Updated: September 28th 2022
One of the questions we often get asked as guides is can North Koreans travel abroad? The simple short answer, like most things in the DPRK, is somewhat complex. Much like in other Soviet, socialist, or Eastern Bloc countries, North Koreans can travel abroad with permission from the government. If you have been on tour to North Korea with us before it is not uncommon, either at Dandong Station or the Air Koryo Check-in Counter, at Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 2 to see scores of North Koreans travelling home often with boxes and boxes of goods to take back home with them.
Why do North Koreans Travel Abroad?
The most common reasons for North Koreans to be travelling abroad are for work, business, trade or to study.
Contrary to popular belief a lot of North Koreans work abroad; labourers in Russia, chefs and waitresses in North Korean restaurants especially in Dandong and footballers in foreign leagues (such as Japan and Russia) all fly the DPRK flag beyond its borders.
There is a large number of North Korean students abroad, especially in China. These students are often studying Chinese language or sciences such as chemistry and physics. Beijing, Shenyang and Yangji all have massive North Korean student populations.
North Korea has almost 60 overseas missions, all operated by North Korean consular staff. Countries that have North Korean embassies include the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, Spain, Singapore, Thailand, to name a few. If you are a citizen of a country with a North Korean embassy, it is even possible to get the North Korean visa sticker issued in your passport before your trip to the country. If you are visiting a country with a North Korean embassy and missing North Korean food such as Pyongyang cold noodles, make sure to check the area around the embassy as you can often find North Korean restaurants that cater to the embassy staff.
North Koreans Abroad in New York City
Do North Koreans travel abroad for leisure?
It is not common for most North Koreans to travel abroad for the sole purpose of leisure or vacation. This does not mean, however, that when they go on business or study abroad, they do not reserve time for leisure. North Koreans also take time in the sights, sounds and culinary of the destination they are in. Sometimes, this is even arranged as a part of the trip. For example, some of our partners in Pyongyang attended a tourism conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, a few years back. They were very eager to show us photos of the boat cruise they took in Halong Bay at the end of the conference.
North Korean Athletes Abroad
Again against popular belief, there are a few North Korean athletes who have played for teams abroad and North Korea has been represented on the Olympic stage since 1964.
North Korea at the Olympics
North Korea participated in their first Olympic Games in 1964 at the Winter Olympics. Eight years later in 1972 North Korea joined their first Summer Olympics and have participated in every game since except when North Korea joined the Soviet boycott of the games in 1984 and the 1988 Olympics in South Korea.
In the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, the North and South Korean teams marched together at the opening ceremonies, but competed in the games with separate teams.
In 2018 North Korea sent twenty-two athletes to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang South Korea and a delegation of 400 supporters.
As of 2020 North Korean Athletes have won a total of 56 medals on the world stage.
Ri Myung – Hun
Perhaps one of the best known North Korean athletes Ri Myung – Hun played center position for the DPRK’s National Basketball Team and had aspirations of playing abroad in the NBA. Standing 7’8 ½” (2.35 m) tall Ri participated in basketball training in Canada, but unfortunately was unable to play in the NBA due to the United States ban on trade with North Korea.
North Korean Football Players Abroad
As the North Korean National Football Team and the program has developed over the years, so has the amount of North Korean football players making the leap to foreign teams, especially in Europe and Asia.
The most prominent player as of late to make the leap is Han Kwang Song.
He was signed in 2017 by Cagliari Calcio and, at just 19, was a member of their academy side. He soon made his debut for the first team playing the last 5 minutes of a 3-1 win over Palermo, thus becoming the first-ever North Korean to play in Italy’s premier division — Serie A.
Only one week later, he scored his first goal for the club — in a 3-2 defeat to Torino — becoming the first-ever North Korean to score in Serie A.
Do North Korean’s Travel Domestically?
Yes, they do. This is one of the fastest-growing markets within North Korea right now. There is a number of travel companies over the last few years setting up focusing only on domestic tourism. As the country and its people continue to have more disposable, the desire to see parts of their own country has grown highly. Some of the most popular places for North Koreans to travel domestically are Maskikryong Ski Resort, Wonsan Beach, Kumgangsan Mountain range, Chilbosan Mountain Range and, of course, the ever sacred Mount Paektu.
Can North Koreans travel abroad? Defectors
Of course when it comes to if North Koreans can travel abroad you have to deal with the issues of defectors. Defectors from North Korea tend to do so via China, although of they are caught they are returned home. Those that do get through tend go via Thailand, or Vietnam before settling in the Republic of Korea.
So there you have it. Yes, it is possible for North Koreans to travel abroad and if you spend enough time in places like China or Russia you will most likely at some point run into a North Korean. To see North Korea for yourself join us on one of many of our group tours.