It’s the kind of publicity that would seemingly scare off sightseers: A trio of U.S. citizens detained in North Korea pleading for help last week in brief, rarely granted media interviews.
Yet even as the ordeal for the men, who had gone to the reclusive communist outpost with tour groups, drags on — and as the U.S. strongly warns Americans against visiting — North Korea is making a push for more Western tourists.
And more are visiting.
In April, North Korea allowed foreign runners to join the annual marathon in the capital, Pyongyang, for the first time. In July, it resumed domestic flights to three cities, easing mobility for overseas visitors. The nation also opened the Masik Pass ski area, billed as the “most exotic ski resort on Earth.” And for those who prefer sand, the country now offers surfing tours along the east coast.
Last week, North Korea staged an international wrestling tournament featuring several Americans; rapper Pras Michel, best known as a member of the Fugees, attended as a spectator. A CNN crew in town to cover the event interviewed the three American detainees.
The brief appearances shed little light on exactly what the three Americans did to end up in North Korean custody. But in at least two of the cases, religious activities seem to have played a part.
Kenneth Bae, who has been held since November 2012 and is serving a sentence of 15 years of hard labor, is believed to have used his visit as a cover for Christian missionary work. Jeffrey Fowle reportedly was arrested for leaving a Bible in a restroom.
North Korea says Matthew Todd Miller tore up his visa upon arrival and asked for asylum. Associated Press reported Sunday that Miller had been tried but provided no details on the charges or results.
Western tourism to North Korea began to increase around 2009, and travel agencies estimate there are now 4,000 to 6,000 visitors a year. The United States does not forbid travel to North Korea, but the State Department “strongly recommends” against it. The advisory was strengthened after Miller was detained in April.
But such warnings may increase the appeal for adventure seekers.
“This idea of a country that no one is really allowed to visit always fascinated me,” said Culver City resident Cyrus Kirkpatrick, 27, who has gone to North Korea twice, most recently in 2013.
Neighboring China sends the most tourists to North Korea: 237,000 visited in 2012. Because of the historically close relationship between the two countries, Chinese nationals have a comparatively easy time entering. A new tourist bus route opened in August between Yanji, China, and Rason, North Korea.
North Korea seems intent on putting its best foot forward for visitors, but it is still not a relaxing or luxurious vacation destination. Dining is typically limited to basic Korean dishes and accommodations are generally no-frills.
All tours are prearranged and tightly controlled, so visitors don’t have the chance to explore on their own. In 2008, a North Korean soldier gunned down a 53-year-old female South Korean tourist who allegedly wandered into a military area.
Typical itineraries center on Pyongyang, with multiple stops at monuments glorifying North Korea’s ruling dynasty, notably Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed corpses of leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are displayed. Many tours also visit Kaesong, an hour north of the South Korean border, home to a museum and a light industrial complex shared by North and South Korea.
Western visitors must book their tours through an accredited company and be accompanied at all times by foreign and North Korean guides.
Between 2006 and 2012, Walter Keats led dozens of tours as president of Asia Pacific Travel. By 2012, after building trust with North Korean officials, Keats and his wife were permitted to lead groups year-round.
Then, without explanation, Keats and his wife were denied entry. He believes his blacklisting was punishment for organizing a tour for Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford University who was doing research for “The Orphan Master’s Son,” a novel set in North Korea that was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The book contains an irreverent portrayal of the late leader Kim Jong Il, which may have upset the North Korean government.
“The way the [North Korean] system works, somebody has to get punished for any kind of transgression that takes place,” Keats said.
Johnson said he has no way of knowing whether his novel was the cause of Keats’ banishment. “I truly hope not. From my sense of it, everyone who deals with them eventually gets burned,” he said in an email.
Many Westerners who visit North Korea grapple with the ethics of providing travel revenue to an authoritarian nation whose human rights abuses have been extensively documented. Proponents argue that the visits provide a rare opportunity for contact between North Koreans and Westerners, who are vilified as heartless imperialists in the government’s extensive propaganda.
“Civil society exchanges do two things: they expose North Korean people to ideas from the outside and they provide an alternative to the state narrative that demonizes foreigners and Americans in particular,” said Daniel Pinkston, the International Crisis Group’s North East Asia deputy project director.
Other experts say meaningful exchange must also involve persuading the North Korean government to grant its citizens more freedom to engage with the outside world.
“If the idea is that people-to-people exchange is going to break down barriers, [it’s] better to focus on getting North Koreans out into the world, rather than on getting tightly controlled tourists, whose hard currency payments support the regime, into North Korea,” said Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korea at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Many Western visitors say their interactions with North Koreans, however limited, were among their most memorable moments.
“The highlight of my trip was befriending my tour guide, who was doing his first tour and had never met a foreigner before,” said Tudor Clee, a lawyer from New Zealand who visited in 2012. “He seemed genuinely pained by the notion that people in South Korea or the world think they want a war.”
Johnson said one oft-overlooked aspect of travel to North Korea is the encounters with rural residents bused to major tourist sites in Pyongyang to reinforce their indoctrination. “Moments like that, I like to think, left lasting impressions in the minds of many people.”
Johnson concluded that the pros outweigh the cons. “It left a powerful impression,” he said, “and if my visit bought the Dear Leader some champagne, I’m OK with the trade.”
Borowiec is a special correspondent.