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LAST WORD: Next Stop, Pyongyang?
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Next Stop: Pyongyang?

By Tracy Hall


BT 201604 240 03 Last WordIs it really worth paying well over a thousand U.S. dollars for a few days in a poverty stricken, totalitarian hellhole? Surprisingly, it really depends who you ask. This once completely closed off hermit state now allows a certain amount of tourists, traders and diplomats in. Those who are brave enough to book a plane or train ticket into North Korea are treated to heavy surveillance guided tours. During a stay in and around the capital city of Pyongyang one can expect to see the finest sights the country has to offer, ranging from beautiful landscapes to a vast array of propagandistic monuments which are dedicated to past and present members of the 'Kim Dynasty'.


Admittedly the thought of getting a first-hand glimpse into the internal workings of a real life Orwellian 1984 society is quite enticing. We hear so much about North Korea in the media that there is a natural tendency to be intrigued by it. For the swarms of Chinese tourists who flock to Pyongyang every week there is another reason to visit. A Chinese friend who recently spent a five-day vacation in North Korea with her mother summed up the sentiment: "My family want me to go there so I can get an insight into what my own country used to be like, so I can appreciate the prosperity that we have today".


The brave Westerners who dare to enter there usually have different motives. Some of them simply want to gain some bragging rights for when they go home and tell their friends in the pub on a Saturday evening. Others are fascinated by the history of Communism around the world. A few presumably just want to see what all the fuss is about and want to know whether North Korean society really is as whacky as it is portrayed in the Western media.

BT 201604 240 04 Last Word
All of these aforementioned motives are perfectly valid ones; after all we are an adventure seeking species that takes great pleasure in exploring new places and we want to stand out from all of the regular folk who spend their summer vacations in what are considered to be ordinary locations. Still, one has to wonder whether visiting North Korea is actually worthwhile. Above all else it is a very risky endeavour for those who wish to preserve their liberty. Every year we hear at least two or three stories about Western tourists being accused of disrespecting local customs, vandalising property or shouting obscenities about the Kim family. Then it is usually a case of being thrown into horrific concentration camps for years on end without any trial ever taking place.


One of the latest such stories to hit the headlines was reported on CNN like this: "North Korea has sentenced an American student to 15 years of hard labour after accusing him of removing a political banner from a hotel". It has been reported by the North Korean news agencies that Otto Frederick Warmbier was visiting the country on a "mission to destroy the country's unity". How he was planning to do that exactly is still unclear. The likelihood is that he is simply the latest victim of a deliberate targeting of foreign tourists, particularly Americans, so that the North Korean government can set an example and show their citizens that they still have the upper hand over foreign invaders.


After reading about that and the many other stories about foreigners who have spent years being detained by the North Korean authorities for alleged misdemeanours committed during their short visit to the isolated country, it is hard to believe anyone in their right mind would ever dream of taking such huge a gamble by going there on holiday. It's not even as if there are many beautiful beaches to chill out on, any wild nightlife to be had or much in the way of tapping into the local culture beyond the overseen interactions foreign visitors have with tour guides and hotel staff. The vast majority of reports from people who have visited North Korea as part of a tour group mention terrible food, bad service, pollution, dull architecture and constantly being accompanied by armed personnel who tell you when you can eat, drink, use the toilet and sleep. Any photography or video footage obtained during the trip has to be approved by airport officials upon leaving the country. Basically, even if it doesn't end with a lengthy sentence in a nightmarish labour camp, it is still a holiday from hell by most sane people's standards.


BT 201604 240 01 Last WordFinally, the cost of a short trip to North Korea puts the icing on a rather unappetising cake. After a brief browse of different tour packages, most of which are operated by Chinese firms these days it seems, the most rock bottom price on the market for a basic few days all-inclusive trip to Pyongyang is about 1,000 USD (6,400 CNY). That package presumably only gets you the very basic essentials you need: visa assistance, return flights from Beijing, a tacky hotel to stay in, a tour guide and three less than exquisite meals per day. If you want to have any little luxuries during your stay then that will undoubtedly bump the price up by a substantial amount.


If you've got money to burn and you are hell bent on having that kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience, then blowing a 1,000 or so dollars on a North Korea vacation might not be such a big deal. However, when you consider the fact that for the same price or a little bit more savvy holidaymakers could spend a couple of weeks living it up on a beach in Thailand or go backpacking in Malaysia, it really does make you wonder why anyone thinks it is worth the money (and the risk of being tortured every day for a decade or so in a North Korean concentration camp).


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