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Home / Lifestyle Experiments  /
Is A Journey To North Korea To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before?
North Korea tours

North Korea's appeal as a travel destination lies in being surprised. With that gone, all it has going for it is Kim Jung Un's ripped body


When the television show Star Trek hit the TV airwaves in 1966, viewers got a glimpse of Captain Kirk and his crew exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no man had gone before, though it does seem odd, does it not, that everyone spoke perfect English in all these previously undiscovered locales.

On our own planet, there aren't so many or possibly any undiscovered pastures left.    In the 1980's and early 1990's, Albania sounded like one such place. I couldn't think of anyone who'd ever gone. Today, it's a member of NATO and the European Union. In 2014, The New York Times rated Albania #4 in a list of 52 places to visit. Albania's not such a secret anymore.

In the 1990's, Myanmar (Burma) was also rarely touristed. A mandatory $200 exchange, a restrictive visa regime, and a repressive government kept the masses out. When I visited in 1994, the country had a rather ambitious goal of reaching 1m tourist arrivals by 2000. They fell far short of that, but have since more than rebounded.  In 2013, the country saw over 2m arrivals. 

Bhutan is still hardly visited.  The country only opened up to tourism in 1974. In 2015, there were less than 50,000 total tourist arrivals.  A lack of competitive flights into the country plus a mandatory $200-250 per person per day in expenditures, dependent on the month, limits the influx.

Bhutan could be the least touristed nation on the planet. Most of the world has never heard of it. And since most have never heard of it, they can't be impressed when you say you've gone there. 

The award for the world's least touristed country which people have actually heard of would have to go to another Asian country, North Korea. 

Truth be told, it's probably easier to get to North Korea than it is to get to Bhutan. Only five nations - Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Singapore, and Thailand - have direct flights to Bhutan. Air Koryo, North Korea's official airline, doesn't have a greater reach - it only flies to and from China, Russia, Thailand, and Kuwait, but also has charter flights with Malaysia, Singapore, and other nations. There are three locations in China which offer flight connections and two, Beijing and Shanghai, are huge. Highly populated China shares a border with North Korea. As of 2011, Chinese tourists in North Korea could drive around themselves. 

What North Korea has going for it, among Westerners in any case, is that few Westerners have ever been there.  You could make a similar case for South Korea relatively speaking.  While South Korea is enjoying a cultural and tourism boom among fellow Asians, I have yet to meet a Westerner who's ever gone there for the express purpose of a genuine vacation. 

Westerners with limited vacation time go to the more typical Asian hotspots. China, Singapore, Thailand, Japan. If one of the Koreas was on their radar, it'd be far easier and cheaper for them to visit South Korea. Yes, South Korea is cheaper and better value as far as a tourist is concerned. In South Korea, a tourist can sleep in a 20 dormitory bed or in a 175 upscale hotel. In North Korea, the tourist is relegated to a room as luxurious as that 20 dormitory but at a 175 cost. This is what Young Pioneer Tours charges independently per person for "deluxe accommodation" in North Korea with at least 2 bookings.

Most visitors don't book independent tours though.  They get a seat on an established one. A one-week tour, including accommodation, food, internal transportation, mandatory guides, and flights or trains to and from Beijing run, at the minimum, about 1,000.  A friend of mine from Germany booked his recent North Korean trip through a German travel agent and paid 1,700. The roundtrip flight from wherever you are to Beijing is an additional expense. Most nationalities also require a Chinese visa. Americans have to pay $130 for one. 

Safe to say, a trip to North Korea will easily average at least 150-250 per day per person. By all accounts, the quality of the food, accommodation, and activities doesn't warrant this price tag.  What one is really paying for is the privilege of boldly going where few but not no men have gone before. 

Lately, more and more and even more have gone. All Wikipedia has to say on the subject is that about 1,500 Western tourists and thousands of Asians visit every year.  I'd put the Western visits a lot higher than 1,500. The UN's World Tourism Organization has no published figures. 100,000, mostly from China, came in 2014, according to Time, and North Korean tourism officials say they want 2 million arrivals by 2020. 

Five years ago when I checked on YouTube for videos on North Korea, few came up. When I check now, I can see personal documentaries, footage of hotel rooms, sites, countryside, etc. The restrictions on American citizen visits were lifted as of 2010.  Before, Americans could go only get visas during the Mass Games, a synchronized gymnastic spectacle.

It used to be common practice to confiscate all cellular phones upon arrival and return them on departure. Now North Korea gives you reasons to keep your cell phone.  As of the beginning of 2013, North Korea allows for the rental of local SIM cards at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. You'll spend 50 minimum and pay a per minute range of 0.38 (most Western European nations) to 1.43 (China) to 5 (USA).  3G data plans and USB modems are available for residents or routine visitors at hefty activation fees and high costs per MB. 

The only obstacle to being connected, like a visit to North Korea itself, is the cost.

I don't imagine many visitors to North Korea on a four day to one week tour fork out for a SIM. They remain out-of-touch during their short stay, but while there, with their phone camera always on them, they take lots and lots and lots of footage, much of which finds its way onto YouTube.

If you polled most visitors to North Korea and asked them, "Why did you go?" you'd likely get an answer along the lines of "I wanted to see what life was like in the most isolated nation on Earth." The German friend of mine who just returned had lived in the German Democratic Republic (or East Germany) until he was 16.  That's when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. He says that perhaps he has a strange affection for places like this given his background. 

I, too, wanted to go once upon a time. Prior to 2010, the obstacle was the visa. After that, it just wasn't convenient. Every year or two, I visit South Korea. My wife, more than I, dictates those travel dates. These dates don't always correspond to the North Korea group tour dates. And I can't just zip over the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea to visit the North. I'd have to fly to China, then to North Korea, then back to China, then back to South Korea, then back to Thailand. 

And frankly by now, I'd be more interested spending any available travel weeks seeing China in depth for a longer time and at a lower cost than North Korea for a week at an inflated rate.

It's not that I'm too stingy to pay the take-it-or-leave-it costs to see more restricted frontiers. Back in 1989, I visited the Soviet Union on a two-week Sputnik youth tour. I recall that trip costing around 550 (then, $1,000), not including the transport to and from. Like North Korea tours today, meals and accommodation were pre-booked and pre-paid at inflated rates, and we had Soviet guides take us around.

There was a difference. As foreigners, we were bound to stay at our assigned hotels and show up for all the internal trains and planes. That was it. We could skip meals and daily tours and pretty much do whatever we wanted, with no minders keeping a vigilant eye upon us.  I could ride the Moscow subway wherever and for as long as I pleased.  In Pyongyang tourists are taken on a mandatory metro 'tour' and allowed to just ride a few stops with their guide. 

The Soviet tour included Leningrad, Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa.  I am guessing this was a standard cookie cutter tour of that time.  The itinerary included world class sites like the Hermitage, but also boring Soviet showpiece attractions like a soccer stadium and a fertilizer factory. But because we could go off and talk to and meet whomever we chose on the off hours, it was still possible to shape the trip to be our own.

You could say that a lot of people do cookie cutter tours anyway. They fly to India or China or Italy and participate in an organized trip. I'm hardly a fan when you aren't forced to book them. The only tours you'd ever see me on are day trips or, much more rarely, an overnight excursion, the latter usually turning out to be a huge disappointment. At least on all these kinds of trips, you have ample down time to carve out your own experience.

Even when you travel on your own to places everyone goes and do what everyone else does, you can't help but individualize it. Let's say you schedule a two week vacation to Thailand and slot in Bangkok, the mountain area of Chiang Mai and an island like Phuket. The hotels you stay at, the internal transport you use, the restaurants you eat at, the people you interact with, the prostitutes you pick up - it's all up to you. 

This isn't the case with North Korea. On a tour to Pyongyang, you WILL stay at the Yanggakdo International Hotel on Yanggak Island in the Taedong River. It's the perfect place to house foreigners. On an island, no one can wander off. The hotel has 47 floors but you and everyone in your party WILL be sleeping on the 43rd floor. You will hear about the 'hidden' fifth floor of the Yanggakdo, not accessible by elevator but easily reachable by stairs with people sometimes but hardly always guarding it.  It's mostly abandoned with more propaganda posters on the walls. How do I know? I've already seen a video online.

And that, I suppose, is the problem.   With the explosion of visitors to this 'isolated' nation, the footage is all on YouTube. I can see the interiors of the hotel rooms I'd be staying at.  I can glimpse the monuments I'd be bowing at. I can watch the very propaganda video the North Koreans have tourists view just before strolling through the captured USS Pueblo. One tourist uploaded close to an hour of footage he filmed of his bus driving through the North Korean countryside. 

You could argue that any place you'd ever care to visit has plenty of footage already uploaded to YouTube, including Bhutan. Thinking of staying at the Grand Hyatt Taipei? Someone has already put footage of their room and suite online.  Curious what Chaweng Beach in Koh Samui in Thailand looks like?  Countless people have shared that footage. 

The huge difference is that "rebels" go to North Korea at a premium to have experiences you can't, presumably, have anywhere else and that few others have sampled.  You go there for the isolation, to be surprised. I can imagine if I'd been able to visit North Korea in 2000, before any of this uploaded footage was available, I'd be shocked, challenged, and yes, thrilled to experience a North Korean half assed luxurious hotel room firsthand. By seeing it on YouTube first, I now know exactly what's in store. North Korea becomes just another theme park attraction.

The banquets, the drinks, the karaoke sessions - seen it.  The shock factor? Out the window.

If I told you about the Louvre, the Seine, or the Eiffel Tower, or a fine French restaurant and showed you my footage of it, it would, of course, not be the same as you experiencing Paris firsthand. But remember. If you go to Paris, you can pick and choose what you want to experience. You can do it in any order. You can create your own experience based on what you've seen and heard others experience.

In North Korea, you can't. You will follow exactly the same itineraries these previous tourists have, listen to the identical propaganda spiel, eat exactly the same foods, drive down exactly the same roads, stay at exactly the same hotels. You are not free in your downtime to stroll through local markets, practice Korean with local kids, or swap desirable Western consumer items for local military apparel  as I did so many years ago in the Soviet Union. You could fork out more dollars and book an individual tour.  All that means is that you ride around to the same sights and eat the same foods but all by yourself. I watched the billionaire behind VICE do just that.  You'd probably have more fun saving some cash and booking a group tour instead.

You can't get lost in North Korea since you're never out of sight, not the way you could get lost in present day China or India with its sizeable towns and provinces few Westerners have ever heard of. Even when I visited Burma over twenty years ago, despite only being able to visit a limited portion of the country, it was still possible to get lost, so to speak, within that circumscribed area.  You were a lot freer to choose where you stayed and how you got between places. In North Korea, every visitor is assigned to the same small range of places and gets from point A to B exactly the same way. 

I am not against visiting the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. If I could go for work or were handed an all-expenses paid voucher to go, I wouldn't turn down the chance. But at this stage in my life, I think I'd prefer an all-expense paid trip to Taiwan instead.

And I just got back from Taiwan.

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