Visit anytime! North Korea lifts restrictions on U.S. tourists
North Korea has eased travel restrictions on U.S. tourists, hoping to boost its coffers and also improve the cash-strapped country's image.
U.S. citizens had previously only been allowed access during the spectacular mass games, held last year in August through October. Now, travelers from the United States will be allowed to visit North Korea on official guided tours any time of the year.
But one tour company was not expecting an immediate flood of U.S. tourists.
"I can't see how there's going to be a massive increase in Americans, but we see it as a positive move regardless," said Nicholas Bonner, the founder of Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based outfit specializing in North Korean tours since 1992.
Pyongyang's overture to the United States coincided with a request to discuss resuming tours with South Korea.
Last year, Koryo Tours took 282 U.S. tourists to North Korea compared to about 700 to 800 non-U.S. Westerners. Less than 2,500 U.S. citizens have visited North Korea since 1953.
According to Bonner, the real game-changer is that "Americans will be allowed to join with other Western tourists in exploring the rest of the country and not just areas just across the border."
"We don't think this would have occurred under the last American administration."
An eye-opening experience
With tourism so controlled, and only a low number of Westerners to have visited the Communist state over five decades, not much is known about the everyday lives of North Koreans, Bonner said.
Those who have gone, were "not really prepared for the humanity you see outside of the normal preconceptions people have," he added.
School children run up to tourists to say "Hi!" then run away, and the people seem genuinely friendly, offering a "Hello, how are you?" or "Welcome to my country," Bonner said.
Skeptics see such comments as proof of North Korea's manufactured 'Peoples Paradise,' while others interpret it as experiencing the real people and personalities that make up the country.
Guides, not guards
Despite the easing of restrictions, the same main rule still applies -- any tourist to North Korea must be accompanied by official guides.
"They're not 'guards' but 'guides', and they're trained," Bonner said. "They're not there to rip you off, but to inform you about their country. The guides are the closest contact tourists are going to have with the North Korean people."
Bonner said the locals like to drink, so if they like you and get a chance to share a drink with them "then you can really get to know them."
Along with getting to know the North Korean people and guides, a trip to North Korea provides a chance to see some interesting museums, like the War Museum in Pyongyang with its 360 degree, 10-meter high wall painting showing a fight during the 'Victorious Fatherland Liberation War.' The scene shows the Korean People's Army retaking a village from the U.S. Army.
At the Metro Museum they've actually dug a large hole underground to simulate a real underground metro station.
More seasons, same restrictions
Under the new travel regulations, U.S. citizens can now come during the spring and autumn, with April and May being a typically popular period. In April, the country celebrates the birthday of Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea in 1948 and was its first leader.
August through October, tourists can catch the extravagant Mass Games in Pyongyang.
The Mass Games is a performing arts and gymnastics event featuring tens of thousands of performers participating in a spectacle of colorful, intricately-choreographed shows.
Of summertime, Bonner said, "It's just hot, but we still go in and out. Nothing quite like going to Wonsan, and going to the beach. North Korea has some of the most beautiful landscapes in Asia. Its not really known as a place to get a tan or mud bath, but it's there in Wonsan; which is really a postcard from North Korea, and that's not what people associate with the normal monument tours."
The Mass Games usually take place from the beginning of August to October 10, and that's usually the hot ticket time for tourists, according to Bonner. He says its when they take the biggest percent of visitors and they typically go for a five to six day tour, leave the country, then return for the tail end of the Mass Games.
Play by the rules
North Korea's new openness is not without caveats, interlopers with agendas will not be tolerated and tougher restrictions are placed on journalists.
Recent examples of unapproved excursions include the case of the two American journalists from CurrentTV who were detained in 2009, and more recently, a missionary crossed the DMZ (which divides North and South Korea) to allegedly "bring a message of Christ's love and forgiveness" to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.
The government approved tours generally have no problems, but there have been instances of American tourists violating policy even after undergoing extensive pre-travel briefings on the finer points of North Korean travel.
"We once had an American tourist based in Beijing who went around North Korea saying, 'We don't do it this way in our country, we don't do it with guides.' And he'd just wander off from the group," Bonner recalled.
"It just causes a problem. North Korea is still sort of at war with the United States within their borders, and you're told nicely to stay with your group. With the trouble this chap caused the guide got a bollocking, but they let him off. We just don't want a situation where they (the guides) get into trouble because of a misbehaving tourist."
These limitations may make touring North Korea far from perfect, but for curious visitors interested in the reclusive country, now may be the opportunity to see it, albeit in a controlled fashion, for themselves.
The 1953 cease-fire that ended the three-year Korean War never led to a permanent peace treaty, leaving North and South Korea technically at war. Earlier this month, North Korea proposed a formal treaty to replace the armistice and called for international sanctions on it to be dropped.