1. It’s hard to get a visa, and only so many people are “allowed” each year.
Actually the DPRK is very keen on encouraging tourists. The visa process is very simple, and can be arranged by us or at an embassy in your country (if you have one) with our assistance. The only people who have trouble getting visas are journalists- which may be why the media continues to perpetuate this myth.
2. Americans/Japanese/Nationality X can’t visit.
This is a common misconception especially for Americans and Israeli citizens. In truth anyone who is not a South Korean citizen or a U.S or Japanese citizen who is currently resident in South Korea is welcome to visit. Also any nationality who have previously visited the DPRK will not have any problems entering South Korea or the DPRK again. However, Americans and Japanese face a few minor restrictions with their visits to the DPRK. They can not take the train into the country or stay overnight at the hotels in Haeju and Sariwon. They are also restricted to 11 days maximum stay and can’t stay at the homestay in Mt Chilbo either or visit Sinuiju city. These would generally only affected return visitors who want to see more of the country. This brings us to point three…
3. You can only visit Pyongyang and the DMZ/ a few places near Pyongyang
This myth is one of the more understandable as it is common for many trips to have similar itineraries. The real reason for this is the same reason lots of tours to Beijing look the same people want to see certain highlights when they travel all the way to a foreign country, so itineraries respond of course to demand. Most people want to see Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the DMZ, the monuments in Pyongyang etc. However it’s possible to travel to every province but Jagang (That’s 8 out of 9!) and if you look around there are plenty of itineraries that visit places like North Hamgyong Province, Rason Special Economic Zone or various different cities and areas.
4. All tourists have to stay at the Yanggakdo hotel because it’s on an island
This one is largely spread for similar reasons as myth number 3. Most tour groups stay at the Yanggakdo hotel most of the time, but there is again a simple reason for this- it’s generally considered the best and has far more entertainment than the others. (Having stayed in them all I know very well the disappointment at 11pm when everything at the second class hotels closes down and you have to retire to a small room with a hard bed). However it is possible to stay at quite a few hotels in Pyongyang- the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo being the mainstays but there are also boutique hotels such as the Moranbong Hotel and the Pothangang Hotel, lower class hotels such as the Chongryon aka “the Youth Hotel” and the Ryanggang, just to name a few examples. They even have guesthouses available for tourists though the prices on these are very steep. Of course many other cities have hotels for tourists also.
5. The government will spy on you.
Unless you’re a nuclear physicist the simple fact is surveying you is not worth the time or effort. In the more than 5 years I’ve been a partner with Young Pioneer Tours, not a single incident has occurred that would lead to the conclusion that the hotel is bugged, even when people have been worried about what they said after a few too many beers in their room, nothing has ever come of it.
6. The guides are all government “minders”.
An extension of myth 5, it’s commonly believed that the Korean guides are there to spy on you/ monitor your reactions to things/collect information etc. The reality is they work for the government in the same way most people in the DPRK do; they work for a state owned enterprise that largely runs itself and is primarily interested in remaining a sustainable business. The guides come from all walks of life, some are ex military (but that doesn’t mean much in a country like the DPRK, where almost everyone serves in the military), some are fresh out of university, some have become guides after getting bored of jobs at Joint Venture companies etc. Their job does include making sure you don’t wander off on your own and keeping you out of trouble but the same goes for guides in most countries. Generally though the most successful Korean guides are the ones who love their jobs and like meeting new people.
7. The guides keep you in a bubble everywhere you go.
This is partly true- you can not go wandering off by yourself and you’ll have a lot of trouble trying to just stop random people on the street for a chat in English (Imagine stopping random people in New York and starting a conversation in a language they most likely don’t understand). However at certain places it’s very possible to interact with local people and have a bit of space, especially when the local guides trust the foreign guide and the group. Most holidays are great for this with opportunities to join mass dances, play sports and drink/share picnics with locals being plentiful, but other opportunities include visiting the Munsu Water Park, Masik Pass Ski Resort, any beach in summer and much more. Other great chances to speak with locals include English classes at the Grand People’s study house, visiting Kim Jong Suk Middle School in Pyongsong city, the middle school in Rason and much, much more.
8. Pyongyang is a “showcase” city.
Yes, Pyongyang is the best city in the country but it hasn’t been built just to deceive the few thousand foreign visitors every year into thinking the place is without problems. As mentioned earlier it’s very simple to travel well beyond Pyongyang so it would pretty much automatically defeat the purpose of trying to fool us foreigners. Ask your local guides and they’ll usually be quite happy to talk to you about the problems the country faces and why they feel these problems exist. Pyongyang is a functioning city, people do ride the metro to work, they live in the apartment buildings and they go about life every day. It may not be possible for everyone to live in Pyongyang, but the city and the people in it are still real people.
9. Everyone is an actor and what you see is all arranged for tourists.
This is one of my favourite myths and leads to great questions such as “Where are those people going?” Who knows? Home? To lunch? To the supermarket? Like any city in the world I would need to ask them first. Unfortunately a lot of people lose something from the experience because they assume all the people riding the metro were told to do so for our benefit. The person talking to you at the beach was told to do so. The girl you danced with at the Mass Dance is there just for foreigners. The guys playing volleyball at Mt Taesong are arranged in advance so foreigners can join in. Every thing is planned and prepared to influence your opinion about the country. Again much like with myth number five, why would they go to all this effort to arrange so much for a few thousand visitors each year? Visitors who can come at any time, all year round and even as single travelers (you don’t have to join a group , though you will still need local guides). Most of what you’ll see would be the same regardless of your being there or not.
10. It will be interesting but it won’t be fun.
It’s very possible to have fun in the DPRK but we would say that wouldn’t we? So I’ll just put this link to our tripadvisor reviews so our former Pioneers can speak for us. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to write one of these up for us, we most appreciate the effort!