The North Korean travel adventure begins at home, in all likelihood in front of your computer. Since all travel to the North is controlled and monitored by the government, there is no independent travel as we know it. One cannot go about planning one’s own vacation by picking and choosing which cities to visit or even what hotels to stay at.
There are several companies that have authorization to book state-approved tours, as all travel to the northern side of the DMZ must be through an official tour operator. Travel guides to Korea are mostly about the South, yet some of them will have a slim chapter at the end devoted to the North. The Bradt travel guides are well-known in travel circles because they publish entire country-specific volumes to many off-beat places. Bradt is the only English publisher to produce a guide devoted entirely to North Korea–248 pages worth. One can find a North Korean tour operator in a travel guide such as this:
My on-line research started months ago yet it wasn’t until the convenient date of 1 December 2010 that I sent out my first E-mails to all the travel companies that operate in North America. Each company offers different tours and at varying lengths. I played a game of E-mail tag with several tour operators before settling on Koryo Tours, easily the most reputable since it takes half of North Korea’s foreign visitors and has the greatest variety of tour packages. Koryo Tours takes one thousand western tourists each year into the DPRK, half the total number of western visitors. Koryo is allowed into more areas in the North than any other tour operator. While most, if not all, of the other operators take tourists only to Pyongyang, Koryo has permission to visit rural areas, many of which have never been opened to tourists before. Other tour operators are limited to five-day stays in the capital, while Koryo has worked with the authorities to provide, for the first time ever, the longest and most extensive tour ever offered to western visitors. I made a map of my itinerary:
The red lines are road travel. The black lines are flights.
Flights! North Korean domestic flights!
I will also have a different perspective of the DMZ when I stare across the border with the South from the northern side.