to korea!

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From an earlier blog post and the general hype around North Korea these days, I thought it would be fun/interesting to have a look at how I would set about seeing the place myself, being open minded and all that. 

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First on the agenda would be travelling there. I did a quick google search, and found out that North Korea has its own National airline, Air Koryo (link). Good start. I Looked at where they fly, and much to my dismay, they don’t have regular service to either Dublin OR Shannon. Drat. A quick search revealed they DO however have a Service office in Berlin. Great, all I have to do is hop on the Airbus to Germany. Or so I thought. I then tried to book a flight from Berlin to Pyongyang, only to find the service is unavailable due to Air Koryo being on the list of  Air carriers banned from operating in the EU, because of of maintenance concerns and noise emissions. Double Drat. 

The next closest place on the list of airports it still flies to is Vladivostok, Russia. So assuming I can get there reasonably cheap and easily, I’m in business. Quick hop onto eBookers.ie suggests that the easiest way to get there is via Charles De Gaul in France, then on to Seoul  South Korea, then back to Vladivostok, Russia (€4,085.38), before onto Pyongyang. Maybe I could hop off in Seoul and just bus/train it Across? The alternative is to hop off at Moscow and from there to Vladivostok, and forward with the original plan of arriving in Pyongyang Sunan International Airport (around $600 USD). So without €5,000 to burn, I wont be taking that route, and a quick read of Wiki travel’s page on North Korea says-

“Tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour. Independent travel is not permitted. If you are not prepared to accept severe limitations on your movements, behaviour, and freedom of expression, you should not travel to North Korea.”

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They reckon most travellers who get in do so via Beijing embassy. Travel permission, two passport photos and $45 USD should get you in, provided you’re not a journalist or suspected of being one. (Not a hope of getting after writing this article I fear!) 

The Guide companies are all ran by Korean International Travel Company, with the exception of a few who are ran directly by government ministries and the DPRK NGOs, and its their guides who show you around anyway. You can’t leave the guides. independent travel is not allowed. 

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So lets say im in Beijing, and have got my visa sorted out. My next step is to choose a tour from the list, and my own preference is economy. That translates to €845 for a 4 day stay in DPRK. This pays for all the food, accommodation etc, but they recommend another €200 would do you the week on drinks, souvenirs, attraction entry and amusement park rides (remember they’ll be planning your trip). so call that €1000, provided I got to China, which was €600 on eBookers. 

This is <just about> possible on a budget of €2000 per person. 

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And assuming that north korea doesn’t go ARGO on it and decide to pull hostages in demand for western respect or something, I’d be fairly ok. I mean, provided I don’t say anything too loud or crass, I suspect I’d have an eye opening time. 

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I think I’d try communism lite (Russia, China, Cuba) ahead of North Korea however. The Cold War has cooled off, tensions are low and they like making money too much to endanger tourists. Korea however, is capable of anything. 

Edit: While I was writing this, my access to Air Koryo’s website was cut off. Might be just a strange coincidence, but it sure is spooky!

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Best Korea ?

With all the talk about North Korea’s recent military belligerence, I have put together a few pieces on the Enigmatic Country in the hope of stirring a little debate. Is North Korea really BEST Korea, as the popular internet meme would have us believe? 

quick history lesson:

Korea was invaded in 1910 by Japan, and later separated into North and South in 1945, when the USSR and USA defeated the Japanese, ending world war two. Unable to agree upon whom to install as government, the state was split in two at the 38th parallel, the soviets taking control of the North, and US controlling the south. The North was established as a single-party Stalinistic Dictatorship state with a centrally planned economy, the South a multi-party with a capitalist, open market economy: cold war politics were essentially to blame for this radical contrast.

Between 1950 and 1953, a Proxy War between Soviet and Chinese backed North Korea and US backed South Korea left a million soldiers and civilians dead, and the threat of nuclear war high. An Armistice was signed and uneasy peace (or ‘non-aggression’) descended on the region.

North Korea remained closely aligned to China and the Soviet Union until the mid-1960s. Recovery from the war was quick – by 1957 industrial production reached 1949 levels. Until the 1960s, economic growth was higher than in South Korea, and North Korean GDP per capita was equal to that of its southern neighbour as late as 1976.

North Korea lost a powerful trading ally and strategic partner with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, and a series of natural disasters lead to the north Korean famine 1994-1998, in which between one quarter of a million to a million people lost their lives.

History lesson over.

Today, the North has some intriguing reputations. It has the highest literacy rate in the world, at over 99%. Education both academic and political is compulsory and free up to secondary level, the government even supplied uniforms until 1992.

Life expectancy is just 68.8 years, making it one of the lowest in the developed world. (the south’s is 79.9)

North Korea scored against Brazil in the 201o world cup, despite being ranked bottom in tournament standings.

Leaving the Kim family out of this discussion entirely, we can also marvel at some very impressive monuments in North Korea.

directing ‘traffic’

the world’s fourth largest flagpole, flying a north korean flag near the demilitarised zone.

I guess what im trying to say is that the North Koreans have achieved some very impressive feats. Their commitment to a single idea, a single identity, a single project can really produce some remarkable results. There may be something to be said for the results-driven ideology of North Korea, but at what cost? Can the Koreans justify the million dead from starvation in the 90’s, just because it desires for Juche, or total self dependence?  Can it justify the glorious monuments when its people starve?

For sure, North Korea seems a strange place to me, but I wonder would my existence strike them as weird? Or do they even know people exist differently beyond the border?