The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might well be the most repressive totalitarian regime on earth, consigning two thirds of its nearly 25 million citizens to malnutrition, starvation, or worse, and 200,000 of its political undesirables to concentration camps, where human-rights groups estimate that 400,000 people have died from torture, executions, disease, and other causes.
But it is also, believe it or not, a delightfully fascinating tourist destination.
That, anyway, is the sales pitch of Andrea Lee, whose Fort Lee, N.J.-based Uri Tours is one of a handful of Western travel agencies with access to the planet’s most isolated pariah nation, which has been ruled for nearly seven decades by the bizarre and belligerent Kim family dynasty.
“One of the values we see in tourism is really exporting our culture and really learning about theirs,” says the 31-year-old Lee. She’s a lapsed lawyer and naturalized Korean-American born in Santiago, Chile, where her South Korean father ran an export business. She gave up corporate law in Manhattan—where she often commuted on her Ducati Monster motorcycle, drawing stares from the partners as she toted her helmet to her office—to run the travel agency her entrepreneurial dad founded a decade ago. “Nobody knows North Korea; they don’t know the people,” she says over a cup of tea in a West Village bistro. “There’s so much history and culture there. This is a land that has been around since the Stone Age.”
Uri Tours is a lean operation with a five-person staff, yet it has managed to become the sole nongovernmental ticket agent for Air Koryo, the state-run airline, and Lee claims that her company has a 33 percent market share of all foreigners’ trips to the Hermit Kingdom. Indeed, the travel agency helped organize the visits of the New York Philharmonic in February 2008, of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson this past January, and of Dennis Rodman and Vice magazine in March—the subject of this Friday’s season finale of the HBO documentary series Vice. (“Uri,” by the way, is Korean for “our,” but also means “community” and “unity,” according to the travel agency’s website.)
“Yes, there is a really nasty side of [North Korean] society,” Lee acknowledges. “But I think the more people go there and engage and interact with the people there, it’s just going to have a more beneficial effect.” The trips, meanwhile, are “very structured and regimented, and you can argue that you’re only going to see one side of the country—you’re not going to see everything when you go in,” she says. “You’re not going to see concentration camps. Some people have asked, ‘Can we see a public execution?’ That’s crazy! No! We wouldn’t even know how to do that.”
While engaging in occasional nuclear saber-rattling, threatening to launch missiles to destroy South Korea and even cities in the United States, North Korea is actively promoting its tourism industry. With the hands-on involvement of Kim Jong-un, the country’s 29- or 30-year-old “supreme leader” who received his schooling somewhere in Switzerland (mystery surrounds both his age and education), so-called soldier-builders are constructing a “world class” ski resort in Kangwon Province, which receives heavy snowfall from November through March. In addition, North Koreans are busily preparing for the July 27 revels surrounding the 60th anniversary of “Victory Day,” as the regime insists on calling the stalemated end of the Korean War. The celebration in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, will feature “mass dances in the square, military parades, and large-scale festivities,” according to a Uri Tours brochure. “This is also your chance to witness the Arirang Mass Games first-hand! See the DMZ from the North and, for the 7 night tour, travel to the eastern coast city of Wonsan and the famous Kumkang Mountains for the ultimate North Korean adventure.”
Prices range from around $2,500 for a five-day visit to $4,000 for an extended tour, including roundtrip airfare from Beijing on Air Koryo, which operates five flights a week during the peak summer season on Russian-made Tupolev aircraft, though it has been rated the world’s worst commercial airline and is largely banned from landing in Europe.
“Some people have asked, ‘Can we see a public execution?’ That’s crazy! No! We wouldn’t even know how to do that.”
Not surprisingly, Lee says she prefers Air Koryo to rival Air China, which also flies from Beijing to Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. “I guess I’m somewhat biased,” she says, “but the few times I have flown Air China we had massive delays and the flight was very bumpy and the service was not very good. Air Koryo was always on time and the service is actually good, though kind of quirky.”
Lee elaborates: “When you board, the safety instructions are played over the loudspeaker with Cranberries ‘Linger’ instrumental background music. The reading materials are the Pyongyang Times [English translation] and an assortment of DPRK magazines. Last in-flight movie I saw was Flower Girl, a famous DPRK movie that was written by Kim Il-sung. It's a bit like walking into a time capsule, but it adds to the overall unique experience of traveling to the DPRK. Our tourists really like the experience.”
Understandably, some folks would have moral qualms about taking a pleasure trip and spending hard currency in a victimized country where the great majority of inhabitants are poor and malnourished, thus potentially propping up a corrupt and cruel political elite that is perpetrating crimes against humanity.
“There’s a really powerful ethical question,” says Blaine Harden, whose best-selling book, Escape From Camp 14 documents the odyssey of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born in and escaped from a North Korean concentration camp, where Shin experienced unspeakable savagery. “The tours are expensive and completely managed and controlled; all the money goes to the state; people are squired around, eat from tables groaning with food, and are fed propaganda by minders; visitors like Dennis Rodman are shown a kind of Potemkin Village of the capital and, in some cases, other cities, and very often get a skewed sense of reality. There’s a pretty good balance sheet between going there and touring Hitler’s Germany.”
But Uri Tours client Eric Hill suspended judgment during his six-day visit in February, which included Kaesong, the DMZ at the famous 38th parallel, Kim Jong-il’s mausoleum, the Friendship Museum, and a roller rink. “I was surprised by how many smiles there were,” says Hill, 30, who gave up ambitions for a career in dentistry to circumnavigate the globe. (His “epic adventure” to visit all 195 United Nations-member nations is chronicled on his Facebook page.) “There is genuine happiness in a place where I expected grayness and sadness,” he says. “People had the life in their eyes. Whether it was brain-washing or true love for their great leaders, they wouldn’t stop talking about them.”
Another client, former Motorola executive Sandra Cook—who is soon to assume the duties of vice president of the American University in Kabul, Afghanistan—visited North Korea for eight days in April, at the height of Kim Jong-un’s warmongering blasts at the United States and his neighbor to the south. She says she certainly considered the moral implications of her journey and even read Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, on the way over, but decided her curiosity outweighed any possible qualms.
“I did ask a lot of awkward questions of our guide, Mr. Kim,” says Cook, who is happy not to have to look at any more statuary of the Great, Dear, or Supreme Leaders. “He was an extremely intelligent person and a remarkable individual. He never lapsed into ridiculous or laughable generalizations…Any question you’d ask he had an answer to it. It was as if there was some text somewhere that has the whole protocol—if they ask you this, this is how you answer. They’re also pretty sophisticated people, very smart, and they have been meticulously trained.”
In a recent blog post, Lee gushed over “the sheer awesomeness of the North Korean people. Years of hardship have forged North Koreans into a warm and rugged people with uncommon kindness and concern for their fellow man.” Yet she acknowledged that “I sometimes catch flak for taking people to the DPRK…But 10 years of travel and business in the DPRK have convinced me that cultural contact is immensely important for fostering reconciliation and understanding between the DPRK and the international community.”