A Tourist in North Korea

Will foreigners soon flock to the Hermit Kingdom? Should they?

It was early summer, a time for rice planting and balmy weather, yet North Korea’s first ski resort was open. Masikryong is a complex of nine slopes, imported ski lifts, and grand ambitions to host international tournaments. The nine-floor chalet had a mahjong room, swimming pool, sauna, and spa, complete with peculiar Japanese full-body driers. Its shop sold European ski gear, cheeses, chocolate cake, and Spam—most of it expired—plus a 16-liter glass bottle of traditional snake liquor, with two suffocated serpents tangled up inside. Besides the staff, there was almost no one there.

Masikryong is one of North Korea’s newest and most opulent tourist ventures, and on a recent eight-day trip to the country, my tour group and I were paraded around the site as if we were potential investors. The entire ski resort was built in 10 months by the country’s military under what our guides called the “wise leadership” of young ruler Kim Jong Un (photos show the ski-less Kim in a lift chair). The chalet looked distinctly alpine, and we suggested to our guides that perhaps the leader was inspired by his time studying in Switzerland. They seemed surprised, claiming not to know of the Kim brothers’ European studies, or even that Kim had siblings. For now, North Korea’s leader may be almost as much of a mystery to his own citizens as he is to the outside world.

The Hermit Kingdom is, paradoxically, in the midst of an unprecedented tourism push (one that was reportedly put on hold last week out of concern about Ebola). Since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, several prestige projects have sprung up in North Korea: a waterpark, a dolphinarium, an equestrian club, a shooting range replete with live pheasants. These cheerful and contemporary sites are on an ever-expanding list of permitted destinations for foreign visitors. And there are more in the pipeline. Pyongyang Sunan International Airport is undergoing expansion. There are plans for an underwater hotel complex in Wonsan, a sleepy resort town by the sea. Soon, the regime hopes 1 million foreigners will visit the country annually—a number that would put North Korea roughly on par with Sri Lanka as a tourist destination. Still, that’s just a fraction of the 12 million tourists that visited South Korea last year.

While its goals are grand, North Korea’s tourism industry has gradually grown since it first opened up in the late 1980s, and the nation is no longer the world’s least-visited country (Libya, Afghanistan, and Moldova, among others, receive fewer foreign tourists). Nowadays, for all North Korea’s diplomatic isolation—not to mention its recent arrests of tourists—it is surprisingly easy to go. Western tour operators estimate that the Hermit Kingdom gets 100,000 or more yearly visitors (about the same as Bhutan), the vast majority from China. And in addition to frequenting North Korea’s conventional tourist stops like monuments, war museums, and mass athletic performances, tour operators can increasingly go off the beaten path (though always as part of an official tour), offering cycling, golfing, and hiking. In July, the country’s pristine coastlines saw some of their first surfers.

Simon Cockerell, the veteran tour leader of the British-run, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which has taken tourists to North Korea since 1993, now whisks about 2,000 visitors a year to the country, a quarter of them American. Andrea Lee, a Korean-American who runs Uri Tours, a boutique, New Jersey-based operator that arranged my trip and played a role in the first of former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s visits to North Korea, said in an interview that she was in the country during last year’s nuclear test and didn’t even notice it. Tour operators insist that as long as tourists obey local laws, North Korea—a country with virtually no crime or terrorism—is one of the world’s safest places.

Two border soldiers at the Joint Security Area of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (Kim Wall)

And indeed, the three local guides who boarded our tour bus as soon as we landed in the country promised that we had nothing to fear. The two basic rules—no disrespecting the leaders, no photographing the military (except, apparently, at the tourist stop along the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, where pictures are occasionally tolerated)—sounded almost disappointingly simple. North Korea’s tourism strategy, the guides told us, is aimed at showing that North Koreans are “not crazy, not dangerous, just different”—a catchphrase they repeated throughout the trip. We headed straight from the airport to Pyongyang’s grand monuments: a triumphal arch that our guides boasted was 10 meters taller than Paris’s, and the colossal statues of North Korea’s founding president, Kim Il Sung, and his son, Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un doesn’t yet have a statue). We paid our respects with two bouquets of fluorescent artificial flowers before lining up in front of the bronze giants and bowing.

Like most tourists, we stayed at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, which was completed in 1992 and features glass elevators, a revolving restaurant on the 47th floor, and a mysteriously inaccessible fifth floor. The building includes a 24-hour tailor, Egyptian-themed nightclub, and Macanese-run casino, as well as a beauty parlor in the bunker-like basement—virtually every amenity imaginable, except for Wi-Fi. There seemed to be no reason to leave (and anyway you can’t—it’s on an island). In the morning, city-wide wake-up alarms jolted me out of bed as the sun rose over Pyongyang’s pastel skyscrapers.

The showcase capital is in some sense a living museum of the Cold War era. The communist kitsch—handpainted propaganda posters, grim workers’ uniforms, socialist catchphrases—was everywhere. But there were also signs of foreign, modernizing—even capitalist—influences. One restaurant played a Korean version of the 1980s Europop hit “Brother Louie.” There are so many imported cars that the city is experiencing its first traffic jams. At the country’s international airport, citizens returned from abroad carrying boxes of new Sony Bravia flatscreens through customs. Even the souvenir shop at the DMZ sold Coca-Cola, and a foreign resident—the city now has around 600, mostly from China and Russia, according to expats I met in Pyongyang—testified that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is available in shops (given U.S. trade embargoes, these products likely arrive via the flourishing black market).

The government is also cautiously relaxing the rules governing its tightly controlled tourism industry. The essentials haven’t changed: All tourists need a government permit and must travel on official guided tours, whose every meal, bathroom break, and souvenir stop is meticulously scheduled. Yet tourists are generally allowed to take photos and videos, and cell phones are not confiscated at the airport. While the average North Korean can’t get online, visitors can buy 3G SIM cards at the airport and use an Egyptian-built network to post on social media as they wish. This year, amateur foreign runners participated in Pyongyang’s marathon for the first time.

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In North Korea, I regularly caught glimpses of what appeared to be mundane life and everyday happiness: uniformed military couples holding hands at Pyongyang’s funfair; roller-skating girls in pink sweats buying ice cream; bored parents waiting on benches in the shade. In a country often portrayed as incomprehensibly foreign, the familiar seemed bizarre.

Perhaps it’s due to this cognitive dissonance that signs of a more nuanced and normal North Korea are so rare outside the country. Speculation in Western and South Korean media frequently reduces the enigmatic country to a caricature, and these rumors amused our guides endlessly: the “mandatory” state-sanctioned haircuts (no one has one), the “executed” girl band Moranbong (still alive, as we saw on TV while visiting a Pyongyang craft-beer brewery), and the stubborn legend that Pyongyang’s subway passengers are all actors, hired to create an illusion of normalcy. Parts of Pyongyang’s subway—which our guides said was a gift from the Soviet Union—are open to foreigners, and as we rode the rails during rush hour, the system seemed not all that different from New York’s, albeit slower and cleaner. Commuters read papers or looked down at cell phones. It seemed narcissistic to believe that the government had employed hundreds of actors with the murky goal of convincing tourists that North Korea is an ordinary place, rather than accepting the more logical explanation that Pyongyang’s residents commute just like everyone else. An old man with a fishing rod seated opposite me glanced away from an animated discussion with his companion, smiled, and pretended to reel me in. If he was another cog in North Korea’s public-relations machinery, the regime had a sense of humor.

We had no illusions that we were seeing anything beyond what North Korea’s government allowed us to—and certainly not evidence of the country’s abysmal human-rights record, including forced-labor camps and public executions. Instead, our guides attempted to show us a people’s socialist utopia populated by rosy-cheeked women at collective farms and suit-clad university students. Even our visit to the DMZ was mostly lighthearted; we encountered two busloads of Chinese visitors, and young border soldiers teased each other about the female tourists. Our guides, meanwhile, were witty and worldly, joking about the North Korean film industry’s struggle to recruit Western actors to play American imperialists and frequently referencing Titanic (a film all had seen multiple times, though they wouldn’t explain how). The guides answered our questions on everything from nukes, famine, and war (all blamed on American imperialism), to dating (it’s popular to take dates to sporting events), international sanctions, and even prison camps (whose existence they denied, in contrast to the recent admission of a North Korean Foreign Ministry official).

A worker in the Hungnam fertilizer factory, one of the country's largest (Kim Wall)

Still, even judging by my carefully curated travels, North Korea was also inescapably heartbreaking. If Pyongyang looked almost modern, time stood still in the countryside, where rice is planted by hand and the few vehicles run off burning wood. In Hamhung, a dusty town of bleak houses and empty streets, a beautiful lady in traditional dress proudly told us that visiting foreigners had been so in awe of the city (North Korea’s second-largest) that they felt it should be the country’s capital. At times, and despite our guides’ best efforts, we saw North Korea for what it is: a Cold War relic, left alone as its allies fell with the Berlin Wall, still fighting an ideological battle that has been all but forgotten everywhere else. Returning to Pyongyang, ours was the only vehicle on a ghostly eight-lane highway, originally built as a lifeline between the capital and the coast and now mostly idle, our guide said, because sanctions have halted trade. Uniformed workers appeared outside our windows, sweeping flower petals off the cracking asphalt.

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Many North Korea experts believe the country’s tourism campaign stems from its need for foreign currency rather than hope of diplomatic rapprochement with the international community. Tourism, a sector exempt from sanctions, could provide a minor boost to North Korea’s economy. If that’s the case, though, does visiting North Korea help support a rogue, nuclear-armed regime more interested in megaprojects than feeding its people?

Charles Armstrong, professor of Korean Studies at Columbia University, said in an interview that North Korea’s tourism industry is currently too small to make much money for the leadership, and that its public-relations value is limited too, since few tourists return home full of praise for the country. On the other hand, Armstrong said that if the number of tourists increases substantially, it will be harder for the government to control contact between foreigners and citizens, as well as the information about North Korea that visitors bring back to their countries.

But Kim Jong Un’s new focus on tourism doesn’t necessarily signal that his regime is opening up. “North Korea has never been a ‘Hermit Kingdom’ in the sense of cutting itself off entirely from the outside world,” Armstrong explained. “Rather, the government has tried to control external contact as much as possible and limit North Korean citizens’ exposure to foreigners and ‘dangerous’ foreign influences.” He added that the tourism push, which is occurring alongside a tightening of border security and an escalation of internal surveillance, could be a pragmatic part of this larger strategy.

According to Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University, Pyongyang has always searched for ways to fill government coffers while leaving the old system intact—and is now turning to tourism to do so.

“They want tourists—preferably not those noisy Chinese, but well-behaving and dirty-rich Westerners—to come, to spend [a] few days in North Korea or, rather, in specially designed tourists ghettos, to happily pay exorbitant prices for pretty much everything, and then leave,” Lankov said by email.

Lankov dismissed the regime’s target of attracting 1 million foreign visitors as a “pipe dream.” There’s a limit, he argued, to what the country can offer tourists. The climate is cold, there are no great beaches, the architectural heritage is modest, and what locals see as the embodiment of extreme luxury won’t impress well-traveled Westerners.

“So far, North Korea attracts those Westerners who love to go to weird and unusual places: People want to see a Stalinist dictatorship in its ugly glory, and this is indeed what they get from their trips,” Lankov explained. “But how many people are interested in this type of tourism and are willing to pay [a] hefty sum for such things?”

Cockerell of Koryo Tours, who has organized initiatives such as sports exchanges and documentary film projects, said his business seeks to promote mutual understanding and dialogue. “We believe that pretty much every act of human-level engagement works to humanize both sides,” he said. Lee of Uri Tours agrees, noting that “tourism becomes a space where we can try to take a bit of the focus off of the political and historical mistrust that exists between the DPRK and the West.” With a laugh, she recalled the question a North Korean child once asked her about living in America: “But don’t they kill you?”

Contrary to popular belief, tourists in North Korea can and do interact with locals. At the waterpark, a nervous 17-year-old waitress inquired in poor English about my age, family, and country of origin until she ran out of words and just smiled. At a remote rest stop in the mountains, a group of women shyly approached me and toyed with my hair, telling me through Uri Tours’ Lee, who translated, that I was the first foreigner they’d seen outside of films. At an ice rink, a middle-aged man who was skating and holding hands with two women suddenly grabbed me and swept me around the rink. Opera blasted from a screen on the wall as he yelled in heavily accented English: “friends!” One evening, over beer and a billiards game, I asked one of my guides if North Koreans are indeed happier than people in the West, as North Korean propaganda often suggests. He hesitated, then shook his head. A middle-aged father, he hoped that his son would one day travel abroad and learn about the wider world, but admitted that the chances of him doing so were slim given North Korea's international isolation.

Lankov, who grew up in Leningrad in the 1970s, is optimistic about tourism’s possible side effects for North Korea. Through visitors, he believes, locals may come to see North Korean society as poor and regimented—just as Soviet citizens did by meeting visiting Finnish workers who spent cash like Soviet elites.

“Tourism means exposure: If North Koreans remain isolated and know nothing about the outside world, how would you expect them to start demanding change?” he wondered. “How on earth can they learn that there are better ways to live and run society?”