North Korea Travel Guide
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After little less than a month of 3G internet access for foreigners visiting North Korea, Wired UK reports that the signal has been shut down as the hermit kingdom once again retreats into its usual campaign of warmongering.
Still, for that brief period, a few journalists were able to post tweets and Instagrams live from within the borders and, ever so briefly, skyrocket international cultural interest in a country that's usually only making headlines for their politics. Perhaps the 3G access was cut because of this, these images of a "softer side" of North Korea that's contrary to the propaganda officially proliferated by Pyongyang? We can only wonder as, of course, the last thing we can expect is clarification of any actions taken by North Korea.
If you missed the stream of social media during the brief 3G period, it thankfully all lives on in the internet. Here's where to find it:
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This is an airline meal. It's not just any airline meal, however; it's a piece of digital imaging and travel history and it was only created this morning.
David Guttenfelder, Chief Photographer in Asia for the AP, is currently in North Korea on assignment and taking advantage of the newly un-banned 3G network to share some Instagrams from daily life, like this seemingly banal image of his in-flight meal on North Korea's state airline, Air Koryo.
We say "seemingly banal," because it's in fact incredibly interesting. For one, has there ever been another digital image like this, instantly shared from an Air Koryo plane, location-tagged to Pyongyang's Airport? The answer is "kind of," as Guttenfelder also posted another of his Air Koryo meals (view the meal & view the plane) 29 weeks ago, but done after the fact and without a geotag.
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If you think your airline is treating you poorly during the hullabaloo surrounding Hurricane Sandy—think again—as there’s one carrier that's much worse on a clear day. Air Koryo is the national carrier of North Korea and they are most famous for being the world’s only one-star airline. Let’s just say they aren’t really known for the in-flight dining options, variety of routes, customer service, or technology. Obviously this isn’t an airline that most are going to use, but now that they’ve entered the internet age we’re not so sure.
Obviously you’re going to need plenty of paperwork for travel to Pyongyang, but if you’re willing to fill out all the forms in advance you’ll be ready to fly with Air Koryo. There won’t be any Boeing or Airbus planes whisking you off to Pyongyang, but if you’re looking for some Tupolev aircraft—they’ve got you more than covered.
You don’t have to be a fancy pants diplomat or a foreign affairs expert to know that North Korea isn’t exactly that happiest place on earth. Understandably they also aren’t on the cutting edge of air travel technology or in-flight amenities, so trip reports or other tidbits from their airline are few and far between.
However, the folks over at RocketNews24 were lucky enough—if you can call it that—to be in North Korea on a flight aboard Air Koryo. The state-run carrier does have one good thing going for it, as the flight attendants still pass out quick meals even in economy class.
Bad news: it now sucks more than ever to live in North Korea. Why? Because the good ol' DPRK just launched their first cruise ship, the Mangyongbong (pictured above). About the only thing it has going for it is that it floats, plus okay also the fun-to-say name. Technically having the option of taking a cruise should mean life is tad bit better, right? Well, the ship is so sad that North Koreans are better off without it.
Want to "cruise" on the Mangyongbong? Be prepared to board from a dirt-covered dock from a town near the border with Russia, leave your cell phone behind, bed down on bare-bones mattresses in a communal space and soak up the sun from plastic lawn chairs that'll probably be blown overboard by the wind before you can get to them. What a cruise!
Luckily it's not a very long cruise; the ship only does a 1-night journey from North Korea to the the special tourist zone of Mount Kumgang on the South Korean border. It's a beautiful place, but it's also the focus of a constant ownership tug-of-war between North and South Korea, so what we're saying is this is a cruise where you should definitely opt for the extra travel insurance.
Check out more photos of the inaugural cruise here.
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So you want to go to North Korea but can't figure out a plausible excuse, hmm? How about golf?! That's right...golf. According to the Wall Street Journal, North Korea is hosting an Amateur Gold Open from April 26-30 and it may not be too late to enter (since we happen to know someone who just did).
The fee is 999 Euro ($1,375), but at least it gets you more than just a few hours' fun of hitting some balls around in the 18-hole Pyongyang Golf Complex; the fee also includes "travel by train into the country from China, visas, meals and accommodation, as well as a 3 day tour of the country." That's 5-star accommodation in Pyongyang, mind you.
The recession is hitting everyone and every tourist destination quite hard, so much so that North Korea is trying make nice with the United States to get some tourism dollars back into its struggling economy.
Sure, there's that little nuclear weapons issue and that whole 200,000 political prisoners matter, but North Korean leader Kim Jong-il is willing to let bygones be bygones and allow more Americans into the country. Kim is asking South Korea's Hyundai Group to restart its tours, which crossed over through the North, in an effort to lure in more tourists. But don't expect to do any exploring on your own during these trips. Such tours, which would begin in China and probably go for about about $1,000 to $2,175, would carefully rein in US travelers.
They won't take our advice, but they'll still take our money: Despite an absence of diplomatic relations between the countries, Americans can still travel to North Korea, so long as you go when they want you to go, and with whom.
Visiting North Korea is allowed only during the annual Mass Games involving thousands of North Koreans performing complicated choreography and moving into intricate patterns like a college marching band on steroids. The games are normally held August through October, during which Westerners can travel with a tour groupsince the government will assign you an escort to make sure you only see the North Korea they want you to see. Now is the time to start planning and booking those trips.
Wilderness experts teach campers to leave a place better than they found it. A tour group responsible for more than half of all Westerners visiting North Korea has taken that sentiment to heart, asking travelers to donate to help children in the impoverished, often aid-rejecting country.
Koryo co-founders Josh Green and Nicholas Bonner, both Brits, came up with the idea for the company when Green was working for a shipping company in Pyongyang in the early '90s. Using his connections, they were able to connect with the Korea International Travel Company, an official government agency that ushers foreigners in and out of the DPRK, and now contribute to the Pyongyang International Film Festival and produce documentaries as well as leading tours.
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Who's game for a nice little package trip to North Korea? Anyone? Bueller?
It was announced yesterday that Kim Jong-il is feeling a little neighborly lately and less bomby, and wants to restart family reunion trips from South Korea. Although South Korea hasn't yet said yes to allowing their people to venture over the border, North Korea is re-opening an enclave for reunions at Mount Kumgang, which was once a major money generator for the poor country.
Thinking about heading to North Korea for the Arirang Mass Games? You better hope that former President Bill Clinton has got your back, just like he has with the two Current TV journalists who were arrested on the North Korean border in March and sentenced to 12 years in a hard labor camp for "committing hostilities against the Korean nation and illegal entry.”
During Clinton's brief visit, which focused solely on negotiating the freedom of the womenLaura Ling, 32, and Euna Lee, 36and not North Korea's recent nuclear tests, he met with good old Kim Jong-il, who wasn't looking all that ill.
While other notoriously closed societies have cracked open their doors a bit to tourism, North Korea still remains highly suspicious of foreigners. Two American reporters from scrappy San Francisco-based Current TV are being held in North Korea, having been nabbed by guards as they filmed the country from the Chinese/North Korean border. The reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were working on a story about North Korean refugees when they were taken into custody for "illegally intruding" into the Stalinist dictatorship on Tuesday.
While it's not clear whether they actually did cross the border or remained on the Chinese side, the incident has provoked a minor crisis, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton doing a whole bunch of diplomacy on the matter.
It would be difficult to make relations between North Korea and the rest of the world any more strained. Kim Jong Il's hermit kingdom only allows a trickle of foreign tourists to visit, and they're required to surrender their cell phones upon entry and travel only to approved sites with a government minder. I'm game for traveling almost anywhere, but North Korea seems like one of the bleaker destinations in the world, if Guy Delisle's excellent comic Pyongyang is to be believed.
Here's hoping the reporters are released unharmed, and that North Korea begins to engage the rest of the world a bit more. I know that the latter is a long shot, but today is the first full day of spring and I can't help but feel optimistic.
· Detained Reporters Drawn to NKorea Refugee Story [Associated Press]
· US Awaiting NKorean Reply on Detained Reporters [AP/mercurynews.com]
· Pyongyang by Guy Delisle [Official Site]
· Current TV [Official Site]
· North Korean Travel [Jaunted]