NORTH KOREA or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) isn’t everyone’s top choice for a holiday; it’s always been more of a niche travel destination for adventurers seeking a little something off the beaten track.
It is, after all, no secret North Korea isn’t the most welcoming to foreigners.
Since the Korean War armistice that split the peninsula in two in 1953, the reclusive North has become an oppressive Communist regime governed by the cult of personality created around the monarchic Kim family clan.
For decades, it has remained one of the world’s most secretive societies, where its 25 million populace live to this day under the strict control of the powers that be.
The media is strictly state-controlled with radio and TV pre-tuned to government stations that pump out a stream of propaganda. Economic hardships and famines tend to go unreported, with the press and broadcasters under strict control to serve up only flattering reports of the country.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are a major cause of the country’s isolation from the rest of the world. It is one of the world’s largest possessors of chemical weapons and since 2003, was no longer a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
The country has frequently come under a number of sanctions from the United Nations Security Council due to the nation’s nuclear testing and missile launches.
As well as the above events deterring tourists to the country, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier has added yet more controversy surrounding tourism in North Korea. Warmbier, who was a student visiting North Korea, was arrested for stealing a propaganda poster and sentenced to 17 months of hard labor in March 2016.
Warmbier fell into a coma whilst in North Korea. He was finally sent back home to the US this year, but died days later without regaining consciousness. The mystery over what actually happened to Warmbier while he was detained in North Korea still surrounds the case.
Since his death, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson authorized a ban on US travel to North Korea which took effect on Sept 1.
Given the worrying headlines that frequently surround North Korea, it’s easy to assume hardly anyone is willing to plan a trip there. Yet, data show that thousands flock to North Korea every year as tourists.
As reported by CNBC, Simon Cockerell, a manager of Koryo Tours, one of the largest international operators of trips to North Korea, said tourists to the reclusive country range in age from students to the retired.
The majority of vacationers – 95 percent to be exact – are Chinese. According to Cockerell, Chinese tourists often visit North Korea seeking nostalgia for China’s own, pre-industrialized past. North Korea’s non-Chinese visitors make up some 4,000 to 4,500 in annual arrivals.
Anyone wanting to visit North Korea has to do so as part of an officially recognized tour group such as Koryo Tours. These tour operators offer group / individual excursions in and out of the country pretty much year round.
Travel Wire Asia reached out to frequent traveler Ruben Pardina from Barcelona to discover what piqued his interest in North Korea:
What made you wish to visit North Korea?
“My main reason was basically curiosity. I read a lot about the country and I wanted to experience being there”.
Was the trip what you were expecting?
“What surprised me the most was how normal the whole thing was… no tension, not too much control from the guides… I took loads of photos.”
What did you do during your visit?
“I went by train from Dandong, the Chinese border, and saw six hours of North Korean countryside and then went into Pyongyang. Here I visited the city subway, the main square, statues of the great leaders, Juche tower, the war museum, local beer tasting and a circus”.
Were you ever hesitant about your visit due to recent events such as the death of Otto Warmbier?
“No, I never doubted going. It helped that the agency was never hesitant about the trips. It was all very easy and relaxed. It was a very interesting trip, I loved it.”