DESPITE the risks, tour operators say business to North Korea is booming, albeit from a low base, for one of the most isolated countries in the world.
“Taking you to places your mother would rather you stayed away from.” That’s how one Western travel agency advertises its tours to North Korea.
The US government does not want Americans to go there either. Three of its citizens have been detained in the last eight months while on tourist trips to North Korea, including Jeffrey Fowle, a visitor from Ohio, who was arrested in May.
For Pyongyang, tourism is one of the few sources of the foreign currency it relies on to overcome US sanctions related to its nuclear and missile programmes. While the country does not publish tourist numbers, travel agencies estimate as many as 6,000 Westerners visit the country every year, compared to just 700 a decade ago.
Most are adventure-seekers curious about life behind the last slither of the Iron Curtain, and ignore critics who say their dollars are propping up a repressive regime.
Most tourists to North Korea are from neighbouring China, North Korea’s main ally.
“People are people,” said Keith Ballard, an American tourist currently in North Korea. “I can take politics out of it. Did anyone have any ethical concerns about me travelling here? Yes they did, some people said, why would you even go there to support that government,” he said. “I said, hey, it’s basically just tourism.”
Last month, the US Department of State said it now “strongly recommends” against all travel to North Korea, citing the risk of “arbitrary arrest”.
Joshua Stanton, a Washington DC-based lawyer who served with the US military in South Korea and writes a blog on North Korea, said the tourist dollars prop up the government of Kim Jong Un, the third of his family to rule the country.
“The companies selling these overpriced tours need customers gullible enough to believe that they’ll be safe there, and that their visits will somehow change North Korea for the better,” he said. “The first claim is false, the second is dubious.”
The warnings do not appear to be having much effect.
Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the biggest operators sending Westerners into North Korea, has seen a tenfold rise in business in the past decade, peaking at about 2,100 visitors in 2012, according to general manager Simon Cockerell.
Around a quarter of those, Cockerell said, were American.
Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours, another China-based agency specialising in trips to North Korea, said his company is seeing business double annually.
Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae has been in custody in North Korea for 18 months.
Merrill Newman, an elderly US citizen, was detained in Pyongyang when he told his North Korean guides he trained anti-communist guerrillas during the 1950-53 Korean War. He was released shortly afterwards.
And Matthew Todd Miller, 24, was taken into custody after entering the country on 10 April, reportedly for ripping up his tourist visa and demanding asylum.