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The Amazing Race 4, Episode 10 (31 July 2003)

Sandakan, Sabah (Malaysia) - Seoul (Republic of Korea) - Sundam Kyegok (Republic of Korea) - Seoul (Republic of Korea)

The Cold War is Alive and Well in Korea

This week “The Amazing Race” went from the tropics to mid-winter in the icy north overnight, literally, with flights in January from Borneo via equatorial Singapore to Korea. I did the same thing at the same season last year, with a stopover in Seoul on my way back from Vietnam. So I sympathized with the racers, bundling up in all the warm clothes they had — until they were told to strip to their underwear (“What are skivvies?”, one asked), dive into a frigid lake, and swim beneath foot-thick ice from one fresh-cut breathing hole to another. Host Phil Keoghan, meanwhile, showed up in Korea sporting a winter coat far too heavy for any of the racers to have been able to tote around the world.

Things aren’t much warmer politically in Korea at any season, as the race reminded us with its scenes of fortifications and military traffic on roads near the border between the Republic of Korea (ROK — South Korea) / Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK — North Korea) barely outside the Seoul city limits. “Being from the United States, you’re not used to seeing 20 tanks lined up” on a public road, Al and Jon noted.

The race didn’t try to visit the DPRK, but surprisingly many people from the USA would like to do so. Why? Because it’s there, because it’s unknown, because they have family ties there, or simply because nobody else they know has been there.

For my own perverse reasons (curiosity, a belief that we have the most to learn — for better or worse — from places that are most different, and the inability of most travel agents in the USA to advise would-be visitors to the DPRK) I’ve spent a good deal of time and effort over the years corresponding and meeting with people who have visited the DPRK, knocking on the doors (sometimes literally) of DPRK government offices, and tracking down English-language timetables and tourist literature.

So while the race is in the neighborhood, only a few miles away, here’s some background information for those who hope to visit this most insular and unusual country:

[Do not rely on the details below. This column is posted as I originally published it in 2003, when this episode of “The Amazing Race” was first broadcast. There are some updates in my FAQ on tourist travel to North Korea (DPRK) by citizens of the USA, but there have more changes since that FAQ was last updated.]

Many Americans assume that, as with Cuba, it’s the USA that restricts travel by USA citizens to the DPRK. In fact, the situation is exactly the opposite: since 1995, the only serious obstacle to tourism from the USA to the DPRK has been the North Korean government’s policy not to give tourist visas to citizens of the USA (or of South Korea, the “Republic of Korea”).

Prior to 1995, the objections were greater from the USA government than from the North Korean government, and it was illegal for travel agencies in the USA to arrange travel to the DPRK. As with Cuba, however, it was possible for USA citizens to get to the DPRK with relatively little risk of USA government retribution provided they made all arrangements through an intermediate country, usually China, and I know a few people who went that way.

The (USA) “Trading With The Enemy Act” regulations were revised in early 1995 to create a special exception for travel-related spending by USA tourists in the DPRK of up to US$300/person/day; the per-diem spending limit was later eliminated entirely. Since then, licenses from the USA Treasury Department have not been required for travel-related spending by USA tourists. It is now legal for travel agents in the USA to arrange tours and transportation to the DPRK.

(Most business dealings and financial transactions between the USA and the DPRK for purposes other than travel and tourism remain embargoed by the USA government, however, and require advance permission from the USA Treasury Department. But tourism is now the exception.)

Details of current USA government policies and advice concerning travel to the DPRK and business with the DPRK are included in the Consular Information Sheet from the USA State Department.

A few groups of ordinary USA-citizen tourists visited the DPRK legally in 1995, and during that time the KITC (the North Korean government travel organization) worked with USA travel agents. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity lasted only about 6 months before it was closed from the DPRK side. In August 1995 the DPRK suddenly stopped issuing any visas to tourists travelling on USA passports, and the KITC stopped dealing with USA travel agents. My requests for reservations or further information regarding arrangements for a group I had been planning to escort to the DPRK went unanswered.

Since then I know of only one group of tourists — invited for a special event in 2002 — who was able to visit the DPRK on USA passports. Even a group that had been promised, by the DPRK Mission to the U.N. in New York, that they would receive visas, were turned away at the DPRK embassy in Beijing, and returned to the USA without ever getting to the DPRK.

No explanation for the 1995 change in policy was given, but my speculation is that it was a response to extremely anti-DPRK publicity produced by some stories in the USA press written by USA reporters who visited the DPRK in the guise of tourists during this period. The most detailed and embarrassing was a long article in a Korean-language USA-based newspaper by a (South) Korean-American USA-citizen reporter.

(Many journalists try to visit the DPRK in the guise of tourists. This further alienates the DPRK government and reduces the chances of real tourists being given visas. The DPRK will not knowingly issue tourist visas to journalists of any nationality, and reputable tour companies will not knowingly jeopardize their ability to provide services to bona fide tourists by assisting journalists masquerading as tourists.)

The USA and the DPRK still do not have diplomatic relations. The DPRK Mission to the U.N. — the only official DPRK representation in the USA — does not issue visas, arrange tours, or provide any tourist arrangements. They have declined to comment on any of my or other would-be tourists questions related to tourism or tourist policies. I went to the DPRK embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam in October 1995 to try to ask about the policy toward US-citizen visitors, but was turned away. Others have found other DPRK embassies similarly unresponsive.

From time to time I have heard a variety of rumors regarding intermediaries in various countries who might be able to arrange for tours and/or tourist visas to the DPRK for USA citizens, but despite my best efforts I have been unable to confirm any of them.

Some USA citizens have been issued business visas for a variety of purposes:

  • To visit a “free-trade zone” in the DPRK to investigate business possibilities. (Note, however, than for a USA citizen to do business with the DPRK still requires a license from the USA Treasury Department.)
  • To administer aid and famine relief programs for non-governmental organizations. These visas have required extensive negotiations with DPRK government representatives, and promised visas have often not been issued. Given the extremely close scrutiny given by the DPRK authorities to all applicants for visas of any sort, and the risk that tourists applying for visas under cover of being aid workers might jeopardize the possibility for bona fide aid workers to obtain visas, I recommend strongly against attempting to apply for a visa under false pretenses.
  • By invitation of DPRK organizations promoting peace and reunification of Korea. (The Korean Democratic Lawyers Association of the DPRK, and the joint ROK/DPRK/USA Korean Truth Commission seem to have been the principle contacts for these invitations. Several such groups from the USA were invited in 2003 in conjunction with commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Korean War.)

Tourist visits to the DPRK by citizens of most countries other than the USA remain possible, although difficult. A collection of DPRK travelogues by citizens of various other countries (including one from 1995 by Paul Bakker, who I later met when he was in the USA), originally posted to the or newsgroups, is available in the archives at

Some other travelogues and collections of information about the DPRK by academics, aid workers, etc. are at:

    (reports on visits by USA-citizen staff of the American Friends Service Committee, a Nobel Peace Prize winning USA-based Quaker relief organization with ongoing projects in the DPRK)
    (an extensive collection of material written and compiled by an academic expert on the DPRK from New Zealand, including several articles reporting on his own travel to the DPRK)
    (English-language news and background information about the DPRK, compiled and maintained by a Korean-speaking, Beijing-based European expatriate with international experience in academia, industry, and NGO’s.)
    (Japan-based online edition of “The People’s Korea”, including extensive reports on DPRK-ROK and DPRK-USA relations, visits by ROK citizens to the DPRK, etc.)

A change in policy might not be publicly announced. But official news releases from the DPRK’s “Korea News Service” (which would likely include any public announcement of a change in DPRK visa policy) are available in English at:

Citizens of countries other than the USA and the ROK (South Korea) may visit the DPRK as tourists, but must arrange travel and visas through agencies or DPRK representatives outside the USA or ROK. (It is possible that USA citizens who are also citizens of another country other than the ROK may be able to visit the DPRK using their non-USA, non-ROK passport, but such travel would have to be arranged through intermediaries outside the USA, and I have not been able to confirm whether it is possible.)

One PRC-based company that arranges such tours (for citizens of countries other than the USA and the ROK, and with a special warning to journalists against attempting to apply for visas as tourists) has an English-language web site with sample itineraries and prices at It’s interesting, but unsurprising, that despite the fact that visas are not being granted to USA citizens the tour and ticket prices on this and many other Web sites are specified in US dollars.

If you can get a visa, you still have to get to the DPRK. As with visas, this poses special problems for those coming from the USA or ROK (as the teams found out this week on “The Amazing Race”, you can’t travel directly between the ROK and DPRK), although unlike the visa problems the transport problems shouldn’t be insurmountable.

Since 1999, the national airline of the DPRK, Air Koryo, also known as Chosonminhang (IATA airline code “JS”) is no longer embargoed by the USA government. (Cubana and Libyan Arab Airlines remain embargoed; among other airlines more recently removed from the embargoed list are Iran Air and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines).

Although it has joined IATA, the international airline association, Air Koryo has no representation in the USA and does not participate in any of the USA-based computerized reservations systems or airline financial clearinghouses. So, as a practical matter, it is impossible for USA travel agents to make reservations or obtain tickets on Air Koryo except by having a local agent buy them at a Air Koryo office in some country to which they fly. So only likely way to be able to obtain Air Koryo tickets would be as part of an air-inclusive tour package to the DPRK from China or Russia.

In addition to its domestic routes, Air Koryo flies only (so far as I have been able to verify) from Pyongyang (IATA airport and city code “FNJ”) to Beijing, Moscow, and Khabarovsk (in the Russian Far East). A variety of air routes are available, via either the Atlantic or the Pacific, between the USA and Beijing, Moscow, or Khabarovsk.

There are also international trains between Pyongyang and Moscow (on either of two routes, one of which is the longest continuous train route in the world), Beijing (via Shenyang), and Ussuriysk (in the Russian Far East, between and with onward connections to and from Vladivostok to the south and Khabarovsk to the north). The route via the Russian Far East is the shortest but least used by foreign tourists. It’s not apparent on any but the most detailed maps, but the DPRK and Russia have a very short land border along the coast; the DPRK-Russian Far East train does not pass through China at all.

For details of these rail routes, and other information, the best topographic maps of the DPRK available in the USA are the US Air Force Tactical Pilotage Charts, available from Maplink ( and other distributors. The only other widely-available map with decent detail of the DPRK, based on the TPC’s, is the Nelles “Korea” sheet (also available from Maplink and elsewhere).

Schedules (not necessarily up to date, but they don’t change that often) for these trains are given in the Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable, available at many libraries, in Table 5000 (Moscow-Pyongyang, both routes), Table 5250 (Beijing-Pyongyang), and table 5255 (Ussuriysk- Pyongyang). Pay no attention to the purported prices given in the Thomas Cook timetables; there is no way to anticipate how much tickets will cost on any of these routes.

None of these trains can be booked or ticketed in advance from outside the DPRK, Russia, or China, except as part of a tour package to the DPRK. Travel agents in the USA can arrange flights to Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Moscow, or Beijing, but you would probably have to make arrangements locally for onward train tickets from one of those places to the DPRK.

All of these routes are subject to change, of course. Most of these flights and some of these trains are only once a week, and almost all routes to and from the DPRK involve layovers of at least a night in each direction in Russia or China. Both China and Russia require visas from citizens of most other countries including the USA, so you would need 2 visas, or a double-entry visa, to one or the other or both of these countries as well as a visa to the DPRK.

Chinese visas for USA citizens can be had for the asking, on payment of the applicable fee, and are easier to obtain in the USA than in most other places (including in particular Hong Kong).

Russian business or tourist visas require local sponsorship; if you prepay for hotel accommodations, the hotel can sponsor you for a visa for the specific dates for which you have prepaid. Russian transit visas can only be issued once you have confirmed tickets in and out of Russia, but do not require prepayment for accommodations nor sponsorship. Allow ample time (at least a month) for processing of your application for a Russian visa, even a transit visa. Expedited processing by Russian consulates or embassies is expensive. In my experience, the Russian consulates in San Francisco and Seattle are considerably less overworked, and more cooperative, than the Russian consulate in New York or the Russian embassy in Washington, DC.

Alll things change, and I hope the information here will change as well, to make it easier for me and others from the USA to visit the DPRK. If you get there, send me a postcard — and let me know how you managed it, so I can update this advice for others.

Bon voyage!

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