Curious Westerners Making North Korea a Vacation Spot

But Controversy Remains Over How Tourism Dollars Are Spent in a Country With Spotty Human-Rights Record

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Repression, nuclear warfare, secrecy, poverty. These are the terms that come to mind when folks think about North Korea.

But what about vacation?

Museums, parks and monuments are hot spots around the capital Pyongyang.
Museums, parks and monuments are hot spots around the capital Pyongyang. Credit: Koryo Tours
Despite its reputation as a country where citizens have virtually no freedom -- the capital, Pyongyang, is sometimes referred to as a "Stalinist theme park" -- a small but growing number of people are visiting North Korea to sate their curiosities about a place few outsiders know. Even small spikes in tourism, particularly under new leader Kim Jong-un, who took over after the December death of his father and longtime ruler, Kim Jong Il, raise the question of whether such trips could change Western perception of the country.

Last year, around 3,500 Western and 40,000 Chinese tourists traveled to North Korea, according to Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which accounts for about 50% of the Western tourists each year. That total includes American citizens.

"We would estimate that around 500 or 600 American citizens visit every year," Nick Bonner, a Brit who founded Koryo in 1993, told Ad Age in an email interview. "There is a lot more to the country then you hear about from either North Korean or Western press.

"The standard paradigmatic view ... ignores the fact that there is a variety of life experiences there as in any country," he said. Mr. Bonner also produced a documentary about a U.S. Army defector living in North Korea called "Crossing the Line" that made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007.

"Also there is a tendency to see a faceless mob, whereas each of the 24 million people who live in North Korea is an individual; one of the main memories of any of the tourists ... is the basic humanity and the common ground it is possible to have with the people they interact with," he said.

To bring in tourists, Koryo works with a state-owned but independently operated company in North Korea. Costs depend on the number of travelers in a group, but are in the thousands of dollars. Koryo has a Facebook page with nearly 800 followers, minuscule for most marketers, but for a travel specialist to North Korea, it's noteworthy. Koryo is also recommended on TripAdvisor and, with each year, the company gains more access to the country. This year, Mr. Bonner is taking cyclists on a trip in a previously restricted area of the country.

"A common misconception about tourism in North Korea is that all tourists have to have the same fixed itinerary and that the government basically dictates this to the visitor," Mr. Bonner said. "In fact, we run a wide range of different programs. ... So what you see and do there depends when you go, what is going on at the time, and how long you are there."

Choices include museums, parks, monuments and other scenic areas around the capital Pyongyang; the demilitarized zone on the North Korean side of the border with South Korea; and Hamhung, a large industrial city opened to tourists by Koryo in 2010.

There is , of course, plenty of controversy over where the money goes and whether it supports a regime that for years has been accused of human-rights abuses. North Korea watcher and writer Peter Hinton earlier this year penned a piece suggesting that trips to the country do nothing more than pad the government's coffers.

For his part, Mr. Bonner said he is "not invested in helping change the image of North Korea but we do believe strongly in critical engagement."

Already, more journalists are being admitted, and shortly after the death of Kim Jong Il, the Associated Press became the first Western news organization to open a bureau in Pyongyang. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un is said to be engaging in PR exercises to increase his popularity with the public, like filmed visits to zoos and amusement parks that are disseminated to the media.

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