North Korea can be a safe place to stay, but it depends on how you look at it. If you walk up to the heavily guarded border, slap the guards in the face with the backside of your rifle and just walk into the country, then you will be in serious trouble. There you go, that’s what you wanted to hear!
Is North Korea safe for tourists? Yes. For tourists North Korea is a perfectly safe place to be.
The words ‘safe’ and ‘guarantee’ can be misleading. Even in the country with the most advanced military force in the world, that is the USA, tourists have been killed in the past. Despite tourist killings, murders and fatal accidents, you still think that the USA is a safe place to be, right? If you can die in the USA as a tourist, then you can die in North Korea as a tourist as well. Do you define ‘safe’ as ‘zero percent chance that a fatal accident will occur’? Commercial airplanes are considered safe despite fatal accidents.
Okay, let me rephrase the question. How likely is it that I will get physically hurt when I go to North Korea as a tourist?
It is highly unlikely that you will get hurt during your stay. There are two simple reasons for this. North Korea is a poor country that is pretty much isolated from the world (not entirely isolated, but we’ll get to that later). Being isolated from the world, North Korea has very little means of earning money. This is because they cannot export or sell goods to other countries easily. One way of making money is through tourism. If the tourism industry is dead, then North Korea will have yet another problem. That is one reason why you will not receive a harsh treatment during your stay.
The second reason is because North Korea has to keep up its image of being a civilized country (more on propaganda later). In the past they have been involved in horrible activities such as the famous abductions. Inhumane treatment of prisoners in labour camps is an ongoing issue. It is of course in their own interest to refrain from applying these activities to tourists if the tourism industry is to be profitable.
In other words, tourists are unlikely to get hurt because tourists are part of the propaganda and because the country is to some extend financially dependent on tourism.
First of all, that is not a question. Secondly, you already are part of the propaganda of your own country. All the news that you know about North Korea, has reached you through the mainstream media. If you think that you will get shot when you go to North Korea with a digital camera, it is because the mainstream media presented the news in such a way that you think it is dangerous to go to North Korea with a digital camera. That is called Western propaganda and you are already part of it.
Here is another example of Western propaganda. Everybody knows that North Korea has ambitions to acquire rocket, space and nuclear technology. Of course, if they had a nuclear weapon they would surely use it for self defence. But, would North Korea launch a nuclear weapon towards the USA just for fun, in other words: without provocation? Looking at the invasion of Iraq and Afganistan, it is unlikely that North Korea would use a nuclear weapon just for fun. Western propaganda spreads the news that North Korea wants to throw nuclear bombs on the USA and on South Korea immediately after they have obtained such weapons. In other words: without direct provocation. However, it is a fact that:
- there are North Korean soldiers among defectors. This tells you how happy the soldiers are.
- the North Korean army is large, but also malnourished
- the North korean army uses old equipment
- the US army is far more advanced than the North Korean army
- the US has far more military equipment than North Korea
- China, the biggest ally, warns to break ties with North Korea
Nearly all import, export and tourism happens through China. Without Chinese support North Korea would be really dead. So you still think North Korea would go to war with old equipment, malnourished soldiers and no help from China? If North Korea uses a nuclear weapon in self defence, they have nothing to lose. If they use a nuclear weapon just for fun, that is the same as committing suicide. Western propaganda dictates that North Korea wants to commit suicide by launching nuclear bombs without provocation towards the USA and South Korea. Where is the common sense? It is more likely to think that window dressing is the main idea behind the North Korean strategy.
The primary ambition of North Korea is to rule over South Korea. History has proven that they have been unable to do so. If they are unable to occupy South Korea, then it is highly unlikely that they will occupy the whole world.
North Korea threatens with nuclear bombs for several reasons.
- Due to Western propaganda, many people are unaware that it is safe to travel to North Korea as a tourist. Threats of nuclear bombs will increase the mystery about North Korea. This makes a trip to North Korea quite an adventure. Nuclear threats are a form of advertisement by which they can expand their tourism industry. “Yo man, I’ve been to North Korea! — No way, dude! I don’t believe you! Show me the pictures!”
- North Korea is fully aware that they do not have the military force to overpower the USA or to overpower the world. So they have to find a creative way to show the world that they can beat anyone. The trick is window dressing. Use Google to find pictures of North Korean soldiers and American soldiers. Look at the differences: Americans have night vision goggles, helmet, bullet proof vests etc. North Korean soldiers don’t even wear helmets! They wear caps and no bullet proof vests. They do not have GPS techniques at their disposal and cannot attack at night. [Invasion in Iraq took place at night when the Iraqi forces were defenseless.] How can a country with a useless military force appear more powerfull than it really is? By conducting nuclear bomb tests, sending a satellite into space to prove technical skills, launch rockets into sea, etc. In short, window dressing makes North Korea appear more dangerous than it really is. This reduces the risk of being invaded by other countries.
As is the case with any developing country, caution has to be exercised when it comes to food and drinks. Bottled water is available everywhere, even on tourist buses. Pizza and spaghetti taste just like the real thing. Vegetarian food is available upon request. Traditional Korean food is served in small portions. Rice meals are available for breakfast at the hotels as well as cereals and bread. Tap water is not potable. In the past North Korean food used to taste very bad, but because of flourishing tourism the food quality has increased a little.
There are no reasons to believe that hotel rooms are bugged, although it needs mentioning that this has not yet been proven. Safety is not an issue in hotels, but there are some precautions to be taken. If you find a newspaper in the hotel room, please refrain from folding it in such a way that the crease folds across the picture of the president. Also, do not dispose the newspaper or crumble it. Doing so may require a letter of excuse to be written. In addition your guide will receive some disciplinary measures for having failed to guide you. Note that folding a newspaper is a political crime under North Korean law. Residents can and do receive harshest conceivable punishments for these type of crimes. Again, as a tourist there is litle to fear.
As mentioned before, tourists are exempt from harsh laws which are applied to North Korean civilians. Tourists will certainly not get shot for one small mistake. If you take a picture of a military checkpoint or a soldier, you will be kindly requested to delete the picture. This even happens if you take many “illegal” pictures. Again, this only goes for tourists. Taking pictures of military checkpoints is never a good idea, not even in other countries.
You can be religious in North Korea; you can have any religion you like, under the condition that you are a tourist. As mentioned before, North Korea will do anything to keep up its image to the outside world of being a highly civilized country. There are even Catholic churches and Russian orthodox churches in Pyongyang. However, do not expect these churches to be operated by religious figures.
Yes, as long as you declare the camera at the customs and make sure it has no GPS capabilities. This goes for video cameras as well as photo cameras. DSLR cameras are allowed. Lenses up to 150 mm are officially allowed, but a 70-200 mm lens is usually not a problem.
Upon arrival at the airport you have to hand in your mobile phone. All mobile phones will be sealed in a package and kept until you leave the country. If you leave by train, you will receive the package from your guide on the day of departure. It will be stored in a sealed package. You are allowed to break the seal and use your mobile phone only after you cross the border. If you open the seal before you reach the border, then you will be sent back to the capital for ‘administrative purposes’. Your phone will be resealed after which you can take the train again.
Aliou Niane lived and studied for 5 years in North Korea. You can read his story here. When asked “Did you ever feel you were in danger?” he responded: “Not once. I never felt I was in danger in the sense of the Western world. But we all knew we were valuable propaganda assets to the Communist Party in North Korea and to the Guinean government which was expecting aid from the North. To show people how wonderful North Korea was, the propaganda media would tell North Korean citizens that they had very good lives. As proof, they were told to just look at how many African students were living and studying in their country.”
Even for an array of severe crimes such as listening to foreign radio channels Aliou never got punished simply because he is a foreigner. Foreigners are used by the government to spread propaganda whenever possible.
Other foreigners have been questioned by the police and banned for crimes such as taking pictures without a guide, being an undercover journalist etc. Note that while these foreigners got back safely to their country, there is almost certainly a North Korean civilian or guide who did get punished for not reporting or failing to guide these foreigners properly.
North Korean civilians do face danger every single day! However, as a foreign tourist, it is safe to visit North Korea. The government keeps up the image of a highly civilized country by giving foreign tourists access. In addition they generate an income from tourists. Please note that tourists who were born on the Korean peninsula need a special permission and are not considered regular tourists.
North Koreas foreign policy is also a reason for people to speak about a ‘dangerous country’ because of the fierce rhetoric speech and the ambition of nuclear technology.
Somalia is more dangerous for tourists to visit compared to North Korea. The Somali government resides outside of Somalia for safety purposes. That says enough.
At the moment (november 2012), Syria is also a dangerous country to visit because of the ongoing civil war.
In almost any country it is officially not permitted to take pictures of military checkpoints and military installations. This also applies to North Korea. In practice some countries apply this rule less strict than other countries. If you take some pictures of military checkpoints in North Korea, and you are a foreign tourist, you will be kindly requested to delete the pictures from your camera by your guide. Remember that when you leave the country as a tourist and get caught with illegal pictures, you will not only be requested to delete the pictures, but your guide could get in serious trouble. Everytime you take an illegal picture, please consider if it is worth to put the life of your guides at stake.
Here is a true story. A bus with four guides and some tourists was riding on a highway. One tourist was sitting in the middle of the bus and taking landscape pictures from the right side window. Looking from the side window, she did not notice that the bus was approaching a military checkpoint and accidentally took a picture of the checkpoint. The soldier halted the bus and called one of the guides, who later came back into the bus to collect the camera from the woman. The soldier then proceeded to erase the “illegal” picture and handed the camera back to the guide. The soldier summoned all four guides to get their papers (ID cards?) and step into the checkpoint building. After the paperwork was settled, the bus continued its course. Why did all four guides have to submit their papers? Is it because this incident was registered in order to punish the guides later on? Nobody knows, but everybody was assured that everything was okay. The tourist was not scolded at, did not talk to the soldier and was not punished. Of course things would have been really different if this concerned a bus with North Koreans.
Nobody can predict the future, not even North Korean leaders. But let’s assume that North Korea does have the intention to use nuclear technology to build nuclear weapons. Let’s assume that they already have such a nuclear weapon. In that case, this would be the worst case scenario:
- The great leader Kim Jong Un is enjoying his luxurious life in one of his mansions with 10 swimming pools
- Suddenly he feels the rush to launch a nuclear bomb towards the USA
- He decides that he must get rid of his luxurious life as quick as possible
- He quickly launches the nuclear bomb by pressing the red button
- Before the bomb reaches US soil, the US would have responded with a massive invasion
- The great leader and his comrades will die in a few hours after the invasion
This is a pretty expensive way for a president to commit suicide! It took decades to build a nuclear weapon.
So, now that we know what would happen if North Korea launched a nuclear weapon, we have to rephrase our initial question: Does the North Korean president, who is currently living a luxury life, have any ambitions to commit suicide?