Forget five-star hotels and Michelin-starred restaurants; throw in a controversial dictator, a fraught history and a rule book bigger than the Bible and you have an unlikely tourist hotspot—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, commonly referred to as the DPRK. While a holiday in a country so politically and socially isolated that it’s known as the “hermit kingdom” might sound absurd, more than 100,000 intrepid travellers venture here annually to get a glimpse of “real life” in this relic of the Soviet era.
The annual Pyongyang Marathon attracted more than 1,000 foreign amateurs last year, up from just 200 when it opened to outsiders in 2014. And, contrary to popular belief, North Korea wants foreign tourists; it aims to be luring two million a year by 2020. But would you go?
A trip to Pyongyang would bestow extraordinary bragging rights, enviable selfies and dinner party conversation for years, but there are very real risks associated with visiting North Korea. Relations between the DPRK and the West are at their shakiest in decades following the testing of Pyongyang’s first intercontinental ballistic missile last year.
As North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and US President Donald Trump rattle their sabres, one hopes this talk of war is nothing more than bombastic rhetoric; Washington and Pyongyang have always exchanged insults (although none so colourful as “Rocket Man” and “Dotard”). Further, the grisly fate of 22-year-old US student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in 2016 after attempting to steal a propaganda poster in Pyongyang and returned to his parents blind, deaf and incoherent last year shortly before dying, struck closer to home, stirring a more visceral fear of the regime.
But it’s not just one’s personal safety that should be of concern. Given the DPRK’s abysmal human rights record and its nuclear weapons programme, is travel to North Korea even morally acceptable? Tourism gives the regime a chance to “expose their narrative to people from outside,” says Hamish Macdonald, COO at Korea Risk Group, a specialist information and analysis firm focused on the DPRK, and formerly a reporter at the Korea Herald. Tourism is also a means by which the regime can earn foreign currency. So is this intrepid travel or irresponsible travel?
There's more than meets the eye
Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, has made 164 trips to the DPRK and describes it as “endlessly fascinating.” He is one of many who have visited in recent years who say North Korea’s reality bears little resemblance to the nefarious dystopia painted in the press. “I think anyone who follows North Korea knows that it’s a complicated, frustrating and enigmatic place."
He adds, "that puts some people off because some people don’t want things to be complicated, but it also attracts people because they think there must be more to it than is reported. Even though the side that is not reported is the more banal side, it’s interesting to see this juxtaposition in the era of extreme news."
The "Olympics on steroids"
One aspect of life in North Korea about which all media outlets wax lyrical is the nation’s aptitude for spectacle. This was on global display last month, when the nation sent more cheerleaders than athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The cheerleaders arrived en masse, sometimes in groups of more than 100, and mesmerised audiences with perfectly synchronised clapping, chanting and arm-waving.
North Korea’s own Arirang Mass Games were once described as “Olympics on steroids” by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The most recent incarnation of this gymnastics carnival, which took place in 2013, saw 100,000 North Koreans, tens of thousands of them schoolchildren, perform a magnificently choreographed portrayal of North Korea’s birth, the rise of the Kim family and the founding of the Worker’s Party.
But it’s hard to know when to expect the next event. “North Korea is not a country where you can guarantee anything. The authorities sometimes only give us two weeks’ notice about parades or celebrations,” says James Finnerty, tour director at Lupine Travel.
The 2016 inaugural Taedonggang Beer Festival, Pyongyang’s answer to Oktoberfest, was a major hit with tourists and locals but last year’s festival was mysteriously cancelled. But this is the way of things in the DPRK. Finnerty recommends planning your trip to align with a significant anniversary or national holiday to give yourself the best chance of seeing something spectacular. The 2013 Arirang Mass Games, for example, marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
Of course, to run, guzzle beer or do anything else in North Korea one must be part of a supervised tour group. Tourism is possible only via approved travel agencies and chaperoned by two North Korean guides at all times. With experiences supervised in this way, many prospective travellers wonder whether there’s scope to experience the “real” North Korea, or whether they’ll be subjected to actors and a well-choreographed imitation of prosperity.
“As a thinking person, I simply apply to this Occam’s razor [the principle that the simpler explanation is usually correct],” says Cockerell. “The idea that the government could engineer all of what you see is absurd. It’s ludicrous and it’s a lazy trope. What you see is real. It is not the entirety of the reality in North Korea, but should that have to be explained? North Korea is a complicated place but at heart it’s no more complicated than anywhere else.”
Keep an open mind
Many who have recently visited Iran speak in astonishment of having liberal, politically charged conversations with locals. “Iranians are very big on saying, ‘I am not my government. I want to be friends with everyone,’” says Lupine’s Finnerty. “That doesn’t happen in North Korea, but you get the feeling they understand people are people. Often when our clients tell the locals they are American, they reply, ‘Oh! Are you from California? From Hollywood?’”
Los Angeles-based travel photographer Mark Edward Harris had similar interactions over his 10 visits. “The North Korean people are much more aware of the outside world than we give them credit for. They know they have real issues but they are trying to live their lives, and they have the same daily concerns we do, like getting their kids off to school, making sure they study hard.
Obviously they are fed anti-American propaganda but you don’t feel that when you are there. Face to face, they really separate people from their governments.” Harris has published two books about North Korea and says he would certainly return were it not for the current US travel ban.
Of course, there isn’t much to like about the regime. “It’s harsh, authoritarian and secretive. There is just no doubt about that,” says historian and writer Michael Pembroke, whose history of the Korean Peninsula will be published next year (its working title is American Eagle—Korea’s Tragedy). “But there is much more to it than that. [The DPRK] isn’t just badly behaved or a rogue state; there is a reason why it’s behaving the way it is and people need to focus on the cause just as much as they are focusing on the consequences.”
To understand contemporary North Korea, one must understand its fraught past.
A past that lingers in the present
The resentment towards the US and Japan, which drives North Korea’s political ideology, has its genesis in 1910, when the Empire of Japan annexed the Korean Empire. When, two decades later, the allied forces defeated Japan in the Pacific War, Korea was partitioned; Soviet forces occupied the North, and US forces took the South.
This division was supposed to be temporary, but the two powers were unable to agree on the implementation of a Joint Trusteeship over Korea. So Soviet leader Joseph Stalin installed former soldier Kim Il-sung (the grandfather of the current dictator, Kim Jong-un) as the leader in the North, and US forces backed pro-capitalist dictator Syngman Rhee in the South.
Intent on reunification, Kim and his Soviet backers invaded the South in 1950, beginning the three-year Korean War, which claimed 2.5 million lives. Backed by the United Nations, US forces came to the aid of the South and razed Pyongyang to the ground. With his capital flattened, Kim retreated North and an armistice was signed—but a peace treaty was never sealed, meaning the two sides are technically still at war.
Kim tightened his grip on the North, styling himself as a deity who demanded absolute loyalty and submission. He advocated an ideology of “self-reliance,” or “juche” in Korean, which espoused North Korea’s political independence, economic self-reliance and military autonomy, the latter of which resulted in a nuclear programme.
He stigmatised cooperation with foreign powers and entities, committing his nation to decades of development in isolation, (although cooperation with the Soviet Union continued until its collapse in 1991). Sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council since North Korea’s first nuclear test in 2006 have further restricted the flow of foreign goods into the country—so you can forget Egyptian cotton bed sheets, cable TV and fusion dining, although many foreign and luxury products are readily available on the black market.
“I think the drawcard for a lot of tourists is this concept of stepping back in time into a bastion of what appears on the surface to be socialism,” says Macdonald. “People often describe North Korea as a throwback to a Soviet country. It has all the bells and whistles that come with that—the uniformed marching, the pageantry. I think people find that attractive.”
A metropolis in the making
It’s not entirely accurate to describe it as a Soviet relic, though. Kim Jong-un has embarked on an aggressive revamp of North Korea’s public leisure facilities, the best example of which is the new Masikryong Ski Resort, three hour’s drive from Pyongyang. The Masikyrong Hotel has a swimming pool and sauna, massage room, beauty parlour, billiards room, restaurants and an ice-skating rink.
Michael Pembroke was taken aback by what he describes as Pyongyang’s “cutting edge” and “magnificent” modern buildings, science museums, sporting stadiums and apartment buildings. “The skyline looks like Houston or Dallas,” he says. “It’s completely modern.” Harris agrees: “Pyongyang really is a showcase city. When I first went there in 2005, there was no traffic and they used to joke that if you could get hit by a car you should win a prize. Now you see taxis on every corner and people walking with cellphones.”
His favourite image from his North Korea portfolio is that of a female traffic officer. “The only reason she didn’t stop me from shooting is because she had to direct traffic,” remembers Harris, who surreptitiously ducked away from his tour group to get the shot. “Fortunately I didn’t speak Korean at that time because whatever she said didn't sound too nice.”
Change is afoot at a grassroots level too. New restaurants, coffee shops and colourful fashions are gaining popularity in Pyongyang, thanks to an increasingly porous border with China and an emerging entrepreneurial middle class, which has ballooned in size and wealth since the 1990s. How does this happen, you might ask, in a strictly socialist state?
Until the famine and economic crisis of the mid 1990s, the government provided citizens with basic necessities and jobs. This model drastically failed in 1994, forcing North Koreans to fend for themselves and motivating a gradual move towards capitalism and entrepreneurship.
Now, at a new upscale sushi bar in Pyongyang, chef Kenji Fujimoto, former sushi chef to Kim Jong-il, the late father of the current leader, commands prices that wouldn’t be out of place in London or New York.
Not far from the Tower of the Juche Ideology, a new cafe with hipster timber decor reminiscent of a South Korean coffee chain serves specialist brews. Similarly, the Kumrang cafe makes espressos, cappuccinos, strawberry mochas and the like with intricate foam art. Ri Hyon, who owns Ms Ri's coffee shop, trained as a barista in China and now serves coffee that would give the Australians a run for their money.
Locals increasingly wear colour and even foreign brands of clothing. On the Pyongyang Metro this year, Macdonald saw a lady wearing Gucci shoes. “We asked this one woman, who was dressed very stylishly, what are the changing fashion trends in Pyongyang at the moment? Her response was, ‘Traditional Korean clothes,’ which was in stark contrast to what she was actually wearing,” he says.
“As opposed to the past, we see people wearing goods and purchasing goods for things like status, and to look nice, but they still pay lip service to the North Korean system and traditional clothes.”
But is North Korea safe?
Checking out the nation’s nascent coffee scene is all well and good, but what kind of risks is one taking by going to North Korea—and is it ethical to go at all? These are the questions tour operators are asked most frequently, particularly following the death of Otto Warmbier. Lupine’s Finnerty took his parents to North Korea last year.
“It’s increasingly becoming a family destination. We’ve taken mothers and fathers with their toddlers. We once took parents who had a newborn baby and they had a great experience because the local people and the guides were fascinated to see a foreign baby. They would wave and ask to take selfies.” In terms of safety, “a lot of people in our industry say North Korea is the safest place to visit on earth, in the sense that no one is going to rob you, the traffic is very safe, and everything about your trip is organised in advance.” Pembroke says he, too, was made to feel “very welcome.”
One’s safety depends on heeding one critical piece of advice. “Don’t break any of the laws, regardless of how unique or silly you think they may be,” says Cockerell. He insists the most important part of every tour is the pre-trip briefing session, which covers travel etiquette, safety and practicalities for travel in the DPRK. Harris once witnessed a foreigner chastised at Pyongyang airport for having folded their copy of the Air Koryo in-flight magazine, which had the supreme leader’s face on the cover. So it’s crucial to take etiquette seriously.
Safety aside, is tourism to North Korea ethical? Aside from the nation’s history of human rights abuse, one must consider what their tourism dollars are funding. “North Korea has such an opaque financial system that you don’t actually know where the money from your tourism is going,” says Macdonald. “Are the funds that you are contributing to go on this tourist trip conversely being put towards the nuclear or ballistic missile programme?”
Many defectors from the North denounce tourism, believing it legitimises the regime. One, Ji-min Kang, told Macdonald, “If tourists were to have the freedom to associate with people in North Korea and to travel about, it would be a positive thing … [but] tourists are not free to do such things. They go sightseeing on predetermined routes with predetermined guides. Therefore, there’s close to nothing in terms of interpersonal interaction with local people when it comes to tourists in North Korea.”
Harris, however, feels that the “positive aspects of tourism—particularly the interaction it provides—far outweigh the impact of the trickle of money that it brings in.” Pembroke shares his optimism. “If you want to see a country open up and gradually change for the better, then as many of us should go as possible,” he says.
Some may argue that in the current climate, it’s more important to go to North Korea than ever before because it is crucial that North Koreans are exposed to people from the outside world. “A lot of people argue that tourism to North Korea is moral because you are introducing the locals to foreigners that they would otherwise be restricted from meeting,” says Macdonald. “Through that interaction you are able to offer North Korean citizens a new perspective. Human-to-human contact is obviously very important in engaging people and countries.” Restricted interaction, that is, is better than no interaction at all.
Crossing the 38th parallel is no easy decision. Whether or not you decide to go, one thing is certain: a trip to North Korea will be unforgettable.