North Korea travel: How to visit the world's most isolated country

North Korea's decision to expel BBC journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes from the country seems at odds with a regime increasingly courting tourists from around the world. 

The country said it expelled the reporter and his team for allegedly "insulting the dignity" of the authoritarian state.

While the ethical implications of tourism in such an undemocratic country are debatable, as long as you're not part of the media, getting into North Korea is not actually too difficult. Just don't hope to travel independently and be prepared to follow certain rules.

Last year, tourism officials said the country wanted to attract 2 million tourists a year by 2020. It currently welcomes just 100,000.

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"Contrary to popular belief, the process of obtaining tourist visas for North Korea is actually very simple," said Dylan Harris from Lupine Travel, a tour operator going to North Korea.

"The only requirement is that you are booked on a pre-planned tour with two North Korean guides for company."

The guides have to be specially appointed by the country's Ministry of Tourism and associated with one of the three travel services based in the capital, Pyongyang.

Even those travelling alone on a private tour must be accompanied by two guides.


It is, however, not possible to travel independently in North Korea.

Carl Meadows, senior travel specialist at Regent Holidays, said there is generally no problem in securing visas for clients, but it can take around 6-8 weeks.

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Mr Meadows, who has been to the country at least 20 times, said: "North Korea is slowly opening up in terms of what is possible. If you went 10 years ago and spent 10 days in the country you would probably be able to see everything a foreigner is able to see, but these days you could probably stay another month as new cities and villages have been opened up."

Even with visas secured, and accompanied by guides, there are still certain requirements expected of visitors.

Travellers should abide by the rules within the country, which include not walking around unaccompanied and refraining from taking photographs at certain locations if requested.

"The Koreans are slowly waking up to see tourism as a potential source of income and are taking steps to increase the number of tourists visiting and where they can visit," said Mr Meadows. 

Cox and Kings is another UK-based tour company that offers trips to the country, with attractions including the statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a micro-brewery in Kaesong and light trekking to Mount Kumgang.

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The operator said it keeps in regular contact with its ground agents and follows travel advice when deciding if it remains safe to travel to the country, as do the other companies contacted for comment .

Moving through the border between North and South Korea requires special permission. 

North Korea attractions

In Pyongyang:

  • Mansudae Grand Monument, to lay a wreath of flowers at the statue of Kim Il Sung in Fountain Park
  • Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery
  • Kim Il Sung Square and the Arch of Triumph (built to commemorate the Korean resistance from Japan between 1925 and 1945)
  • Mangyongdae Native House (where Kim Il Sung was born)
  • Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (Kim Il Sung's Mausoleum - smart dress required)
  • Juche Tower - a symbol of national self-reliance, based on Kim Il Sung's "Juche Idea"
  • Military Exhibition Centre
  • Taedong department store and local micro-brewery
  • Golden Lane Bowling Centre (with ten pins, as you would expect)


  • North-South Korean border and DMZ
  • Pohyon Temple and the International Friendship Exhibition, which is home to thousands of gifts presented to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong ll
  • Lake Sijung – a retreat during the Yi dynasty
  • Ulim Waterfalls
  • Mount Kumgang for light trekking
  • Samil Lagoon

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