Travel News

Autumn in … North Korea? A Travel Guide to the Hermit Kingdom

Locations in this article:  Beijing, China Chicago, IL San Francisco, CA

Arirang North KoreaSerious off-the-beaten path travelers, take note. From August 10 to October 10 of this year, U.S. citizens will be able to travel to North Korea on visas — a rare opportunity from “The Hermit Kingdom” that is — at least temporarily — choosing to put aside its anti-American sentiments in favor of tourism dollars.

The 2006 Arirang Festival (aka the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance, or the Mass Games) in Pyongyang is the impetus for this move, which already has hundreds of travelers booking tours north of the DMZ (demilitarized zone– the border between the Koreas). The festival is a massive show involving more than 100,000 men, women and children performing highly choreographed dance, martial arts and gymnastic routines.

The North Korean government has been producing Arirang since the 1940s, but 2002 was the first time they opened their borders to American travelers. That was the same year as dictator Kim Jong Il’s 60th birthday and also the period in which South Korea was hosting the World Cup match — the hope was to draw in visitors over the border, but since the invitation came only about a month before Arirang, turnout was quite low.

Arirang is a true spectacle of precise moves and choreography that can’t be compared with any other type of performance. The 100,000 athletes and artists perform in a stadium which seats 150,000, executing a series of precise calisthenics, including a complex routine of children flipping giant colored cards that display propaganda images.

All of this may seem overly extravagant for an impoverished country that relies on international aid to feed its population — over half of which is suffering from malnutrition. The children who have been chosen for the games train year round, and then perform twice a day for several weeks in a row, with no break.

North Korea Arirang“They’re thoroughly indoctrinated,” explains Tony Poe, who runs the family-owned Poe Travel in Little Rock. “It’s their lifelong dream to perform for the general. They’re absolutely perfectly trained in their synchronized choreography, and they think of themselves as a part of the group rather than individuals. It’s all part of the communist ideal in which a dictator is exerting complete control.”

Despite reservations that travelers may have over supporting this kind of event, the intent of producing this festival and inviting foreigners is clear. They’re doing it for the money,” explains Walter Keats, president of Asia Pacific Travel, a Chicago-area company that will be leading tour groups into North Korea this fall. “And that’s why we should be helping them. If you want a country to do legitimate business, well, tourism is just that. We need to be encouraging commercial activities.”

Tour packages to North Korea this fall don’t come cheaply, and American citizens are being charged a higher fee than any other country. Asia Pacific’s 12-day trip starting on August 19 costs $4,199 per person, including airfare, accommodations and first-class tickets to Arirang. San Francisco’s Geographic Expeditions, who sponsors trips in conjunction with the British tour company Koryo Tours, has already sold out their two August tours, and has added a third trip from September 2-12 for $5,190, not including airfare. And Poe Travel, working with a Beijing-based tour company, is charging $5,663 per person, not including airfare.

Potential travelers should be aware that for this price, you will not be getting five-star accommodations or fancy meals, and your can pretty much forget about shopping or exciting nightlife. Not to mention that amenities like clean water, medicine and even electricity are often in short supply.

Nor will it be a very relaxing trip. Visitors are expected to abide by all local customs and laws, which includes bowing to the statue of Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang. Interaction with the locals will be limited, at best. “Frankly you don’t get integrated,” says Keats bluntly. “This is one of the most tightly controlled societies in the world, so you won’t be mingling with the masses. People are so controlled that if you go on the street and talk to them — well, you can come back to your hotel, but that person may be contacted by security people. This is serious business.”

The tours all start in Beijing, which serves a two-fold purpose. One is to secure a visa to get into North Korea. But the other is to make sure each traveler is thoroughly briefed on how to behave while in the country. “You have to get rid of this rugged individualism garbage,” says Keats. “This is not a free and open society, and that’s what we have to be conscious of.”

All tour companies are including tickets to Arirang and sightseeing in Pyongyang, but each one has some variations in their itineraries that may appeal to different travelers. Geographic Expeditions is offering a privately chartered plane that takes members to Mount Paekdu and Mount Chilbo, where they will spend the night with a North Korean family. Asia Pacific will bring visitors to the DMZ to see South Korea from the “other” side, and Poe Travel will visit hot springs resort that is frequented by government officials.

All tour operators are working very closely with the North Korean government, so each itinerary will be strictly adhered to. Every group will have two English-speaking tour guides. Furthermore, “all of our interactions with the citizens will be coordinated and arranged by our hosts,” explains Poe. “And they will probably be watching each other as much as they’re watching us.”

Want more info on traveling in North Korea? Check out Inside North Korea: the Real-Life 1984.

By Sarika Chawla for