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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.
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So, North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il died this weekendat 8:30am local time on Saturday, to be specific. According to NK state media and CNN, the cause of death is heart attack. The sudden news will start this week with uncertainty, as North Korea enters a period of mourning (until December 29) and South Korea holds emergency government meetings.
Naturally we're thinking about how all this will impact travel, and while weekending in Pyongyang isn't exactly around the corner, the tense situation between North and South Korea will almost certainly end visits to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), at least temporarily.
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.
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Our shot of a Republic of Korea soldier at the DMZ
So, we're sure you've heard about it already in the news, but there were actual shots fired between North and South Korea yesterday, and in the most hotly tense area: the demilitarized zone between the two countries. Aside from having some of the shadiest history (spy tunnels, tourists shot, etc), the DMZ remains one of the favorite tourist sites for visitors to South Korea.
In fact, an official USO tour departs from the American embassy in Seoul, and for around $40 per person, they'll take a busload up to visit the border and the famous Joint Security Area at Panmunjom. We've done it; it was great, but now with the escalation in tensions, is visiting the DMZ still safe?
North Korean leaders, for all that they've justifiably earned a reputation for insane paranoia, seem to be opening up their country to tourism. Very slowly opening up their country to tourism. Having lifted some restrictions on Americans last January, they've now taken the next step and inaugurated what might become a regular tourist train from neighboring China.
The train is part of a larger itinerary that will take 400 tourists on what we have to assume is an exquisitely planned, government-sanitized four day trip. Heavy restrictions still exist on where any foreigner can go in the country. Travelers can still expect to be corralled into specific foreigner hotels and taken on specific foreigner tours, and under no circumstances should they wander around alone. So much is this the case that the State Department's DPRK page tells US citizens to secure escorts before going to the Swedish Embassywhich is how Americans obtain consular services in North Koreaeven for time-sensitive medical emergencies. It's true that even small delays can be devastating in those circumstances. But finding a guide takes substantially less time than, say, getting out of a Pyongyang jail. Or a rural gulag. Or, most likely, both.
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A North Korean underwater mine just blew up a South Korean naval vessel a few days ago, and at the same time as all this tension mounts and the border between Kim Jong-il's communist North Korea and the rest of the world starts to shake, we hear that South Korea is turning some of the Demilitarized Zone into an ecotourism hotspot.
The DMZ has been around since 1953, keeping the two Koreas separated by an untouched area of land 155 miles long and 2 miles wide. Any person setting foot into the area, outside of specified paths and heavily-guarded roads, can be considered to be invading the other side and can be shot on sight. Nonetheless, the UN joint security area at Panmunjom, just north of Seoul and manned by both US and Republic of Korea soldiers, has been bringing tourists to the DMZ for years. We've been there ourselves recently and can say that although more ecotourism is great, we're not so sure about exploiting this controversial area further.
DMZ photos and more, after the jump!
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.