North Korea is happy to collect big fees from tourists, but before entering the Hermit Kingdom visitors must read and sign a lengthy contract that lists numerous quirky do’s and don’ts. Though westerns may find the rules trivial, violators could face the same horrors as Otto Warmbier, released from North Korea this week with catastrophic brain injuries.
Before touching down in the capital Pyongyang, there is usually a debriefing with guides in Beijing and tourists are given a document entitled “Notes for Travelers,” a 10-page booklet that warns tourists the contents must be read and signed -- but absolutely not brought into North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
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. Tourists must only refer to the two deceased dictators 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 booklet warns in bold-face type. “The potential for offense to be taken by the hosts, which then adversely affects the tour, is too great.”
Visitors are stringently cautioned to absolutely not bring books about the DPRK, including “Lonely Planet,” or the Korean Situation in addition to American flags, anything from South Korea, radios or clothes with political or coarse slogans. Naturally, religious material is 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.”
The booklet warns tourists to 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.
Victors are 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.”
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 of 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.” Runners can even compete in a marathon as part of the “Pyongyang Marathon Tour.” Those willing to far more can avoid the “group tour” and have a private tour arranged by an approved 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.
The booklet also contains practical advice about what to bring, like various over-the-counter medicines and hygiene products, and how to make phone calls while inside the country.
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.
The U.S. State Department also has advice for Americans contemplating a visit to North Korea: don’t.