North Korea draws visitors seeking peek at reclusive regime
By Calum MacLeod | USA Today | Published: January 21, 2014
BEIJING — On their last morning in Pyongyang, father and daughter Hakan and Sophia Sokmensuer kept counting down the hours -- until they were out safely.
The U.S. tourists had relished their visit to North Korea's time-warp capital, where the Cold War isn't over, and enjoyed Dennis Rodman's controversial, high-profile basketball game there Jan. 8.
But fear rises fast inside the isolated, highly repressive state, where an elderly American visitor was taken from his airplane seat last October, then detained for a month. Squeezed onto the tarmac bus at Pyongyang airport, the Sokmensuers saw an official run out from the terminal, arms waving. "The doors opened and he pointed towards me," recalls Hakan.
The problem? The passenger beside him had not returned his hotel key. After multiple apologies for leaving it in his room, the official relented and let the bus go.
"I gulped because I knew I had four room keys in my pocket," says Sokmensuer, 55, a retired executive from Sarasota, Fla. "It was fortunately the only mini-heart attack of the journey."
A trip to North Korea is not for the fainthearted, yet a small but rising number of intrepid Americans choose to spend their dollars and vacations visiting, and revisiting, a country whose regime has threatened nuclear strikes against the USA and South Korea.
It's not exactly paradise. Famines are common. Labor camps hold 200,000 North Koreans, including whole families, in horrid conditions for crimes such as speaking one's mind. Visitors are sometimes grabbed at will without charge, such as jailed missionary Kenneth Bae, a U.S. citizen.
North Korea -- always in the news, usually for the wrong reasons -- is surprisingly easy to visit. But why would you want to?
For some U.S. travelers, North Korea's isolation and belligerence translate into a unique, must-see destination. American tourists are often keen to see for themselves what lies behind a regime ruled remorselessly for six decades by three members of the same family, one that regularly vows to turn enemy nations into a "sea of fire."
Some go for time travel, to see a Stalinist state where the Cold War between the communists and Yankees has never ended. Some hope to show North Koreans that Americans are not all out to get them, and some just want to see if the place is really as awful as it is portrayed.
Adventurous, worldly and educated people are the norm for clients, says Andrea Lee, CEO of N.J.-based Uri Tours, an agency specializing in North Korea.
"It takes," says Lee, "a certain kind of traveler to be interested in the first place."
Bring thick skin - and snacks
Those who make the trek are advised to pack a thick skin to combat heavy doses of propaganda and anti-American rhetoric; bring snacks to complement the unusual food; and prepare for hard beds in adequate though spartan hotels.
But the rewards for crossing this final frontier are considerable, say several recent visitors, including the Sokmensuers.
Only heavily chaperoned group travel is possible, and the personality cult of the ruling Kim family dominates every itinerary. But your trip should be safe and the welcome friendly, these visitors say.
You won't puncture the facade that shields the grim reality of ordinary life, yet your presence alone may achieve domestic impact: countering the image of "evil" Americans fostered by decades of state propaganda, say tour group officials.
The U.S. State Department advises against travel to North Korea, but Americans can and do visit, says Simon Cockerell, managing director of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, the best-established operator of trips to North Korea.
While there aren't that many of them, U.S. citizens have quickly become the single largest category of Western visitors since most travel restrictions on Americans were lifted in 2010. At least one quarter of North Korea's estimated 5,000 to 6,000 Western tourists in 2013 were from the USA, says Cockerell.
For North Korean tour guides, who must accompany and control visitors at almost all times, "Americans are dream tourists. They're so polite, bring lots of snacks and tip very well," he says.
In return, U.S. visitors are often surprised by their hosts, says Cockerell, a veteran of 130 trips in the past 12 years. "North Koreans are not the Taliban," he says. "It's a serious place, but fun is not that elusive."
Increasingly, Americans make return trips. One who has is Austin English, a computer programmer from Texas, who leaped onto Koryo's "Rodman Tour" this month, four years after his first visit. "People think everyone there is an automaton," says English, who recalls one "crazy" guide who proved an enjoyable drinking companion, while another tourist flirted with a female tour guide and gave her a piggyback ride down a mountain.
"Going to North Korea is stepping into a whole new world," says English, 27. Expect a "Big Brother," 1984 feeling that people may be listening and you must be careful taking photos," he says, although "it seemed a lot less antagonistic to foreigners" than it did in 2010.
'What's the weather like in California?'
Former NBA rebounding machine Rodman's four trips in the past year and his bromance with Kim Jong Un, the North's third-generation dictator, have spurred U.S. interest, says Andrea Lee. "It can be a heavy trip, with a lot to digest, and some people aren't ready for it," she says. But others form a strong bond with their guides and wish the tours lasted longer.
"North Koreans say, 'We hate American policy, we don't hate American people,'" Lee says.
At the dramatic war museum in Pyongyang, one of Lee's groups heard the familiar rhetoric about American "imperialist bastards," whom the North blames for the 1950-53 Korean War, she says.
"Then the guide asked, 'What's the weather like in California? What do people do for fun there?'"
San Francisco law student Amanda Champagne, 24, said she was fascinated on one of her four Koryo trips to watch young schoolgirls at the Mangyongdae Children's Palace perform a dance using their raincoats and umbrellas to keep soldiers' uniforms dry.
Children are often used to reinforce the policies and personality cult of the ruling Kim family, and Pyongyang follows a "military first" policy to keep the population ever-vigilant against a U.S. invasion that propaganda says is certain to come.
"It's the furthest place from America you can go, it's so unique, there's no comparison," she explains. "It's like going back in time."
No credit cards, but some Internet
Visiting North Korea has long meant going offline and off-grid, as foreign tourists had to surrender cellphones on arrival and recover them on departure. At Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, you can now buy 3G SIM cards for international calls with your own phone. Just bring enough cash to this ATM-less land, where credit cards are not accepted.
And don't expect to call any locals -- North Koreans use a different network you can't access, and those who can go online reach only a government-controlled Intranet. Pyongyang hotels offer limited e-mail service, but tourists can reach the wider Internet, expensively, through those SIM cards.
On the streets of the showpiece, Soviet-style capital, repeat visitors spy other changes.
Flattened by U.S. bombers during the Korean War, Pyongyang was rebuilt as an ideological theme park dedicated to the Kim dynasty. Today, more cars cruise formerly empty boulevards and people's clothing appears less drab and uniform than in the past, English says.
A striking new apartment building, unusual in a city of functional housing and monumentalist concrete, resembled something that could be in Miami Beach, says Hakan Sokmensuer, who first visited in 2009.
His guide explained it was a "great gift" for his people from the "Marshal," young dictator Kim Jong Un. Impressive, agreed Sokmensuer, but "not at all indicative of the plight or living conditions of easily the other 99.9%" of North Koreans, he says.
His daughter Sophia, a student at New York University, was bowled over by the personality cult that venerates Kim as well as his father and grandfather, whose pictures appear everywhere, including in pins on every citizen's chest.
At the Rodman game, the capacity crowd stood, clapped and roared for minutes when Kim appeared. "Wow, I am actually in a dictatorship, this is what it's like," says Sokmensuer, 18. "It's not like it's a fun trip, but it is a fascinating trip."
Romance blooms in Pyongyang
A visit can be life-changing, too. Salt Lake City police officer Jeff Bedard enjoyed his 2012 trip so much he proposed to his tour guide. And he returned to Pyongyang for an engagement party last year.
"You're in a place like no other on Earth," says Bedard, 39, who was drawn to explore a country so removed from the world yet regularly featured in global headlines.
Some visitors struggle to survive even four days of North Korea's propaganda-drenched tourism. But Bedard bravely chose a 17-day tour, one of the longest possible.
"It gave me a greater appreciation for where I live, and the freedoms I maybe became desensitized to," he says.
All visitors are required to bow before giant statues of founding father Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il.
"It's like taking your shoes off when you enter someone's home, it's a sign of respect, that's what they expect," he says. "I know where my loyalties lie."
Salt Lake City police officer Jeff Bedard and fiancee Hannah Barraclough, right, pose with a Pyongyang traffic policewoman. The couple met on a tour Barraclough led to North Korea in September 2012.
Tourism may improve relations
"You'll put me in my grave early," was the shocked reaction of Austin English's grandmother when he revealed his vacation destination.
Many U.S. tourists report pressure from family and colleagues who fear for their safety. They're also keen to justify their actions after widespread criticism of Rodman's unofficial "basketball diplomacy".
All visitors have to wrestle with the ethics of a North Korea trip, says Uri Tours' Lee.
"Our belief is that there is value to tourism, and contact with local people," she says. "The more Westerners come, particularly Americans, the better relations will get."
In any event, tourist revenue "doesn't prop up the North Korean government, as not many tourists go there," says Koryo's Cockerell.
Raised on a relentless diet of anti-American films, North Koreans have an even more negative view of Americans than Americans do of North Koreans, he says. He hopes human contact will make a difference over time and reduce potentially dangerous misunderstandings.
The impact can be two-way, as visitors too change in unexpected ways. "I think I'm addicted to kimchi," says police officer Bedard of Korea's favorite pickled vegetable dish, which he now tracks down in Salt Lake City. "I couldn't even smell it before!"