It may seem like an unlikely tourist destination, but a trip to North Korea may be the next hot ticket for intrepid travelers, with a few groups gaining entrance to this elusive nation. Decades of tension between North Korea and Western powers prompted the Communist nation to effectively close its borders to all but a few select visitors. Now, for the first time since North and South Korea split nearly 60 years ago, a small group of tour operators are offering American travelers an opportunity to explore various pockets of the reclusive nation.
In 2010, many of the heavy restrictions for U.S. tourists entering North Korea were lifted in an effort to boost the country’s ailing economy and improve its image internationally. “Before February 2010, Americans could only travel during the Mass Games, could only stay for four nights, and were charged more,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company specializing in North Korean tourism. Since then, however, the restrictions have been mostly dropped, states Cockerell, so now Americans and other Westerners can travel in the same groups, pay the same price, stay longer and travel year-round.
But while North Korea is slowly rolling back limitations on tourism, visitor restrictions still apply, and each trip is still controlled by state authorities. Foreigners entering the country must be accompanied at all times by an official guide, who directs their trip and escorts them through each stop and visit. For most visitors, this will be as close as it comes to interacting with the locals, as guests are usually kept separate from ordinary citizens.
“The remaining restrictions are that some of the regional hotels are not permitted to have American guests overnight, and that Americans cannot travel into or out of the country by train,” states Cockerell.
Although movement is limited, there are choices. Pyongyang has nine different hotels to choose from, with meals and shopping available in the hotel or in the local area. Tours create excellent opportunities to interact, with trips to parks, local festivals, and even football matches.
In North Korea, contact with the outside world is forbidden, so visitors are required to leave all cellphones with authorities, but they are returned on departure.
“MP3 players, computers and thumb drives are, in fact, allowed,” states Cockerell.
Cameras are permitted, but photography should be kept strictly to shots of scenery, landmarks and fellow tourists. The official guides will insist that the locals are made extremely uncomfortable by any interactions with foreigners, and having their photograph taken is no exception.
A trip to North Korea is undoubtedly challenging, but rewards abound in the form of impeccable natural beauty and surprisingly impressive feats of human engineering. The sacred volcanic peaks of Mount Baekdu on the Chinese border to the north offer some truly memorable views of pristine crater lakes and lush countryside. Museums lauding various North Korean successes are dotted throughout the major towns and cities, like the Korean War Museum in Pyongyang, which contains a 360-degree, 10-meter-high painting, depicting a scene in which the Korean People’s Army reclaims a village from U.S. forces.
Cockrell says North Korea’s main attraction is actually the country itself. “To just go to North Korea is a singular and fascinating experience. The place is very enigmatic and to get a glimpse of it from the inside is very special,” he said.
The recently opened Rason Special Economic Area offers unprecedented opportunities to experience everyday life in North Korea and interact with the locals, by allowing tourists to visit a local market, watch stevedores working in the port and step inside a local bank.
Though the glimpses are brief, they offer a unique and enlightening perspective into the day-to-day lives of ordinary people within this secretive society.