whether those activities took place inside or outside North Korea), unauthorized travel, or unauthorized interaction with the local population. If you do something considered illegal in North Korea, you may be subject to the North Korean judicial system, which is an instrument of state power and not an independent branch of government. Protections guaranteed under the U.S. legal system do not apply, and possession of a U.S. passport does not confer special status. Your local host/liaison may be able to provide useful guidance.
North Korean security personnel may regard as espionage unauthorized or unescorted travel inside North Korea and unauthorized attempts to speak directly with North Korean citizens. North Korean authorities may fine or arrest you for exchanging currency with an unauthorized vendor, for taking unauthorized photographs, or for shopping at stores not designated for foreigners. It is a criminal act in North Korea to show disrespect to the country's current and former leaders – Kim Jong Un, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Il Sung. A near-religious cult surrounds treatment of these individuals, and acts that would be deemed unexceptional elsewhere in the world – e.g., placing in the garbage newspapers bearing their photographs – may be deemed disrespectful.
Although North Korea has granted press visas for cultural or sporting events or visits of foreign leaders, officials watch closely to prevent journalists from talking to ordinary people or questioning the policies, actions, or public statements of North Korea’s leadership. North Korea has confiscated objectionable material from foreign journalists. Journalists who engaged in activities that challenged the regime have been deported, arrested, or detained to face criminal charges.
North Korean government security personnel closely monitor the activities and conversations of foreigners in North Korea. Never bring or handle any material, printed or digital, that could be interpreted as critical of, or hostile to, the country or its leadership. Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Do not take pictures without explicit authorization. North Korean government authorities may view taking unauthorized pictures as espionage, confiscate cameras and film and/or detain the photographer. Persons violating the laws of North Korea, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested, or imprisoned.
Engaging in sexual conduct with minors or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime, prosecutable in the United States.
Korean is spoken in both North and South Korea and is written in a phonetic alphabet created and promulgated in the mid-15th century. While the alphabet is called Hangul in South Korea, it is known as Chosongul in North Korea. Although the Korean language is derived with words adapted from Chinese, the North Koreans, unlike the South Koreans, do not use Chinese characters with Chosongul in their newspapers and publications. They prefer to use only Chosongul, which is sufficient for most needs.
There are difference in vocabulary between the North and the South, influenced somewhat by politics and also by the contact each country has had with other nations. Russian, Chinese, and English are taught as second languages in the schools.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
If you have medical problems, you should not travel to North Korea. For decades, medical facilities in the DPRK have suffered from a lack of resources and electricity. Medical personnel often have inadequate or outdated skills. Hospitals in Pyongyang can perform basic examinations and lifesaving measures, but functioning x-ray facilities are not generally available. If possible, avoid surgery. If you have an accident outside Pyongyang, transport back to the capital can be lengthy and without medical assistance. According to DPRK Customs, most prescription medication may be brought into the country with no restrictions. If you require regular medication, you should bring a sufficient amount for your personal use along with the doctor’s prescription, since most drugs are unavailable locally. Hospitals will expect immediate U.S. dollar cash payment for medical treatment. You cannot use credit cards or checks in the DPRK. Local DPRK hosts are often not aware of options available for medical evacuations and might claim that no such options exist. It is important to insist on immediate contact with the Embassy of Sweden if you have serious medical problems.
Tuberculosis is an increasingly serious health concern in North Korea.
Medical Evacuations: In the case of a critical illness or accident, immediately contact the Embassy of Sweden, which will attempt to arrange flight clearances for air ambulances performing emergency medical evacuations. Costs for medical air evacuation vary, but according to SOS International, an evacuation from Pyongyang to Beijing averages approximately USD 40,000 including medical personnel (1 doctor and 1 nurse), the aircraft, and clearance costs. The General Bureau of the Koryo Civil Aviation of the DPRK says that it provides around-the-clock service and that requests for air clearance will be granted within 24 hours. If a U.S. citizen with a medical emergency is in Pyongyang, the Embassy of Sweden can usually arrange a medical evacuation to Beijing in one day. If the patient is located outside Pyongyang, it will take longer. Medical evacuation by regularly scheduled airlines can be arranged, but very few flights operate from Pyongyang to Beijing (Air Koryo and Air China), Shenyang (Air Koryo), or Vladivostok (Air Koryo). Air Koryo flights go to Shanghai only on a charter basis in the tourist season (April-October). In order to transit China, Chinese visas for injured foreigners and any escorts must be obtained prior to the evacuation from North Korea. Even in the case of a medical emergency, transit visas may take several days to arrange. Evacuation across the DMZ to South Korea is not allowed.
Vaccinations: You should get all necessary vaccinations prior to traveling to North Korea. You can find information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s hotline for international travelers at 1-877-FYI-TRIP (1-877-394-8747) or via the CDC Internet site. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad consult the World Health Organization's (WHO) website. If you have special dietary requirements, you are advised to bring food with you to North Korea, as the restaurants available to foreigners have limited menus that lack variety and nutritional adequacy.
Companies that may be able to arrange evacuation services include, but are not limited to, those listed below. You may wish to contact these or other emergency medical assistance providers for information about their ability to provide medical evacuation insurance and/or assistance for travelers to North Korea.
International SOS ( www.internationalsos.com/en/ )
Telephone: (U.S.) (1-800) 468-5232
Telephone: (China) (86-10) 6462-9100, 6462-9112
Medex Assistance Corporation ( www.medexassist.com )
Telephone: (U.S.) (410) 453-6300 / 6301
Telephone: (Toll free within China) 10-8888-800-527-0218
Telephone: (China) (86-10) 6595-8510)
Telephone: (China) (86-10) 8315-1914.
Telephone: (Shenyang, Liaoning Province) (86-24) 24330678
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
Road conditions and driving habits in a foreign country can differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning North Korea is provided for general reference only. You are not allowed to drive in North Korea unless you hold a valid DPRK driver’s license. Bicycles are unavailable for rental or purchase.
Foreigners are not allowed to use public buses or the subway. North Korea has a functioning rail transport system; however, delays occur often, sometimes for days. On occasion, service may cease altogether before a traveler has reached his/her final destination.