KOREAN DICTATOR Kim Jong-un waves from a giant video screen during a recent military-themed spectacular in Pyongyang..
(photo credit: YARIV TAL)
“They will treat you much better if you follow the rules. Basically, if you want to have cooperation you have to be cooperative,” said Yariv Tal from Hod Hashoron, an adventurer who followed a Facebook advertisement all the way to the Hermit Kingdom, otherwise known as North Korea.
After a couple of clicks, Tal found his way to the website of Tarbutu, an Israeli tour company that organizes trips to the isolated kingdom. While Israelis could previously visit North Korea by obtaining visas with Chinese tour agencies, Tarbutu, an arm of Rimon Tours, has won the exclusive right, beginning last month, to secure visas in Israel from the North Korean state tour company and is organizing four more tours this April and May.
The tour company has already sent three groups like the one Tal joined. However, those tourists had to secure their visas in Beijing. This system could lead to complications, said Tal, who traveled in October and was delayed for two days in Beijing.
After leading tours in North Korea, Tarbutu gained the trust of a Korean tour company, which liaisons with the state firm, the Korea International Travel Company, to secure the visa exclusivity.
But why attend one of the world’s most isolated countries – a dictatorship with a deplorable human rights record, where an American student was sentenced last year to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster on a similar tour.
“Curiosity,” he answered. “I am a bit of an adventure-seeking guy and I like places that are not conventional. It would be very difficult to take me to Western Europe, much easier to take me to Serbia or Africa,” said Tal.
In response to Tarbutu’s tour initiative, the Foreign Ministry advised against traveling to North Korea, home to nearly 25 million people. “In view of the fact that Israel has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, if an Israeli citizen gets into any type of distress during his stay there, Israeli representatives will not be able to assist or provide any response,” the ministry said in a statement. “The Foreign Ministry wishes to emphasize that the decision whether to visit North Korea is at the discretion of each individual and is their sole responsibility.”
According to Tarbutu CEO Haim Peres, only around 100 Israelis have traveled to North Korea, and the company has noticed a strong interest in visiting the country. “North Korea is without question one of the most intriguing countries in the world today,” he said in a statement, “It is a closed country, cut off from the world, including its neighbors. More is unknown than known about the country.”
On every tourist trip to North Korea the delegation is followed by state-issued minders, who ensure the groups are exposed to a carefully curated tour that restricts visitors from seeing any hardship in the country.
“You’re always accompanied by what I call ‘spies’ – others may call them representatives of the touring company,” remarked Tal.
The minders tend to have strict rules, especially about photographing military sites, or sneaking out of the tour group’s Pyongyang hotel at night. Yet according to Tal, “as long as you are not trying to do things behind their backs” the minders were friendly and helpful in their attempt to demonstrate North Korea as thriving and friendly. Moreover, in Tal’s experience the North Koreans were overtly warm and engaging, saying, “One time an officer was more interested in me than I was in him.”
What struck Tal most was the amount of large infrastructure in the country conspicuously underused. “Very wide streets, three, four, or five lanes, with almost no vehicles at all,” adding that the traffic was similar to Israel on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day when most people refrain from driving.
“Our hotel was 44 stories and twin towers with a revolving restaurant... I never saw the chance to see more than 30 people.”
Tal also observed the citizens’ dedication to the leaders Kim Il-sung, the founder of regime, his son Kim Jong-il, and since 2011 Kim Jong-un. “They treat their founding fathers as they were saints,” he said, adding that tourists are generally expected to show respect by bowing in front of statues of the leaders.
Relations between Israel and North Korea remain hostile.
North Korea has reportedly supplied weapons to Palestinian terrorists and Hezbollah, and nuclear technology to the Assad regime. The most recent mention of North Korea by an Israeli official was last week at a conference in Munich, when Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman equated the Iran nuclear deal to previous nuclear deals negotiated with North Korea, after previously saying North Korea is part of the “axis of evil” in 2010.
But Tal did notice one similarity between Jerusalem and Pyongyang, stating that both countries view themselves as self-reliant. “It’s ‘us and us alone’ – this is the philosophy that serves them very well.”