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Touring North Korea, Land of Enchantment

by Bruce Haring

So you’re looking for a vacation that’s off the beaten path. A place where the people are accommodating, the trains run on time, there’s a tinge of the exotic in the air, and a sense of history abides.

Well, my friend, consider North Korea your next stop.

Forget the headlines about random imprisonment, the blustering about fiery death, and the occasional presence of Dennis Rodman. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as North Korea is officially known) actually offers a chance to experience life as many would envision it: clean, orderly, and focused.

Of course, there’s the unpleasantness about all of this being state-mandated. But hey — it’s only a visit, and whether you’re a returning veteran of the Fatherland Liberation War (that’s what North Korea calls it), or just someone with an interest in Hermit Kingdoms, this may be the vacation spot for you.

There are several state-owned tourism bureaus that shuffle an estimated 3,000-4,000 Western tourists around each year. US citizens have to be on a guided tour when visiting North Korea, and you will notice that the “tour guides” are unusually attentive, particularly when you try to engage with the locals.

Still, it’s not a bad way to spend a week to 10 days. Keep in mind that journalists, filmmakers, and South Koreans are not particularly welcome, and are typically denied visas. Since 2010, those holding American passports are welcome to come any time of the year. They were previously restricted to attending the Mass Games, which take place in the summer or early fall.  Now the dead of the North Korean winter is wide open!  The only caveat is that you have to enter via airplane. Unlike the rest of the world, you can’t take a slow train ride from China.

A few etiquette tips for the would-be DPRK traveler:

Don’t bring a Bible — Proselytizing is the exclusive province of the State. You wouldn’t set up shop in your local Rite-Aid and start selling aspirin. Don’t peddle your views to a population that believes its leaders are God-like.

Pornography is out — The former girlfriend of Kim Jong Un was executed for allegedly making a porn film with her colleagues in the symphony orchestra. So don’t get any ideas that Playboy can help you break the ice.

The Fatherland Liberation War does not make for light conversation — 85-year-old Merrill Newman recently found out the hard way that bringing up your actions during the war doesn’t sit well with some tour guides, who no doubt recognize that the DPRK and the US have an armistice agreement, not peace. Save those stories for the boys at the tavern back home.

Politics — North Koreans tend to revere their leaders as Gods walking the earth; or they say they do, if they know what’s good for them. Kim Il Sung, who founded the state, is known as the Eternal Leader. His birthday is “The Day of the Sun” and a national holiday.  This is a Confucian society, so elders are venerated. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t limits to what garrulous foreign elders can get away with saying.

Food — In a country that has experienced severe famines, don’t expect to see a McDonald’s on every corner. Get ready to enjoy the banchan (the many side dishes to the main Korean fare) washed down with some prime soju. Do not throw your chopsticks on the table — this is a major no-no.

Girls — The most iconic figures in North Korea are the traffic girls, those uniformed cuties who keep things moving in Pyongyang between 6 am and 10 pm, aka the North Korean workday rush hour. Just keep in mind that in a society that favors male children, the ladies have their pick of the litter. But they do venerate elders, and won’t demand a Fendi bag.

Still with us?  There are several DPRK tour operators to choose from, including Uri Tours, Koryo Tours, Young Pioneer Tours (for the budget-conscious), Experience North Korea, and Pyongyang Travel.  Contact them and you’ll be on your way. We’ll see you at Mount Kumgang!



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