Is North Korea Safe?

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Foolish.  Dangerous.  Insane.  Tell family or friends that you’re thinking about going to North Korea and these are the typical reactions.  Why?  Because the ratio of Americans who watch television to those who have traveled to North Korea is about 200,000 to 1.  Well, I’m going to ask you to do something here.  I’m going to ask you to believe me, and not the television or the newspaper or the government.  I’m going to ask you to believe me when I tell you that these sources deliberately project false images of North Korea.  Yes, I know, you’ve heard about the American tourists who went there and were detained, arrested and imprisoned.  I’ll get to that.  But hear me out.

Let’s start with some excerpts from the latest U.S. State Department Travel Warning on North Korea, dated May 20, 2014:

The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK)….Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and 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….Do not assume that joining a group tour or use of a tour guide will prevent your arrest or detention by North Korean authorities….North Korean security personnel may regard as espionage unauthorized or unescorted travel inside North Korea and unauthorized attempts to speak directly to North Korean citizens.  North Korean authorities may fine or arrest travelers for exchanging currency with an unauthorized vendor, for taking unauthorized photographs, or for shopping at stores not designated for foreigners….If DPRK authorities permit you to keep your cell phone upon entry into the country, please keep in mind that you have no right to privacy in North Korea and should assume your communications are being monitored.  It is a criminal act to bring printed or electronic media criticizing the DPRK government into the country….Penalties for knowingly or unknowingly violating North Korea’s laws are much harsher than U.S. penalties for similar offenses.  Sentences for crimes can include years of detention in hard labor camps or death.

It goes on and on like this, and ends by “strongly encouraging” you for your own protection, should you decide to go there, to register with the U.S. Embassy in Beijing beforehand and also to contact in advance the Embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang, which can provide limited consular services to American citizens in an emergency.

Would you register with the San Francisco Police Department before driving across the Golden Gate Bridge?  Anyone who has traveled to North Korea will laugh at the absurdity of this so-called advisory, which in fact is a clever mishmash of truths,  half-truths, and outright lies.  For example, it is impossible to “accidentally cross” into North Korea and no American has ever done so, either from the south, where the entire border is fortified with armed soldiers, watchtowers and land mines, or from the north, a desolate area far from the nearest tourist attraction where the boundary with China and a tiny patch of Russia is a wide river.  If you really think the government is being straight with you, ask yourself this: Why don’t they mention the simple fact that well over 99% of American tourists who have visited the country in the last five years have had no problems at all?

If I sound like I have an attitude, I’m sorry, but I don’t like being lied to.  There certainly are some dangerous countries in the world – I’ve been to a few – but North Korea is not one of them.  This “travel warning”  is nothing but scaremongering nonsense, and as long as you can follow a few basic rules, which will be explained to you the day before you go there,  North Korea is among the safest and most welcoming countries in the world.

VIDEO: There were seven Americans in our group.  We were enthusiastically invited to join a beach volleyball game in the coastal town of Nampo.  Does this country look dangerous?

The media is the main problem.  There seems to be a rule dictated to journalists – those who work for mainstream newspapers, television and internet sites – that North Korea  must always be demonized, even down to the smallest details.  How strange, for example, that the tour guides are always presented as cold and gruff, or else programmed robots, whereas we greatly enjoyed the company of ours, who were just plain nice people – great to talk to and drink with (though sensitive political topics are best avoided).  Here’s what you should do: hunt up a few news stories about North Korea on the internet, then contrast their tone to the impressions of ordinary people who have visited the country.   You can do this by typing in “Young Pioneer Tours Trip Advisor” and reading over a hundred brief accounts.  Or check out, a most enlightening and entertaining website created by three young Americans who went there on a YPT tour and are now trying to run their own tours from China.  Incidentally, except in rare instances where permission is granted, journalists are banned from North Korea, so in addition to blackballing the country, they apparently use professional pseudonyms and lie about their occupations to get visas in the first place.

Now let’s take a look at the four Americans – four out of about two thousand (my estimate) since January 2010 – who got into trouble while in North Korea.  The first, a Christian missionary of Korean ancestry named Kenneth Bae, was arrested in November 2012 for distributing religious tracts and sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  Bae had no excuse; he was openly defying the law.   Jeffrey Fowle of Ohio was another who couldn’t leave his religion behind for a week. He placed a Korean-English Bible in a concealed spot in a restaurant bathroom, thinking he would be out of the country when it was discovered, but it didn’t happen that way.  He was arrested in May 2014, around the same time that another American named Matthew Miller tore up his visa upon arriving at the airport and shouted that he was seeking asylum.  The circumstances surrounding Miller’s act are so murky that one can only speculate.  Apparently he wanted to be locked up for a few days so he could tell the world what North Korean prison conditions were like. Stunningly, in a demonstration of just how capricious North Korea’s leadership can be – and in an apparent gesture to improve relations with the U.S. – Fowle, who had been awaiting trial, was set free on October 21, and Bae and Miller were released from prison three weeks later.

The only case that aroused my sympathy was that of 85-year-old Merrill Newman of California, a Korean War veteran who committed no crime, but certainly used poor judgment in mentioning to his guide his wish to meet up with anti-communist insurgents he had fought with.  This raised suspicions, word was passed,  and Newman was removed from his plane at the end of the tour, just as it was about to take off for China.  He was detained in a hotel, and while not mistreated, was forced to “confess” to his war crimes on North Korean television.  Satisfied with his sincerity, and realizing he had a heart condition, the authorities  released him after six weeks and allowed him to leave the country.

But as with the government, so with the mass media: why have these four gotten all the coverage and no one else?  Why, to my knowledge, has there never been a single news story about any of the rest of us who had a very enjoyable and deeply rewarding experience in North Korea?   Do we really have a “free press” when important facts are censored like this?

Keep this in mind: whether it’s a need for hard currency, a desire to project a positive image abroad, or perhaps both, the regime wants Americans to come and feel good about North Korea.  If that weren’t true, they never would have lifted the travel ban in the first place.  And incidentally, in its seven years of operation, Young Pioneer Tours, which has taken hundreds of Americans into North Korea, has never had a client of any nationality get into trouble in the country.   I don’t know who the four people above booked with, and I’m not here to rip other companies, some of which have just sprung up recently,  but if you’re the nervous type, for additional peace of mind it pays to go with an outfit that has established a solid relationship with the government in North Korea.

And I’ll be honest with you: even though I knew in my heart the country would be safe, I was just a little jittery when we landed at the airport in Pyongyang, which is where the totally surreal experience of North Korea hits you.  I think everyone else in my group of nineteen was a bit apprehensive too, not quite knowing what to expect as we walked into the terminal.  But by the time we reached our hotel, an hour later,  everyone was relaxed and happy to be there, and that mood remained for the entire week.

Joe Ferris, an American ship officer and global adventurer, currently working in the Philippines, was one of YPT’s first North Korean tour leaders.  My own tour leader in 2013 was Chris White, an underwater demolitions specialist who grew up in New Jersey.  This fact alone, that Americans are allowed to lead tours inside the country, belies the ridiculous myth that North Korea is unsafe for Americans to visit and that “they hate us.”  Very few Americans have seen photographs like those below.  From top to bottom: Joe with girls in Wonsan; with the “singing waitresses” at a Pyongyang barbecue; entertaining locals while arm wrestling the “North Korean strong man.”




Put your fears and preconceptions aside.  Yes, North Korea is a very safe country to visit.


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