Frequent Questions on North Korea
Lack of access and complex realities make it easy to get an impression of this country that is incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate. To help you decide whether visiting the DPRK is a good idea, we will try to answer a few common questions many volunteers have when signing up as a workshop leader with Choson Exchange. Nonetheless, some issues are better discussed in person, and we always take the time for a phone conversation with everyone who is ready to join us for a trip.
Is it safe to visit North Korea?
Personal safety in Pyongyang is very high and crime against foreigners is very low. Over the past few years, we have brought more than a hundred volunteers to the DPRK and nobody has ever had a serious problem. Recent detentions have affected American citizens, and we do not bring any Americans, Koreans or Japanese for our programs. We engage in a pre-program safety briefing for all workshop leaders. We strongly recommend following local laws and information in the briefing. We also have excellent relationships with major foreign embassies in Pyongyang, who stand ready to assist should there be any serious issues.
What can I tell my mother so she stops worrying that I will get arrested?
One number: Zero. That’s how many Choson Exchange volunteers have ever run into any serious trouble while visiting the DPRK. We enter the DPRK as educators on an official visa, and are taken care of by trusted local partners who we have closely worked with for years. In addition, we provide a thorough briefing to all workshop leaders to make sure volunteers understand and follow local laws and customs.
Is it true that North Korea has no Internet?
Very few North Koreans have access to the Internet, but foreigners can buy local SIM cards that offer limited 3G data plans. Registering your phone for local use is expensive though: Setting it up costs about 200 USD, with an additional 20 USD for only 50 MB of data per month. Any additional data costs extra. Choson Exchange has a local phone with data access and an email address for emergency communication. If you must have regular online access for professional or private purposes, you will have to register your own SIM card on arrival.
Can I walk around freely?
We have plenty of opportunities to walk around Pyongyang during our visits, but we do this together with our local partners, as they are responsible for us and our actions. Still, it’s a great experience: Walking along the river and around town as people get back from work, and strolling to our favorite restaurants is a good way to develop a feel for the city. It's a great chance to unwind and chat with our local partners, too.
Will I be able to bring my laptop, camera, and phone?
Yes, you can bring these items and use the phone as a camera, even though it won’t work with the DPRK’s mobile network unless you buy a pricey SIM card. Many of our workshop leaders bring their own computers, though some prefer leaving it at home.
So, isn’t this just another tourist trip?
Not at all. The focus of our visits to North Korea is to teach business skills — to help the ambitious and creative Koreans who are exploring ways to support positive change in their country. Volunteers who travel with Choson Exchange enter the DPRK as educators, they get a real full-page visa in their passport, and are taken care of by foreign CE staff and trusted local partners who we have been working with for years. However, we always make sure there is enough time to visit important sites and interesting spots around Pyongyang. Some workshops are even taking place in other provinces like Wonsan or Rason, so if you have been to Pyongyang already and prefer seeing another part of the country, keep an eye out for these opportunities!
How is the food?
Unlike tourists who often have all their meals pre-booked, we enjoy being spontaneous and take volunteers to our favorite places around town! Because we go to Pyongyang so often, we know where to get the best Bibimbap, great Pyongyang Cold Noodles, and many other local specialties. So, to answer this question: The food in Pyongyang is great, and we love it!
Are we allowed to speak to North Koreans?
While tourists have very few chances to speak with locals, our workshops offer a great opportunity to chat with the Korean participants, learn about their professional life, and work together during interactive exercises that you can make a part of your session. Outside of workshops, Koreans tend to be hesitant to talk to foreigners in public, but our local partners are always happy to chat and can tell you more about their country than you will ever learn from CNN.
Is it true that North Koreans don’t know anything about the outside world?
While most North Koreans have no access to global media and the Internet, there is great interest in what is happening outside of the DPRK, and some people we have worked with are surprisingly informed. While the latest Google product may be unknown to them, they may beat you with their knowledge about soccer stars!
Will I have problems visiting other countries after getting a DPRK visa in my passport?
None of the hundreds of workshop leaders we have taken to North Korea over the past few years has ever reported problems entering another country after visiting the DPRK, even when traveling to the United States or South Korea.
Is Air Koryo really the worst airline in the world?
Definitely not. Those rankings are partly based on network size, code-shares, frequent flier miles and things that Air Koryo certainly is weak on. And while the squishy hamburger that is being served during flights to Pyongyang will not win any awards, Air Koryo offers very friendly and professional service, comfortable seats, and smooth flights. The planes used to fly to Beijing are comparably new. While a single channel with music videos of the North Korean girl band “Moranbong” may not be everyone’s favorite choice of in-flight entertainment, we would pick Air Koryo over many other airlines any day.
Can I call home while traveling in North Korea?
Yes, calling home from our hotel in Pyongyang is possible. It’s expensive though, with per-minute-prices of 2 USD and more depending on the country you are calling to. Hotels in other parts of the country are less likely to have international lines available, but the North Korean capital is comparably well connected. Kind of.
Is it allowed to take photos?
Yes, absolutely. Taking pictures is generally welcome, with a few exceptions when it comes to construction sites and — like in many other countries — military personnel. If in doubt, just ask Choson Exchange staff or our local partners.
Do I need to speak Korean in order to host a workshop?
No, all workshops are held in English. We have experienced interpreters who will translate every session to Korean. This also means we can only accept volunteers who are fluent in English.
I heard that wearing jeans is not allowed in the DPRK. Is that true?
Blue jeans are acceptable if you want to bring them, but you won't see any North Koreans wearing them. Also, we don't wear them to more formal engagements, such as meeting with diplomats.
What’s the schedule of a typical Choson Exchange trip?
Trips usually include five or six nights in the DPRK plus one or two nights in Beijing. We meet in Beijing one day before departure in the morning to pick up our visas, and then fly into Pyongyang around noon on the next day, often a Saturday. After settling into the hotel, we often have Sunday for site visits before starting a series of workshops over the course of two to four days. We plan in a second day of site visits before leaving Pyongyang on the following Thursday or Friday. We arrive back in Beijing by noon, so our volunteers can spend the weekend in China or catch a connecting flight back home right away.
Where are most workshop leaders coming from? Can volunteers of any nationality join?
Over the past few years, we have brought volunteers from more than a dozen different countries across Asia, Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Unfortunately, we are currently unable to bring citizens of the U.S., South Korea and Japan to the DPRK. Please subscribe below and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn to stay in the loop on any opportunities to join a trip with us.
What kind of expertise is required to host a workshop?
Choson Exchange workshops aim to offer a broad set of business skills ranging from management, lean startup methods, and business plan creation to marketing, cash flow, team building, accounting, and more. Past volunteers have had professional backgrounds in international business, architecture, hotel management, banking, foreign policy, trading, software, engineering, consulting, economics, urban planning, marketing, accounting, property investment, and many other fields. If your area of expertise has some connection with business, we can likely help you pick a workshop topic that is useful and interesting for a North Korean audience.
Who are the Koreans who will attend these workshops?
Because business skills can benefit people in a wide range of industries and professions, the audiences of our workshops tend to be very diverse. Some may have studied business and simply lack practical experience, while many others will not have any formal business education. People may work in the retail or service sector, like hotels, restaurants, and stores, or in trading companies, light manufacturing, finance, or tourism. However, some workshops have a more narrowly-defined audience than others, and our staff will work with every volunteer on developing a workshop that works best for the expected audience.