Our take on the new State Department travel warning about North Korea

by Gabriel Mizrahi on November 26, 2013

As you’ve probably read, the State Department has issued a new North Korea travel warning urging people not to visit the DPRK in light of some recent shenanigans. As always, we want to share some updates and insight with you to help put these latest developments in perspective.

Based on the available information, two recent events seem to have led to the new travel warning. The first is the 2012 detention of a man named Kenneth Bae, who was leading tours in the special economic zone of Rason. The second is the recent arrest of a man named Merrill Newman, an American veteran from Palo Alto. For anyone thinking about visiting the DPRK, these must seem like strange times.

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But as you know, we at The North Korea Blog like to get to the bottom of things. There tends to be a great deal of hyperbole and misinformation about the DPRK, and we instead hope to point you, like a Pyongyang traffic cop, in the right direction.

Pyongyang Flight

Our round-trip flights from Beijing to Pyongyang have always run safely and without surprises. 5,000+ tourists enjoyed a trip to North Korea last year.

First, a trip down memory lane.

When Bae was detained in 2012, the world (understandably) frowned on the arbitrary detention of a U.S. citizen in North Korea. For reasons we still don’t understand, the western media didn’t really pick up on the actual story — which was that Bae, in total violation of local laws and cultural norms, was handing out bibles to locals and telling them to rise up against their government. Not a wise move in a country like North Korea, in which the rules, for all their quirks, are anything but vague. Bae’s situation is tragic, of course — but it was entirely avoidable. As are most of these mix-ups: We find that people who get in trouble in North Korea are almost always looking for it.

So let’s take a moment to remember that when you go to North Korea, leave your bibles at home! If you must bring them, don’t force them on unsuspecting citizens. And most importantly, don’t tell them to go all Winston Smith on Big Brother. There are more interesting things to do in North Korea! The fun fair in Pyongyang, for instance. It’s really very fun. It’ll get you up close and personal with locals without inciting a revolution, we promise!

Second, some new information came out today about Newman, the latest man arrested in North Korea.

Based on the latest reports, Newman was on a nine-day tour with Juche Travel Services, a smaller tour company that is not a travel partner of ours. “Everything was going very well,” the New York Times quotes his son as saying, until Newman had a “difficult” discussion with a group of North Koreans about his experiences during the 1950-53 war. “That,” quotes the New York Times, “was the only hiccup.”

Hiccup, indeed. On the surface, this seems like an arbitrary detention of an older American tourist. But in our partners’ 20+ years of operating tours on the ground, something like this has never happened. We’ve seen our tourists disagree with North Koreans about their version of history, we’ve seen heated discussions break out, we’ve even seen other Korean War veterans point out their battle scars to their North Korean tour guides — and not one of them has ever run into trouble.

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The truth is, you have to go pretty far to get in trouble in the DPRK. (Handing out bibles, running away from your guides, defacing a statue, that sort of thing.) Differences of opinion don’t get you thrown in prison there. It is, after all, a Confucian society that respects its elders, even when they fought on the other side. We find the DPRK to be a remarkably straightforward place. Not always fair in an absolute sense, but definitely clear.

We take these developments very seriously, and we want you to know that they are extremely rare and clearly avoidable. Our partners stay in close contact with the Western embassies in Pyongyang, and none of them has suggested we stop running tours. We have a bunch of tourists there now, all of whom are having a safe and awesome time. In other words, it’s business as usual in the DPRK. Stories like Newman’s, just like Bae’s, often reveal that something more was happening. We won’t be surprised if more information comes out soon that makes sense of this unfortunate event. Until then, we’re confident that travelers who follow the rules are safe in the DPRK.

As always, we encourage you to check out the State Department’s latest travel information, but we want to take a final moment to review the facts.

“Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine,” says the State Department — though over 5,000 westerners visited in 2013.

“U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea, even accidentally, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention” — and yet there is nothing arbitrary about being arrested for slipping into a closed country. It’s wonderfully easy to get a tourist visa to North Korea. The process couldn’t be more straightforward.

And as you know, our partners arrange tourist visas for all of our travelers as part of our North Korea trips.

Besides, we seriously doubt that North Korea wants to detain foreigners. The paperwork alone is a drag.

So let’s stay informed, and let’s stay calm! We love you guys and want travel to the DPRK to remain a safe and illuminating experience. Because it is.

As always, hit us up with any questions. We’re always here to answer them.


Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Dunner, M.D. November 26, 2013 at 5:24 pm

It is unfathomable to me why a country that takes such pains in preserving its self image while you are in the country would do something to cause so much damage to that image. It is tempting to find an excuse as one could with Kenneth Bae (handing out bibles) but an 85 year old sick guy? I have gone through every possible scenario, including possible acts while a soldier during the Korean War but we’re 70 years down the road. That was a war, he was a soldier. Tempting to think of Nazi war criminals but this isn’t that, not even in their eyes probably.
I comprehend the desire of Young Pioneer Tours and Koryo Tours to want to make this a big exception to the rule that travel to the DPRK is safe, which is probably is, but what does this do to inspire confidence? If this were a medicine (travel to the DPRK) and being detained with no charges for an unspecified period incommunicado (the side effects) one would have to think rather critically about the need for taking the medicine vs. the side effects.
I am deeply disappointed, especially after my more positive than negative experience in the DPRK in August at which time I thought there was an opening in the country. And just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water……I do urge all who have a connection to the DPRK to use their influence to find out more about what happened with Merill Newman and on humanitarian grounds seek his release.


Gabriel Mizrahi November 26, 2013 at 5:52 pm

Good points, Peter. Thanks for chiming in.


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