No matter where you travel, you should be aware of the laws and cultural norms in order to avoid unwittingly getting yourself into trouble. In some countries, like communist North Korea, doing your homework can be matter of life and death, particularly when you think of the hijinks some tourists get up to.
To wit, in March, University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, 21, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda banner from the wall of his hotel. This week, he was released back into American custody—but he’s reportedly comatose.
So, in case you’re unaware of what visiting the hermit kingdom is like, here are 10 warning signs that should tell most people to think long and hard before booking that trip to Pyongyang.
1. It’s Forbidden to Travel Alone
Independent travel is not permitted. Everyone entering North Korea as a tourist must be with a tour group, and all tour groups must be organized through state-owned bureaus.
2. The Official Tourism Site Is Far From Inviting
The tourism section on the official state webpage of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the furthest thing from inviting. It’s downright scary.
3. No Press, Is Good Press
All other tourism bureaus clamor for media attention—they even organize all-expense paid media junkets to illicit positive reviews. Not so in North Korea. In North Korea, members of the media are forbidden as tourists.
Even with the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) trip being organized for July 2016, to mark the anniversary of the country’s victory in the Korean War, anyone is invited to join, the website says—anyone except Americans, South Koreans, Japanese, filmmakers, journalists, or any one else vaguely associated with the media.
Mind Your Holiday Snaps Too
The limit on “press” doesn’t just apply to official media. Taking pictures of any kind is also extremely restricted. Basically, the standard advice is to always ask permission from your guide, and only ever take photos of what your guides permits. The rules of what photos are forbidden is long, but it essentially boils down to this: Don’t try to take anything that might portray North Korea in a bad light.
Here’s the start of the section on photography from New Korea Tours.
“The public are obliged to report all photography. Taking photos of soldiers, at check points, poverty, sneaked photos and close ups of people without their express permission will cause serious problems. Photography when being driven around is also restricted. Even what we would interpret as ‘day to day’ harmless scenes may cause problems.”
Here are some forbidden images photographer Eric Lafforgue dared to take, so you can resist the temptation yourself.
4. Your Hotel Is Trapped on an Island
There are only a handful of hotels that are designated for tourists in North Korea. The main one in the capital of Pyongyang, is the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where Warmbier earned his 15-year sentence for trying to steal the banner off the wall.
The hotel, the second largest building in the country, is a towering 1,000-room block that’s actually located on a small island south-east of the center of the city.
The reason it’s on an island becomes clear once you’re there, as one reviewer on Trip Advisor wrote:
“So you are essentially trapped on an island for your stay! You cannot leave and there are cameras everywhere in the hotel. The bell hops are obviously North Korean Army special forces types based on their build and their attention to detail.”
5. There Are Images of Americans Being Crushed Everywhere
There is a large amount of propaganda everywhere—especially anti-American propaganda.
Here are some postcards one traveler collected.
6. You Might Get Arrested and the State Department Can’t Help You
The U.S. State Department, which “strongly recommends against all travel” to North Korea, says things like:
“Do not assume that joining a group tour or using a tour guide will prevent North Korean authorities from detaining you or arresting you.”
“Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal outside North Korea.”
“Sentences for crimes can include years of detention in hard labor camps or death.”
“Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with the DPRK, the U.S. government has no means to provide normal consular services to U.S. citizens in North Korea.”
7. You Will Be Monitored
As a visitor in North Korea, you can’t do any of the things a normal tourist might do like take a stroll around your hotel, browse in local shops for souvenirs, or chat with locals without your guide present.
The State Department also warns:
“You have no right to privacy in North Korea and should assume your communications are monitored.”
“Internet browsing histories and cookies on travelers’ computers and other electronic devices are subject to search for banned content.”
Even friendly Wikitravel says:
“If you are not prepared to accept severe limitations on your movements, behaviour, and freedom of expression, you should not travel to North Korea.”
“All tours are accompanied by a government minder, who will decide what you can and cannot see. From the moment you leave your hotel, expect to be accompanied by one or more minders. Besides ensuring that tourists do not stray outside of the designated tourist areas, their jobs include inspecting any photographs which they think do not portray North Korea or its government in a good light, and ordering photographers to delete them. It is generally advisable to listen to what your minder is saying, and agree with it.”
8. Most People Stay Away
Only about 5,000 to 6,000 Westerners visit North Korea per year. And that’s considered a tourism boom. That must say something. Enough said.
9. Prime Attraction’s Main Calling Card Is Being Empty
According to the Uri Tours article “5 Reasons Why You Should Play Golf in North Korea,” number one is:
“No tee times or waits. It’s like having your own private course.”
10. Lonely Planet Tries to Be Positive, and it’s Scary
Lonely Planet is either digging deep to be positive about North Korea, or you’re meant to read between the lines. Either way, it comes out a little scary.
“North Korea is a curious but compelling place to visit, and one of the only places in the world where even the most hardcore independent travelers find themselves signing up for a package tour.”
What are the chief reasons for that, according to LP?
“The rule is that you must be escorted at all times outside your hotel by two state-employed tour guides, whether you’re entering the country as part of a big group or plan to do a private tour with just a few travellers, or even totally alone. The advantage of travelling in a group is that the costs are reduced and the sense of being controlled by the guides lessens considerably.”
Here’s LP’s description of what there is to see and do in North Korea.
“There’s a huge amount to see and do in North Korea, even if you find yourself doing things you ordinarily wouldn’t on your travels, such as visiting an ammonia factory or touring a collective farm.”