9 things you need to know before travelling to North Korea

Before January 2010, Americans were only allowed to visit North Korea during the country’s Mass Games, a synchronised performance that takes place in the late summer and early fall.

But now Americans are welcome to visit the country whenever they please, so long as they go as part of an official guided tour endorsed by the state-run Korea International Travel Company.

And despite the US Department of State’s travel warning for North Korea, Americans are making the trip.

We did some of our own research, including taking a look at a Quora thread that asked “What are some things I should know before going to North Korea?” to find out what travellers who are planning a trip to the notoriously strict country should keep in mind.

1. Enroll in the state department’s smart traveller enrollment program.

The US Department of State issued a travel warning for North Korea in April. While Americans can still safely travel to the country, there are precautions that the state department recommends taking before visiting. One of them is to enroll in the department’s smart traveller enrollment program.

This program connects travellers with the US Embassy in Beijing and allows the State Department to email visitors any safety and security updates. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you might not always have access to email while visiting certain parts of North Korea.

2. You’ll be visiting the country on an official tour with a guide and a driver.

Pretty much the only — and safest — way for Americans to visit North Korea is to go on a tour accompanied by a driver and a guide who are both North Korean. According to the US Department of State, visiting the country alone can be regarded by North Korean security personnel as espionage.

3. Bring a gift for your guide and driver.

Instead of just tipping your guide and driver, most Quora users agree that it’s customary to provide them with an actual gift. Quora user Arianne Farah suggests a bottle of alcohol for males and brand-name makeup for females. Farah says drivers will always be male, whereas guides can be male or female.

4. Ask before taking pictures.

According to Quora user Mandy Raasch, taking pictures is almost always allowed, except at military bases and construction sites. However, most other Quora users recommend asking your guide before snapping a photo, just to be safe. Taking this extra step will help to assure your guide that you’re trustworthy, which will likely lead to more leeway for you during the rest of the trip, says Quora user Jordan Harbinger.

5. Upload your pictures to your laptop before leaving the country.

Although you’ll most likely be allowed to take photos while touring North Korea, Raasch says that chances are, when you leave the country, someone will ask to check the photos on your camera or phone. In order to avoid losing your pictures forever, make sure to upload them onto your laptop (if you have one with you) before leaving the country.

6. Don’t expect the locals to speak English.

Raasch says that while it’s safe to stop and talk to locals throughout your trip, keep in mind that most of them won’t speak English. Trying to communicate with anyone besides your guide, driver, or fellow tour members will be challenging.

7. Don’t bring any religious or political paraphernalia.

All Quora users who contributed to the conversation agreed that bringing anything with a religious or political message is not a good idea. Make sure to leave your Bible at home, and don’t wear anything that’s religious or political in nature. Your best bet when visiting North Korea is to enjoy the trip, follow your guide, and not try to implement any sort of change.

8. Bow to any statues your guide tells you to.

According to Raasch, there are a number of statues in North Korea in front of which visitors are required to bow. It’s a way to pay respect to the country’s leaders, and even if you don’t agree with it or even comprehend it, it’s best to just comply. If you don’t, you won’t be punished, but your guide will be.

9. Bring earplugs.

Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital and the largest city in the country, will most likely be on your itinerary when visiting the country. Farah recommends bringing earplugs for your stay, since the city is loud and there will be constant propaganda on TV no matter where you go.

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