Saturday, 29 April 2006

Window of opportunity for travel to North Korea (DPRK) by USA citizens

Surprisingly many people from the USA would like to visit the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK), as North Korea is officially called. Why? Because it’s there, because it’s unknown, because they have family ties there, or simply because nobody else they know has been there.

For my own reasons (curiosity; extensive experience and involvement with issues of human rights and self-determination in Kashmir — the other partitioned country with heavily-fortified borders between two portions militarily dominated by hostile nuclear powers; a belief that we have the most to learn — for better or worse — from places that are most different; and the inability of most travel agents in the USA to advise would-be visitors to the DPRK) I’ve spent a good deal of time and effort over the years corresponding and meeting with people who have visited the DPRK, knocking on the doors (sometimes literally) of DPRK government offices, and tracking down English-language timetables and tourist literature.

Many Americans assume that, as with Cuba, it’s the USA that restricts travel by USA citizens to the DPRK. In fact, the situation is exactly the opposite: since 1995, the only serious obstacle to tourism from the USA to the DPRK has been the North Korean government’s policy not to give tourist visas to citizens of the USA (or of South Korea, the “Republic of Korea”).

A few groups of ordinary USA-citizen tourists visited the DPRK legally in 1995, and during that time the KITC (the North Korean government travel organization) worked with USA travel agents. Unfortunately, the window of opportunity lasted only about 6 months before it was closed from the DPRK side. In August 1995 the DPRK suddenly stopped issuing any visas to tourists travelling on USA passports, and the KITC stopped dealing with USA travel agents. My requests for reservations or further information regarding arrangements for a group I had been planning to escort to the DPRK went unanswered.

No explanation for the 1995 change in policy was given, but my speculation is that it was a response to extremely anti-DPRK publicity produced by some stories in the USA press written by USA reporters who visited the DPRK in the guise of tourists during this period. The most detailed and embarrassing was a long article in a Korean-language USA-based newspaper by a (South) Korean-American USA-citizen reporter.

Since then, so far as I know, the only tourists who have been able to visit the DPRK have been a few groups invited for “Arirang”, a special government-sponsored festival held at irregular intervals of several years.

In 2006, Asia Pacific Travel — an established tour company based in the USA — is organizing (expensive) tours to the DPRK during the “Arirang” festival for USA citizens, with visas to be issued by the DPRK embassy in Beijing during a stopover en route to the DPRK. The promise of visas could be withdrawn at any time. But I believe that this is a legitimate tour offering sanctioned, at least as of now, by the DPRK government.

I can’t afford to go myself, but I would welcome reports from any of my readers who do go on these tours.

I’ve updated my FAQ on tourist travel to North Korea (DPRK) by citizens of the USA accordingly. It also has lots of additional bakcground information and links about travel to the DPRK.

Link | Posted by Edward on Saturday, 29 April 2006, 11:15 (11:15 AM)
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