Safety and security
Crime against foreigners in North Korea is rare. Take sensible precautions to protect your belongings.
An incident at a hotel in Pyongyang in June 2015 highlighted a culture of low safety awareness. You may wish to check hotel fire procedures or consult your tour operator.
Tourists can normally only travel to North Korea as part of an organised tour. Independent travellers will need a sponsor and permission from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. This is normally only possible for business travellers.
Travel within the country is severely restricted. Whether you are visiting on business or as a tourist, you will almost always be accompanied by a guide and will only be allowed to go where your guide is content for you to go. For travel outside Pyongyang, it is your guide’s responsibility to get the necessary permissions. Military checkpoints at the entry and exit to all towns usually include ID checks.
In 2008 a South Korean tourist who strayed into a restricted military area was shot dead. Take care to remain in permitted areas and move away immediately if asked to do so by North Korean officials.
Foreigners living in Pyongyang are usually able to travel freely within the city, but permission is often required for travel outside Pyongyang.
You can’t enter or leave North Korea through the border with South Korea without special permission.
It isn’t possible to travel directly to South Korea from North Korea, unless you are making an official visit to the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
Taxis are sometimes available from hotels or outside department stores, but they will be reluctant to take you without a local guide or interpreter. Public transport is not generally accessible to foreigners.
International Driving Permits are not valid in North Korea. Foreigners living in North Korea must get a local driving licence by passing a local driving test. You should take extra care when driving, as roads are often of poor quality with frequent hazards, and pedestrian road safety awareness is low.
The domestic network is small, equipment is old and trains are subject to delays because of electricity shortages. There is a rail service between Pyongyang and Beijing via Sinuiju/Dandong (North Korean and Chinese border towns) 4 times a week, and a daily service between Pyongyang and Dandong. Delays are frequent and facilities on board are basic.
Most travellers enter North Korea on direct flights from Beijing to Pyongyang operated by Air Koryo, the North Korean national airline.
All aircraft operated by Air Koryo, with the exception of two Tupolev Tu204, have been refused permission to operate services to the EU because they do not meet international safety standards. Incidents reported in July 2016 and May 2017 involving Air Koryo flights highlight the lack of official information regarding Air Koryo’s safety record and standards.
Air Koryo is still used by some members of Pyongyang’s international community, including businesspeople, diplomats and international organisations. Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff only use Air Koryo when it is operationally necessary and this position is kept under review.
Tensions increased throughout 2017 due to the number of missile launches carried out by DPRK and the threat of further missile or nuclear tests. There were 2 nuclear tests in 2016 and 1 in 2017, a series of ballistic missile tests in 2016 and 2017, 2 intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July 2017 and one in November 2017. On 21 April 2018, North Korea announced a halt to nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile testing.
Since the start of 2018 there has been a renewal of direct contact between the North and South Korean governments, as well as North Korea and the United States. The two Koreas competed under a unified flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics, exchanged high-level delegations for the opening and closing ceremonies, and held an inter-Korean leaders’ summit on 27 April. The Panmunjom Declaration signed at the summit confirmed the common goal of realising, through complete denuclearisation, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. Both countries also pledged to agree by the end of 2018 a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War, alongside a number of other commitments to build inter-Korean ties, reduce military tensions and establish a peace regime.
On 12 June US President Donald Trump met North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore. Their summit was the first ever meeting between a sitting US President and North Korean leader. In a joint statement, North Korea reaffirmed the commitment it made on 27 April to work towards complete denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. The US and North Korea also committed to establish new US-DPRK relations, to join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula, and to recover the remains of prisoners of war and those missing in action from the Korean War, and repatriate any remains already identified.
However, the level of tension on the Korean peninsula can change with little notice. Tensions increased after the sinking of the South Korean Navy Ship Cheonan and an artillery attack against Yeonpyeong Island in 2010; when the DPRK carried out 2 missile tests in 2012; and after nuclear tests in 2013, 2016 and 2017. Tensions can also rise during the regular South Korean-US military exercises, which take place throughout the year.
Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the Korean peninsula has been divided by a demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. Peace has been maintained under an armistice agreement but no formal peace treaty has ever been signed. If you’re in the area of the DMZ, you should exercise caution and follow the advice of the local authorities.