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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The North Korea Travel App

by | May 9th, 2014 | 07:00 am
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Disclaimer: North Korea: Witness to Transformation does not promote or officially recommend the purchase of “North Korea Travel” .

“North Korea Travel” is a new Android and IPhone app promising to offer the most comprehensive guide yet to tourism in the DPRK (a link to the app is here for those interested). And comprehensive it certainly is: contributions from NK News’ Chad O’Carroll, Koryo Tours’ Simon Cockerell, and extensive GPS site mapping by Curtis Melvin among others have charted and logged roughly 350 monuments, hotels, restaurants, and attractions accessible to tourists throughout the country.

There are a couple interesting threads to this story. First, as advertised, tourism in North Korea has clearly expanded beyond Pyongyang. Half of the total spots cataloged are still concentrated around the capital, but dozens more dot along the coastlines, the Chinese border, and well into the interior of the country. Besides Pyongyang, the Rason Special zone has a relatively high concentration of sites open for tourists, including the Rason City Market — the only one in the country that allows entry to foreigners. Also of note is that many of these sites, especially those outside of the capital, are somewhat shabby and unappealing representations of the country, challenging the notion that one will only be taken to pretty Potemkin villages.

And then, of course, there’s the controversy. In terms of publicity, this was a clever flagship app for Uniquely.Travel, a tourism startup specializing in countries off the beaten path with further plans to release guides for Iran, Myanmar, and Libya. The always-simmering and at times explosive argument surrounding the merits of North Korean tourism never fails to generate copy, and the release of this app on Wednesday did it in spades (CS Monitor here, Guardian here, Korea Times here, WaPo here).

So, should we jump in and draw sides over North Korea Travel, a product at base designed to get more Western tourist dollars flowing into the DPRK? On that score, the reader has most likely long ago decided for him or herself. For those still on the fence, Andrei Lankov provides a lengthy piece in the app’s “Ethics” section, ultimately supporting tourism by drawing connections to his  experiences with Western tourists as a citizen in the former Soviet Union. As a counterweight, we point to a recent interview of North Korean defectors on the subject. While the article claims their views are “divided”, the actual responses skew decidedly negative, citing tacit financial support of the regime and lack of any substantive interaction with average citizens.

Regardless of one’s views on the ethics, it is hard to deny that giving prospective tourists more access to information on the country is not a good thing. Arguably, much of the motivation in traveling to North Korea is the adventure of the unknown. But with a more comprehensive view on the country such as the app provides, prospective travelers get a better sense of what to really expect. Surely, I came across a number of impressive – or just plain bizarre — spots that piqued my interest, but for every one of those there were far more dreary statues, run-down building facades, and seemingly deserted “nightlife” locales. After a few hours exploring, I was personally happy to remain an armchair tourist. Ultimately, for anyone willing to brave the ethical dilemmas and commit to the expensive tour packages, its important to make an informed decision as to whether a trip to North Korea is your cup of tea in the first place.