air koryo

My trip to North Korea in 2012

Way back in 2012, I made a trip to North Korea over the September term break.

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Destination: Pyongyang

Crazy, I know. But, why did I really wanted to travel to the hermit kingdom? and wasn’t I worried about war, nuclear bombing, missile attack etc?

Couple few reasons why North Korea was my choice of destination..
1. I had been teaching 2 North Korean students. Yes, I know you guys are probably shocked that there are North Korean students enrolled in normal government school in Singapore (background info: the girls are cousins who joined 3NA class in mid-2011. The elder girl was new to Singapore and the younger girl had been studying in Singapore up to P6, then returned to Pyongyang for 2 years. Both said they’re in Singapore with their grandfather who has business in Singapore.). I was quite close to both of them and through my interaction with them and occasional questions about North Korea, I realised that North Korea is not too bad. It’s really unlike what it’s portrayed as in media. I became really interested to see and experience the country by myself.
2. Term 3 2012 was really a busy period for me in terms of work that I felt I needed a crazy adventure. A trip to North Korea does sounds like a crazy adventure, right??
3. Traveling during the September break in 2012 coincides with North Korea national day, which I thought will be pretty cool to see the country in celebratory fanfare.
4. 2012 is the 100th Anniversary of Arirang Mass Games (which is iconic of North Korea), which runs only in August and September and… there was rumours that it’ll be the last year for the Mass Games.
5….. because I can.

So… lets start with some FAQs!

Who can travel to North Korea?
Anyone can travel to North Korea. Even South Koreans! I was also surprised that even Americans and Japanese are allowed to travel to North Korea. I thought they are probably not allowed considering the anti-sentiments by North Koreans towards Americans and Japanese as portrayed in news.

Basically, it is legal for almost anyone can travel to North Korea! The only restriction on travelers to North Korea are journalists, writers, media staff etc. North Korea does not issue Visas for them. If you’re journalists/writers, please do not submit fake details as this will compromise not only your safety but also the staff of the tour group.

For those keen to travel to North Korea, you have to apply through authorised agents. Even if you’re travelling alone, you still have to sign up through authorised agents. There are quite a few which you can consider… Koryo Tour, KTG, Lupine Travel, Explore North Korea and New Korea Tours. Then, during your stay there, you have to be accompanied by the assigned tour guide at all times when you’re outdoor. So, if you signed up for individual tour, you’ll have the guide all for yourself the whole day. And when I accompanied by tour guide at all times, it is really at all time. You are not even allowed to step out of the hotel on your own, even if it’s a just to walk around for fresh air.

But, you’re a civil servant! Are you allowed to?
Well, I didn’t really look up on that. But I did follow through the regular paperwork any government officers have to do – “Request to Leave the State” form. No comments from my RO or the principal, so I guess no problemo!

Did I travel alone?
From Singapore yes…  But for the trip, I signed up for a tour group under KTG, based in China. My tour group was made up with people from all over the world, US, Europe and me- sole Asian representative, yo! All of us had similar story- found out about the company through googling and made all arrangements (visa, forms, payment etc) with the company via online.

How much is the trip?
1200 Euros for 5 days 4 night  (include Air Koryo return flight Beijing-Pyongyang), hotel accommodation and all meals. Entrance fees to certain places not included (eg theme park, Mass Games). Exclude return flight Sg-Beijing.

How did you arrange of the visa to North Korea?
After my trip, I found out that Singaporeans do not need Visa to visit North Korea. (Fun fact: Only Singapore and Malaysia do not need Visa to North Korea for up to 30 days)

However, as I was simply following the SOP by the tour group (basically completed and submitted all documents that were emailed to me), I did eventually applied for Visa. You’ll just need to submit a copy of your passport and a scanned photo and the tour company will make the necessary arrangement. It’s hassle free! I collected the Visa card from the tour leader in Beijing on the day of the flight to North Korea. Unfortunately, it is a separate piece of paper, which the immigration officer took away upon exit.

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Cover page of Visa card to North Korea

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Inside pages of Visa card to North Korea

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Back page of Visa card

By the way, there is no evidence in my passport that I traveled to North Korea because they stamped on the Visa card (which was taken away before leaving departure gate) instead of the passport. . Grrrr!!

Can you take photos?
Yupps! But we were advised not to take photos of restricted stuff (mostly military vehicles, places and personnel- we were reminded about this numerous times during the visits we had on the National Day as most places were crowded with military personnel). We were also not allowed to take inappropriate photos with iconic stuff (e.g the tour guide told off someone who posed with a “peace” hand sign next to a statue of Kim Il Sung).

At the start of the trip, the group was also advised that the tour guide or officials periodically may look through our photos to ensure no inappropriate photos taken. We also have to oblige if they identify any inappropriate or restricted photos and instruct us to delete it.

If there are places that we can’t take photos (e.g airport, International Friendship Exhibition), the guide will warn us beforehand.

Anything that you can’t bring to North Korea?
During my trip, handphones are not allowed in North Korea. We have to surrender it after luggage collection before walking through security and we can collect it back on our departure. Initially I was worried if it was safe, but oh wells, have to follow the rules and everyone doing it too.
Anyway, from 2013 onwards, tourists are no longer required to surrender their handphones.

GPS-enabled gadget items are also not allowed. In the briefing notes provided by my tour group, it was stated that if our cameras are GPS-enabled, we have to bring another camera instead. Well, my brand-new camera has the GPS function but I’m not gonna buy another camera just for the trip, or borrow another camera (which might be tricky too, cuz who would be willing to lend me something for a trip to North Korea??). Desperate, I went ahead to bring my GPS-enabled camera. So yeah, I actually smuggled in an illegal object into North Korea. How did I manage to smuggle it in? I pasted a sticker label to cover the GPS word and logo on my camera and wrote my name on. I used sticker label on the pretext of labelling my camera though it’s actually to hide the GPS label =D

Anyway, there’s also an interesting story about my GPS-enabled camera. Whenever I traveled, the GPS function of camera is accurate and quick to detect the city I am in once I switched on the setting. But in North Korea,  whenever I tried at different locations, it failed to detect the location. Really shocked that they have GPS blocking mechanism. So, whether I am really in Pyongyang or it the whole place is fake and just a set-up for tourists… I’ll leave it to you guys to ponder over it 😉

What’s the currency in North Korea?
There is “Won” currency for North Korea, but it’s not used by tourists. Tourists can make payment with Euros, USD, Yuan or Yen. However, Euros is commonly accepted.

How did you travel into North Korea?
By flight! There are two airlines that fly into Pyongyang, Air Koryo and Air China. For this trip, I flew on Air Koryo.

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Air Koryo Boarding pass

Yes, I know Air Koryo is the only airline with 1-star rating by Skytrax but it’s been arranged by the tour group. But I didn’t mind as traveling on Air Koryo is a good first experience to receive North Korean hospitality. Also, most companies travel by the national carrier, Air Koryo, too anyway.

There is also train between China and Pyongyang (23 hours from Beijing!) and some tour groups do make such arrangement for it. You can also make arrangement to enter by flight and depart by train or vice versa if you wish to have a richer experience.

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North Korea national carrier – Air Koryo

So, there! I hope I’ve answered most of your questions! But if there are stuff that you’re curious about and it’s not covered here, drop a comment at the end of this page 🙂

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