Next Hot Vacation Spot: North Korea

Go before an influx of American tourists ruins the place!

Photo: Ray Cunningham

I have always found North Korea to be one of the most fascinating countries on earth. From the creepy cult of personality that surrounded Kim Jong-il to the traffic girls of Pyongyang to the fact that it is one of the last bastions of true socialism, this nation has always seemed to be almost of another planet.

Recently, I talked to Ray Cunningham—one of the few Americans to visit North Korea annually—and asked him about North Korean bars, Kim Jong-il, and what it’s like visiting North Korea as an American.

What inspired you to travel to North Korea?
As someone who grew up in a military family during the Cold War, I was aware of the conflict of the ideologies at an early age. I was most fascinated with the seizure of the USS Pueblo in January 1968 and eventually majored in history and political science. I have degrees in Eastern European history and East Asian politics and traveled the Soviet Bloc from 1969 to 1991. North Korea was always the nation that eluded me due to my U.S. citizenship but when the 40th anniversary of the USS Pueblo came in 2008, I became determined to go. By that time travel restrictions by North Korea had relaxed and small groups were traveling from China.

Most Americans assume that North Korea is like Cuba, and that they can’t travel there. That’s not true, though, is it?
Americans can travel to North Korea but travel is restricted to tour groups. Travel companies such as Asia Pacific Travel in Chicago and Koryo Tours in Beijing have been taking Americans into North Korea for almost 10 years. While the tours are priced higher than similar excursions in other Asian countries, the chance to see a closed and regimented society presents a unique opportunity. If you have the money and a passport, and are willing to state you are not a journalist or a full-time photographer, then you are welcomed.

How are Americans treated there?
Americans do seem to be a novelty in some regards. The Koreans have always been very friendly, and I have never been in fear for my safety.

How much does it cost to travel to North Korea? Once you are there, how do you get around?
Tours can range in price from 900 Euros ($1,149) in the low season for five days to as much as 3,500 Euros ($4,470) for a full 17 days during the summer. That excludes airfare to Beijing where the tours begin. These prices are all-inclusive except for extra beverages at meals and souvenirs. Since the tours are very structured there is very little need for extra money. A bus takes you to each location, and the guides will tend to your needs. While there are taxis and buses, your transportation is provided.

With Kim Jong-il’s death, do you think it will be more or less dangerous for Americans to travel there?
Any tourists going to North Korea are treated very well and shown the best areas of the country. It is certainly less dangerous than bus travel in other developing nations and robbery is unknown.

What are the dining options in North Korea? Are there any bars there?
Korean food is well known worldwide and in the north there are dishes that are native to that region. Perhaps the most famous is Pyongyang cold noodles. Rice and vegetables make up much of what you are served in the north, with portions of duck, fish, squid, and other seafoods. The fermented red chili paste (Gochujang) is also found on the table. Bibimbap is also prepared with a variety of vegetables. Tourists are well fed. For a treat you can ask the guides to take you to one of the two Italian restaurants in town.

Pyongyang has most of the well-known bars. The Paradise Brewery, where there’s beer on tap, is adjacent to the Paradise department store. The Diplomatic Club is another local bar. You can mix with diplomats from the few nations who are stationed in Pyongyang. Every hotel has a bar that is well equipped and Euros and U.S. dollars are accepted.

Is North Korea the strangest place you’ve ever been?
Some say in many respects that it is like visiting another planet. The sights, the sounds, the colors and the atmosphere are very foreign to those from the west. You can get an idea of North Korea by traveling in rural areas of China but even that does not approximate the regimentation and most important, the Korean culture. The first rule of North Korea is to understand that this is Korea and the cultural norms are not the same. This is the most interesting place certainly, but there is something familiar about it to me also. The countryside is beautiful with rice fields and craggy mountains.

When Kim Jong-il died, some people were skeptical of the wailing that took place in the plaza, saying that the people were actors or being forced to do it. Do you think that was staged?
In many parts of Asia public mourning takes this form. As others who study the North have stated, do not think everything was staged. Many had genuine feelings for the leadership. This is in some respects viewed as a very Korean thing to do. It can be overstated in some locations, and the films are edited to maximize the outpouring of emotion, but there certainly was a genuine feeling of loss. Some is staged, there is no doubt. Kim Jong-il was not held in as high regard as his father, Kim Il-sung. We are going through a shorter mourning period than we did in 1994 when Kim Il-sung died.

North Korea is supposedly a desperately poor third-world country. Yet most of your photos and videos depict a fairly modern city with modern provisions. How do you account for that?
The cities, particularly Pyongyang, are not where the majority of citizens live. Pyongyang is a showplace and is not typical of the way the average North Korean lives in a town or in a rural village. While it may appear modern in the other cities of North Korea,  electricity and running water continue to be a problem in cities outside Pyongyang. The streets are clean and what is seen is orderly but some buildings can be found to be empty, and women routinely haul water up the apartment stairs to fill bathtubs for water storage. Photographs can sometimes be deceiving.