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Not-So-Hermit Kingdom

China leads in numbers of tourists to North Korea, which is becoming easier to visit

Hermit Kingdom. Closed off. Secretive. Unpredictable.

The phrases commonly used in media to describe North Korea don’t exactly lend themselves to a tourism campaign, and it’s hardly surprising. It’s a strange place—at least, to outsiders—that can often seem trapped in a bygone era.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the country is entirely closed off to foreign tourists, but you’d be wrong.

A trickle of Westerners visit North Korea each year, generally under the auspices of two major travel groups – Koryo Tours or the Young Pioneers, though these are not the only two options.

TWOC spoke with Jeremiah Jenne, a Beijing-based historian who has led tours in North Korea with Koryo Tours. “Access has varied depending on what’s going on in the world, but right now most nationalities can visit,” he said, pointing out that visas generally take a few weeks to organize, so it’s not the kind of trip one can take on the spur of the moment. It’s also not for those who desire convenience or luxury in their travels. “It’s a bit like going back in time, so you have to be ready for that,” Jenne said.

There is also a degree of risk. “If you think you’re going to be able to escape your guide to go off and have a more authentic experience, you’re mistaken. Keep in mind, part of your guide’s job is to make sure you don’t go to jail.”

Ending up in jail, while an unlikely prospect, is not totally out of the realm of possibility. Last year, 21-year-old American student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after attempting to steal a political banner from a hotel. He had finished his trip and had already boarded the plane to take his flight home when North Korean police came aboard the plane and arrested him. Cases like Warmbier’s, which end with a jail sentence, are rare and not representative of the experiences of approximately 10,000 tourists visiting North Korea each year, but they do illustrate the importance of being careful.

Jenne points out (and not necessarily in reference to the Warmbier case) that some tourists who travel to North Korea are used to being very independent travelers. “They may have already been to 52 countries as an independent traveler and are not necessarily keen on getting on a bus and going on very organized tours,” he said. However, if traveling in North Korea, organized tours are the only way to go.

All tours to North Korea are run though the North Korea’s travel company/department, the North Korea International Travel Company (KITC) and the agencies, like Koryo, act as intermediaries who are familiar with KITCs processes.

It’s also interesting to note that while much of the English-language coverage of tourism in North Korea focuses on Western tourists, Chinese tourists are more common, as China has a land border with North Korea and has a relationship that, while not exactly friendly, is at least friendlier than North Korea’s relationship with other countries.

There have been reports indicating that Chinese tourists are now even able to drive into North Korea and visit certain areas. There are also casinos catering primarily to Chinese tourists—gambling is illegal in China except for in Macau, so North Korea provides an accessible gambling option close to the North of the country. For North Korea, it provides much needed revenue.

One measure of openness in North Korea is the increasing accessibility of cell phones and sim cards. If you had visited North Korea a decade ago, you would have had to hand over your cell phone before entering. Since 2013, cell phones have become permissible, though a local sim card is required.

So in summary—it is probably possible for you to organize a trip to North Korea, and thousands of Chinese tourists certainly do each year, but if you do, don’t mess around. Behave.


Cover image from 2345.com



David Dawson is the former deputy editor of The World of Chinese.

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