The general perception surrounding North Korean tourism is that it is unsafe. However, approximately 6-8,000 Western tourists a year venture into North Korea and despite reports of arbitrary detainment prominent on our television screens and warnings against all travel from foreign governments, overwhelming majority of tourists return safely without incident.
At Uri Tours, we have guided tourists into North Korea for over 15 years and based on our experience, North Korea is a safe, educational and rewarding destination for tourists so long as you follow the rules of the tour.
Here are some FAQs on whether it’s safe to visit North Korea.
Who can visit?
Nearly anyone can visit North Korea except for South Korean nationals, journalists or photographers. Due to North Korea’s isolation, it’s often quoted as being one of the most difficult countries to travel to, but this is untrue. Guided tours are available for all other nationalities including American and Japanese citizens and dual-national South Koreans. It also includes those with professions you might have considered banned entirely. In the past, we have taken US government staff, US military personnel, elected officials and Korean War veterans and all have returned safely with great memories to last a lifetime. Visiting North Korea is legal and will not affect future travel to any other country. Independent travel is not possible in North Korea, you will be on a guided tour and accompanied by tour guides on excursions outside of your hotel.
All tourist visits to North Korea are subject to local laws, which are taken very seriously.
What are the do’s and don’ts of travel to North Korea?
By visiting North Korea you will be bound by local laws in the same way as any other country. North Korea’s local laws are harsher than what you may be accustomed to, however, we brief all of our tourists with a comprehensive orientation packet prior to entry and put faith in them thereafter to respect local laws during their trip.
It’s a myth that small indiscretions such as taking a photo when not permitted, handling local currency or discussing politics will lead to your arrest. The overwhelming majority of travelers return from a trip saying that they felt safe and at ease throughout the entire journey. Our local guides brief you on specific local laws and picture taking rules while on the tour and it’s in their interest to keep you out of trouble and enjoying your time in the country.
However, crimes that are perceived as minor in other countries such as petty theft, vandalism or trespassing are often seen as anti-state hostile acts in North Korea and can result in harsh prison terms. Proselytizing and other unauthorized religious activity is also illegal in North Korea and can result and historically has resulted in detainment. Healthy and respectful discussion regarding North Korea’s political system is acceptable, but a blatant showing of disrespect towards the hereditary Kim leadership in North Korea will similarly carry severe penalties.
We advise our travelers to keep an open mind and to use their tour as an opportunity to ask questions and to promote education and cultural exchange with consideration to these sensitive topics.
Realistically, with an understanding and respect for these laws and customs, with compliance with your guides, and with common-sense use of discretion during discussions and actions, visiting North Korea as a tourist is safe.
Will I be detained? I’ve seen tourists detained by North Korea on the news.
If you follow local laws, the chance of detainment is slim to none. Foreign newspapers would have you believe that there are two certainties to a visit to North Korea: a military parade and arbitrary detainment. These are widely-held misconceptions - detention is not arbitrary and military parades only occur during special occasions.
Historically, most foreign nationals detained in North Korea have not been tourists, but instead businessmen, expatriates and missionaries with dealings inside the country, or those that have attempted illegal entry. Kenneth Bae, for example, is a Christian missionary, Arturo Pierre Martinez crossed illegally from China, Hyeon Soo Lim is a Canadian pastor with years of humanitarian work in North Korea, and the two latest detainees, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-Song, are professors at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Since the Korean War, only five Western tourists in total have ever been detained in North Korea and each of them in extraordinary circumstances.
Here is a brief rundown of these tourists and the incidents as reported that led to their detainment:
Merrill Newman (American) - Arrested in 2013 after allegedly asking his North Korean guides to get him in touch with surviving members of an anti-communist guerrilla unit he advised during the Korean War that were responsible for spying and sabotaging North Koreans behind enemy lines.
John Short (Australian) - Arrested in 2014 after reportedly leaving Korean-language bible pamphlets at a Buddhist temple in Pyongyang hoping them to be found by a North Korean.
Matthew Miller (American) – Arrested in 2014 after ripping up his tourist visa and attempting to seek political asylum in North Korea. Miller refused North Korean attempts to put him on the next plane home.
Jeffrey Fowle (American) – Arrested in 2014 after allegedly leaving a Korean-English bible under a bin in a restaurant-bar in Chongjin. It was found by a cleaner who alerted the authorities.
Otto Warmbier (American) – Arrested in 2016 for allegedly defacing and then attempting to steal a North Korean political propaganda banner from the staff-only floor of a hotel in Pyongyang.
Those are the only Western tourists to be detained by contemporary North Korea and only after a severe breach of local law as reported. The other 6-8,000 Western tourists per year to visit North Korea returned without incident. Approximately 20% of these were Americans.
What about the recent tensions?
At Uri Tours, your safety is our number one priority, we stay in close contact with foreign embassies, local tourism partners and foreign diplomats who are resident in Pyongyang who advise us that the situation is as per normal. What is reported in foreign media often does not necessarily reflect the realities on the ground and we continuously monitor the situation both personally and objectively to make the most informed decision for our customers. Tensions are generally cyclical and heighten during March and April due to important North Korean national holidays and scheduled military drills in South Korea. Our staff regularly travel to North Korea and many of us are American citizens, including our CEO.
Over this period of tensions, we took in multiple groups of tourists without incident. One such tourist is a current United States police officer who visited during a recent missile test. He only learnt of it while watching foreign television in his Pyongyang hotel room that night. We also took in a past United States Congressional Chief of Staff and she had an eye-opening time touring Pyongyang and the DMZ.
In our experience, your nationality or occupation is not a cause for concern even in times of rocky international politics. However, adherence to the local laws and rules of the tour are musts at any given time.
What about the new DPRK American sanctions bill?
The currently proposed bill would ban us from facilitating travel for Americans into North Korea. We are keeping an eye on the progress. Ultimately, even simple exchanges like a wave on the Pyongyang Metro, or a day of learning surfing alongside both locals and foreigners help to break down historical barriers of hate on both sides and promote people-to-people diplomacy. We support DPRK tourism as means towards greater understanding and ultimately peace between people.
Follow the rules, enjoy the tour!
North Korea is in our experience a safe tourist destination and one of the most unique cultures on earth. With an understanding of local law and a willingness to show respect, your visit to North Korea will not be spent walking on eggshells and instead be a relaxing, educational experience filled with cultural exchange between you and your guides. If you feel that a trip to North Korea is right for you, contact one of our experienced staff to join an upcoming group tour or organize a specialized private tour.
A visit to North Korea can be a rewarding and eye-opening journey, a trip that will stay with you a lifetime.