Dylan Harris, director of Lupine Travel, which specialises in holidays to unusual places like Iran, Chernobyl and Siberia. Dylan takes some time to talk to us about one of the most secretive destinations on Earth, North Korea.
Owner of UK-based Lupine Travel
Maz: North Korea has been in the news quite a bit recently,what’s going on?
Dylan: Whenever things seem to be settling down over there, something crops again! Just as all the fallout from the threats of nuclear strikes had died down, we then had a series of events from the arrest of Merrill Newman, the execution of Jang Song Thaek and now another visit from Dennis Rodman!
Maz: Is it safe to travel there?
Dylan: Despite the constant fear of North Korea put into everyone through the media coverage around the world, it still remains a perfectly safe place to visit. I have travelled extensively around the world and I believe North Korea is the safest country to travel to. You are there as a guest of the government and they try their best to give you a good impression of the country and the people. They are not in the habit of arresting people for no reason. Many people have a perception of it being unsafe because of the imbalanced media coverage. On average there is one foreigner arrested in North Korea each year. This must be the lowest arrest rate in the world for foreign citizens, yet each arrest makes the front pages. The only arrest of a tourist in recent times has been that of Merrill Newman, but that was an unusual case due to his history with the Korean War. If you stick to the guidelines we give prior to booking a tour, you'll be perfectly fine.
Maz: Why would I want to visit North Korea? Is it worth it? What is there to see or do?
Dylan: North Korea is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. It is like no other. It's like a 1940's totalitarian time capsule. Things are changing rapidly though. There is now a lot of money in Pyongyang and this is helping lead to the transition. Once this transition period is over and they are open to the outside world, there will never be a state like this again. The next few years are the last chance people will have to see something like this in action. A visit is more about the experience of being there rather than going to see specific sites. That said, there are several highlights of a trip: the Kumsusan Memorial Palace (with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il's bodies lying in state), the DMZ, the Metro and the Mass Games (a huge Summer event in the National stadium with over 100,000 performers).
Maz: Can I go where I want?
Dylan: Unfortunately not! You are accompanied by government guides at all times (they even stay in the same hotel as you!). They ensure you stick to a pre arranged itinerary and they don't let you leave their sight!Ok, you’ve convinced me.
Maz: What do I have to do to make this happen?
Dylan: The process is pretty simple and is done as follows:
send us a scanned copy of your passport and visa application form, at least two weeks in advance
book your flights to China and arrange your double entry Chinese visa (we provide the paperwork)
meet our reps in either Beijing or Dandong. We then collect your passports and pick up your North Korean visa. You are now ready to enter the DPRK!
Maz: Once I’m there,what can I expect to eat and drink?
Dylan: Plenty of kimchi (spiced cabbage) and local beer! Other than this you'll be served rice, soup and a variety of other dishes and meats. There are a few imported beers such as Heineken but the local beer is cheaper and very drinkable!
Maz: Can I bring some gifts? If so,what goes down well?
Dylan: Every male in North Korea smokes so Marlboros are always appreciated (although they prefer Western Marlboros rather than Chinese!). The women like chocolate and make up. It's also nice to brign a small memento from home.
Maz: What do you find is the highlight for most visitors?
Dylan: The highlight for those travelling Summer is certainly the Mass Games. At other times of year, the rare chance to interact with locals is usually the stand out part of the trip. Visiting an amusement park in the evening and mixing with the local children is a lot of fun. On my last trip to North Korea I shared a dodgem car with a NK schoolgirl and we spent 5 minutes chasing and ramming into a North Korean soldier who was also taking soem time out to enjoy the fair!
Maz: If I could see or experience only one thing during my stay, what would you recommend?
Dylan: The interaction with locals is essential and the one thing that will stay with you long after you visit.
Maz: What is a common souvenir most people bring back from a visit to North Korea?
Dylan: Kim Jong Il's autobiography is a clear winner! Pretty much everyone purcahses that. Postcards are also popular but my favourite souvenirs are the propaganda posters of which you can buy the original paintings.
Maz: Some commentators suggest by visiting North Korea, you are helping fund the Kim dynasty. Is this true? Does any money actually make its way into the people that need it?
Dylan: Clearly some money does go towards the Kim dynasty, that is unavoidable but you have to look at both the pros and cons. First of all, there are only a small amount of tourists travelling to North Korea each month. The money coming in this way is minute, and a drop in the ocean compared to all the Chinese investment taking place. Secondly, governemtns have refused to engage with North Korea for years. Sanctions have been in place for a long time. But what good has this done? It has not led to any change. I believe engagement is the only way forward. The more that locals meet and interact with foreigners, the more outside information they receive and the more aware they become. This can only help to facilitate positive change in the future, particularly as it is mainly the Pyongyang elite that tourists get the chance to mix with.
Maz: Any predictions what the future may hold for North Korea?
Dylan: It's hard to get a true picture of what is happening, but I believe there is major transition occuring at the moment. Investment is going to increase greatly over the next few years which will lead to much more openness within the next 5 years in my opinion.