Where are you going this weekend?
No, really, where are you going?
North Korea. It’s officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. DPRK for short.
Is that safe?
Police states are the safest places in the world.
We will be in the company of translators, guides and minders at all times.
The tour leader from Koryo Tours and the other people on the tour, about 25 people in all.
What’s Koryo Tours?
The world experts on travel to North Korea. Three Brits based out of Beijing. Their web site is here. “Koryo” means “Korea.”
These guys are legit?
Completely. They’ve been shuttling people in and out of the DPRK for 15 years.
Sounds suspicious. What else do they do?
They also produce excellent documentaries about the DPRK, to wit:
The Game of Their Lives (about the underdog North Korean soccer team that defeated mighty Italy in the 1966 World Cup);
A State of Mind (about the Mass Games gymnastics exposition); and
Crossing the Line (about a U.S. serviceman who defected to the DPRK) (to be released this fall).
Is it legal for you to travel to North Korea?
Yes. Ordinary tourist expenditures by U.S. citizens are expressly exempted from the United States' economic sanctions against North Korea. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 31, Section 500.563.
Don’t the North Koreans forbid Americans from entering?
Usually, but the restrictions are eased during Mass Games.
What are Mass Games?
A gymnastics exposition extolling the virtues of collectivism and juche (Korean self-reliance). Thousands of athletes (pictured), principally high school-aged, perform elaborately choreographed, multi-media productions praising the Motherland, the Great Leader (Kim Il-sung) and the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il).
That sounds like something out of Soviet Russia.
As the press often notes, North Korea and Cuba are the only two truly Communist nations left in the world.
When are you going?
From Saturday, May 5, to Tuesday, May 8, 2007.
Why only four days?
That’s all the DPRK allows. I’d stay for a month if I could, but they won’t let me.
How will you get there?
Air Koryo, the North Korean national carrier, flies between Beijing and Pyongyang. The route is serviced by a Soviet-era jet called an Ilyushin-62.
You are out of your mind.
There’s only two ways to get there. Fly, which takes about two hours, or take the train, which takes about 16. I’ve already taken the train from Beijing to the North Korean border town of Dandong, so I might as well have the experience of flying.
How much does all this cost?
1600 Euros, which is about US$2,200, plus incidentals.
That’s steep for four days.
It’s monopolistic pricing in a market with government-created scarcity. You pay the toll, or you don’t go.
How much of that money does the North Korean government get?
The vast majority, I suspect. The airline, the hotel, the guides, the buses – everything in the DPRK tourist infrastructure is owned and/or controlled by the government.
Does it bother you that you are helping subsidize a totalitarian regime?
Yes, but there’s no other way in. As the Dalai Lama said about travel to Tibet, “Go, and tell the world what you see.”
Will you take pictures?
I plan to. The North Koreans are touchy about what can be photographed.
Will you blog about it?
I plan to when I get back. There’s no internet access in North Korea.
Are you going to submit an article about your trip to a newspaper or a magazine?
No. The entry into North Korea is conditioned upon my not writing anything for traditional media. Blogging is OK. If I wrote a published piece, Koryo Tours could have its privileges revoked, and my group’s North Korean guides could suffer the direst consequences.
You’re really doing this?