A Tour to North Korea

In 2002 Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) were abolished and along with them went all the different colored currencies. Now there is just the standard North Korean won, which officially trades at 175 or so to the Euro. Black market rates (especially in northern China near the border) are more favorable, but importing or exporting Korean won is strictly forbidden. Conversely, were you to sneak out some won, they are practically worthless outside the country, but make unique souvenirs.

In reality, foreigners are expected to use Euros or as an alternative Chinese RMB, US Dollars or Japanese Yen. Getting the local money is possible, but it is difficult to use as the shops all want foreign currency. Currency handling is often bizarre, with a frequent lack of change and a number of rule-of-thumb conversions leading to highly unorthodox transactions.

Pyongyang store for foreignersThere are numerous hard-currency only souvenir shops at tourist sites. Interesting souvenirs include propaganda books and videos, postcards and postage stamps. At some tourist sites (such as King Kongmin’s tomb), you can purchase freshly finished paintings with your name and the artist’s name at the bottom. And if you are very lucky you might be able to get hold of some socialist realism paintings, although customs officials are not keen on these things going out of the country, so do beware.

You will pay for most things up-front as part of your tour. Most sights have a shop associated with them where you can buy bottled water, souvenirs and snacks. These are reasonably priced. In Aug 2007 large bottles of local beer cost US$2 at the hotel bars in Pyongyang.

Despite severe food shortages in North Korea, you are unlikely to have any problems getting food. Your guide will order all your food for you, and you will eat in hard-currency only restaurants. Vegetarians, and people with food allergies/dislikes of common foods such as seafood or eggs will need to make arrangements in advance. A visit to a real local restaurant may be possible; enquire with your guide. Note that although your food is better than what 95%+ of the population eats, it’s still not necessarily great. Shortages combined with the typical use of Korean cooking styles mean that there is a relatively limited variety of food, which can get wearying on tours of more than a few days.

The local speciality is insam-ju, Korean vodka infused with ginseng roots. Locally made Taedonggang beer is very good (brewery imported from Ushers in the UK) and some of the Sojus are not bad either. Local alcohol is inexpensive; a 650mL bottle of beer is 0.5 euro. However do not get drunk and cause trouble. Toe the line and show respect, or you and your guide will face serious penalties.

Stay safe
Crime levels are practically zero, at least to tourists on a strictly controlled tour. However, pickpockets are the least of your worries. The secret police are very touchy, and you need to watch what you say. Just do what the guides do, praise every stop on your tour, and remember the if you can’t say anything good, say nothing at all rule.

Stay healthy
Drinking water might be safe, although sticking to bottled water is recommended. Medical facilities are basic, and if you fall ill you might be better off returning to China for treatment. Contact your embassy or consulate in North Korea (if your country has one) for assistance. US citizens may contact the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang for advice if needed.

It is important to emphasize that the government of the DPRK — in particular the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — are very highly revered in North Korean culture. While slavish devotion is not necessary (at least for tourists, although the more praise you shower on them the better), insulting them in any way is illegal and will get you and (much more so) your guides into trouble. In North Korea ‘in trouble’ does not mean a slap on the wrist – North Korea is renowned for very harsh punishments.

Bringing gifts like cigarettes for the men, and doughnuts or skin cream for female guides, etc. is a nice gesture. Other good presents for guides are chocolate, instant coffee and powdered milk. Do not give anything to the local North Koreans or even try to speak to them without permission from your guides. Please be respectful toward your guides, especially since North Korean guides are known to occasionally take tourists whom they trust well enough to see other places and events in North Korea that they wouldn’t ordinarily go to.

Most, if not all, tour groups to the DPRK are asked to solemnly bow on one or two occasions in front of statues of Kim Il Sung when visiting monuments of national importance. If you are not prepared to do this, don’t even try to enter North Korea.

Any trouble you cause as a tourist will likely be blamed on your tour guide’s inability to control you, and he or she will bear the brunt of the penalties.

Other than your tour guide, you will likely not meet anyone else in your trip who speaks English; a few Korean words and phrases are a nice internationalist gesture.

Despite the sharp political difference, North and South Koreans generally share a common culture; the various tips in the South Korea article under respect (such as using two hands to pour drinks) will also help here.