Greg Larson recounts his recent visit to North Korea.
Each year, a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit North Korea, the most isolated nation on earth. All tours are highly scripted and follow a similar pattern. Tourists are only allowed to visit a limited number of preapproved sites. Most days you are confined to the bus; government minders accompany tour groups everywhere and dictate everything, corralling you through tightly circumscribed itineraries. Our tour was coordinated by a travel agency in Beijing. Leading up to the trip, the agency sent our group, composed of fifteen students, informational PDFs that read like inverted Miranda rights. “Foreign visitors to North Korea may be arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal in any other country.” Prohibitions included straying from the group, practicing religion, and interaction with the local population. There are designated tourist hotels, where North Koreans are not permitted to stay—in Wonsan, the Songdowon Hotel is on a foggy, abandoned pier jutting out into the Sea of Japan. In Pyongyang, the Yanggakdo Hotel is marooned on an island in the middle of a river, with a checkpoint restricting North Korean citizens from entering. The hotel mostly serves Chinese tourists and businesspeople. When we were there, only a few of the forty-seven floors were in operation; if you pressed the other buttons on the elevator, the doors would open to pitch-black hallways, some with wires hanging from the ceiling, others with no carpet.