Anyone who has ever caught the travel bug probably understands the allure of the places not many Western travelers get to go, places like Iran, Cuba, and North Korea. Whether this is a reaction to the idea that we aren’t welcome or simply aren’t allowed in, many people go out of their way to get the opportunity to see these locations that are very far off the beaten track. If you had the chance to visit an infrequently traveled location, would you take it?
While countries like Cuba have recently begun opening their doors to the West slowly but surely in reaction to softening political policies and increased globalization, other countries like North Korea have remained a solid mystery for many people. Rumors of brutal work camps, severe food shortages and frequent electricity cuts (not to mention the utter lack of WiFi) are often the only thing we hear about North Korea; that and the eccentricities of their leaders!
For some the lure of the unknown is too great to ignore. Although many Western governments warn against traveling to North Korea, more and more people are flocking to the tightly controlled state for a peek into one of the most mysterious nations on Earth. Approximately 4,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year joined by visitors from China and other Asian nations as well.
Tourism in North Korea is controlled by the government where every move of every tour bus, their routes, and the places visitors are allowed to stay and go is monitored. Photography was banned up until a few years ago and is still highly discouraged in some places; cell phones, once routinely confiscated at the airport or border crossings, are now allowed in most circumstances. Interactions with locals that have not already been vetted by the government are rare.
The government owns and runs the few travel agencies that work in North Korea and there also a few private tour groups that cater to budget travelers in addition to those looking to have a hand in navigating the bureaucracy of visas, accommodations, flights, and other maddening details. As the political situation in North Korea can change rapidly there is often backlash seen in which nationalities are able to travel to North Korea at any given time.
North Korea has opened a ski resort in the Kangwon Province called the Masikryong Ski Resort, which is open for tourists from all around the world. Other locations have also been designated as special tourist zones including Mount Kumgang, Baekdu Mountain, and Kaesong. All four of these locations have experienced influxes of tourists as well as closures due to political issues with neighboring nations. Visitors from China are able to drive their cars in and out of Kaesong, although fewer are choosing to travel to North Korea because of the lack of locations available for them to visit within the country.
North Korea opened up registration for the marathon held in the capitol city of Pyongyang for foreign runners this year, and an international wrestling tournament was also held. However, the perceived opening of the tightly shut doors of North Korea was overshadowed by the imprisonment of three American visitors who continue to be held by the government for various infractions, including the leaving of a Bible in a bathroom, alleged proselytizing, and seeking asylum. Thy have been sentenced to prison terms as well as hard labor, and little ground has been gained in terms of returning them back to their homes.
If you’re willing to risk the wrath of the Great Leader you will be whisked away to the capitol city of Pyongyang where visitors walk through various memorials commemorating past leaders, celebrating the workers, and visiting the Palace of the Sun. Travelers might also visit the city of Kaesong where a joint North and South Korean industrial park and museum is located.
In light of North Korea’s status in the world many people might be hesitant to visit. Their human rights record, lack of freedom and general control over what visitors can see and do is a no-go for some people, while others relish the chance to see places that few get to go, however small the view might be. As the world continues to grow connected to one another in great ways we might begin to see the opening of North Korea to the rest of the world.
If you are thinking of visiting North Korea as a tourist make sure to check the political situation before you try to apply for a visa. Consider going through one of the private tour agencies who can help book all parts of your trip, and remember- North Korea isn’t exactly where you take a relaxing vacation. Amenities are few and far between and there aren’t any world-class hotels and restaurants.
Borowiec, Steven. ‘Despite warnings, more Western tourists are traveling to North Korea.’ Los Angeles Times. 14 September 2014. Web 22 October 2014.
Wikipedia. Tourism in North Korea. 22 October 2014.