North Korean Tour Guides or Government Minders?

You’ve probably watched any number of YouTube documentaries on North Korea. From Vice media to National Geographic, you think you have a good feel for how a tour in the DPRK works and how to behave around the North Korean tour guides.

From start to finish it all seems rather regimented. Like a military boot camp of sorts. The “guides” are actually government spies and the hotel rooms are bugged. This doesn’t look like much fun, you don’t want to pay a lot of money to be shouted at and told what to do.

On the outside looking in, every trip to North Korea looks the same. But what if I told you there was more to a North Korea tour than what you see on YouTube. 

It’s all down to your tour guides. 

Drinking makgeolli in North Korea

Korea International Travel Company

The majority of tours to North Korea are run by the Korea International Travel Company (KITC).

Close to 80% of international travel companies are partnered with KITC (including Rocky Road Travel) who facilitate everything on the ground in North Korea. They employ around 100 tour guides, speaking English, Chinese, Japanese, German, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, French and more. Most attend the tourism and foreign language college in Pyongyang and study hard to be accepted in their roles.

These guys are highly trained & they need to be. The knowledge learned is vitally important in dealing with an endless supply of questions coming from every direction on a typical North Korean tour.

KITC - North Korea tour guides
North Korean local guide at a Pyongyang cafe

The Tour Guides

On any given tour these guys are responsible for literally everything.

A typical day for a North Korean tour guide starts at around 6am. That wake-up call you requested? They call you, not the hotel staff. When you arise you will see them running around the lobby busily trying to prepare for the day ahead. 

North Korean tour itinerary’s are usually prepared weeks in advance but for whatever reason, last minute changes occur. The guides need to explain what and why they need to change the schedule well ahead of time. Half their time is spent on the phone reconfirming everything from museum visits to restaurant bookings. The other half trying to entertain a group of restless foreigners. It’s a thankless, exhausting task. 

Guide / Group Rapport

The stressful nature of the North Korean guide position is exactly why we always send a foreign guide with our groups. Our guide deflects some of the attention from the local guides so as to allow them to do other aspects of the job and to have some downtime.

The better the guide / group rapport the more flexible and open the tour will be. If the local guide is relaxed and trusts the group, it will allow you rare access to places that were not even on the itinerary. 

A North Korea tour without a western guide can see the local guide overwhelmed, stressed and the tour could end up very limited in nature.

Two female north korean guides on tour in North Korea

Problem Solvers

There’s no end to what these guys can do. You don’t want to eat fish? No problem, one phone call ahead to the restaurant to fix that. You want to stop again at the same place as yesterday? No problem, we’ll make it work. Someone took a photo of something they were not supposed to? No problem, your guide is there to smooth talk the officials. 

These guys are problem solvers, constantly made to think on their feet. For that we reward them quite handsomely. All tour participants are encouraged to bring a small gift from their home country as well as a tip. After the trip, the goods are divided up between the two guides and driver. The guides rely heavily on these sums to survive and pass onto family members. The government wage is not enough to support citizens these days and everyone looks to top it up with another form of income.

At Rocky Road Travel we know and work with only the best tour guides from KITC. We have worked with dozens over the years and select the best suited to the nature of the specific tour

Come and meet them on one of our North Korea Tours!

Tour guide in North Korea
North Korean local guide at the Kumsusan Palace of the sun

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Rocky road travel founder Shane Horan at the DMZ

Shane Horan


When Shane is not endlessly writing award winning content for Rocky Road, he's usually kayaking to and from the beer garden along Berlin's River Spree.