Can North Koreans travel abroad?
Similar to communist regimes of the past, international travel can prove to be quite difficult but does it exist? Can North Koreans travel abroad?
It’s a question that frequently arises on our North Korea Tours. In short – Yes they can, but only with the necessary permission.
While waiting for your train to Pyongyang at Dandong station or your flight from Beijing you will encounter hundreds of Travelling North Koreans. Who are these travellers and where are they going?
The vast majority of North Koreans who travel do so for business. North Korea maintains 48 embassies around the world so you’ll commonly find diplomats flying in and out via Beijing.
During the 2017 Malaysia / DPRK diplomatic crisis this author traveled to Kuala Lumpur to meet & support some North Korean colleagues who had become stranded in Malaysia. Each country had banned their respective citizens from leaving. It showed how large the North Korean population was in Malaysia at the time.
North Korea also exports a lot of labor for overseas construction projects. Particularly in Russia and eastern Europe. This is a source of hard currency for the regime and a better income for the workers themselves.
The country is famous too for it’s overseas restaurant chain. These Pyongyang restaurants are staffed by North Korean waitresses who typically can stay up to 3 years abroad at a time working in one of the 130 locations around the globe.
The largest number of overseas North Koreans are students studying abroad. Many North Korean students dream of studying overseas to enhance their capabilities but only the most privileged are chosen.
According to a UN report from 2012, 1,400 North Korean students were studying abroad that year. The vast majority of these were in China followed by Russia, India, France, Germany & Australia.
For the North Korean government the goal is to gain knowledge for the purpose of advancing the state power. Historically the Soviet Union was the preferred destination for nuclear physicists – some 300 were sent to Russia from the mid-1990s to learn theories and technologies related to nuclear weapons development.
Many North Korean who have risen to the top of domestic politics have studied abroad. None other than Marshal Kim Jong Un himself who spent his school years in Bern, Switzerland.
Who get’s chosen to study abroad? Usually students with clean family backgrounds who excel academically. These are mostly children of government officials and they are expected to monitor each other while abroad.
North Korea sends a lot of athletes abroad for international competition. Notably they have sent delegations to the Olympic games since 1964 and in 2018 they sent 22 athletes and a 400 strong supporter group to the winter games in South Korea.
Some North Korean footballers are currently plying their trade abroad. Most famously is Han Kwan-Song who currently plays in Qatar and was the first North Korean to play in Italy’s top flight – Serie A.
Can they travel for tourism?
This doesn’t happen but in theory it’s possible. There are actually a few countries where North Koreans can travel without a visa. These are Guyana, Haiti, Kyrgyzstan, Micronesia and the Gambia.
Kyrgyzstan actually allows North Koreans to stay in their country indefinably. Why? North Korea used to have a reciprocal travel agreement with the USSR. As Kyrgyzstan was part of the USSR, it still upholds its end of the bargain today.