Mostly—a North Korean tour guide explains.
Last week, a 21-year-old American college student was arrested while on a tour of North Korea. Otto Frederick Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, signed up to visit North Korea—officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK— with Young Pioneer Tours, one of several groups that organize trips for Westerners interested in the reclusive nation. Warmbier entered the county without incident, but on January 2nd, as the tour group was getting ready to fly out of Pyongyang, Warmbier was arrested for “hostile acts,” according to TIME.
The Korean Central News Agency reported that Warmbier was being questioned about “anti-state activity” and was accused of pretending to be a tourist with the “tacit connivance of the U.S. government” to enter North Korea “for the purpose of bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity.” Because the U.S. does not have a diplomatic relationship with North Korea, there are very few ways to negotiate Warmbier’s release. Still, as TIME reports, North Korea has lifted a six-month-long ban on tourism and the country is allegedly eager to welcome visitors. Since 2014, 100,000 visitors—mostly from China—have come to visit the hermit nation and North Korean officials say they want to expand that to one million tourists by 2017 and two million by 2020.
Despite North Korea’s claims that they want tourists, is it safe for westerners to travel there? To help answer that question, Travel + Leisure reached out to Kevin Callaghan, the President and CEO of Mountain Travel Sobek (MTS), a tour company that has lead tours in North Korea for four years.
“We never say anything is safe. Los Angeles isn’t safe, Brooklyn isn’t safe, something can go wrong anytime, any place,” said Callaghan. “What we’ve found in North Korea and Iran and Myanmar is that if we work with a proven tour operator who is known and vetted by the government and we abide by their rules, we have not had any problems whatsoever—not even minor detentions.” A little background on the process: Before tourists can visit North Korea, they must be approved for a visa, which Callaghan says can be challenging, as it frequently requires an in-depth background check. For those travelers who are able to attain a visa, flights to North Korea leave from Beijing’s Capital Airport.
Callaghan admits that as tour leaders, they can’t ensure that their clients won’t make a poor decision that will get them in trouble with local authorities. They can, however, do their best to make sure the people traveling with them have all the information they need to make the right choices. That’s why before embarking on a journey to North Korea, MTS makes sure that every traveler is aware of all the requirements for visiting the country, by handing out a comprehensive package of information dictating the government’s rules. Once in North Korea, the guides constantly monitor travelers to make sure that everyone is obeying the rules, whether reminding a harmless birder not to take photos or keeping boisterous twenty-something traveler’s behavior in check.
“Once we’re in-country, we’re very rigorous about adhering to our guides’ advice and direction and we make sure to enforce that with our clients,” he said. That means making sure that clients also follow the host country’s rules, no matter how ridiculous they might seem to a visitor. In North Korea that means staying with your group, not wandering around alone at night, not speaking to locals without a North Korean guide present, and not taking photos in certain places. “When you’re in a different country, you just have to play by their rules,” said Callaghan, which he admits can be a challenge for Americans who are used to “doing what they want when they want.”
“Often times when you hear of somebody being detained, we know exactly what they did wrong—they left a Bible, they tried to proselytize, they challenged a military person in an argument. You can’t do those things, and we count on people not to do that,” said Callaghan.
To help their clients have a successful trip, MTS sends an American guide with the group to help lead by example of appropriate behavior in North Korea. Having both North Korean and American monitors is undoubtedly a bit of a shock for Western tourists, but it’s a system that has allowed MTS to lead incident-free tours in places like Myanmar and Iran, which have not always been open to Western tourists.
MTS recently cancelled planned trips to Chad and the Sudan because they couldn’t rely on governmental stability and didn’t want to put clients at risk. “We’re pretty conservative,” said Callaghan. That said, they are still leading tours to North Korea, including one leaving on April 28th with another planned for September.
If you do want to travel to North Korea, Callaghan recommends looking for a very reliable, established tour operator, who has lead tours to North Korea before and can help clients navigate the visa process—and has testimonials from past clients to prove it.