Thanks to a softening in U.S. relations with North Korea, you could be in Pyongyang for the spring thaw. The regime of Kim Jong-Il, which tightly controls foreign tourism and has allowed in U.S. citizens only rarely, recently gave the green light for Americans to visit during two festival periods this year. It's a rare chance to see one of the world's last true dictatorships, and a place off-limits to Americans for most of the last 50 years.
The North Korean government briefly allowed in U.S. tourists in 1995, then not again until 2002, as Washington-Pyongyang relations ranged from frosty to glacial. In each of several years since then, North Korea gave American travelers a green light only at the last minute before the sanctioned foreign visiting periods, scheduled around the festivals.
Called the Arirang Festivals and featuring massive stadium performances, the events have been held once or twice a year since 2002. South Korea was then in the global spotlight as co-host with Japan of the World Soccer Cup, and the North sought a way to capture some of the attention--and money. Arirang is the name of a Korean folk song about two lovers torn apart. It becomes a metaphor in festival events, though, where political overtones urge the reuniting of the North and South--for example, by depicting the Korean peninsula as one country.
Walter Keats, president of Wilmette, Ill.-based Asia Pacific Travel, had a group of 270 travelers lined up to go last year, when the regime canceled the festivals--and the visitors--due to floods. So he said he "felt great" when he got an e-mail from Pyongyang earlier this month, saying that he could bring visitors in May this year and again in the fall. Just this week, he received an e-mail from the North Korean tourism authority saying it was appointing his company the sole travel agent it would deal with for the U.S. market.
For one thing, a visit to one of the world's last true dictatorships is probably the closest you'll ever get to personally experiencing George Orwell's 1984.
"This is a society and a structure that is the last of its kind," says Keats. "There should be witnesses, people who can say what they saw."
Then there is the uniquely North Korean spectacle of the festival performances themselves. Often called "mass games," a single show involves about 100,000 performers and displays of group gymnastics.
Keats takes the decision to allow Americans in this year as a sign that the regime is optimistic about the outcome of ongoing six-nation talks aimed at halting North Korean nuclear proliferation.
Another reason for letting Americans in is that the North Koreans need to fill seats at Pyongyang's 150,000-seat stadium. With tickets to a single Arirang performance costing from $25 to $300 -- the top price will get you a bottle of water, candy bars and a green felt table cloth at your seat--the performances are an important source of foreign revenue.
With limited tourism facilities, Pyongyang is restricting all foreign visits to four days and three nights to allow the maximum number of sightseers. Asia Pacific Travel is leading a trip from May 2 to 15 that will take in Beijing and Seoul as well as the DMZ on the border between North and South Korea, and Kumgang and Pyongyang in North Korea. The 14-day itinerary costs $4,790 per person; for more information, visit www.northkorea1on1.com or call 1-800-262-6420.