US tourists prepare to ‘invade’ N Korea

Asia Times
Sunny Lee

Hurry if you’re in the mood to travel to one of the least traveled countries on the planet. North Korea says it will admit foreign tourists this year only until October 10.

That’s the latest schedule Walter Keats received from Pyongyang. Keats heads Illinois-based Asia-Pacific Travel, the only travel company in the United States authorized by Pyongyang. The reclusive country opens itself to foreign tourists only for a limited period of the year. Restrictions on Americans are even stricter. In fact, Americans are allowed into North Korea only during the Arirang Festival, a birthday party for the late leader Kim Il-sung.

As a US citizen who is not part of a diplomatic or humanitarian aid mission on North Korea, Keats has had the rare experience of visiting the secretive country 10 times in the past 12 years, starting in 1995. During the period, Keats saw the country “definitely” changing.

“I don’t know if that’s the question of being closed or open. Things are still very restricted. But the people we deal with, at least, are more flexible, more friendly, and more open now,” Keats said in an interview in Beijing before he was to fly with Pyongyang-bound American tourists last weekend.

North Koreans’ flexible attitude is reflected, for example, in the tour scheduling. In the past, the North Koreans decided every itinerary. But Keats told them some places are not really interesting for Americans, while some are more interesting. Now they are more willing to listen.

Besides, the North Korean guides are more willing to accommodate impromptu requests from foreign tourists now such as visiting a local elementary school, even if that was not part of the original travel itinerary.

The changes are also noticeable in the North Korean tour guides themselves as well. They used to be rather solemn and less spontaneous, but these days they even crack jokes in English. Keats sees it as a “nice” change.

“One of the purposes of this tour is to break down the barriers to show that we are human beings and they are also human beings. We’re not both devils fighting each other. So it’s nice to see the humanity in both sides. Humor is a good medium,” Keats said.

North Korea and the US are still technically at war with each other as a legacy from the Korean War. However, today American tourists in North Korea are not subject to any of the anti-American sentiment and rhetoric that Keats experienced during some of his previous visits.

However, all foreign tourists to the Stalinist nation must go on guided tours and must have their tour guides with them at all times. Photography is strictly controlled, as is interaction with the local people. Besides, tourists holding US passports are not usually granted visas. But exceptions were made in 1995, 2002, 2005 and this year.

Some observers are inclined to view the timing of these exceptions as coinciding with a softening in US relations with North Korea. But that actually may not be the case, because North Korea gave the green light for US tourists in 2002 – just after President George W Bush lumped it in with a group known as the “axis of evil”.

On his part, Keats has to remind his fellow American tourists that visiting North Korea is “very different” from visiting any other country in the world and tells them to be mindful of following a few rules. These include refraining from attempting to strike an unauthorized conversation with local people.

In general, the North Korean people would not appreciate foreign tourists coming up to them because “frankly, it endangers them”, Keats said. Somebody could later ask them why they talked to the foreigners, what they said to the foreigners, what the tourists gave to them.

“So I advise our people to refrain from such approach. Of course, you’d like to talk to somebody there. But most of them don’t speak English anyway. So, if you do so, you’d be putting them at risk for no reason.”

Unfortunately, Keats observed, it’s not just the country that has changed over the years, but the tourists themselves have shown some changes as well. In the early days, tourists came with some research, reading about the society before they visited North Korea. The early tourists were more knowledgeable and inquisitive. But “today’s tourists are more interested in making sure that they’ve been to this place”, Keats said.

Keats believes the idea of going to North Korea as merely going on an “exotic tour” should be discouraged. “We get phone inquiries from people who say they don’t want to be in a group, want to go out and meet local people in North Korea. If you’re so ignorant about how the society there works, you’d think you can just go and talk to somebody on the street. That’s very dangerous.

“I don’t think you have a right to create a situation where somebody there might get into trouble because of your need to go back home and brag that you talked with North Korean people. I think it’s immoral for somebody, particularly from our [US] culture, to do so.”

Keats said no American on his tour so far has been rejected an entry visa to North Korea, but added that people with certain professions would have difficulty getting in. He took an example of journalists. He said he was specifically told by the North Koreans that he would be fined a minimum of US$1,000 per journalist, if found.

For him, however, that’s not the only business risk he has to bear in dealing with the North Koreans. Last year, he suffered a financial setback after the scheduled trip was abruptly canceled after more than 200 Americans had signed up for it.

Understandably, he was not very happy about it. “The problem is that they make changes all the time,” he said. In fact, the travel-permit dates for this year were already a third revision.

Keats said the North Koreans would simply change the dates for foreign visitors and say the foreigners needed to change their arrival dates. “They don’t seem to understand that in some peak travel seasons, changing dates on the air tickets could cost additional money. I don’t think people at the top [in North Korea] really understand how the market works.”

These days, a tour to North Korea usually comes as a four-day-three-night package. That may sound reasonable for a country that is roughly half the size of Minnesota. But the devil is in the details. The first day counts from the day the tourists’ airplane departs from Beijing to Pyongyang. (Foreign travelers usually arrive in Pyongyang via Beijing.) And on the last day, the foreigners have to leave the country at 8am. But that is still technically counted as “one day”.

So, to save time, once arrived, going to the hotel usually becomes the last itinerary of the first day. After stopping by a few places on the way from the airport, tourists go directly to see the Arirang performance, which starts at 7pm.

The Arirang Festival, the high point of any visit to North Korea, is a performance by 100,000 synchronized gymnasts inside the world’s largest stadium, occasioned for a celebration of the birth of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung. It depicts two separated lovers, symbolizing the two Koreas, culminating with their reunion.

In North Korea, among the lists of “must-sees” is Mansu Hill, where a Korean War memorial and statue of Kim Il-sung is located. Others include the Arch of Triumph, Geumsu-san Memorial Palace and Kim Il-sung Mausoleum, a film studio in Pyongyang, and the Korean Central History Museum. Keats has found that these are the places American tourists find particularly interesting.

He said it’s also worth watching how the local people pay their respect to Kim Il-sung at his mausoleum, who is regarded as a deity there. “From a foreigner’s eye, that would be quite a cultural experience.”

Last year, the reclusive country accepted about 20,000 visitors from abroad. The majority were Chinese and South Koreans. Fewer than 2,000 Westerners visited North Korea last year.

So, at the end of having the rare opportunity to see the secretive country, “people are pretty amazed”, Keats said.

“North Korea is a unique system. I think most of the visitors leave with a positive view of the tour, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they get to have a positive view of the country. But they learn more about the country by being there. Seeing it first-hand gives them a much better sense of what is going on there.”


Comments are closed.