The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Welcome to Lenin Disney: North Korea’s otherworldly tourism experience

A British tourist finds empty halls and endless propaganda in Pyongyang. (Thomas Bailey)

The surreality of visiting North Korea begins at customs. Officials in full military dress -- and there are a lot of them, judging by this clandestine video shot by a Canadian tourist -- announce that anyone carrying a cell phone must surrender it, to be returned on leaving. The experience gets weirder from there, based on the numerous travelogues and reports that have emerged since the country lifted many of its restrictions on American tourists in 2010.

Tourism is an opportunity for North Korea, which badly needs the hard currency it requires all visitors to spend in surprisingly large sums: small groups can expect to spend 250 euros ($325) per person per day, larger groups 150 euros, or $195. (For comparison, the average annual North Korean wage is thought to be equivalent to about 50 euros, or $65, with black market income maybe tripling that.) It’s also an opportunity for outsiders to glimpse inside one of the most secretive societies in the world.

Tourists, whose experience is tightly controlled from beginning to end, don’t get to see the “real” North Korea so much as a series of propagandistic showpieces. That elaborate show, though often frustrating and drab, can be revealing in itself. But the wide divergence in what people seem to believe they’ve learned on their travels to North Korea -- two people on near-identical trips a few months apart might come away with near-polar opposite understandings of the country -- is a reminder of the country’s practiced skill in inscrutability.

Traveling to North Korea begins with one of a handful of travel agencies, often based in Beijing. This is where you’ll find your first disappointment: your visa will be handed to you in a separate “tourist card,” rather than stamped into your passport. North Korea’s tourism industry isn’t much, but it has long drawn predominantly from travelers in neighboring China; the Chinese yuan and the euro are the only two accepted currencies, and you don’t get change.

North Korea this week is seeking to expand that currency inflow with an economic summit in China’s neighboring Liaoning Province to discuss, among other things, tourism. The North Korean government probably isn’t about to hold a tourism fair in, say, London or New York, but Simon Cockerell with Koryo Tours, probably the best-known company bringing Westerners into the Hermit Kingdom, says that Western tourism is increasing.

Pyongyang doesn't release official statistics, but Cockerell says his company brings in 2,000 visitors a year, which he estimates make up about half of the non-Chinese tourists. These numbers have doubled in the last four years, he says, with the number of American tourists increasing by three- or four-fold since North Korea lifted most of its restrictions on U.S. citizens in early 2010. Before then, Americans could visit only Pyongyang and only during the annual "mass games."

Your journey behind the last fold of the Iron Curtain begins, upon landing, with greeting your two tour guides (there are two so they can watch you and one another). They will be with you every moment that you’re outside your hotel. The Lonely Planet guide to Korea -- which now includes a section on the North to serve interested Westerners -- warns, “A trip here is strictly on the government’s terms … it’s essential to accept that you’ll have no independence during your trip.” Your guides will do a great job extolling the virtues of North Korea’s ideology and leaders while on long bus rides between official monuments, feeding you lots of “fairly mediocre” food and preventing you from experiencing much else.

Though The Washington Post’s Keith Richburg last year visited the newly developed “resort” at Mount Kumgang (which was jointly developed with the South until Seoul pulled out after a Northern soldier shot a 53-year-old Southern tourist who’d wandered too far), foreign tours largely emphasize Pyongyang. The relatively gleaming capital, held up as the height of modernity, is largely populated by enormous steel and concrete monuments and by the most loyal members of the country’s “core” class, hand-picked to live there.

“There is a semblance of normality surviving in the capital. You just have to look for it,” Lonely Planet advises. But normality is not what most visitors have reported seeing.

“The streets were drab and very empty,” Emil Kaminski, a Canadian videographer who posted his 2011 North Korea travelogue to YouTube, said of the showcase capital. “Pyongyang feels like a shabby communist theme park, a sort of Lenin Land, but Lenin Land at closing time with only a few guests wandering the streets and the lights going out.” Some travelers describe visiting shops they’re told are normal North Korean stores but appear to be part of the elaborate show: the tour group will be the only visitors, and the shopkeeper often turns the lights off as soon as they leave.

Don’t expect to spend much time interacting with North Koreans who haven’t been specially prepped and vetted for dealing with outsiders, and don’t expect to convert anyone to liberal capitalist democracy.

“By all means smile and say ‘hello’ to people you see on the street, as North Koreans have been instructed to give foreigners a warm welcome, but don’t take photos of people without their permission,” the book warns. “Personal relationship with North Koreans who are not your tour guides or business colleagues will be impossible.”

North Korea experts who had visited the country many times backed this up. “It is virtually impossible to gain direct interaction with the North Korean people unmediated by the state,” Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations told me.

Depressing though the stage piece that is official Pyongyang may be, visiting it can also be illuminating, in its own way. Robert Kelly, an associate professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University who wrote up his September visit to a North he’d long studied, describes his revelation that the “dilapidated” country, long described as everything from communist to ultra-Confucian to fascist, was in fact “a royalist, absolutist cult,” with worship of founding leader Kim Il Sung and his two successors, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Eun, reaching the point of “deification.”

But Kelly’s impressions are far from universal among Western visitors. Both experienced Pyongyang-watchers and everyday tourists seem to come away with reactions so starkly conflicting that you have to wonder just how much anyone can really learn from being corralled around Pyongyang monuments by government minders.

Also in September, a fellow at the New American Foundation named Parag Khanna beamed in a article that the North Korea he’d seen on his own “promising” trip “feels on the cusp of a new phase.” Khanna’s North Korean tour, though likely quite similar to Kelly’s, left him with an entirely different impression. “As one wanders through lively street arcades full of roller-skaters and volleyball games, one has to hope that Confucian communism can make enough space for capitalism.” (Kelly posted a “flabbergasted” response.)

Few Western visitors to North Korea seem to come away having seen the same place. Kaminski, the travel videographer who also took a similar tour, portrayed the country as an Orwellian dystopia, alternatively mocking and pitying its clueless inhabitants. A Der Spiegel writer just last week reported that “the pull of globalization has reached even the world's last Stalinist holdout. And now that a little money has reached the country, it is clearly beginning to corrupt socialist ideals.” (Some scholars argue that market liberalization would not necessarily mean the end of the North Korean system, which they say appears more based in ethnic nationalism than socialism.)

A British tourist named Thomas Bailey, who kindly agreed to let me publish some of his photos from his visit this summer, posted some positive impressions on Reddit. “I honestly thought I was going to arrive in some grubby little city where they had barely broken into the modern age and where everyone is miserable. But from what I saw (and I can't assert that I saw everything or everyone) they seemed pretty happy,” he wrote. “I can only suggest that people go to North Korea and judge for themselves rather than take my word for it.”

But should they? For all the fascinating otherworldliness that seems to come with touring this parallel universe of propaganda and concrete, visitors don’t seem to get much more than an elaborate fiction staged with Pyongyang’s barren streets and ghostly towers as the backdrop. Maybe that has value in itself, and maybe some people can find ways to peek behind it into the “real” North Korea, but the country is after all uniquely talented at deceiving its inhabitants and confusing its outside observers. In any case, the trip doesn’t sound particularly fun.

Check back in on Wednesday, when we’ll tour Pyongyang’s two major tourist hotels, one a national boondoggle and the other known for its mysterious “hidden floor.” On Thursday, we’ll explore the ethical questions about touring North Korea and what they say about the world’s struggles to understand the Hermit Kingdom.