How to travel to North Korea

How to travel to North Korea

You would think with tension so high, the isolated state would be off-limits to tourists. But it's not. Here's how to travel to North Korea and the best times to go
How to travel to North Korea? Many tourists get special permission to attend the Mass Games, a synchronized socialist-realist pageant featuring more than 100,000 participants.

Despite tense relations between the United States and North Korea, and increased rheotric from Pyongyang, the isolated state remains open to U.S. citizens, among other travelers.

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But what do you do if you want to travel to North Korea? 

Tourism is highly restricted, so booking a guided tour with one of the dozen or so companies endorsed by the state-run Korea International Travel Company is the only way in -- even if you're flying solo. 

A popular tour stop, Mansudae Hill in Pyongyang is home to statues of late President Kim Il-Sung and leader Kim Jong-Il. In January of 2010, North Korea changed its policy to allow U.S. travelers to visit on official guided tours any time of the year. Previously, U.S. citizens were only allowed into North Korea during the famed Mass Games, which usually take place in late summer to early fall. 

Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which has been specializing in North Korean travel since 1992, says the revised rules on how to travel to North Korea have indeed led to an increase in visits from U.S. citizens.  

"I wouldn’t say a surge, but we do have a lot more interest," says Koryo tour organizer Hannah Barraclough"Around a third of our 2,000-plus annual tourists are Americans." 

Despite the change in policy, U.S. citizens still face restrictions that don’t apply to other travelers. For instance, they can only enter the country via airplane, unlike travelers of other nationalities who can enter from China by train.

Barraclough says that with the exception of journalists, most North Korea visa applications -- U.S. citizens included -- are approved with no problems.

Here's some more information on how to travel to North Korea.

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No wandering around

Regardless of whether you're on your own or in a group, two Korean guides employed by the state-run Korea International Travel Company and a driver will accompany you at all times. This means you aren't able to get out and explore at will.   

Although U.S. citizens can legally travel to North Korea, the U.S. State Department warns that travelers need to make sure their paperwork is pristine.

"The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens about travel to North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK)," says the State Department website.

"The North Korean government will detain, prosecute and sentence anyone who enters the DPRK without first having received explicit, official permission and an entry visa from its government."

Can I bring my phone? 

In January of this year, North Korean authorities announced that travelers no longer need to surrender their mobile phones before entering the country. 

"You will not have any network coverage with your own SIM card, but it is possible to purchase local SIM cards from a booth in Pyongyang airport," confirms Barraclough.

The pay-as-you-go SIM cards allow users to make and receive international phone calls or call any other foreigner in Pyongyang with a phone. There's no 3G access or international texting and you won't be able to call your guides, as they'll be on the separate North Korean network. 

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Key dates

Most tour companies offer the main North Korean highlights -- Pyongyang monuments, museums, natural attractions -- but there's room for some variation in itineraries depending on the length of time you visit. 

Some tours offer travelers the option of visiting Pyongyang's Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, an amusement park that opened last year.

For instance, a new addition to some tours is the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, an amusement park that opened last year.  

Attractions aside, most visitors time their North Korea visits to coincide with its elaborately planned celebrations. 

Here are some of the key dates Koryo Tours recommends for 2013.  

Kim Jong Il's birthday

February 16 would have been the late Kim Jong Il's 71st birthday, now known in North Korea as, "The Day of the Shining Star."

"February 16 itself remains a national holiday and we expect it to be celebrated with sporting activities and a mass dance, as well as other commemorative events," says Koryo.  

Kim Il Sung's birthday

Another big day of celebration, April 15 will be the 101st anniversary of North Korea founder Kim Il Sung's birth, known as "The Day of the Sun."

Army Day

April 25 is the 81st anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, "a day of celebration for servicemen and army veterans [thus, almost everyone] in the DPRK," says Koryo.  

Dancers perform during the opening ceremony of the Spring Arts Festival in Pyongyang in April 2012, prior to the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's birth on April 15. May Day

Just like the rest of the world, North Korea celebrates May 1 as International Labor Day.

"This is the best day of all to mix with local people by attending their folk festival in Taesongsan park," says Koryo. 

Victory Day

July 27, 1953, was the day the Korean War armistice was signed, an occasion celebrated annually in North Korea as "Victory Day." Given that 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, this year's celebrations -- including a famed Mass Dance -- are expected to be particularly spectacular.  

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Mass Games

Victory Day leads into Pyongyang's Mass Games, a hot tourist ticket, that usually take place from July through October. Also known as Arirang, this arts and gymnastics event features more than 100,000 performers participating in a spectacle of colorful, intricately choreographed shows.

"We expect the games to run from July 27 to September 9, 2013, but as yet have received no official confirmation," says Koryo Travel.

Packages that include tickets to the Mass Games start at around US$1,500. Visas typically take 10 days to process from the date of application made via Beijing.

Koryo advises visitors to apply for the tours one month before departure date, though this can be reduced for those who live in Beijing or if they're in a country with a DPRK Embassy. 

Airlines that fly into North Korea via Beijing include Air Korea, Air China and Air Koryo. Non-U.S. citizens have the option for train travel from China. 

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North Korean tour operators

Koryo Tours: 27 Beisanlitun Nan (East Courtyard), Chaoyang District; Beijing+86 10 6416 7544;

Young Pioneers Tours: Beijing; +86 186 2902 7684;

Asia Pacific Travel: Kenilworth, Ill., United States; 1 847 251 6400, toll free 1 800 262-6420;

Regent Holidays: Colston Tower, Colston Street, Bristol, UK; +44 (0)20 7666 1244;

Explore North Korea: Dandong, China; +86 159 4154 5676;

Karla is a digital producer with CNN Travel based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

Read more about Karla Cripps