Otto Warmbier’s “New Year’s Eve” tour to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) took a dark turn early last year, when he was arrested upon exit at the Pyongyang airport for having “committed a hostile act against the state.”
The then 21-year-old Virginia student had been on what is colloquially referred to as a “propaganda tour” of the highly isolated and repressed country, run by the Beijing-based “Young Pioneers Tours” travel agency. The group is just one of many designated agencies with licenses to offer packages to North Korea, tailor-made for the western visitor.
It is surprisingly simple for most Americans to obtain a visa to the dictatorship so long as they are on a pre-booked tour – except if you are a journalist – and thus in that case one is almost always prohibited from entry. But before touching down in the capital Pyongyang, there is usually a debriefing with guides in Beijing and most agencies hand out something of a rule book, one of which was obtained by Fox News. Entitled “Notes for Travelers,” the typically 10-page booklet cautions that the notes must be signed and read, but strictly not taken inside North Korea.
So what are some of the rules and guidelines to smooth sailing inside the DPRK?
Upon arrival, one’s visa will be stamped and then registered with local authorities. The visitor’s passport is generally held until the day before departure. It is “essential” to bring a flashlight, as areas outside Pyongyang are privy to frequent power cuts, as well as Imodium or charcoal tablets in case of unpleasant reactions to unfamiliar foods, digital camera memory as these cannot be bought and toilet paper/sanitizing liquid as soap is not always available. One is also advised to bring photos of home and family as “the guides like to see what the lives of their tourists are like” as well as gifts for the guides and driver – perhaps cigarettes or face cream, or something “typical to where you live.”
The DPRK vacationer is stringently cautioned to absolutely not bring books about the DPRK or the Korean Situation (that includes Lonely Planet) in addition to American flags, anything from South Korea, radios or clothes with political or coarse slogans (these will require translation). Religious material is also banned as “proselytizing in the DPRK is an extremely serious offense,” and simply bringing a Bible or any religious symbols like crosses or messages could “cause huge problems for the guide and yourself.”
Also expect that when visiting the Mansudae Monument it is compulsory to bow to the statues of former dictators Kim II Sung and Kim Jong II, as well as their bodies at the Mausoleum. (They should be referred to only as President Kim II Sung and General Kim Jong II).
“If you are not willing to behave at some points as expected by the local customs then we recommend that you do not visit the DPRK,” the notes say in bold. “The potential for offense to be taken by the hosts which then adversely affects the tour is too great.”
In terms of money, tourists are forbidden from using the local currency, won. Rather, they must use EUR, USD or Chinese RMB. There are no ATMs and credit cards and travelers checks are not used. However, there is little to buy inside aside from a few basic souvenirs such as postcards, stamps, t-shirts and traditional paintings.
The travel guidelines do counsel that the most frequent problem endured in the DPRK is stomach upset and that medical facilities in the country are extremely basic, with little equipment or medicines available – not even Tylenol or acetaminophen. Those with rigorous Halal or Kosher dietary restrictions cannot be accommodated. And while Koreans do eat “dog meat” as a delicacy – it is, as a rule, not served to tourists.
As far as communications with outside existence goes, one is permitted to take their phone inside but the network coverage will not work. Rather, you will have to purchase a local SIM card and prepaid calling credit. You can then make and receive international calls (at a high cost, around $5 a minute and likely monitored by authorities) and can phone up any other foreigner in Pyongyang.
Nonetheless, you won’t be able to call your local guides as there are two “mutually exclusive” networks – one for locals, one for foreigners. It is not possible to make international calls from a landline outside the capital, and calls to South Korea will not be processed. There is no texting and 3G is not available to foreigners.
The tourist must also be extremely careful when taking photographs – nothing military, nothing reflecting poverty, shops or housing, no “every day” type photos and no snaps of your guide or locals without permission. This in itself could prompt the cancellation of the entire group’s tour, and the guide could face severe repercussions.
Furthermore, tour organizers must also be immediately advised in advance if any visitors are Korean War veterans given the ongoing sensitive nature of the issue. Nobody is allowed to leave the hotel unescorted, and any meet-ups with others there must take place in hotel confines.
It is also a requirement of tour groups for travelers to fill in a version of the “journalist and insurance contract” before flying in. The laws of the DPRK outlaw journalists and photographers (even part time ones) from coming in on tourist visas, and thus travel agencies requests that such professions do not even attempt to apply for fear they will be put out of business should one slip through the cracks.
The tour organizers warn that they cannot allow the publishing of articles and photographs in the mainstream media, so anything beyond a Facebook post or personal blog submission could endanger other foreigners inside the country and result in the tour company losing its license to operate inside.
Not only must the DPRK-bound vacationer agree not to breach these terms and conditions, or risk being held accountable to compensate the company for losses suffered, but they must additionally agree not to engage in any form or religious dissemination.
Trips typically range from a few days to over a week starting at a few thousand dollars, and come with names like the “Summer Holiday Tour,” the “Victory Day Long Tour,” the “Liberation Day Long Tour” and one can even run a marathon as part of the “Pyongyang Marathon Tour.” Those willing to pay a whole lot more money can avoid the “group tour” and have a private tour arranged by an approval agency – but even those traveling alone must be accompanied by a minimum of two DPRK guides, appointed by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. It is not possible to travel there independently.
Despite all the rules and regulations, officials have declared their tourism program a success – and expect to attract more than 2 million visitors by the year 2020. That is perhaps also the U.S State Department’s worst nightmare, as it “strongly warns U.S citizens not to travel” to the DPRK, stating that those there are “at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention” and the U.S has no official diplomatic ties with the increasingly hostile nation.
“Being a member of a group tour or using a tour guide will not prevent North Korean authorities from detaining or arresting you. Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detention of U.S citizens have not been successful,” the travel warning heeds. “If you decide to enter North Korea against this advice, you should have no expectation of privacy.”
The State Department additionally urges those considering DPRK travel to “consider what they might be supporting.”
“The DPRK funnels revenue from a variety of sources to its nuclear and weapons programs, which it prioritizes above everything else, often at the expense of the well-being of its own people. It is entirely possible that money spent by tourists goes to funding these programs,” the statement adds. “The DPRK remains one of the most heavily sanctioned countries in the world. The Department of State remains deeply concerned about the DPRK’s ongoing, systematic and widespread human rights violations.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay