For Americans, an independent trip to North Korea can be a risky venture.
A Lynnwood man was just returned to the United States after being imprisoned there for more than a year. And the U.S. State Department strongly urges Americans not to go to North Korea. But it’s not off limits. Tour groups have been able to visit.
Martin Klimenta is a tour guide who leads trips to North Korea. Here are five things he says you could expect if you were to make the trip.
1. A Visit To China
There’s only one way in for American passport holders, and that’s aboard Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea. Flights travel from Beijing to Pyongyang.
2. Beautiful, Unusual Sights
You’ll find dramatic hills, Buddhist temples and some good skiing. The capital city, Pyongyang, has monuments and squares, and very few motor vehicles.
3. An “Observant” Tour Guide
Don’t expect to go strike out on your own once on the ground. You’ll spend your trip with a license government guide who, yes, will keep an eye on you. “They make sure you do not deviate,” Klimenta said. “They watch what you do, they make sure you take pictures only of what they want you to take pictures of.”
4. Believe It Or Not, There’s Good Beer
“Where I come from – central Europe – we love beer,” Klimenta said. “I was surprised at how good North Korean beer is.” Taedonggang is the brand name. The food is similar to what you might find in any Korean restaurant in Seattle.
5. Not A Lot Of Local Interaction
It can be difficult to establish interaction with locals. “Walking in the streets, people look straight through you, as if you don’t exist,” Klimenta said. “It’s kind of a weird sensation.”
Still, Klimenta says visiting helps North Koreans see that Americans (and westerners in general) aren’t the villains they’re sometimes painted as by state media. “We are people, and we want to see the way you live,” Klimenta said. “That’s the nice thing about travel.”
Martin Klimenta spoke with KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley, co-founder of Earthbound Expeditions on Bainbridge Island. Brumley appears with KPLU's Ed Ronco on our weekly travel segment, "Going Places," about destinations near and far, and how to make the most of getting from Point A to Point B. Feel free to leave comments -- or suggest topics for future segments -- below.