Looking for a hot new travel destination this Labor Day? How about Pyongyang?
It may be hard to believe, but a country that in recent years has imprisoned American journalists, held the world hostage with missile tests, mocked Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s outfits and back in 2002 was branded a member of the infamous “Axis of Evil,” is indeed open to foreign visitors and has been since 1987.
Since 1993, Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company, has been leading tours into North Korea, bringing an estimated 10,000 travelers — including 1,500 Americans — to what is regarded as one of the most isolated countries in the world. Working in conjunction with the official North Korean tourism agency, the Korea International Travel Company (KITC), Koryo offers a carefully planned, government approved tour through North Korea.
In addition to the Arirang Mass Games, a mass display of choreography involving thousands put on to celebrate the birthday of the late leader Kim Il-sung, tourists are taken to see landmarks and sights selected by the North Korean government. The USS Pueblo, an American naval intelligence ship that was boarded and captured in 1968, The International Friendship Exhibition, a hall that displays all the foreign gifts bestowed on the DPRK’s leaders, and a visit to the North Korean side of the DMZ is just a sample of what awaits travelers.
‘Really an ambassador of your country’
Co-founded by British national Nick Bonner, Koryo’s beginning was rooted in a 1992 visit to his co-founder, Josh Green, in Pyongyang and a request from a North Korean acquaintance who strangely enough, was Bonner’s teammate on the British Embassy’s local soccer team in Beijing. A new employee for the KITC, Bonner’s North Korean friend was charged with finding foreign visitors to North Korea — a job he was truly struggling with. In their first few years of operating, KITC could only draw fewer than 50 visitors a year. Eager to improve on those woeful numbers, he turned to Bonner for help and together they drummed up their first tour group.
Since then, Koryo’s partnership with KITC has grown stronger and the company is now leading tours to areas of the country that were previously closed off to foreign visitors such as Haeju, home to a number of the country’s most scenic sights. Despite their success though, fewer than 2,000 foreign visitors are going to North Korea each year.
Speaking to NBC News, Bonner was quick to emphasize the uniqueness of a trip behind the iron curtain. “You really are an ambassador of your country,” said Bonner, “[North Korea is] virtually, probably the least visited country in the world”
In addition to its tour guide role, Koryo has expanded its mission by working to bring North Korea’s culture out into the mainstream. Besides opening the Pyongyang Art Studio in Beijing, Bonner has also been heavily involved in producing a number of high profile documentaries that have helped shine a rare light on the country.
The 2003 release, “A State of Mind,” tells the story of two young female gymnasts who are training to perform in the Mass Games, one of the premiere national events of the year. The closing shots of the movie from the Mass Games that year are stunning and well worth viewing, but the revelation in this movie is the unprecedented access into the lives of the two main characters and their families. For the first time, the West was given a truly in-depth look into the daily life of North Korean families and the challenges and successes they meet on a daily basis.
“People were sort of saying to us, well this [Mass Games training] is inhuman the way this is done, this is hard practice, so I wanted to find out what the actual situation was,” Bonner said. “We followed 2 girls for over a year and a half, filming over 120 training hours footage, to the extent that the kids got to know us so well, that they would jump into bed and scream ‘enough!’ and pull the sheets over their head.”
Equally impressive in its scope was the 2006 film, “Crossing the Line,” which screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary tells the story of former U.S. army private Joseph Dresnok, who in 1962 along with 3 other U.S. servicemen, stunned Americans by crossing the DMZ and defecting to North Korea. “We had asked the Koreans if we could make this film and they had come back and said no, this is impossible,” said Bonner of making the film.
“I knew Joe was or had been still alive until the end of the ’90s because a friend had actually acted with him. He had by then become quite a well-known film actor and also had guides who had learned English from him.”
Bonner and director Daniel Gordon were able to secure interviews with Dresnok, documenting the everyday life of a one-time Virginia man who had embraced a Korean lifestyle and even started a family there. Once again, Bonner was granted incredible access. A remarkable feat considering prior to the film, nobody outside of North Korea could even confirm that Dresnok or any of the other deserters were still alive.
“To speak to a guy who hadn’t spoken really to anybody from the outside since the last defectors, that was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and incredible to get access not only to him, but also to find out he has children,” Bonner said.
Funding a militant state?
However, critics are quick to point out that excellent access comes at a price, charging Bonner with providing favorable propaganda for a police state that despite the everyday life presented in movies like “State of Play,” still persecutes its citizens. Furthermore, some charge that the money earned from foreign tourism goes straight to the government and subsequently a rogue state actively working to develop nuclear weapons.
Though the U.S. State Department does not forbid travel to North Korea, this moral concern is not lost on some American travelers to the country.
Chris, an American living in Beijing who asked that his full name not be used, is one of 30 Americans departing this week for a Koryo tour. Speaking to NBC, Chris underscored the concern of many planning on going to North Korea.
“I’m very excited, it’s a new place to go and explore ... Given the political situation right now though, there is a bit of apprehension about going. Not apprehension about going but of other people knowing.”
However, Chris and other American travelers believed that the benefits of going to North Korea to see the country and to interact with its people directly outweighed those risks. After all, says Bonner, it is the contact and relations that go on during these visits that promote mutual understanding and hopefully respect.
“In fact one of the greatest things is Americans who go in, North Koreans get to say, ‘that was amazing, they were so nice, so friendly.’ Don’t forget you aren’t just with your guides, you are meeting hundreds of people. You are interacting as an American with hundreds of people whether it be with wait staff, etc. And the rapport they [Americans] have is absolutely stunning.”