1 That they have any!
But they do! Not much is known about tourism in North Korea, a lot of the data is speculation, but researchers and tour operators believe the Hermit Kingdom receives about 100,000 tourists annually, with about 95% coming from China. The remaining handful are westerners, including about 1,000 Americans. Kim Jung-un has a lofty — and currently highly speculative — goal of attracting two million tourists a year.
U.S. citizens can go to North Korea. Re-entering the U.S. throws up red flags, but if you have dual citizenship your other passport will work. Multiple tour operators say they usually stay away from booking Americans.
Besides the Chinese, it’s “mostly European countries where people speak English,” who are visiting, says James Finnerty of UK-based Lupine Travel, who books about 500 people to North Korea every year. He adds that they’ve recently been booking more people from India.
2 They have one of the tallest hotels in the world, but it isn’t open…
The so-called “Hotel of Doom,” the Ryugyong Hotel in the capital, Pyongyang, rises 105 storeys high, and has been doing so for over 30 years, but the building has never been finished. It’s estimated to have already cost 750 million dollars (in a country that is desperately poor) and is consistently rumored to be opening imminently — the latest proclamation being summer 2018. Skepticism is forgivable. The hotel got it’s ominous nickname from reports that it has been erected with sub-quality concrete and other materials, and that elevator shafts precariously didn’t line up, which just sounds bad…
Designed to have 3,000 rooms, it’s also been called “the worst building in the history of mankind,” presumably by somebody with credentials. In its current state, Hotel Ryugyong has the 10th most floors of any building in the world (one more than One World Trade Center).
Will it really open in 2018? Matt Kulesza of Young Pioneer Tours offers that: “Last I heard, they were working on a ‘soft opening’ of the left wing of the hotel and potentially one revolving restaurant.”
3 There are cool places to stay
Kulesza’s favorite is the Yanggakdo Hotel, located on Yangak Island in the middle of the Taedong River in the center of Pyongyang. “It’s a very surreal, kitsch and quite beautiful hotel with a fairly legendary ‘entertainment basement’ with a swimming pool, bowling alley, karaoke bar, billiards, table tennis and countless bars and restaurants.” Guests on his tours also stay at the newly renovated Sosan Hotel, located in the sporting district of Pyongyang.
4 They have world class skiing!
And getting on the slopes is easy, because apparently they’re always empty. Inspired by his schooling in Switzerland, Kim Jung-un opened the ultra luxury Masik Pass Ski Resort in 2013, complete with a luxury hotel, six high-end restaurants and a St. Moritz-level ski shop. Allegedly, there are more peasant farmers dragging sleds with firewood or shoveling snow than folks taking the Austrian-made chairlifts or driving the Chinese-made snowmobiles. Skiers can rent equipment, but snowboarders have to bring your own. A day pass is about $105. It’s cash only in NK and there are no ATM machines. Credit cards are not accepted and travelers checks nearly impossible to cash. Tourists are not allowed to use – or leave the country with – the local currency, the Korean Won. Most widely accepted currencies include Chinese yaun, Euros and — all irony suspended — U.S. dollars.
5 There are an astonishing amount of interesting tourist attractions…
As well as being one of the potentially most dangerous and secretive countries in the world, it is also, not surprisingly, one of the least known or understood. According to tour operator Kulesza, the people are friendly and by and large happy (as long as they don’t run afoul of Kim Jung-un of course). “North Koreans are extremely proud of their country and welcome all tourists with huge levels of hospitality,” says Kulesza, who goes on to say North Koreans are glad people make an effort to see the country for themselves.
So what should you see? The Mausoleum with the bodies of Kim Jung Il and Kim Il Sung lying in state. “That’s a really big thing,” says Lupine’s Finnerty. “If you’ve been to other leaders who lie in state – like Lenin – you’ll be done in 30 minutes. Here it’s half a day to go through this large complex. It’s a fascinating experience.” Plus: Mansudae Grand Monument (the iconic bronze statues of the leaders); Mount Myohyang, which includes the International Friendship Exhibition. Described as “quirky” by Tom McShane of Secret Compass, this museum, built into the mountain, “is an incredible place, which holds every gift given to the Leaders such as a bulletproof car from Stalin or a train carriage from Chairman Mao.”
There’s also the Pyongyang Circus, the Rungna Dolphinarium and Mount Paektu, the sacred mountain of the Korean revolution, which is 9,000 feet high and one of four mountains in North Korea declared biosphere reserves by UNESCO.
And the DMZ between North and South Korea is, obviously, a unique place, and less obviously a Nature Reserve, home to some of the most endangered and rare species in Asia. Here you can see red-crowned cranes and white-naped cranes, black bears, musk deer, and Amur gorals — a goat relative that lives in the mountains.
Finally, in this strange land of boundless leader worship, there is the Juche Tower, after the concept of Juche, or self reliance. It was built in 1982 on the banks of the Taedong River in the capital, and constructed with 25,550 blocks, one for each day of Kim Il-sung’s life.
But to really see North Korea and be exposed to it’s people, it’s all about private tours. Lupine Travel has arranged private trips to go surfing, helicopter tours, dinner cruises and are looking into overnight camping trips. Homestays are becoming popular among tourists too.
Kulesza recommends getting out of Pyongyang. “The Chilbo Region is beautiful during autumn and provides the opportunity to do the only homestay available in the country, in a little village right on the beach. It’s quite incredible to stay with families in the village, cook together, play volleyball and have a bonfire on the beach at night. Similarly, heading to the coastal towns of Wonsan on the East Coast or Nampo on the West Coast during summer are fantastic. Heading up to the special economic zone of Rason right on the border of North Korea, Russia and China is also a fascinating destination, completely different from the rest of the country.”
Nightlife is a bit iffy. “It took a long time to get permission to visit bars in Pyongyang for one beer. But the bowling alleys are open late,” says Finnerty.
“So many pros and cons for all seasons!” effuses Kulesza. “Spring and summer are both perfect for the high number of national holidays happening, including the Pyongyang Marathon in April. However, my favorite season is autumn. Less tourists, beautiful weather and all of DPRK seems to be getting married so people are out celebrating a lot. For those looking for that extremely authentic, no-tourists-to-be-seen experience, Winter is the way to go.”
GOOD TO KNOW IF YOU GO…
North Korea runs a tight ship when it comes to securing its privacy. Leave smartphones at home, GPS-enabled devices are forbidden into the country. There’s no Internet, except at hotels which have one, communal email address.
You’re prohibited from photographing any member of the military doing their job or of construction projects under progress. When it comes to the statues, Finnerty points out you’re not allowed to crop them — if you’re caught cropping a photo, and security may check your camera when you leave the country, you’ll be made to delete the photo.
And don’t even think of walking around by yourself. Anytime you’re in the country, you must be escorted by a tour guide.
Popular souvenirs, according to Dermot Hudson of the Korean Friendship Association, include revolutionary posters and postcards, handicraft and silk products, DPRK worker suits and Worker-Peasant Red Guard hats (which are green, with a red star).
Best way to get to North Korea Pyongyang is the only international airport to fly into, with flights from Beijing and Shingyang in China, and some flights from Russia. But flying is expensive so tour operators recommend an overnight train from the Chinese border, which also allows you to see as much of the countryside as you can at night. On the train you’ll see locals playing the North Korean version of Candy Crush.