Lonely Planet Writer

North Korea has temporarily suspended tourist visas – here’s what we know

Companies that run organised tours in North Korea – the only way that most international visitors can see the “Hermit Kingdom” – have revealed that the country has temporarily suspended tourist visa applications.

People’s Army soldiers marching in front of giant portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Kim Il Sung Square. Image by ©Eric Lafforgue/Lonely Planet

Currently, the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office advises against all but essential travel to North Korea, while the US government has issued a “do not travel” advisory. However, companies still offer organised tours to foreigners who want to see a slice of North Korea – albeit with state-employed guides at their side.

One of those companies, Koryo Tours, has posted a notice on its website explaining that its partners in Pyongyang “had been instructed from above that all tourist visa applications currently underway are to be frozen.” This apparently applies to all visa applications that are currently in progress, but will not affect tours after 9 September.

National monument to the Korean Worker’s Party, with blue sky in the background. Image by ©Image by Damian Bettles/Getty Images

Koryo Tours explained that no reasons have been given for the freeze, but “it is expected that at the end of this month the situation will be clear, applications will be unfrozen, and visas will be issued very quickly after that.” The company speculates that this could be due to a number of state delegations that will be in Pyongyang next month, as 9 September marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948. “This seems the most likely and characteristic reason for this unusual act,” according to Koryo Tours. Travellers are advised to follow the ongoing situation and wait for more information to become available. The tour company expects that the freeze will soon and the visas will be issued not long after, without interrupting travel plans. The issue does not affect those who have already been issued a visa.

The North Korea specialist at Regent Holidays, Carl Meadows, told Lonely Planet that the issue is most likely to impact Chinese tourists: “We think that the government may be keen to limit the numbers of visitors to Pyongyang over this holiday period, in order to ensure the best possible celebrations experience. In reality, the limiting of the visa will not have any impact on Western visitors and is more likely to affect the large numbers of Chinese tourists who take short breaks over to North Korea at short notice.”

Pyongyang cityscape, North Korea. Image by ©Anny Ma/500px

Megan Eaves, Lonely Planet’s North Korea expert, notes that “as things are prone to change on the Korean peninsula, our best advice is to keep in close contact with the travel agency organising your trip and visa, and also follow the advice of your national government. When in destination, it’s important to understand local laws and customs and follow them, as well.”