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.
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.
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 to enter or leave the DPRK in unforeseen or emergency situations where other air or rail options are unavailable. Air Koryo is used for travel within DPRK only where there is a strong operational need.
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 1 in November 2017. Tensions can also rise during the regular South Korean-US military exercises, which take place throughout the year.
Since the start of 2018 there has been a renewal of direct contact between the North and South Korean governments, including a high level North Korean delegation visiting South Korea for the opening of the Winter Olympics. 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.
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. If you’re in the area of the DMZ, you should exercise caution and follow the advice of the local authorities.