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North Korea: How to be an obedient tourist in the DPRK

AMERICAN tourist Otto Warmbier’s tour to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea took a dark turn early last year, when he was arrested upon exit at the Pyongyang airport for having “committed a hostile act against the state”.

The then 21-year-old Virginia student had been on what is colloquially referred to as a “propaganda tour” of the highly isolated and repressed country, run by the Beijing-based “Young Pioneers Tours” travel agency. The group is just one of many designated agencies with licenses to offer packages to North Korea, tailor-made for the western visitor.

Fox News reports it is surprisingly simple for most tourists to obtain a visa to the dictatorship so long as they are on a pre-booked tour – except if you are a journalist – and thus in that case one is almost always prohibited from entry.

But before touching down in the capital Pyongyang, there is usually a debriefing with guides in Beijing and most agencies hand out something of a rule book, one of which was obtained by Fox News.

Entitled “Notes for Travellers,” the typically 10-page booklet cautions that the notes must be signed and read, but strictly not taken inside North Korea.

So what are some of the rules and guidelines to smooth sailing inside the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK)?

Upon arrival, one’s visa will be stamped and then registered with local authorities. The visitor’s passport is generally held until the day before departure.

It is “essential” to bring a torch, as areas outside Pyongyang are privy to frequent power cuts, as well as Imodium or charcoal tablets in case of unpleasant reactions to unfamiliar foods, digital camera memory as these cannot be bought and toilet paper/sanitising liquid as soap is not always available.

One is also advised to bring photos of home and family as “the guides like to see what the lives of their tourists are like” as well as gifts for the guides and driver – perhaps cigarettes or face cream, or something “typical to where you live.”

The DPRK holiday-maker is stringently cautioned to absolutely not bring books about the DPRK or the Korean Situation (that includes Lonely Planet) in addition to American flags, anything from South Korea, radios or clothes with political or coarse slogans (these will require translation). Religious material is also banned as “proselytising in the DPRK is an extremely serious offence,” and simply bringing a Bible or any religious symbols like crosses or messages could “cause huge problems for the guide and yourself.”

Also expect that when visiting the Mansudae Monument it is compulsory to bow to the statues of former dictators Kim II Sung and Kim Jong II, as well as their bodies at the Mausoleum. (They should be referred to only as President Kim II Sung and General Kim Jong II).

“If you are not willing to behave at some points as expected by the local customs then we recommend that you do not visit the DPRK,” the notes say in bold.

“The potential for offence to be taken by the hosts which then adversely affects the tour is too great.”

In terms of money, tourists are forbidden from using the local currency, won. Rather, they must use euros, American dollars or Chinese yuan.

There are no ATMs and credit cards and travellers checks are not used. However, there is little to buy inside aside from a few basic souvenirs such as postcards, stamps, T-shirts and traditional paintings.

The travel guidelines do counsel that the most frequent problem endured in the DPRK is stomach upset and that medical facilities in the country are extremely basic, with little equipment or medicines available. Those with rigorous Halal or Kosher dietary restrictions cannot be accommodated. And while Koreans do eat “dog meat” as a delicacy – it is, as a rule, not served to tourists.

As far as communications with outside existence goes, one is permitted to take their phone inside but the network coverage will not work. Rather, you will have to purchase a local SIM card and prepaid calling credit. You can then make and receive international calls (at a high cost, around $6.60 a minute and likely monitored by authorities) and can phone up any other foreigner in Pyongyang.

Nonetheless, you won’t be able to call your local guides as there are two “mutually exclusive” networks – one for locals, one for foreigners. It is not possible to make international calls from a landline outside the capital, and calls to South Korea will not be processed. There is no texting and 3G is not available to foreigners.

The tourist must also be extremely careful when taking photographs – nothing military, nothing reflecting poverty, shops or housing, no “every day” type photos and no snaps of your guide or locals without permission. This in itself could prompt the cancellation of the entire group’s tour, and the guide could face severe repercussions.

Furthermore, tour organisers must also be immediately advised in advance if any visitors are Korean War veterans given the ongoing sensitive nature of the issue. Nobody is allowed to leave the hotel unescorted, and any meet-ups with others there must take place in hotel confines.

It is also a requirement of tour groups for travellers to fill in a version of the “journalist and insurance contract” before flying in.

The laws of the DPRK outlaw journalists and photographers (even part time ones) from coming in on tourist visas, and thus travel agencies requests that such professions do not even attempt to apply for fear they will be put out of business should one slip through the cracks.

The tour organisers warn that they cannot allow the publishing of articles and photographs in the mainstream media, so anything beyond a Facebook post or personal blog submission could endanger other foreigners inside the country and result in the tour company losing its license to operate inside.

Not only must the DPRK-bound traveller agree not to breach these terms and conditions, or risk being held accountable to compensate the company for losses suffered, but they must additionally agree not to engage in any form or religious dissemination.

Trips typically range from a few days to over a week starting at a few thousand dollars, and come with names like the “Summer Holiday Tour,” the “Victory Day Long Tour,” the “Liberation Day Long Tour” and one can even run a marathon as part of the “Pyongyang Marathon Tour.”

Those willing to pay a whole lot more money can avoid the “group tour” and have a private tour arranged by an approval agency – but even those travelling alone must be accompanied by a minimum of two DPRK guides, appointed by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. It is not possible to travel there independently.

Despite all the rules and regulations, officials have declared their tourism program a success – and expect to attract more than two million visitors by the year 2020.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urges Australians to reconsider their need to travel to North Korea, “due to restrictions placed on foreigners and very different laws and regulations applying to behaviour, as well as intermittent DPRK threats against international interests”.

“Travel by Australians to the DPRK is uncommon and foreign visitors have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention,” DFAT says.

“Foreigners may be arrested, detained or expelled for activities that would not be considered crimes in Australia, including unsanctioned religious and political activities, unauthorised travel, or unwarranted interaction with local nationals.”

The department warns travellers should take care not to bring anything into the country that may be perceived by officials as religious, pornographic or political. It also notes that underground nuclear tests and ballistic missile tests carried out by the North Korean regime is “further aggravating the already tense situation on the [Korean] Peninsula”.

This article originally appeared on Fox News and was reproduced with permission.


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