Five rules for traveling to North Korea

I’m told that travel to North Korea is quite safe, as long as you follow the rules (and don’t do anything stupid). You have to realize that, politics aside, you’re entering a country that just does things differently. Of course, the consequences that come with straying can be severe. The trip will be scripted, but you know that going in. Follow the bouncing ball, and you’ll be just fine.

This year, we’ll get a sense of how widely North Korea is willing to open its doors to the line of westerners waiting to enter. In 2009, the window for Arirang-related trips was extended, and there are some indications that this year will bring further liberalization to travel rules for Americans. There’s nothing but opportunity, it seems, for travelers interested in seeing the most remote country on the planet.

Again, travel to North Korea is safe, I’m told, as long as you stick to an established tour group, preferably one that specializes in excursions for westerners. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to be hyper-conscious of your environment. Here are five ways to make sure you don’t extend the “Ugly American” stereotype to Pyongyang.

1. Stay on the beaten path
Every travel writer in the world seems intent on delivering super-local, “insidery” insights, encouraging you to really blend. In North Korea, that’s the worst advice you could possibly receive. Want to see something strange? The beaten path will give you plenty.

2. Bring cigarettes

Fuck the Surgeon General! Everything I’ve read suggests that North Korean cigarettes suck. Use packs of Marlboros as tips, and you’ll be treated very well throughout your vacation. Pick up a few cartons at home, preferably in a state that doesn’t tax the hell out of them.

3. Be careful with your camera
There is no shortage of rules about what you can photograph (and how). When in doubt, ask your tour guide. First, you don’t want to run afoul of the regs. More important, though, is that you don’t want to ruin someone else’s day … which could end in a damaged career or worse. This is especially the case if you want to take pictures of North Korean people (which is almost always forbidden).

4. Don’t go political
Be open to having a good time. The official guides are actually quite personable and seem to realize, if subconsciously, that they are in the service industry. Your North Korean tour guides will probably be more accommodating than the flight attendants you encountered en route from the United States. Interact with your guide as guides — not as politicians. These people aren’t setting North Korean policy any more than you’re setting U.S. policy.

5. Interview the tour company
The people taking you into North Korea will make a difference. Stick with a reputable company that has a track record of running tours for westerners. Before you make a purchase, talk to the people who run the company. Get comfortable with them. Don’t be afraid to ask even the strangest questions. The right tour company will not only be open to them, it will answer you from a position of expertise and experience.