North Korea’s tourism door is open, if you dare

By Josh Noel

Chicago Tribune

Would you go to North Korea?

I’ve been asking that question lately, and the answer is largely “no.”

I follow the question with another: Did you know that American citizens are free to go to North Korea?

That also is generally followed with a “no.”

Believe it: Despite the Sony email hacks and the country’s membership in the former president’s “axis of evil,” Americans can legally travel to North Korea. It is perhaps as nichey as niche travel gets, but New Jersey-based Uri Tours ( leads two or three visits there per month.

Yes, there is a current U.S. State Department travel advisory, which includes a rather sobering warning: “U.S. citizen tourists have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention. North Korean authorities have arrested U.S. citizens who entered the DPRK legally on valid DPRK visas as well as U.S. citizens who accidentally crossed into DPRK territory.”

OK. That’s a problem. But it doesn’t stop Uri, whose trips include weekend visits to Pyongyang, trips to the country’s rugged east coast and opportunities you might expect more readily in, say, Colorado: a marathon, a ski tour and something called the “Beer, Fishing, Boats and Guns Tour.” Though loaded with restrictions, traveling to North Korea remains eminently attainable for most Americans.

“No matter how much North Korea is in the news, and no matter what the content is, it piques people’s interest about going there,” said Andrea Lee, chief executive officer of Uri Tours (a company her father started). “Of course we also have a lot of people who say they would never go.”

The resistance is easy to understand. North Korea is among the world’s most repressive regimes. Its nuclear program is a vaguely looming threat. And there is that State Department warning.

But follow the rules, Lee said, and a problem is unlikely. The rules are quite stringent and unfathomable in most places: Go nowhere without a North Korean tour guide. Don’t take photos of soldiers. Don’t proselytize (an Ohio man was detained for leaving a Bible behind). Even attempting to talk with locals has been called into question, but Lee said that prohibition is overstated.

Lee said there is no reason to expect to be spied on while visiting the country.

“They probably have the capabilities to intrude on your privacy if they have a reason to, but for the vast number of people who visit, they’ve got nothing of interest to any government,” she said. “It’s a safe country — probably one of the safest.”

Lee said that Uri (which means “our” in Korean) has had success with the North Korean government when trying to create new and unique tours and that the company is always trying to “push the boundaries a bit.” She cited as an example the sports-oriented tours.

“That’s where you really get to interact with people and you don’t need language to do it,” Lee said. “You just meet local people who have the same interest as you, whether it’s running or skiing or biking.”

John Massaro, 61, of Amityville, N.Y., said he’d visited 90 countries before touring North Korea in August 2013. It was “the only trip I ever made that I’d consider a life-changing experience,” he said. He’s trying to go back as a tour guide with a company he created, Orinoco Travel ( (No one has signed up, but the late summer tour would be run in conjunction with Chinese-based Young Pioneer Tours —

“It was bizarre and surreal,” Massaro said. “The first morning I woke up, I looked out the window of the hotel, and there was mist over the river and loudspeakers a mile away. I had no idea what they were saying, but it sounded like propaganda blaring through the city.”

He said that he appeared on a Boston radio show to discuss his business and that all four callers were hostile.

“One guy said the only way he was going to North Korea was on an Air Force plane loaded with bombs,” Massaro said. “Another asked how could I lend credibility to North Korea like that?”

He said he intends to do no such thing. Rather, Massaro said, he wants to provide a cultural experience for people on both sides.

“I do not defend the regime — it’s really harsh and oppressive, and I’m no champion of what goes on over there,” he said. “I would say the people in the tourist industry there are the happiest people in North Korea. Just to get some exposure to the outside world, they’re so happy. And the money we pay is supporting these people’s occupations.”

I understand why someone would hesitate to visit North Korea. But I wouldn’t.