The North Korea travel guide: A country that time forgot

Israel does not have diplomatic ties with Pyongyang, but Israelis can visit the Communist state – at their own discretion.

By BRIAN BLONDY
May 1, 2010 22:45
Shane Smith poses next to a statue of Kim Il-Sung

shane smith dprk 311. (photo credit: Shane Smith/VBS.tv)

When considering travel destinations, chances are North Korea has never been at the top of your list for a week-long vacation. 

Since North Korea has been called the most paranoid, isolated and homogenized, not to mention, openly racist countries in the world, there are a multitude of reasons to avoid traveling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).   

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Since many of these claims are indisputable, this travel guide is not an attempt to ignore the examples of militancy, state-funded terrorism and mass starvation that has occurred above the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula. 

After all, it stands to good reason that the DPRK is a foundling member of the “Axis of Evil.”

North Korea is one of the most utterly fascinating places on earth for a capitalist Westerner to travel to, as well as being the most stunning example of a country that time forgot, a real “hermit kingdom” culture that is obsessed with its own identity. 

That being said, North Korea’s isolation and earnest preservation of its character against global modernity serves as a strong example of how far the rest of the World has come in comparison.   

Shane Smith, founder of Vice and VBS.tv, who traveled and videotaped his experiences in the DPRK twice in 2007, told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview that what makes North Korea so interesting from a tourist perspective is its profound mystery.

“North Korea is one of the only places where you still have this myth of what’s going on in there, like what’s going on behind the ‘Iron Curtain,’” said Smith. “It is the holy grail of journalism and weird stories.  One of the things, not that North Korea was much different than it was portrayed, I don’t even know how it is portrayed, it’s portrayed very sparsely because not a lot of people that come down in there and really hung out there a lot or done anything in depth. There’s so many myths out there and one of the biggest myths is North Korea.”

As of today, North Korea and South Korea – officially recognized in 1948, the same year Israel was established – are technically still at war with each other.

The area between the two countries, the ironically named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), is widely considered to be the most heavily armed areas in the world.

With each siding with a different benefactor, North Korea with the Soviet Union and South Korea with the United States, Pyongyang adapted Juche Communism and Seoul embraced free-market capitalism.

Today, the results are so stark that no other place in the world has such a huge discrepancy between rich and poor.

Smith suggested that North Korea is a “certain socialist experiment that has stayed in the past. It literally is like going to Maoist China or Stalinist Russia. It is like a theme park for culture’s personality of a leader, and on that side, it’s very interesting.”

That personality of a leader is Kim il-Sung. Across North Korea, monuments and statues are dedicated to the “Dear Father,” and despite his passing in 1994, today, Il-Sung is still the Eternal President of the DPRK.

Il-Sung’s “cult of personality” serves to remind any visitor that with his son, Kim Jong-il, is currently running the country in his absence.

Smith’s tour-de-force travel documentary, “The Vice Guide to North Korea,”  sets the standard what encompasses an organized tour in North Korea.

Smith was shown what the government chose to share with the public, which consisted of two themes: the Il-Sung Communist glories of North Korea and how the perceived aggression of American imperialists attempted to destroy North Korea during the Korean War.

A trip to North Korea is, in reality, being on a regimented tour of North Korea rather than being a tourist freely visiting the country.

It should be noted that North Korea is not a country that a tourist can just arrive in and receive a visa for a specific period of time. Tourists need to be approved individually by the government before they enter.

There have been reports, however, of European tourists simply applying for their visa directly from a North Korean embassy, most often in Beijing, London or Shenyang, China and organizing their tour before going to Pyongyang.

For that reason, the tourist is advised to approach a company such as the Beijing-based The Koryo Group privately to organize the tour and to acquire the visa beforehand.

There are many different companies organizing planned trips to North Korea though none appears to be as experienced as The Koryo Group.

The Chinese travel agency claims to be the longest operating tour company for arranging flights, visa and tours to North Korea. The Koryo Group Web site appears to be the best designed and most informative for answering questions about a potential trip.  

For a full week in the DPRK, according to the Web site, tourists can expect to pay around 2,000 euros, which includes all transportation, meals and hotel accommodations.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not issued a travel ban for Israelis traveling to the DPRK. Israel does not have an embassy in Pyongyang; an Israeli tourist crossing into North Korea is at risk without any diplomatic assistance.

It is strongly recommended that Israelis register with the Israeli embassy in Beijing before entering North Korea. There have been reports of Israelis having trouble entering, though contrary to Internet rumors, Israelis and Jewish citizens of other countries do not face any specific restrictions in traveling to North Korea.

Employees at the central Tel Aviv travel store, LaMetayel, shared mixed feelings as to whether or not Israelis should be traveling to North Korea.

One employee was adamant that “it’s very dangerous to travel in North Korea,” whereas another said the danger is relative since every place around the World can be dangerous in its own way.  

Presumably it is rare, if at all, for the staff of LaMetayel to ever be asked about traveling to North Korea. Despite their opinions on the matter, the staff at LaMetayel did not have any information, suggestions or recommendations for foreign tour companies that are arranging tours to the DPRK.

Thus, if you are planning a trip to North Korea, it is best to check message boards online and attempt to consult with other travelers around the world for advice. 

After entering North Korea, tourists will be accompanied, or rather chaperoned, by a guide and security detail at all times.

In conversations with those who have traveled to North Korea who wished to remain anonymous, the constant monitoring became tiresome quite quickly. Furthermore, for these tourists, the only opportunity to walk through Pyongyang unaccompanied was only after they gained the complete trust of their guides.

These escorts could have faced severe punishment from the DPRK government for not properly controlling the guests of their tour.

This point underscores the control that North Korea puts into commanding all aspects of the time their visitors are in the country.   

VBS’s Smith said that during his two trips to North Korea, the organized tours often attempted to appear spontaneous and not controlling – and that is where the situation could become bizarre.

“You would be in the van or truck or whatever, and they would ask, ‘Are you hungry?’ and you would say ‘Yeah, sure,’ and they say ‘Why don’t we stop at any place. Let’s stop here,’ and they would stop at a roadside tearoom or roadhouse, and you would stop and go in and there would be no one in the restaurant but there would be a table already set for seven people,” Smith said. “Then you realize that you were always were going to go there. You were probably set to go there before you even arrived in North Korea.” 

An organized trip will circumvent the country, visiting the aforementioned DMZ, the world-renowned Arirang mass gymnastics performance, museums and monuments dedicated to the legacy of Kim il-Sung, a tour of the captured reconnaissance ship the USS Pueblo and various landmarks throughout the country associated with the Juche Communist movement.

That being said, tourists should not expect to see nuclear facilities, prison camps or destitute villages ridden with poverty, as these would undermine the message the DPRK government is striving to portray to the visitors. From his time watching out the window of the van through the country, Smith said that from afar, he did manage to glimpse another face of North Korea.

 “I remember we were driving around across North Korea, you would see these, incredibly bizarre things to see, a countryside, and then this sort of miniature Stalinist village, that would have this big square with a big monument and then a large assembly place,” he said. “Then a couple of Stalinist apartment blocks/towers and then nothing else. They’ve taken all of the rebar from the concrete, sort of beat-up concrete. You would see people cooking fires on the 23rd floor, people that could be living in shacks are instead living in towers and walking up to the 23rd floor to cook their meals. It sort of a Dickensian England, a pretty crazy scene to describe.”

Smith said his interactions with North Korean were somewhat muted and confusing since, “pretty much like everywhere in North Korea, they’re afraid to sort of come out and do anything or say anything. When you go to the subway and you hang out there, people wave at you and when you get out into the country people wave at you. When we went to the school, all of the kids were there, all smiling at you and that’s the sort of weird aspect of it. To the DPRK, we’re the imperialist pig-dogs, but at the same time when you meet people out in the country or when you meet people sort of around, they smile and wave to you, maybe they’re told to, I don’t know.”


Tad Farrell, a researcher and publisher of the Web site, nknews.org http://nknews.org>, who visited North Korea in August last year, said Western tourists are soon aware of the wide gap in living standards between the North and the South.

“I think the main reason is the contact, whether it is formal or informal, is good,” he told the Post. “I showed North Koreans photos of Tiananmen Square from my camera and sure enough the statues in the square are very similar to that of those found in North Korea. They were astounded of the similarities, they thought it was crazy. Just little things like that. They were blown away by it.”

The idea of being a socially conscious traveler is literally impossible in the DPRK. Any money spent in the country most probably goes back to the government.

When asked how his two visits have changed his opinion of North Korea in contrast to how he imagined it beforehand, Smith said: “I did not think it would be as militant and as regimented and as sort of highly politicized as it was. I didn’t realize how segregated it would be and how choreographed everything would be.

“The second time I went, you sort of learn that it’s all about nuances, and all about subtleties. These people have lived with secret codes their whole lives, they expect everybody to understand what those secret codes mean and if you don’t understand what those secret codes mean, then, you’re in trouble. Once you understand, it’s easier to get by.”

Despite its being controlling and a difficult country for the tourist to explore, North Korea remains a complex enigma, a figurative mask expressing both a smile and a frown to the world, a division as stark as the 38th parallel itself. 


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