How do I Get … to North Korea

Maeve Shearlaw, The Guardian, October 12, 2015

So you want to go to North Korea? Believe it or not, it is not that hard to visit one of the most repressive, hermetically sealed countries in the world.

The tourist option

Unlike Eritrea, Sudan and to a certain extent Angola, North Korea has a modest but established market catering for tourists.

Culture vultures can choose from an array of architecture- or film-based trips. Adrenaline junkies can try their hand at extreme sports. The regime opened a multimillion-pound ski resort last year – commemorated with its own stamp collection – and this summer the first tourists rode the waves of the country’s east coast beaches.

Want to run a marathon with a difference? This is also possible in North Korea, where tourists were permitted to enter the Pyongyang Marathon for the second year in a row, as long as they completed the course under four hours.

 

Spectators watch as runners line up at the start of the Pyongyang Marathon.

Spectators watch as runners line up at the start of the Pyongyang Marathon. Photograph: David Guttenfelder/AP

There are also specific excursions tailored around moments of civic pride such as the 70th anniversary of the formation of the Korean Workers’ party, this Saturday. Young Pioneer Tours, which specialises in “budget tours to destinations your mother wants you stay away from”, promises “mass dancing, fireworks and a military parade”.

The Arirang Mass Games, used to be another show-stopping fixture in the country. But the event has not taken place for the last few years, reportedly because North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, wants to improve the country’s sporting prowess first. For football fans, the time to start thinking about World Cup 2026 could be now – North Korea also has ambitions to host the Olympics.

Enjoy this selection of North Korean songs …

What are the logistics?

The first thing to say about North Korean travel is that it isn’t cheap, with the average tour costing about £1,000.

Young Pioneer Tours, the budget end of the market, was charging £700 for a seven-day tour during the party’s 70th anniversary celebrations. Koryo Tours, which is used by 40% of all tourists to North Korea, is charging £1,140 for five nights.

Most tour companies will help customers arrange their visas but it is also possible to apply for one through your nearest North Korean embassy. According to the listings site Embassy Pages, Pyongyang has diplomatic missions in 48 countries, from Syria to Berne in Switzerland, where the teenage Kim went to boarding school.

 

Passengers disembark from an Air Koryo flight in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Way to go … Passengers disembark from an Air Koryo flight in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

While entry by train through the border of China is possible, most people travel in on Air Koryo’s Soviet-era fleet of planes. North Korea’s national carrier, which was recently voted the world’s worst airline for the fourth time in a row, is banned from entering European airspace owing to safety concerns.

Testimonies from tourists are revealing: “There weren’t enough seats, so they made the locals share two seats between three with insufficient seat belts. The cabin crew all stood up on take off and clung on for dear life. They then served glasses of beer to everyone at 8am and gave out copies of the Pyongyang Times,” said one traveller on Koryo Tours’ Facebook account.

Another talked of officials with no assigned seats smoking through the journey. “The inflight videos were also huge propaganda movies about war and sporting achievements.”

Air China also flies into Pyongyang, which has recently had a revamp, although the internet room at the airport was found to be missing a key element: the internet.

 

Tanks passs through through Kim Il-sung Square during a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice in Pyongyang.

Tanks pass through through Kim Il-sung Square during a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean war armistice in Pyongyang. Photograph: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty

Is it safe?

North Korea is technically still at war with the South and simmering tensions on the peninsula can erupt at a moment’s notice, though visitors are not usually affected.

In August an escalation of events – sparked by a landmine explosion near the border between the two – led Kim to announce that North Korea was on an official war footing. Blustering tensions were ultimately resolved through marathon diplomatic talks.

 

The avant-garde Slovenian band Laibach performing in Pyongyang in August.

The avant-garde Slovenian band Laibach performing in Pyongyang in August. Photograph: KCNA/EPA

Through all this, a group of South Korean footballers was in Pyongyang for a tournament and the avant-garde Slovenian rockers Laibach was there performing, becoming the first western band to play in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

There are isolated cases of western tourists being arrested, such as the Americans Matthew Miller, who ripped up his passport and tried to “claim asylum”, and Jeffrey Fowle, who left a Bible in a nightclub. Tourists should note that Bibles are banned in North Korea and although its constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the reality is a county ranked as the worst in the world in terms of persecution of Christians, with those who practise openly facing heavy penalties. But as tour companies state on their webistes, they regularly take people without incident.

 

Donald Trump holding a Bible

Leave your Bible at home, Donald. Photograph: José Luis Magaña/AP

The US State Department strongly recommends against all travel to North Korea and the UK Foreign Office warns of the unpredictability of the country. The FCO ask all British citizens to register with the British embassy in Pyongyang and warn that it has limited reach outside the capital.

But should you visit?

You’ve got the money sorted and completed your personal risk assessment but there is a bigger issue at stake: is it ethical? Yes, you fulfil your garish ambitions but are you also complicit in propping up a monstrous regime?

Related: Tourists are propaganda: how ethical is your North Korean holiday?

Hyeonseo Lee, a defector who escaped North Korea in 1997, finds it hard to fathom why tour companies fully aware of the regime’s atrocities would take people there. Tour companies and others organisations that run exchanges with North Korea argue that gradual interaction with the outside world may be effective in opening up the country and poking holes in the regime.

 

Activists Hyeonseo Lee now lives in South Korea.

Hyeonseo Lee, an activist who defected, now lives in South Korea. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Work there

You can get around the ethical conundrum by keeping an eye on the job vacancies of development organisations that operate in the country. However, you’ll have your work cut out: North Korea is not only politically oppressed but it is also blighted by natural disaster and famine.

The United Nations has six agencies based there, working with the government to “improve the quality of life of the people [and] ensure sustainable development”. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA), for example, runs a midwifery programme and helped the country carry out its last national census in 2008.

There are also 24 other organisations operating there, including Save the Children and the Red Cross.

 

South Korean workers from Korea Red Cross prepare aid supply kits for North Korean flood victims in 2007.

South Korean workers from Korean Red Cross prepare aid supplies for North Korean flood victims in 2007. Photograph: AP

Development jobs are not the only option. Last year the government announced that they wanted foreign volunteers to help teach English to North Korean tour guides at Pyongyang Tourism College. However, best to think of it as a gap year, in that you have to pay for the privilege: €1,000 (£740) a person. Juche Travel Services, which runs the service, says it is hoping to take up to five people a year.

Related: Ping pong, beach trips and intermittent Wi-Fi: life in privileged Pyongyang

There are also diplomatic missions in Pyongyang, though two Europeans recently surveyed by NK News gave differing accounts on how much they were able to change during their time there.

One foot in North Korea

It’s also possible to tick North Korea off your list without going through the rigmarole of visas and expensive tour companies by visiting the demilitarised zone (DMZ) through South Korea.

The buffer between the two country has been described as a “bizarre theme park” on one of the most tense borders in the world. Those braving the zone will find a small blue building where it is possible to stand on North Korean soil, if only for a moment.

 

South Korean soldiers man a checkpoint near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) at Goseong.

South Korean soldiers man a checkpoint near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) at Goseong. Photograph: YONHAP/AFP/Getty

Use your talent or connections

If all else fails, you have a few other options.

Use your talents: the band Laibach and the New York Philharmonic have been invited on cultural exchanges; the former NBA star Dennis Rodman has been invited to play basketball numerous times and the pro-wrestlers Jon “Strongman” Andersen and Bob “The Beast” Sapp were invited to a event last April.

 

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, left, chats to his friend Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star, at a basketball game in Pyongyang.

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, left, chats to his friend Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star, at a basketball game in Pyongyang. Photograph: KCNA/AFP/Getty

You could rely on nepotism like Alessandro Ford, who became the first western student to study at Kim Il-Sung University, all arranged by his father, the former MEP Glyn Ford, who had ties with the country.

Or try to arrange a tour through one of the small Korean Friendship Associations dotted around the world. It’s the “only gate[way] for successful and effective commerce with [the] government guarantee[d]”, says the website. The catch? You might have to pledge allegiance to the Kim regime.

However, it’s probably not wise to take on any paid employment from the CIA, as the film The Interview makes perfectly clear.

This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk

 

This article was written by Maeve Shearlaw from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.