Visiting North Korea

By Albert Podell
This item appears on page 32 of the July 2015 issue.
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Orphans performing a play in Pyongyang. Most North Koreans are too poor to adopt a child. Photo by Albert Podell

Of all the countries I’ve visited (and, as of 2014, I’ve traveled to all of them), people are most amazed to hear that I’ve been to North Korea, but visiting North Korea is not that difficult. 

The US doesn’t bar its citizens from going there, although it certainly doesn’t recommend it. And the North Korean government, though it openly denounces America, loves our dollars, desperately needs the hard currency and is happy to have us take any of the tours they permit foreign tour operators to offer, 

When I went there in August 2010, I had to book my tour through a secretive agency in Barcelona, Spain, but now you can sometimes even find tours to North Korea advertised in ITN.

Buying the tour doesn’t guarantee you a visa, however. Ever wary, the North Koreans will not grant visas to journalists, authors, political agitators, religious proselytizers and others they regard as undesirable.

My friends and I were instructed to fly to Beijing and go to the embassy of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the name they prefer) the day before our tour was scheduled to leave in order to find out if we had been granted visas and would be allowed to fly to Pyongyang. Our group did make the cut, but fewer than 2,000 Americans have made the trip since the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. 

When I went, tours to North Korea could cost up to a thousand dollars a day per person. Now tours are much less expensive, and the potential traveler is no longer kept in suspense about his visa until the last day*.

Albert Podell shared a moment of camaraderie with a North Korean army officer at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

I strongly recommend visiting North Korea for a fascinating look at another world. Nowhere else on Earth will you find such political rigidity, paranoia, xenophobia, rabid anti-American propaganda, grandiose monuments and unused superhighways plus a brainwashed population with no freedoms, religions, computers, Internet or spare money and with barely enough food to eat.

Most of my friends cannot imagine why anyone would want to go there, but be honest. If you could take a peek at Hell for a few days without being burned, wouldn’t you be curious enough to do it? I was.

ALBERT PODELL

New York, NY

*For one tour operator’s input on what tour members to North Korea have experienced recently regarding visas, ITN asked Douglas Grimes, the founder and president of MIR Corporation (Seattle, WA), to comment on Mr. Podell’s letter. He wrote the following on Jan. 29, 2015: “I have made three trips with our groups to the DPRK in the last year and a half, and each time I was able to know in advance of travel the approval status of the visas. We are usually able to find out three to four weeks prior to the departure. As of this writing, we have not had any of our group members not approved.”

In October 2014, as a precaution against the spread of the ebola epidemic, North Korea banned tourists from entering the country (April ’15, pg. 4). On March 3, it reopened its borders and began accepting tourist visa applications again.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
Orphans performing a play in Pyongyang. Most North Koreans are too poor to adopt a child. Photo by Albert Podell

Of all the countries I’ve visited (and, as of 2014, I’ve traveled to all of them), people are most amazed to hear that I’ve been to North Korea, but visiting North Korea is not that difficult. 

The US doesn’t bar its citizens from going there, although it certainly doesn’t recommend it. And the North Korean government, though it openly denounces America, loves our dollars, desperately needs the hard currency and is happy to have us take any of the tours they permit foreign tour operators to offer, 

When I went there in August 2010, I had to book my tour through a secretive agency in Barcelona, Spain, but now you can sometimes even find tours to North Korea advertised in ITN.

Buying the tour doesn’t guarantee you a visa, however. Ever wary, the North Koreans will not grant visas to journalists, authors, political agitators, religious proselytizers and others they regard as undesirable.

My friends and I were instructed to fly to Beijing and go to the embassy of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the name they prefer) the day before our tour was scheduled to leave in order to find out if we had been granted visas and would be allowed to fly to Pyongyang. Our group did make the cut, but fewer than 2,000 Americans have made the trip since the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953. 

When I went, tours to North Korea could cost up to a thousand dollars a day per person. Now tours are much less expensive, and the potential traveler is no longer kept in suspense about his visa until the last day*.

Albert Podell shared a moment of camaraderie with a North Korean army officer at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea.

I strongly recommend visiting North Korea for a fascinating look at another world. Nowhere else on Earth will you find such political rigidity, paranoia, xenophobia, rabid anti-American propaganda, grandiose monuments and unused superhighways plus a brainwashed population with no freedoms, religions, computers, Internet or spare money and with barely enough food to eat.

Most of my friends cannot imagine why anyone would want to go there, but be honest. If you could take a peek at Hell for a few days without being burned, wouldn’t you be curious enough to do it? I was.

ALBERT PODELL

New York, NY

*For one tour operator’s input on what tour members to North Korea have experienced recently regarding visas, ITN asked Douglas Grimes, the founder and president of MIR Corporation (Seattle, WA), to comment on Mr. Podell’s letter. He wrote the following on Jan. 29, 2015: “I have made three trips with our groups to the DPRK in the last year and a half, and each time I was able to know in advance of travel the approval status of the visas. We are usually able to find out three to four weeks prior to the departure. As of this writing, we have not had any of our group members not approved.”

In October 2014, as a precaution against the spread of the ebola epidemic, North Korea banned tourists from entering the country (April ’15, pg. 4). On March 3, it reopened its borders and began accepting tourist visa applications again.