American Travel to North Korea Remains Out of Bounds

Posted May 15, 2018 5:36 p.m. EDT

In September, the United States barred American travelers from visiting North Korea.

But a perceived thaw in relations after the release of three Americans imprisoned in North Korea and news of negotiations for a meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, has revived industry hopes for a travel rapprochement.

The ban followed the death in June of Otto F. Warmbier, an American student who was jailed in North Korea for trying to steal a political poster from his hotel in Pyongyang.

Since then, tour operators that specialize in North Korea stopped taking Americans to the country.

Before that, Americans made up 20 percent of the western visitors that Koryo Tours took to North Korea, according to Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo. “The fact that it is a place endlessly reported on and so little-known is the attraction for most visitors,” Cockerell wrote in an email.

The Mir Corp., a tour operator based in Seattle, has led North Korea trips before, but a company spokesman said that the company will be “waiting and watching” until the government rescinds the ban.

Previously, Americans were required to travel in a group with North Korean guides and very detailed itineraries. Those restrictions make it very hard to do what most global travel operators promise: authentic immersion.

Edward Piegza, president and founder of Classic Journeys, said in an email, “Our approach to travel, which is focused on immersing travelers into the people and culture of a country in order to provide meaningful engagement with locals, matches very well with a ‘Voice of America, boots on the ground’ sort of diplomacy that could be possible in the wake of a possible thaw in relations between the U.S. and North Korea.”

North Korea has shown no willingness to loosen the rules on inbound travelers, however.

“Those going there accept the fact that there are a lot of restrictions, that they will have only a few questions truly answered, that it is frustrating, complicated, etc., and go there open-minded and ready to try to experience whatever they can in the time they have allowed themselves,” Cockerell said.

Through Koryo, Wendy Simmons, a New Orleans-based marketing executive and writer, went to North Korea in 2016 and was accompanied throughout her trip, including visits to the bathroom, by guides.

She returned home to write the book “My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth.”

“It’s a chance to go to a place that’s not fallen under American and European influence, so if it becomes safe again I’d go,” Simmons said.

Tim Neville, a correspondent for Outside magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, went to North Korea in 2014 to report on its first ski area. Like Simmons, he booked his trip through Koryo and was accompanied throughout his stay by guides.

“In a world of absolute peace where none of the politics exist, absolutely it would be a great destination,” Neville said. “It has a fantastic coastline. Something like 70 percent of country is mountainous. It’s very rugged. The hiking would be fantastic.”

For now, South Korea, after hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, may be the beneficiary of increased attention to the peninsula.

According to the Korean Tourism Organization, based in Los Angeles, 869,000 Americans visited South Korea in 2017, up slightly from 866,000 in 2016. As relations have improved between the two Koreas, and North Korea has said it has stopped its nuclear tests, the tourism agency aims to attract 1 million Americans annually in the next two years.

“It’s the most underrated destination in Asia right now, like Japan was a decade or two ago,” said Michael Holtz, founder and chief executive of SmartFlyer, a travel agency based in New York. He recommends clients add a stopover in Seoul en route to other Asian destinations such as Cambodia or Thailand.

In addition to being a great value and easy to reach through numerous trans-Pacific flights, he added, “it has pop culture, great food, fantastic night life and it’s very stylish.”

Proximity is also an attraction. According to Heesun Kim, the executive director of the South Korea tourism board, traveling to the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea, where the leaders of the two countries recently met, is the most popular day trip in South Korea for foreign visitors.