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April 17, 2024

Traveling to North Korea? No wifi, limited hot water and bring your own TP

North Korea is opening back up to foreign tourists, and Russians planning on visiting this month have been given a long list of travel guidelines and tips, from warnings that hotels will have no wifi and limited hot water to suggestions to bring warm clothing as buildings are generally not well-heated.

There are also strict dress codes for certain landmarks. Visitors to Pyongyang’s Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – the final resting place of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – are not allowed to wear blue jeans, T-shirts, miniskirts or sandals.

Don’t drink the tap water, bring toilet paper to use in public restrooms and vegetarians beware: North Korea doesn’t make accommodations for you.

That’s all according to the guide issued by Russian travel agency Vostok Intour, which is leading about 100 travelers each on trips that depart Vladivostok on March 8 and March 11. They will be the second and third such tours to North Korea in four years. 

On Feb. 9, some 97 Russians became the first group to visit the isolated country since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. 

One tourist on that trip, Ilya Voskresensky, told RFA he was struck by the empty streets in Pyongyang, the cult of personality of the leaders and how he was not allowed to go outside his hotel. 

The visitors were banned from filming construction sites and decrepit buildings, and only allowed to shoot picturesque scenes, including at the ski resort they visited, he said. 

Desperate for cash

After the pandemic, the cash-strapped North Korean government is desperate to get tourism back on track, and Pyongyang in recent months has been pursuing warmer relations with Moscow, including through various sports and cultural exchanges. 

Vostok Intour is offering a four-day tour departing on March 8 for US$800 and a five-day tour departing on the 11th for $900. These will be the final tours that offer access to North Korean ski facilities this year.

People gather to celebrate the 109th birth anniversary of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung near Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang, April 16, 2021. (KCNA via Reuters)

In addition to the strict dress code for the Kim Dynasty’s mausoleum, Vostok Intour’s guidelines told travelers that their ability to communicate with the outside world will be limited. 

While they will be allowed to bring their mobile phones, without a roaming contract they won’t be able to use them.

Even then, the users must purchase a SIM card for $120, which will allow them to make calls internationally, but domestic calls will still be forbidden. If they need to send messages during their visit, they can pay $2.20 to the hotel to send emails on their behalf from the hotel’s account.

The guidelines also assured travelers that if they had stamps from either the U.S. or South Korea in their passport, this would not be a problem.

Another section of the guidelines discussed poor economic conditions in North Korea, including a severe lack of infrastructure.

Visitors should bring extra clothing because many North Korean buildings are not heated properly, if at all. Most buildings cannot expect hot water except for at specific times in the morning and evening.

Information ban

The guide also advised against taking photographs in certain situations or bringing in Western literature.

Ilya Voskresensky and his friend received their North Korean tourist visas at Vladivostok Airport. Voskresensky, who resides in St. Petersburg, a city in the far west of Russia, took nearly two days to reach Vladivostok. (Courtesy Ilya Voskresensky)

“Propaganda promoting the Western way of life, as well as books about North Korea published in the West (including tourist guides), are officially prohibited from being imported,” the guidelines said. 

“Since 2015, the rules for importing literature into North Korea have been tightened,” it continued. “We have encountered several cases of confiscation of North Korea travel guides during customs inspection at the airport.”

The travel guide said that tourists have free time after scheduled sightseeing tours, but this must be spent inside their hotel. 

When Voskresensky, the Russian tourist in the first tour group this year, asked why he couldn’t go for a walk, he was told: “You don’t know the Korean language and you will have problems.”

Translated by Claire S. Lee and Leejin J. Chung. Edited by Eugene Whong and Malcolm Foster.

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