On special guided trips, arranged for tourists and permitted by Pyongyang, Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, has twice visited North Korea. On each trip, he and his fellow travelers were accompanied by official guides, only permitted in certain areas, and asked to delete "objectionable" photos from their digital cameras. Yet the visits afforded Chovanec a rare glimpse inside the Hermit Kingdom.
FP recently caught up with Chovanec to share his experiences to take us, vicariously, inside Kim Il Sung's mausoleum, a North Korean classroom, and a gilded casino that has seen better days. What we learned: North Korea is indeed a real place, where ordinary people must make due in extraordinary circumstances.
Foreign Policy: When were you in North Korea -- and where did you visit?
Patrick Chovanec: I've made two trips to North Korea. The first was two years ago, in October 2008. I visited the capital, Pyongyang, and some surrounding sites including the DMZ [demilitarized zone]. It was organized as part of a special U.S. citizen tour invited to witness the Mass Games. At the time, we were told our group marked the 1000th U.S. citizen to visit the country since the end of the Korean War.
I just returned from my second trip in July. This time I saw a very different part of the country, the Rason "Special Economic Zone" in the far northeast corner of North Korea, bordering Russia and China. Only a handful of Americans -- or any Westerners, for that matter -- have been allowed to go there. This is the border zone where the two U.S. journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were captured last year.
FP: What kind of restrictions do foreign visitors face? Were you free to move about?
PC: Most Americans tend to assume that traveling to North Korea is illegal, like Cuba, but that's incorrect. There are economic sanctions, so you can't do business there, and since there are no diplomatic ties the State Department warns that you're essentially on your own. But the main barrier has always been on the North Korean side, which rarely grants visas to U.S. citizens. That's started to change in the past few years, but only a few groups are allowed in every year.
Visiting North Korea is unlike visiting any other country. It's very restrictive. You cannot bring your cell phone into the country. When you enter, they mark down any books you bring in, and you're expected to take same number out again. Bibles or anything related to [South] Korea is prohibited. Each group has two "minders" to keep an eye on everyone. You cannot leave the hotel without a minder, and when outside, you must stay with the group at all times (and that's no joke -- in 2008, a 53 year-old South Korean tourist who wandered off on her own to watch the sunrise was shot in the head and killed by a soldier). You must ask the minders' permission before taking any photo, although most visitors end up taking hundreds of photos anyway. When you exit the country, however, the border guards may review the photos in your camera and make you delete any they find objectionable.