Scratch beneath the propaganda-covered surface of North Korea and you’ll find that there’s far more to the world’s most secretive state than its public image of strict regime, controlled media and elaborate military parades.Read more...
North Korea - Travel and visas
Cycling along the river provides a panoramic view of Pyongyang’s sharp-edged skyline © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com
The UK government’s foreign travel advice (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice) says passports need only be valid for the proposed duration of the stay in the DPRK. However, visitors will most likely be going via China or Russia, and China needs a passport valid for six months from the date of issue of the visa, whereas Russia needs validity for at least six months following the visa’s expiry. Going in from China and back into China also requires a double-entry visa to China. At the time of writing, visitors spending less than 72 hours in China could get 72-hour transit visas on arrival in China, but as this may change this must be checked with the tour operator and visa-issuing embassy.
For DPRK, visas – which are usually single entry – are given for set arrival and departure dates and are designated for exit/entry specifically for where the visitor is going in or out, say Pyongyang and Sinuiju. Visas must be obtained before going, and require letters of invitation, whether the visit is for business or pleasure, and your passport should be valid for a year after the travel dates. Because tourists must go on tours, they will either let their travel operator deal with the Korean International Travel Company (KITC) or do that themselves but applications take at least ten days because of how much needs arranging.
By far the biggest numbers of tourists into DPRK are Chinese. You’ll likely see many jolly bands of middle-aged, prosperous Chinese men wandering around and you’ll share the audience with them for the set shows and other events or venues to which KITC directs its tourists. Many Chinese come in homage to battle sites where their forebears fell during the Korean War. Others come for what feels like a nostalgia tour, as it is often observed that DPRK is very similar in looks, organisation and feel to China 20-odd years ago. Sometimes the locals think the Chinese seem to lord it up a bit. Whether the perceived gap between China and the DPRK is growing or narrowing is a question of perception.
Remember: you’ll need double-entry visas certainly for China or Russia if you’re coming through them, which is likely.
A Soviet-built M62 diesel train in the station at Pyongyang – many visitors enter and exit North Korea by train from China © Clay Gilliland, Wikipedia
The DPRK’s national carrier is Air Koryo. While that airline technically no longer has the monopoly on flights to the country (Air China now does a regular thrice-weekly Beijing–Pyongyang hop), Air Koryo acts as if it still does and its customer service is in want of renovation.
Air Koryo operates regular international flights to Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok. The airline has also semi-regular flights to Khabarovsk, Bangkok and Macau, and there have been occasional/one-off charters to Seoul, Kuwait, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. The airline’s domestic schedule reputedly flies Pyongyang to Chongjin, Hamhung, Kaesong, Kilju, Kanggye, Sinuiju and Wonsan, but times, prices and availability for foreigners are not in the public domain. Specialist charter flights to Chongjin for visits to Mount Paektu are arrangeable.
While that airline technically no longer has the monopoly on flights to the country (Air China now does a regular thrice-weekly Beijing–Pyongyang hop), Air Koryo acts as if it still does and its customer service is in want of renovation.
Other airlines have come and gone over the years. MIAT Mongolian Airlines has been known to charter, and in 2004 China Southern Beifang airlines commenced 45-minute flights from Shenyang to Pyongyang, Mondays and Fridays, departing Shenyang at 07.30 and making the return leg from Pyongyang at 10.00, but these dried up. So did China Northern flights between Beijing–Shenyang–Pyongyang.
China Southern (www.cs-air.com/en) had at times a thrice-weekly route from Beijing to Pyongyang, CZ6021 going there and CZ6022 coming back, and also from Shenyang to Pyongyang, but no more. In good times with the ROK, Korean Air and Asiana Air have flown to Pyongyang on charters. Direct flights from Seoul to Pyongyang remain the preserve of high-level diplomacy. Aeroflot flew to Pyongyang until 2000 – check www.aeroflot.ru. What may happen with upgrades to the DPRK’s airports is anyone’s guess.
There is a very regular international rail service from Beijing to Pyongyang. The T27 leaves Beijing railway station (just inside the second ring road, south of Jianguomenwai Street) at 17.29 on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, arriving in Pyongyang the next day at 18.00. The Pyongyang service T28 to Beijing leaves at 10.40 on the same days. The Saturday train used to have a carriage ultimately bound for Moscow and getting the train directly from Moscow to Pyongyang was becoming increasingly popular in the noughties, but is not running as of 2014. Fares are substantially higher now (mainly due to increases in the price of crossing the border, a Chinese hike).
At Dandong and Sinuiju, the two cities straddling the Yalu River border between China and DPRK, the international carriages (Chinese, Korean and Russian) get detached from the long local trains and pushed across the bridge, from the arms of one side’s customs officers into the clutches of the other. As many tours involve a plane going in and a train going out (or vice versa), the cost of the train is included in the tour price. Add to that that return tickets aren’t available as such, instead one would buy two one-way tickets, and booking fees and your nationality are all variables to the final price. But as an idea, in 2014, they were quoted as 1,692CNY for a soft-sleeper and 1,164CNY for a hard-sleeper.
Boarding points en route are Tianjin, Shenyang and Dandong. In China, either buy the tickets from the station or go to the informative, English-speaking BTG 69 Ticketing Co Ltd (Tourism Tower, 28 Jianguomenwai, Beijing 100022, China; tel: +86 10 6515 0093/24, 6515 8844/2111; fax: +86 10 6515 8564/5292).
There is also the rail route direct from Pyongyang via Rajin-Sonbong into Russia to Vladivostok (a route that was used by Kim Jong Il who preferred going by train to flying). For foreigners it’s an irregularly plied route to say the least and not available at the time of writing. But it’s worth asking about: every question becomes a suggestion.
There’s no direct sea connection from the ROK to the DPRK. Ferries run from Inchon port in the ROK to Dandong, China, and back three times a week, and from Dandong they can cross into Sinuiju, DPRK. Tourists can also sail from the ROK port of Sokcho to Zarubino port in Russia, then go overland via Russia and China to the Chinese side of Paektusan (what the Chinese call Changbaishan) – but they can’t cross into the DPRK there. Visas for China and Russia are required.
Road access into the DPRK is bitty. There are a handful of road links into the DPRK from China – at Sinuiju, Namyang (to go to Hoeryong which has a bridge for Chinese visitors), and the Rason Zone and Tumangang, which also has a crossing point into Russia. Very short tours from Dandong into Sinuiju go by bus.
There are two road links from the ROK that cross the DMZ into the DPRK. Tourist buses used to run to Kumgangsan on the east coast, organised through www.hyundai-asan.com and www.mtkumgang.com, but that route closed in 2008 and those websites are moribund for now. Of greater use may be the south’s official tourist office, via http://english.visitkorea.or.kr.
There is however a freight road from the Kaesong industrial zone that’s still (usually) open, and in 2013 a motorcycle tour took that route to drive from the DPRK into the ROK. It was a one-off trip, however, that took a lot of preparation. Previously there had been motorcycle tours that came by ferry from the south into the DPRK, costing US$1,000 and run by the Federation Internationale de Motocyclisme (www.fim-live.com/en), the Korea Motorcycle Federation and the Asian Motorcycle Touring Association, but that was years ago and overall it’s an extremely infrequent mode of tourist travel.
DPRK transportation is limited, because to travel from town to town and province to province everyone needs a permit, locals and foreign visitors alike (you see the checkpoints around the cities). Locals need good reason to get one from the authorities, which also means the demand, and the need, for inter-conurbation transport isn’t there. Foreign visitors’ hosts arrange permits in accord with the visitors’ itineraries. Tourists can only take buses and trams in Pyongyang as part of a tour. Local bus routes going beyond Pyongyang are for all practical purposes non-existent.
Cross-country travel by train is now becoming a regular possibility, with trains going to Myohyangsan, and over to Wonsan, Hamhung and Chongjin. Hitherto, rail travel was restricted to the Pyongyang–Dandong–Beijing train or very niche tours, and services were very intermittent in any case. But connecting the capital to the northeast of the country, an area once only accessible by plane, is a very interesting development, mainly as visitors will see the up-close pristine mountains and coastal areas that they previously flew over.
(Photo: Not only is the Pyongyang metro a swift, smooth link across town, the stunning opulence of its architecture and the extraordinarily deep stations with their vertigo-inducing escalators are worth the visit © Eric Lafforgue, www.ericlafforgue.com)
They’ll also take in views and towns that the road journeys miss, putting within range towns like Kimchaek or Sinpho, and on a far smoother mode of transport amid a moving time warp of 1970s carriages behind stylish Korean-built locomotives. Americans are also allowed on these trains (although they’re still not allowed on the Pyongyang–Beijing train). Again, though, you don’t just turn up and get on. Timetables are not readily available and tickets must be bought through agents before the day of departure – actions undertaken by tour operators.
For domestic air travel, foreigners can charter flights to Mount Paektu and Chongjin. As everywhere, reconfirm international flight tickets some days before travel, although this is likely to be done by the visitors’ receiving party. Bicycles are scarce, are not available for hire and nor are cars except taxis. International driving permits are not valid but foreign nationals resident in DPRK can obtain local driving licences after taking a driving test. Locals walk short distances or hitchhike long distances in army trucks.
It’s unlikely you’ll need to hold aloft your magic cigarettes. You and your group will be ferried about right from the airport in an official bus or car, which is clean and comfortable – and traffic jams are mostly unheard of, such that if you get involved in one in Pyongyang, it still counts as an ‘event’. Beyond the cities, the roads stretch away as straight as runways, empty of cars, road markings, cat’s eyes and lights but with beautifully tended verges and central reservations.