There may be no better time than now to visit North Korea.
Best known for headlines involving frightening missile tests and bizarre Dennis Rodman trips, a new mobile app promises to be the most comprehensive guide to the “hermit kingdom” available to the intrepid traveler.
The “North Korea Travel App” boasts of a surprisingly vibrant tourist economy, with plenty to do and see in Kim Jung-un’s kingdom. For instance, visitors to the country will enjoy odd sights like a 10-lane highway built by a generation of youth that is hardly used today. Or restaurants where foodies can learn where to eat roasted sparrow or "snakefish" served wriggling on a plate with its nervous system still intact.
There are also plenty of museums celebrating the “revolutionary” achievements of the country, curious mega-projects like the vaguely pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang that has been under construction since 1987 and sports destinations like the Masik-Ryong Ski Resort.
Chad O’Carroll, who served as project manager for the app and is the director of North Korea-focused NK News, said he hoped anyone using the app, released on Wednesday for iPhone and Android OS, would realize “there’s a lot more to travel” in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea than “simply visiting the flagship monuments, statues, and hotels.”
“Tourism was what sparked my initial interest in the country, and I always got a lot out of the visits,” O’Carroll said in an email exchange. He first visited the country in 2009 while studying for his master’s degree in nuclear nonproliferation, and went back twice more as a tourist. Since “coming out” as the person behind NK News in March 2013, he hasn’t been back; most journalists are prohibited from entering the country.
Even for tourists, a visit to North Korea is not without its complications.
Itineraries are controlled by the national tourism agency, contact with the locals is often limited to official guides or elites as well as because of the language barrier, and there is little reliable information on travel destinations.
O’Carroll said the North Korea Travel app aims to address some of those problems. “Right now it is very, very difficult to know what is nearby when you’re in country,” he said. “With the app you’ll be able to see exactly what’s around you, meaning you might in some cases be able to get up to ad-hoc activities during the tour.”
The guide also includes information on hundreds of things to do or see, from bars and shops to factories and nature spots.
Uniquely.Travel, a British travel startup whose mission is to make it easy for tourists to travel to “seldom visited destinations,” developed the app with a Russian software company. The company asked O’Carroll to help develop the content, and he said he tapped his network of NK News contributors that includes country experts to help out.
Tested recently on the iPhone, the app was slick, though like many initial releases it crashed a couple times. The content veers between tourist pamphlet and “insider tips.”
For instance, while describing how the Pyongyang metro is “one of the most interesting places to visit” in the capital city, the guide recounts a rumor that a “secret” line is reserved for high-ranking government officials. “This is probably true,” the guide says.
The food section is full of tasty surprises, too, including an entry on the Samtaesan Burger Shop that has three branches in Pyongyang and a pizzeria where ingredients are imported from Italy.
Users can also book tours, look for deals and switch to a map mode.
The app makers have also sought to tackle the ethical questions of traveling to North Korea by addressing those concerns head on. Human rights organizations have emphasized that the country’s record of treating its own people is abysmal, and that any money spent by foreigners in the country likely enriches the elite that keeps the country from opening to the world.
For O’Carroll, even limited contact between guides and tourists is valuable. Speaking on Skype from England, where NK News is based, he gave examples of tourists sharing their snapshots of New York City and other places with their guides. And, at one point, he said he showed some of his guides a documentary on his computer about prison camps in North Korea. “Afterwards the chief guide said, ‘This is all lies,’” he said.
North Koreans, he said, are “like goldfish in a tank.” But tourists can help. “They can see out of the tank because of the tourists.” Foreigners visiting the country have access to Western television and the Internet, and they can share what they learn with their guides.
Tourists can also help to change the world’s perception of the country, he said.
That’s what happened when he showed friends in South Korea snapshots he had taken of North Korean beaches. The friends were surprised by what they saw.
“The common perception is that everyone is working all the time and suffering intolerably,” he said. “What these trips show is that there is a bit of nuance to life in North Korea.”
Click for more info on the North Korea Travel App