Known throughout the world as “The Hermit Kingdom”, travel in North Korea has been even more restricted than usual in the last few years, as it remains the only country in the world that is still closed due to the 2020 COVID crisis.
However, in recent months, there have been a few hints that the country may be reopening to leisure tourists.
In this article, we’ll examine them and see what it means for North Korea travel.
North Korea has been closed to tourists since 22nd January 2020, when the Coronavirus pandemic was spreading in neighbouring China. Even though the country gets minimal tourists compared to other countries in the world (in 2019, they capped their visitor numbers to 1,000 per day, the majority of whom came from China), the economic losses are thought to be $175,000,000 or more.
In fact, it’s thought that nobody in the country has been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of yet, with hints stating that the country may begin immunisation in 2022, but no news since then. The World Health Organisation warned that North Korea may be very hard hit from COVID-19 if the virus ever makes its way over the borders and people have not been vaccinated, as nobody in the country will have any immunity.
Despite all of this, there have been whispers in recent months about North Korea possibly opening.
In August 2023, North Korea’s airline, Air Koryo, resumed international flights to Beijing and Vladivostok in Russia.
In fact, since then, Kim Jong-Un and other high-level diplomats have taken trips abroad, another possible indicator that the country may be reopening for leisure travel. However, North Korean citizens living in Dandong (many have been stranded there since 2020) who work in trade on the border have claimed that they see no signs of the land border reopening.
But, that being said, many countries also reopened their air borders before their land borders during and just after COVID-19. So it could be a case of North Korea first opening Pyongyang Airport, potentially testing travellers for coronavirus and maybe even isolating them for a period (as was common in their neighbours, China and South Korea, throughout 2021 and 2022) before ultimately opening the land border.
North Korea has been closed to USA citizens since 2017; it was actually the USA who banned Americans from visiting, and this happened in response to the Otto Warmbier case. At the time, Americans were banned from visiting North Korea until 2024 – of course, this was pre-Covid, and it’s likely that this ban will remain when travel to North Korea opens.
While Americans were banned from visiting North Korea by the U.S. government, technically they could still enter North Korea. However, visiting is a crime in the U.S. and any Americans who have visited can face conviction, hefty fines and passport confiscation. Plus, tour companies will not take Americans due to these regulations.
All trips to North Korea before the pandemic were organised trips – and it’s almost certain that, when it does open, it will resume in the same way. Independent travel in North Korea is not possible.
Tour companies such as Lupine Travel offer trips to North Korea, which include accommodation, transport, food and activities. To visit the country, travellers must book with them independently, fly into Beijing and travel to North Korea from there, either by train or plane.
Not only is travel in North Korea strictly regulated but there are a few things there that are completely illegal that are legalised in other countries.
One is gambling, which is outlawed entirely in North Korea (you won’t find any casinos or no deposit bonuses on offer in this country).
It’s also very important to not take photos of certain things (if in doubt, check with your tour guide) and to not take anything from hotels or anywhere else in the country (you may have heard of the tragic story of Otto Warmbier, who stole a propaganda poster, was imprisoned and returned back to the US in a vegetative state, only to die shortly after).
Alcohol is permitted in North Korea, but you might not find a huge variety – you’ll likely only find beer and a couple of different types of liquor. However, it’s highly recommended that you do not get drunk, as this could cause you to act more recklessly.
It’s thought that North Korea may open to travellers again relatively soon, and it’s likely that tourism will run the same way it did in 2019, with travel being permitted by tour groups only and Americans not allowed. However, exactly when it will reopen remains a mystery!