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North Korea: Vacation destination

URI Tours at New York Times Travel Show
(Photo: Nance Carter)

Imagine a vacation filled with history, culture, international cuisine, dinner cruises, golf and hiking amid views of mountains and waterfalls. Sounds like a nice way to spend a week.  Now imagine that vacation in North Korea.  Yes, the nuclear-armed police state is open for business and looking for your tourist dollars.

North Korea, really?

I met with people from Uri Tours, Inc., based in New Jersey, during the New York Times Travel Show at Jacob Javits Center in New York City.  They have been running tours in North Korea for over 6 years.  The trips are fully guided by locals (I’m sure tightly controlled) and offer a peek at a country rarely seen by outsiders.  By the way, North Korea is also known as the DPRK, which stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

U.S. – North Korea Relations

For those of us who missed that day in class, this passage from the U.S. State Department explains the history of U.S. – North Korea relations:

The United States and Korea established diplomatic relations under the 1882 Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce, and Navigation. U.S.-Korea relations continued until 1905, when Japan assumed direction over Korean foreign affairs. In 1910, Japan began a 35-year period of colonial rule over Korea. Following Japan’s surrender in 1945, at the end of World War II, the Korean Peninsula was divided at the 38th parallel into two occupation zones, with the United States in the South and the Soviet Union in the North. Initial hopes for a unified, independent Korea were not realized, and in 1948 two separate nations were established — the Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea. Led by the United States, a United Nations coalition of 16 countries undertook the defense of South Korea. Following China’s entry into the war on behalf of North Korea later that year, a stalemate ensued for the final two years of the conflict until an armistice was concluded on July 27, 1953. A peace treaty has never been signed. North and South Korea have had a difficult and, at times, bitter relationship since the Korean War.

The two countries are separated by a demilitarized zone. During the postwar period, both Korean governments have repeatedly affirmed their desire to reunify the Korean Peninsula, but until 1971 the two governments had no direct, official communications or other contact. North Korea has been ruled by successive generations of Kim Il Sung’s family, and its political and economic structure is centrally controlled.

Uri Tours advises that U.S. citizens are permitted to travel to North Korea. There are no restrictions from either government as far as travel to the DPRK, unless you are a journalist or missionary.  Tours are intimate, with 6 to 18 people per, and begin in Beijing.  Uri advises the DPRK boasts a very low crime rate and in their experience feels very safe.

North Korea Coat of Arms

5-Day Standard Tour of North Korea

The 5-Day Standard Tour is actually 6 nights and 7 days, the 5-days alluding to the fact that tours begin and end in Beijing.  Actual time in the DPRK is 5 days. The trip encompasses the North Korean cities of Pyongyang, Mt. Myohyang, and Kaesong.  Participants visit a local kindergarten (is the propaganda starting already?), ride on the Pyongyang metro, see the Pyongyang Folk Park, museums, hike Mount Myohyang, enjoy a dinner cruise, and much more.  There is even an optional trip on the first day to an amusement park.  Guests are also taken to the DMZ along the 38th parallel and pay respects to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, a mausoleum for late leaders.  The final dinner takes place at a pizzeria, or whatever North Korea thinks of as a pizzeria.  All trips include the mandatory visit to Pueblo, the American Spy Ship.  The price of $2,200 for double includes 4 star accommodations, meals, transfers, DPRK visa fees, inland airfare, guides.  This trip is offered three times this year: May 15-21, July 10-16 and November 6-12, 2013.

Food and Culture Tour of North Korea

This tour consists of 8 nights and 9 days beginning, again, in Beijing and visiting the cities of Pyongyang, Mt. Myohyang, West Sea Barrage, Mt. Kuwol, and KaesongAlso included is a session of ice and/or roller skating, a visit to Mansudae Art Studio for a chat with local artists then onto the beauty of Mount Kuwol, as well as many of the historical sites and temples in the above tour.  There are also stops to learn about traditional Korean foods (North Korean style) such as kimchi, cold noodles, pancakes, rice cakes, and a BBQ dinner on a boat.  Let’s not forget the DMZ, American Spy Ship, visit to a hospital (!), and final dinner at the pizzeria.  The cost of this tour is $2,600 double and includes the same as above, with the addition of food preparation classes.

Other tours also available

Kim Il Sung Birthday Tour:  8 Nights – 9 Days April 10-18, 2013 – Double $2,600
Arirang Mass Games Tour:  8 Nights – 9 Days Aug 23-31, 2013 – Double $2,600
Pyongyang Golf Tour:  6 nights, 7 days – May 15 – 21 and October 2 – 8, 2013 – Double $2,900
DPRK Mountain Tour:  12 Nights, 13 Days – September 2-14, 2013 – Double $3,595

Uri Tours luggage tag for travel to DPRK/North Korea (Photo: Nance Carter)

Warnings

Before you book your trip, I recommend you visit state.gov, the website of the U.S. State Department, to get acquainted with the U.S. government’s warnings for U.S. citizens who intend to travel to North Korea.  Actually, I recommend a visit to state.gov whenever planning to visit to any foreign country.  Keep in mind that Uri Tours will closely guard everyone on their tours and keep everything in check.  However, it’s good to know what may be considered subversive activity in a foreign country.

Don’t talk to strangers in North Korea and other things to know

From the U.S. State Department on travel to North Korea:

Security personnel may view any unauthorized attempt you make to talk to a North Korean citizen as espionage.  North Korean authorities may fine or arrest you for unauthorized currency transactions, for taking unauthorized photographs, or for shopping at stores not designated for foreigners. It is a criminal act in North Korea to show disrespect to the country’s current and former leaders, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung.

North Korean government authorities may also view taking unauthorized pictures as espionage, confiscate cameras and film and/or detain the photographer. DPRK border officials routinely confiscate visitors’ mobile phones upon arrival, returning the phones only upon departure. Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal outside the DPRK, including involvement in unsanctioned religious and political activities, engaging in unauthorized travel, or interaction with the local population.

North Korean government security personnel closely monitor the activities and conversations of foreigners in North Korea.  Hotel rooms, telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched. Do not take pictures unless you are told you can.  North Korean authorities may seize documents, literature, audio and videotapes, computer equipment, compact discs, and letters deemed by North Korean officials to be intended for religious proselytizing or subversive activities.

Foreigners are not allowed to use public buses or the subway. North Korea has a functioning rail transport system; however, delays occur often, sometimes for days. On occasion, service may cease altogether before a traveler has reached his/her final destination.

If you have medical problems, you should not travel to North Korea.  In the past few years, North Korea has experienced famine, flooding, fuel and electricity shortages, and outbreaks of disease.  For decades, medical facilities in the DPRK have suffered from a lack of resources and electricity, as well as medical personnel with inadequate and often outdated skills.  Hospitals in Pyongyang can perform basic examinations and lifesaving measures but functioning x-ray facilities are not generally available. If possible, avoid surgery. Hospitals will expect immediate U.S. dollar cash payment for medical treatment. You cannot use credit cards or checks in the DPRK. It is important to insist on immediate contact with the Swedish Embassy if you have serious medical problems.

There is no U.S. Embassy or Consulate in North Korea

The United States and the DPRK do not have diplomatic and consular relations. Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, the U.S. government cannot provide normal consular services to its citizens in North Korea. The Swedish Embassy, the U.S. Protecting Power in the DPRK capital of Pyongyang, provides limited consular services to U.S. citizens traveling in North Korea who are ill, injured, arrested, or who have died while there. However, the Protecting Power cannot get U.S. citizens out of jail or pay their criminal fines.

The Vice Guide to Travel

If you still have your heart set on one of these tours, I highly recommend you watch the awesome Vice Guide to Travel: North Korea.  In fact, I suggest you watch all of Vice’s travel guides.  They are fascinating – and brave and honest.

4 comments

  1. My blog is linked in this post http://americaninnorthkorea.com/ – I’m Joseph, now working as a North Korea guide with Young Pioneer Tours.

    I dont recommend the Vice Guide North Korea documentary as an accurate portrayal of the North Korean tourist experience, it is entertaining (and has value there), but highly edited and sensationalized.

    Yes you have North Korean guides with you at all times, but as long as your group develops a good relationship with them the trips are not too controlled, and end up being a lot of fun. My groups have been given free time to wonder by themselves in Wonsan city center and in parts of Pyongyang.

    http://americaninnorthkorea.com/2013/02/05/interview-with-deathandtaxes-online-magazine/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/josephferris76/sets/72157632730836522/

  2. I can see this destination piques your interest – can we look forward to a first-hand account of your travels to the DPRK soon?

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