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North Korea - Health and safety
with Dr Felicity Nicholson
Medical facilities in the country as a whole are basic, particularly in rural areas. Hospitals and clinics in the latter are usually able to offer only the very minimum medical care. Clinical hygiene is poor, anaesthetics are frequently unavailable, and electricity supply to the hospitals (even in the capital) can be intermittent; you should try to avoid serious surgery if you can. Take any medications you are likely to require with you as supplies are limited and can be very difficult to buy. There are no reciprocal health-care agreements with the UK, so ensure that you have comprehensive medical insurance and that you carry adequate supplies of any prescribed medication that you usually take.
The only requirement for vaccination is for a yellow fever vaccine for travellers over one year of age entering North Korea from a yellow fever endemic area. However, there is no actual risk of the disease in North Korea.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Crime against foreigners in North Korea is so low it is practically unheard of. Tourists are essentially respected guests and are treated accordingly. Despite having a poor name in the Western media and the occasional news story of tourists being arrested, one would have to be wilfully stupid to actually get arrested or into any bother while in the country; noting a few basic rules will ensure you have a safe trip:
- Tourists are not permitted to walk freely within the country, and must stay with their guide throughout. Do not attempt to detach yourself from your group or sneak out of your hotel at night.
- Tourists must not break photographic restrictions that are in place. In North Korea it is nearly always 100% obvious what should not be photographed – if in any doubt, always ask your guide.
- Tourists must not make any negative or derogatory comments regarding the North Korean government and its policies, philosophy or leaders, past or present. Particular importance is placed on the ‘history’ of the DPRK and the life and works of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. Even behind closed doors, negative comments may cause offence and any overheard remarks could have serious repercussions. Please keep any opinions you may have to yourself.
- Images of leaders should be treated with respect, and not folded, creased or marked.
- Tourists must not discuss religion with any Koreans unless prompted, and must not show, distribute or leave any religious texts/leafl ets or the like in Korea. Many of the Westerners arrested in recent years were involved in proselytising Christianity. If you must take any religious texts with you to Korea this should be for personal use only, and read in the privacy of your hotel room.
- There are restrictions on what you may take into the country with you. Any publications that could be considered by the North Korean authorities to be offensive to the ‘supreme dignity, ideology, system or culture of the DPR Korea’, together with films (or such materials) of any nature made in South Korea are strictly forbidden. Furthermore, anything deemed as being pornographic is strictly forbidden.
There are no particular safety problems that women should be concerned about, but as North Koreans dress rather modestly, scantily clad women (and men for that matter), may be stared at; most in the country have never heard of, let alone seen, a miniskirt.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Homosexuality isn’t illegal in the country, but many in North Korea insist that this is because it doesn’t need to be, as homosexuality is a Western ‘disease’ that doesn’t ‘afflict’ Koreans – there is no need to ban something that doesn’t exist. Such naivety highlights that sex and sex education is taboo – the country is, publicly at least, almost puritan. Same-sex couples travelling to North Korea will almost certainly be thought of as just heterosexual friends and it is best to gently maintain this allusion, as even public displays of affection between heterosexual couples can still cause a commotion.
Travelling with kids
North Korea isn’t the most family-friendly destination, but children will likely be fawned over, particularly if they are blonde-haired and blue-eyed toddlers, as few people will have ever seen a ‘foreign’ baby. Family life is important in Korea so you will be fussed over, but don’t expect to easily find baby food, nappies, car seats or any such items – bring everything you require. Conventional tour itineraries are not family friendly, but a private trip tailored for a family could be a most enjoyable – if bizarre – experience for children and parents alike.