So you’ve decided to make a trip to North Korea! You must be super excited, but at the same time a little apprehensive about the tight rules and regulations you’ll have to follow while there. Among these would be those regarding what items you can bring. Going through customs can be nerve-wracking in a lot of places, not to mention somewhere as alien as North Korea. Due to the mysterious nature of the country, you’re also not sure what kind of items will come in handy while there. Relax! Customs checks in North Korea are actually pretty relaxed, much more so than a lot of Western countries such as Australia or the US. Immigration staff are generally quite friendly—you just need to be aware of a small list of things that could cause problems. And in regards to what else to bring—we’re coming to your rescue with the guide we’ve prepared below.
What kinds of things you can and cannot bring
Despite some preconceptions people have about North Korea tours being super strict, most things are actually totally fine to bring in. Most electronic items, for example, are allowed. This includes laptop computers, tablets, cameras, and phones. Phones were prohibited until about 2013, but this rule was then relaxed. Tourists can now even get SIM cards for international and domestic (only to other foreigners though) calls, and internet data. The only electronic items that are prohibited are GPS readers. GPS functional cameras and phones are generally fine, however.
In regards to computers, customs has been known to sometimes get tourists to take out their laptops and log in. They will then take a look at the contents. They are looking for three kinds of prohibited content:
- South Korean media such as South Korean movies, TV dramas and music
- Sexually explicit content such as pornography
- Non-South Korean media that portrays North Korea in a negative light
This may be quite intrusive and annoying, but we are all aware of the somewhat paranoid and isolationist attitude of North Korea’s government, and its policies of controlling the flow of information in and out of the country’s borders. Thus, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, and prospective tourists should take care to check the contents of their computers before going in if they want to have an enjoyable trip. Any items found to have such content on them will be confiscated and not returned.
On a related note, North Korean customs also takes an interest in the kinds of books and other printed material that people are bringing in. It is generally inadvisable to bring books dealing with contemporary Korean politics, or anything printed in South Korea. Even the Lonely Planet North Korea and other such travel guides have been known to be confiscated from time to time. Other than that, the other kind of literature that might cause problems is religious literature. The North Korean government forbids the spreading of religious material by law (China has similar laws), and several foreigners have been detained in the past for such acts.
Also, given the politically delicate situation on the peninsula, items bearing the US or South Korean flags should be best avoided. North Korea is also a somewhat culturally conservative country, so items bearing obscene text or images are also best avoided. For the same reason, it also best to pack a relatively conservative dress. But note that while locals rarely wear them, jeans are fine to wear as a tourist.
- Immodium or a similar medicine for digestion problems– a lot of visitors find their stomachs not suited to the food in Korea.
- Pocket tissues—some toilets are without toilet paper.
- Hand sanitising liquid- some toilets are without soap.
- Photos from home and of the family—these are good to break the ice with the guides.
- Gifts from home—it’s always a nice gesture, and can give local people a good image of a country they may not know much about! This can include food or drink, even alcohol, as customs does not really care about such items.
- Cash—you will need cash at various points in your trip. Note that euros, USD and Chinese yuan are generally accepted everywhere. Some attractions, bars, and restaurants require an out of pocket fee. You will also want to buy souvenirs while in North Korea, or perhaps extra water or snacks. It’s also customary to give a tip to the guides. You’ll need cash for all these things as there are no international ATMs or credit card machines in North Korea.
- Torch/flashlight- although the situation has much improved in recent years, power cuts can happen, making a light source a useful accessory.
- Alarm clock- many of the days will involve early starts so these come in handy. You can, of course, use your phone too.
- Painkillers and prescription medicines – these may be hard to acquire in North Korea.
- Extra digital camera memory and batteries- these will be hard to get in North Korea, so bringing a bit extra will be a good idea.
- Electrical plug adaptors—North Korea mostly uses the Chinese/US style two parallel flat pronged plug, but the European style, two round-pronged plugs can also be found.
Trip appropriate items
And of course, as is always the case, pack according to what the season is, and what you’ll be doing on your trip. North Korea has bitterly cold winters so if you’re going from November to March bring a down jacket. Thermals, a scarf, warm gloves, hats, boots etc wouldn’t be a bad idea too. Spring and autumn are mild, but a warm jacket can still be good for early spring and late autumn. Summers are hot and humid, so t-shirts, shorts, sunglasses, summer hats and sunscreen can come in handy. While North Koreans generally do not wear shorts even in summer (except when engaged in work, hiking or sports), it is fine for tourists to wear them.
Many groups visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are preserved in a similar manner to Lenin, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. For this visit, it is recommended to dress a bit more formally. You don’t necessarily have to wear a suit or formal dress, but shoes must cover the toes, and button-up shirts and stockings are best. If you are going to places where you’ll be able to swim such as the beach or Munsu Water Park or the water park on Rungra Island, bring swimmers. If going hiking in Myohyangsan, Mount Kumgang or one of the other mountain resorts, bring comfortable shoes.
And that concludes our packing advice! Rest assured that bearing the above information in mind you’ll have a great trip. One final note would be that aside from luggage-related preparation, mental preparation will contribute to a smooth and enjoyable experience too! Go in with an open mind to what you see and experience, and an open heart to the people you meet. Be aware of the sensational and shallow nature of many of the stereotypes of North Korea that the Western media tends to circulate. It would also be good to read up a little on North Korea’s history and culture. While a lot of the writings on North Korea are in a similar one-dimensional vein to the media reporting, there are some good books out there. We would recommend Professor Andrei Lankov’s The Real North Korea. North Korea can be an intellectually and emotionally intense experience, so such readings can help better put what you’re seeing into context, and help you get more out of your trip.