Is North Korea safe for African tourists

For surfing to North Korea

Markos Kern was in North Korea for the first time in June 2015. As a participant in an organized group trip. He really wanted to go, he says, wanted to get a picture of the country with his own eyes, about which one hears so many bad things. Traveling to unusual destinations, too, is part of life for him, says the 33-year-old about himself. But the reactions of those around him to this special travel destination were not all positive. "Then the question immediately came up: How can you do something like that? You're just playing the guide in the cards: They want tourism, want foreign currency. And every dollar you spend there benefits a regime that tortures."

Here, at Pyongyang Airport, the North Korean experience begins for tourists - the new airport opened in spring 2015

Of course, he also thought about the human rights situation. You couldn't ignore it. "But we also trade with other countries where bad things happen. And I don't know anyone who says: I'm not going to China because human rights are being violated there." Markos Kern decided to drive - with the intention of breaking off the trip in case of doubt, if he had the feeling that he was being instrumentalized or that he had come to a point where he would have had ethical concerns.

Packed by the country and its people

Organizing the trip was very easy, he got a visa within a few days, reports Kern, who runs his own management consultancy in Munich. "I found North Korea to be very pleasant. It was extremely attractive to me because it is very different from everything we know." The country and its people fascinated Kern - even if he only got to see a small and controlled excerpt: Because tourism in North Korea cannot be compared with traveling to other countries. The guests are always accompanied by a guide and cannot move around the country alone.

Markos Kern has already been to North Korea three times in the past year and a half - and the next trip is soon to come

Contact with North Koreans - exactly what was of particular interest to Markos Kern - was only possible on a small scale. "As a normal tourist you know your guides and maybe speak briefly here and there with a waitress or the receptionist. But there are actually very few situations in which you can get in touch with people."

Providers rely on good preparation and rules of behavior

Kern traveled with the US tour operator Uri Tours. The company that has specialized in North Korea tourism has existed for 15 years. "We offer fully organized trips from Beijing or Shanghai. Our offers range from day trips to 2-week trips," explains co-founder and director Andrea Lee. And unusual things can also be booked through Uri Tours: participation in the annual Pyongyang marathon, for example. Very important: Before the trip, the participants are fully informed about customs and rules that they must adhere to. "The tourists always have to stay with their local guides, they are not allowed to leave the hotel alone or take photos of the military, for example," says Lee.

And: It is also forbidden to take cropped photos of members of the Kim family, reports Rubio Chan. He also offers trips to North Korea and founded the Hong Kong-based company "Eastern Vision" together with a partner in 2013. And attaches great importance to the most comprehensive possible preparation. "Our team informs the guests about current political and social developments in the country." Chan and his staff have brought around 300 guests to North Korea so far. As with Uri Tours, the target group is primarily young people.

It is strictly forbidden to take cropped photos of the late rulers of North Korea, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il

"Our offers should go in-depth," says Chan. For example, visits to secondary schools and universities are on the program, where the participants can also talk to students. "There is also the opportunity to help farmers with the harvest or to visit a water bottle factory. We just want to give our customers the best possible impression of this country."

The question of security

Both Rubio Chan and Andrea Lee emphasize that North Korea is a safe country to travel to. "As long as the tourists stick to the rules, they won't get into trouble," says Lee. Safety is a top priority. "We are always in close contact with our liaison people in the country." Chan also says that nothing has ever happened to a guest of "Eastern Vision" in North Korea. "Should such a case arise, we would fall back on every possible support from local embassies on site."

The Masik-Ryong ski area is the only one of its kind in North Korea - the management's ambitious prestige project opened a good two years ago

Most of Uri Tours' customers are from the United States. The government in Washington, however, is critical of North Korea tourism. "The US State Department strongly advises all US citizens against traveling to North Korea." It says so on the State Department's website. The entry is from November 20, 2015. "Foreign visitors can be arrested or deported in North Korea - for things that would not be considered criminal acts in other countries," it says.

No American tourist is safe in the country, not even as a member of an organized group tour. "Do not think that membership in a tour group or a guide can protect you and prevent the North Korean authorities from arresting you. Attempts by private providers to prevent or broker arrests have not been successful and have not resulted in your release."

The ski area was built according to international standards, has nine slopes and various lifts

Foreign citizens as a bargaining chip

A few months later - on January 22nd - it became known that another American had been arrested in Pyongyang. It is said that the student from Virginia who had entered the country on a tourist visa was accused of "acts against the state". In recent years, foreigners have been repeatedly imprisoned and sentenced to long prison terms, but then released after consideration by foreign governments or after mediation by high-ranking politicians. For example, ex-US President Bill Clinton traveled to North Korea in 2009 to have two US journalists released.

Despite such reports, Western tourists are drawn to North Korea every year. It should be several thousand, there are no official figures. Of course, travel agents are closely following the reports from North Korea. Rubio Chan also heard about the arrest of the US student. "But the circumstances in this case are still very unclear, so I can not say more about it. When foreigners are arrested, it is usually a case of breaking taboos, for example tearing up visa papers in front of someone North Korean officials. "

Surfing and skiing in a secluded country

The luxury ski area is in stark contrast to the reports of poverty, hunger or human rights violations in North Korea

Markos Kern is not afraid of such reports. "Personally, I have no safety concerns. You just have to know the rules and stick to them." For the German, the North Korea trip in the summer of 2015 was such a formative experience that he has been to North Korea two more times since then. No longer as a normal tourist - but as a partner of Uri Tours. His management consultancy is now working with the US company to develop two new branches of tourism and make them known: It's about surfing on the east coast and skiing in the only North Korean luxury ski resort on Masik Pass.

Several trips to the sea and in the snow are part of the Uri Tours program this year. And on these tours - says Markos Kern - there are exactly the opportunities to come into contact with the population that he has wished for. Because not only foreign tourists can take part, but also locals - and the people were enthusiastic. "When surfing you are always together in the water for several hours, and even if there is a language barrier, there is still a certain kind of interpersonal contact." The constant support from the North Korean side was also virtually eliminated. Just like skiing at the Masik Pass. "This is a very large ski resort and it is used completely by the locals. When you are on a slope like this, the regulations become noticeably looser."

  • Surfin 'North Korea

    Basics for surf enthusiasts

    Images that were previously unknown from North Korea: A surfing course off the east coast of the country. Participants: Foreign tourists and interested parties from the local population. The unusual project is an initiative of the American travel company Uri Tours - together with the German management consultant Markos Kern.

  • Surfin 'North Korea

    Niche tourism with government approval

    Could North Korea become an insider tip for surfers? This is what the organizers hope for. In a first surf camp in 2015, the water and wind conditions were to be tested. Like all tourist programs, this one had to be approved in advance by the North Korean leadership.

  • Surfin 'North Korea

    Completely new experience

    This woman is obviously enjoying the surf course. Even if the technology doesn't quite work out yet. In the water it was possible to communicate directly with the local population. Even the officials who usually accompany tourist groups were not there in the waves, says Markos Kern.

  • Surfin 'North Korea

    Dry runs on the beach

    Before going into the water, the participants have to warm up. According to the organizers, the climatic conditions on the North Korean east coast are so suitable that travel dates will be offered all year round in the future.

  • Surfin 'North Korea

    Board diplomacy?

    Surfing as an instrument of international understanding? Markos Kern says: Yes. He sees tourism as an opportunity: "In my opinion, this is a great way to break down barriers, in both directions. When tourists meet locals and vice versa - it can help to reduce fears."

    Author: Esther Felden

A matter of conscience

Why North Korea? What does tourism bring - for the country, the tourists, the tour operator? And is it ethically justifiable to offer tours to the isolated kingdom of Kim Jong Us?

Andrea Lee and Rubio Chan come to an unequivocal answer. "We firmly believe that tourism can build greater mutual understanding and peace between North Korea and the international community," said Lee. And Chan believes that it is only through direct contact with citizens that mutual fears and prejudices can be reduced. Isolation does not help North Korea in the long run, he says. It's about exchange. "That is one of the reasons why we organize trips to North Korea."