Can Americans Travel to North Korea?
Can Americans Travel to North Korea?

The Korean war ended in 1953, and since then the Korean Peninsula has been divided by a demilitarized zone (DMZ), separating the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

Curiosity will probably get the cat killed in North Korea – perhaps even your tour guide – and you may be expelled from the country if you probe to many questions or step out of line. Still, North Korea is a fascinating and totally unique country, and you may be curious to experience the place for yourself.

Since September 1st, 2017 the US State Department introduced travel restrictions to North Korea for all American tourists. This restriction is valid for one year but has been renewed each year on the 31st of August unless otherwise revoked by the US Secretary of State. Can Americans travel to North Korea? The US State Department Travel restriction prohibits using a US passport for travel to, in, and through the DPRK.

U.S.-DPRK Relations

North Korea is the United States’ longest-standing adversary. The U.S. helped to divide the Korean peninsula at the end of World War II, then waged war against North Korea in the 1950s. It has maintained economic sanctions against Pyongyang for nearly fifty years. In this post-cold war era, North Korea remains a useful demon. The Pentagon has inflated the North Korean threat in order to rationalize its desire for a missile defense system, to justify a capacity to fight two wars simultaneously and to explain the need to maintain 37,000 troops in South Korea (and 100,000 troops in Asia overall).

Peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula is the ultimate goal for the United States in its relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The United States works closely with allies and partners in the region toward greater peace and security in the region.

Can Americans travel to North Korea?

As of 2017, American citizens are not allowed to use their passports to travel to North Korea.

The US government banned entry to North Korea arguing that US citizens have been arrested and detained for long-term periods for offenses that would not lead to imprisonment in the US or other countries. Additionally, they also claim that North Korean authorities have detained US citizens without charges, even when they had a valid entry permit and were part of an organized tour.

The decision came after US college student, Otto Warmbier was arrested in 2016 after he tried to take a propaganda poster from his hotel room in North Korea. He was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on charges of “Subversion” despite US efforts to have him released. Otto was ultimately released in 2017 in a vegetative state and died only days after his return to the US.

As the law stands there is no material difference between going for a day or going for a month. In the meantime, we’d suggest our North Korea Borderlands Tour – you will never set foot on North Korean soil, but you will see and experience North Korean border life. We also have our South Korean Borderlands Tour where you catch glimpses of the North Korean landscape and have an up and close encounter with the South Korean military.

Is The North Korea US TRavel Ban The Same As Cuba Travel Ban?

Americans were previously banned from spending any money in Cuba, which constituted a de facto ban on visiting. Passports were never confiscated as a result of visiting Cuba; the worst that could happen was a fine. Granted, this fine could be pretty high.

How to Get a North Korea Visa?

Photo: vanityfair
Photo: vanityfair

The North Koreans did not block Americans from entering North Korea on US passports. This was a US government decision. That said, YPT is not willing to assist a US passport traveller in committing a crime against their country, and we strongly recommend that you respect your government’s laws.

The first step to getting a North Korean visa is to contact a travel agency that organizes state-approved tours to North Korea. You will need them to organize your trip and get your visa approved since you cannot visit the country independently.

You have to provide your tour agency with a passport-size picture with a white background, a copy of your passport, fill in the North Korea visa application form, and sign the terms and agreement with your tour agency. They will notify you if they need any more information or documents.

The visa comes in the form of a separate document or a booklet – you don’t receive a North Korean visa on your passport.

You can enter North Korea through China or Russia, either by air or a train. So, you have to check the visa and entry requirements for those countries as well.

At the entry point, the North Korean officers will stamp your passport, but you will need to give it to your guides until you depart. You will also receive a departure stamp.

Who Can Get a Special Validation Passport?

We will only issue a special validation passport if your trip is in the national interest, and you meet all other passport eligibility requirements.

Your trip might be in the national interest if any of the following are true:

  • You are a professional reporter or journalist and the purpose of your trip is to collect and make available to the public, information about the DPRK.
  • You are a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross or the American Red Cross traveling on an officially-sponsored Red Cross mission to the DPRK.
  • Your trip to the DPRK is justified by compelling humanitarian considerations.
  • Your trip to the DPRK is otherwise in the national interest.

Who May be Approved for a Multiple-Entry Special Validation?

Effective September 3, 2021, you may be approved if you meet all of the following criteria:

  • Granting your special validation is in the national interest consistent with 22 C.F.R §§ 51.63-51.64.
  • You or your organization has a well-established history of traveling to the DPRK to work on a well-monitored project with compelling humanitarian considerations.
  • You have draft itineraries and sufficient documentation showing that your humanitarian work required you to make multiple trips to the DPRK in the next 365-day period.

Will Have Internet in North Korea as a Tourist?

Internet is not widely available in North Korea, except for government officials and foreigners. However, it is not the internet as you are used to in your home country. For one, there is no wifi that connects to the World Wide Web. One way of getting access to the World Wide Web is by purchasing a North Korean SIM card, but that is very expensive to set up and does not offer a lot of MB. You can use the SIM card, however, to make international calls.

North Korea Travel Advisory For Americans

Photo: manvsclock
Photo: manvsclock

Do not travel to North Korea due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. nationals.

  • You cannot use a U.S. passport to travel to, in, or through North Korea without a special validation from the Department of State.
  • Special validations are granted only in very limited circumstances.

The U.S. government is unable to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in North Korea as it does not have diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea. Sweden serves as the protecting power for the United States in North Korea, providing limited emergency services. The North Korean government routinely delays or denies Swedish officials access to detained U.S. citizens.

Due to risks to civil aviation operating within or in the vicinity of North Korea, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued a Notice to Air Missions (NOTAM) and/or a Special Federal Aviation Regulation (SFAR).

If you receive a special validation to travel to North Korea:

  • Draft a will and designate appropriate insurance beneficiaries and/or power of attorney.
  • Discuss a plan with loved ones regarding care/custody of children, pets, property, belongings, non-liquid assets (collections, artwork, etc.), funeral wishes, etc.
  • Visit our website for Travel to High-Risk Areas.
  • Read the Department of State’s COVID-19 page before planning any international travel.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive Alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency.
  • Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.
  • Prepare a contingency plan for emergency situations.

Is North Korea Dangerous to Visit?

In terms of major crime and disease, no North Korea is not dangerous to visit. In fact, your trip will be so monitored, that you won’t need to be worried about those things at all. However, North Korea is a very tightly-controlled country with strict laws and regulations, much harsher than you are likely accustomed to. If you break these laws, minor as they may seem, you may face imprisonment. This is what has given it a reputation for being unsafe.

Moreover, there have been reports of detentions of Westerners, especially US citizens, such as the case of Otto Warmbier who was arrested in 2016 on a charge of subversion and released in 2017 in a coma state, of which he died a few days later, leading to the US ban on travel to North Korea.

However, if you are truly set on visiting North Korea, when you book a tour, your tour agency will inform you about the rules you have to follow once you are in the country. This includes:

  • You must not disrespect any of the country’s leaders. In fact, it’s best if you just don’t comment on them at all, regardless of the fact it may be a positive remark. If you take pictures of the leaders’ statue, do not cut off their faces!
  • You will have to show your respect to the North Korean leaders. I.e. you must bow to their statues when you visit them.
  • Do not take pictures or video footage of any government buildings – or anything really, without having the okay from your tour guide.
  • Do not wander anywhere without your guides.
  • Do not engage in any religious practices. You are also not allowed to bring a religious book inside.
  • Don’t talk about politics.
  • Do not bring any banned items into the country, such as religious books, guides about North Korea, electronics, drones, etc.
  • Refer to the country as just “Korea”, not “North Korea”. This may not be a punishable offence, but the government still prefers the former name rather than the latter. It is what everyone uses.

Remember, if you break the rules, you will not only be endangering yourself, but your guide as well since they may be considered co-conspirators for “espionage”. They may be imprisoned for this or even tortured.

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