North Korea the 'People's paradise' for intrepid tourists
Anna Fifield from Seoul
Those looking for a holiday destination free of children and honeymooners, not to mention freedom, should look no further than the "people's paradise" of North Korea.
With its around-the-clock minders, inflated prices and a heavy schedule of visits to Kim II-sung monuments, North Korea is not an obvious vacation spot for most people. But for intrepid travellers it is the holy grail of world tourism.
"This is one of the weirdest places I've ever been," Monty Anderson, a California real estate investor who has visited 125 countries, told the FT at Pyongyang airport recently. "Certainly the hardest place to get to -- this is the Mecca for adventure travellers."
Notorious for the difficulties of getting a visa as well as the severe restrictions on movement once there, North Korea has allowed hundreds of western tourists to visit over the past three months as it celebrates a string of anniversaries and tries to convey a sense of normalcy to the outside world.
"Certainly, the order was given from the very top of the North Korean leadership to let almost everyone come and see that socialism is intact," said Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert who also acts as a tourism consultant.
The 60th anniversaries of liberation from Japan and the foundation of the Korean Workers' party have seen the main roads of Pyongyang lit up with neon and festooned with banners -- as if to boast of an abundance of electricity and happiness to incoming foreigners.
The Arirang mass gymnastics -- a socialist realist extravaganza in which 100,000 North Korean students show an alarming level of discipline -- has attracted thousands of tourists since it opened in August. But this month, for only the third time in history, North Korea even allowed "American imperialists" into the country to see the spectacle.
While Mr Anderson complained he saw only a selective sliver of the country, "I feel like I haven't seen the real North Korea" -- he was pleasantly surprised by the reception he received.
"We've been treated extra nice because we're Americans," Mr Anderson said. "At the DMZ [the heavily mined buffer between North and South Korea] the soldiers were very sincere and asked why we have imposed economic sanctions on them."
Nick Bonner, who has taken more than 1,000 tourists into North Korea over the past 13 years, said the country was probably the least visited place in the world because most people thought they could not go. "I think we blame North Korea for being so isolated and yet we seem to have an isolationist policy against them."
Mr Bonner's associate at Koryo Tours in Beijing, Simon Cockerell, added that tourism would help open up North Korea to the outside world. "Even if tourists are just waving at North Koreans from the bus, eventually they are going to think the 'big noses' are all right," says Mr Cockerell, using the Korean slang for westerners. "Having exposure to foreigners is always going to be a good thing foreigners' understanding of Korea is going to increase and so is Koreans' understanding of foreigners."
Critics claim tourism dollars merely help prop up Kim Jong-il's nuclear-armed regime, but travel agents say the contribution is minimal. (Accurate figures are not available.)
Julia Dalard, a Russian I who runs tours through KoreaKonsult in Stockholm said the trickle-down impact was more important. "I believe by doing business with or simply visiting North Korea we help the Korean people to overcome their economic difficulties. This fact may motivate some, people to consider a tourist trip as a prelude to some business co-operation with this country."
But while this summer's unprecedented "tourist season" might suggest some loosening up in North Korea, Mr Petrov says it was accompanied by an unusually harsh strengthening of the state's grip on private trade and individual freedoms.
"The sprouts of capitalism so visible on the streets of Pyongyang last year became wiped out and replaced by the state-controlled public distribution system," he says. Indeed, kiosks selling snacks opposite the Koryo hotel in central Pyongyang only two months ago had disappeared recently.
"But the people of North Korea saw and communicated with more foreigners than any time before, and the critics of the regime saw Pyongyang strong and powerful," Mr Petrov said. "In other words, this year Pyongyang once again demonstrated to the world and its own people the ability to stay in control and dictate the rules of the game."
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