10 Things You Should Never Do If You Plan to Visit North Korea

10 Things You Should Never Do If You’re Visiting North Korea

For those who are considering paragliding into the country, think again.

Popular K-drama Crash Landing On You sets up an intriguing romance between a South Korean heiress who paraglides into North Korea and falls in love with a high-ranking officer. In real life, however, a trip to this reclusive and heavily guarded country is not as simple. For those who are considering a visit to North Korea, we advise strongly against doing so, especially if you can’t tolerate strict guidelines that track your whereabouts and keep you from travelling on your own. Not following the country’s rules and regulations can get you arrested or worse, so heed these words wisely. 

1. Don’t call it North Korea

Taedongmun on the Taedong River in Pyongyang | Image credit: frentusha

Tourists who visit North Korea should refer to the country as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). North Koreans prefer that you call their country by its official title, as this shows that you acknowledge the country’s view of itself as the superior and legitimate Korean government.

Surrounded by deep valleys and mountainous terrain, DPRK is one of the most isolated and notoriously secretive countries in the world. It welcomes only several thousands of visitors each year. 

2. Don’t criticise the country or its leaders

10 Things You Should Never Do If You Plan to Visit North Korea

A painting of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il | Image credit: Roman Harak 

Avoid criticising the country, the leaders, or the citizens. Questioning the government or saying any negative remark about the ruling family will be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. Worse, any jokes or insults about North Korean leadership may have you charged with treason. 

Visitors will be expected to show the same reverence as the locals, which means that you shouldn’t take selfies doing the peace sign in front of any monument or fold a newspaper with the face of Kim Jong Un on it. 

3. Don’t carry banned items into the country

A textile factory in Pyongyang that makes socks | Image credit: Tobias Nordhausen

Tourists cannot bring the following items into the DPRK: stand-alone GPS devices, pornography, drones, magazines, newspapers, religious texts, or any print or digital resources about North Korea or South Korea. Take note that if you do bring your mobile phone, you cannot make any international calls in North Korea. 

Surprisingly, blue jeans aren’t allowed into the country either. Denim jeans, which were invented by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss in 1873, are considered to be a symbol of capitalist America. You can still wear black jeans, but you will be asked to change into more appropriate clothing when visiting the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong II. 

4. Don’t expect independent travel

10 Things You Should Never Do If You Plan to Visit North Korea

Visitors bowing before the Mansudae Grand Monument | Image credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Any visit to North Korea requires that you join a government-sanctioned tour, where you will be accompanied by a guide at all times. These tours are heavily monitored, and you will not be permitted to wander off and explore sites on your own. All of your interactions with civilians, if any, will always be shadowed by your guide. 

Highlights of a guided tour will take you to the northern side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), as well as state-approved locations, such as the Tower of Juche and Kim Il Sung Square. Bowing is mandatory when you are in front of the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Otherwise, you risk offending your guides.

Also read: What to Expect When Visiting the North Korean Border on a Day Trip

5. Don’t take the wrong photographs

10 Things You Should Never Do If You Plan to Visit North Korea

Art exhibit in North Korea | Image credit: vhines200

Much of what goes on inside North Korea is veiled in secrecy, and this can be felt in the country’s severe restrictions on photography. Note that you must ask your guides for permission before taking any photo. Capturing unauthorised photographs of military officers, airports, construction sites, and government buildings — any place that is not declared a tourism site — will be considered an act of espionage and have you banned from the country. 

Additionally, you cannot take photographs that depict the country in an unfavourable light. The DPRK doesn’t want any imagery portraying its civilians in varying states of homelessness, malnourishment, or poverty. 

6. Don’t mention or practice your religion

10 Things You Should Never Do If You Plan to Visit North Korea

North Koreans holding up coloured boards in a stadium in Pyongyang | Image credit: (stephan)

Take care not to speak about any religious beliefs or demonstrate your faith by handing out religious materials to anyone in the DPRK. Christianity, for example, is prohibited to the point where being caught with a Bible means that you will face imprisonment, torture, or execution. By contrast, past and current leaders are elevated to godlike status in North Korea. 

7. Don’t go against your tour guide’s wishes

10 Things You Should Never Do If You Plan to Visit North Korea

A North Korean tour guide | Image credit: Roman Harak 

Going against the established rules in a tour can put you and your guide’s life in grave danger. If you are caught doing something illegal, your guide may be accused of being a co-conspirator by “helping” you spy on the country. For this act of treason, he or she will be imprisoned. Therefore, if you find the restriction of movement in a pre-planned tour suffocating or troublesome, you may want to visit another destination instead of North Korea. 

8. Don’t expect to witness the “real” North Korea

Kaesong Folk Hotel | Image credit: (stephan)

Prepare to hear a one-sided perspective of history when you visit North Korea. Due to a government that demands uniformity and absolute compliance from its citizens, it will be very difficult to gain a deeper look into the not-so-polished aspects of everyday life in the DPRK. Any “truth” about North Korea is tailored to promote a narrative of the country as fully self-reliant and free from oppression. While this could not be farther from reality, the locals have no way of seeing through the propaganda and knowing the disparity between their country and the rest of the world. 

9. Don’t travel with your family

Pyongyang Opera | Image credit: (stephan)

While this precautionary measure might sound ominous, it’s better to be safe than sorry. For reasons you can probably guess, an infamous law called the “Three Generations Rule” was established in 1972 by Kim Il Sung. It mandates that any serious crime will punish not only the perpetrator, but three generations of their family as well. This is meant to dissuade possible defectors from acting out against the government, lest they put the members of their immediate family at risk. 

10. Don’t visit North Korea if you’re going to break the rules

10 Things You Should Never Do If You Plan to Visit North Korea

Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang | Image credit: Roman Harak

Breaking the rules in the DPRK can get you detained in the country, imprisoned without due process, or worse. There will be no second chances for tourists once a rule has been broken. If you plan to sneak illegal photographs or engage with the locals about politics, it might be better for you to stay home. 

Also read: MFA: Singaporeans Should Avoid Non-Essential Travel to North Korea

We hope this sheds some light on what goes on in the DPRK. Due to the tight control over information in this socialist state, there is still much that we don’t know and have to be cautious about. Even travellers who are used to following rules to the letter should still think twice about a visit to North Korea, where every movement is viewed with suspicion. 

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