Life in North Korea is about as different as you can get from life in the United States. North Koreans subsist on diets of rice, kimchi, and too little protein. There are many things they can’t find — or afford — at the grocery store. Few people have access to the internet. And North Koreans only celebrate a few holidays each year. Plus, North Koreans can’t easily go on vacation.
In fact, getting out of North Korea is a major ordeal. And there’s only one country where North Koreans can vacation as long as they want.
North Koreans have to get visas to travel to most countries
If they want to travel internationally, citizens of North Korea typically need to get a visa for their destination. But there are a few countries where North Koreans can travel without a visa. They include Gambia, Guyana, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Micronesia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
All of those countries — except for one — limit the amount of time North Koreans can stay. In fact, there’s only one country in the world where North Koreans can vacation for an unlimited amount of time.
Kyrgyzstan lets North Koreans stay as long as they want
It turns out that Kyrgyzstan, a central Asian country bordering China, lets North Koreans enter without a visa and stay as long as they want. The BBC reports that Kyrgyzstan became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The country has a population of about 6 million people. Tourists can see some beautiful mountain landscapes in this sparsely populated nation. Lonely Planet reports the sights include “joyously unspoilt mountainscapes, stark craggy ridges, and rolling jailoos(summer pastures),” plus the yurts of semi-nomadic shepherds.
Kyrgyzstan seems to be honoring agreements signed by the USSR
Why would Kyrgyzstan allow North Koreans to visit without a visa and to stay as long as they want? The answer involves Kyrgyzstan’s history as a Soviet republic. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kyrgyz Republic, Kyrgyzstan’s visa policy still honors “agreements between the former USSR and the following foreign states: The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], The Republic of Cuba, Lao People’s Democratic Republic.”
The USSR agreement with North Korea dates to Jan. 22, 1986. It allowed reciprocal travel for citizens of North Korea and the Soviet Union. Because Kyrgyzstan was part of the USSR, it still upholds its end of the bargain.
Nonetheless, most North Koreans can’t travel internationally
Even though Kyrgyzstan welcomes citizens of North Korea, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy for North Koreans to take a vacation. Kyrgyzstan — and other Asian countries — don’t actually see many North Korean tourists. In fact, Lonely Planet cites Kazakh and Russian tourists as the most frequent visitors to Kyrgyzstan.
NK News reports even for North Korean diplomats, taking a trip abroad “is a rare honor.” Most North Koreans never have the opportunity to leave their country, much less to take a long, leisurely vacation.
In fact, many North Koreans can’t leave their country
Leaving North Korea is not only expensive, but also constitutes treason. According to the Migration Policy Institute, North Korea “imposes very strict migration controls on the entries and exits of foreigners and of its citizens.” The country “has long regarded unauthorized departure as an act of treason. Individuals who are caught emigrating or helping others to cross the border illegally are detained in political penal-labor colonies.”
The Migration Policy Institute explains, “Prisoners serve anywhere between two to seven years in these camps, where rates of torture and death are notoriously high.”
North Korea issues 4 kinds of passports
NK News reports most North Koreans have never seen a passport. But the rare citizens who do get to travel internationally receive one of the four types of passports that the country issues. “North Korea has four types of passports,” NK News explains.
“Three of them are more or less standard: ordinary (blue), service (green) and diplomatic (red). The fourth, also blue, is called the ‘ordinary passport for an official trip’ and is issued to sportsmen who participate in international competitions.”
Most North Koreans would have to bribe an official to get a passport
Though North Korea issues passports, you can’t get a passport as easily as you can in the United States. In fact, NK News reports ordinary North Koreans find it just about impossible to get a passport. To obtain one, you actually have to bribe a secret police officer with a sum of around $3,000.
That amount, to be paid in American dollars, remains out of reach for the average citizen. (A “good” salary in North Korea is only about $62 per month.) Most people who can afford to get a passport use it to go to China to buy products they’ll resell in North Korea, not to take a vacation.
Many North Koreans don’t know a passport lets you travel anywhere
Most Americans are pretty familiar with the concept of a passport. In combination with a visa issued by whichever countries require one, a passport enables you to travel almost anywhere in the world. But NK News posits that many North Koreans “do not wholly comprehend what a passport really is.”
Most think of it as a document that will prevent the Chinese police from arresting you. Many don’t know they can travel beyond the Chinese city they list on their North Korean passport application. Similarly, most probably don’t know North Koreans can enter 39 countries visa-free (more than citizens of Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, or Somalia).
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