The country frequently hits headlines for its nuclear and missile tests, and dangers of travelling there were brought sharply into focus this year by the death of US student Otto Warmbier, who fell into a coma after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.
But despite the risks, several tour companies continue to offer holidays in the country, with options ranging from New Year’s party trips to marathon and scuba diving packages.
So who are the tourists venturing into the world’s most secretive country, and why do they choose to forgo sun and sand in favour of unchartered territory?
The state-owned Korea International Travel Company (KITC), which is estimated to handle around 80 percent of Western tourism to the country, said most travellers it deals with come from the UK, followed by Germany.
The company said it has facilitated trips for about 6,000 Westerners this year, 90 percent of whom were European.
China-based KTG Travel also estimated that UK travellers ranked first among its customers, followed by Germans, while Young Pioneer Tours – the operator that Warmbier went through – told Euronews that 1,000 of its 1,500-2,000 tourists each year are from European countries.
It listed German, Dutch, British, Finnish and Irish tourists as the most common European nationalities to travel to the country.
With tensions rising on the Korean Peninsula and the US banning citizens from travelling there indefinitely as of September, tour companies have noted slight drops in business.
KITC acknowledged a fall in customer numbers between August and September compared to previous years, and said there had been a change in its rankings, with US travellers accounting for its second biggest market in 2016.
KTG Travel, meanwhile, said that while its own numbers had stayed roughly the same, there had been an overall decrease in Western tourism, and Young Pioneer Tours blamed media coverage for a “slight decline” in numbers, though it said rises and falls were common in North Korea.
With US tourists no longer allowed to enter the country, operators acknowledged that tourism in North Korea is ever-more reliant on Europeans.
But why do they want to go there?
French national Zelimir Bozic travelled to North Korea with his wife in September:
“As I am quite a big traveller, I like to discover all the parts of the world [and] I was obviously interested in this mysterious country: DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. Also I wanted to see with my own eyes how this society is working, how it is there for real, how these North Korean people look and how the whole country looks,” he told Euronews.
Bozic said he wanted to make up his own mind about the country, rather than following what other people said, which he said was generally “bad news”.
“Personally I already visited some other dictatorships, where I spent good times and where I’ve discovered that they were not as bad as the French media said. Then why not try DPRK?”
Bulgarian national Maya Veleva (Bozic’s wife):
“I’m interested about what’s happening in the world. I like to discover countries and make my [own] opinion about people, about cultures. As I’m Bulgarian, I know different kinds of political regimes… so I can compare them,” she said.
“Many people said to me that Western media talk about communism in East Europe like something very dangerous. I know that it’s not the reality. So I decided to go to Korea and to see the reality there.”
Felip Rodenas, from Spain, travelled to North Korea with his wife and two children, aged 18 and 15, in July:
“We were moved by the interest of knowing a hermetic country led by a totalitarian communist regime,” he said.
“Two years ago we visited Cuba and hoped to find a similar country but with its cultural differences.”
The majority of tourists travelling to North Korea do so via China, either by train or plane.
It is not possible to visit the country independently, meaning that travellers are required to book onto pre-planned group or private tours that use two North Korean guides appointed by the country’s Ministry of Tourism.
One tour company, Korea Konsult, notes that since 2014, the majority of visas for its European clients have been processed in Sweden at a cost of 60 euros, with forms required around a month and a half before the trip begins.
Once inside the country, tour groups arrange hotels for their customers, with most warning that standards vary from relative comfort in the capital, Pyongyang, to more basic accommodation in other areas.
Tourists who travelled to North Korea this year said activities ranged from city tours, to trips to museums and the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – a mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea, and his son Kim Jong-il.
While governments such as the UK warn against all nonessential travel to the country and others debate the ethical implications of tourism in undemocratic countries, travellers speaking to Euronews said they were already thinking of returning.