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Would you want to visit North Korea?

Tuesday 20th December 2011

After the death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, observers are wondering what is next for the forlorn country. Will it open up, or will the new leader follow in his father's footsteps?

Straightforward travel to destinations like Australia or European countries is not for everyone on their year out. Some people have the urge to explore the unexplored, to try something completely different. Well, you definitely cannot get much more different to Western cultures than that of North Korea, which has to be one of the world's most isolated, criticised, insular and downright bizarre destinations for a gap year traveller or backpacker.

After World War II, Korea was split into two. The north became a communist country, sponsored by Soviet Russia. The South allied itself with the USA. As you can imagine, there is not much love lost between the two. North Korea was subjected to the rule of Kim Il-Sung, who instigated a cult of personality with himself as the "beloved leader", and began to close contact with the outside world, deciding North Korea would be self-reliant with the support of neighbouring China and Russia, and extremely defensive against the influence of the West, the USA and South Korea.

However, things went wrong in the 1990's when the Soviet Union collapsed. Suddenly North Korea lost its biggest trading partner and supplier of cheap oil. Then the harsh climate of the country, with its winter low temperatures exacerbated by Siberian winds, and hot, wet summers, punctuated by drought and aggravated by poorly managed agricultural policies, meant that chronic food shortages affected swathes of the population, especially in rural areas. Despite the lack of food, electricity and many of the basic essentials of life for most of the population, the leadership of the country, by now in the hands of Kim Jong-Il, managed to build a significant nuclear defense system, which served to antagonise most of the Western world, and has meant the country is trapped between the carrot of foreign aid, and the stick of sanctions.

So why would you want to visit such a place? Well, there is the kudos of going somewhere that only maybe 1500 Westerners visit a year, and of having that stamp in your passport. But the more meaningful attraction is that there is simply so little known about the country, and the majority of its people know so little about the rest of the world. There is virtually no Internet access permitted in North Korea, and when you buy a TV or radio it is pre-tuned to a handful of state-sponsored channels that only show propaganda. In a population of 24 million, only 431,000 people have access to a mobile phone. If you search online for "Photos of North Korea" you just get pages of images of Kim Jong-Il, or his son Kim Jong-Un, who is to become the country's new leader after his father's death. It is hard to find a photo of the North Korean landscape, a mountain range or a forest. So you will be seeing a land that very few travellers have even seen pictures of, let alone visited, which is in itself kind of cool. For anyone interested in international development, economics, politics or how dictatorships can cripple a country whilst brutally controlling its people, North Korea is a mine of information.

There are a few tour companies who organise visits to North Korea, but you are only allowed to travel as part of a tour, and with a tour guide at all times. So don't think you will be able to wander off with your backpack and trek into the countryside! You can of course build this trip into a more extended tour of South East Asia, but be careful that you can travel in and out of North Korea to your chosen destination before booking travel. 

So will North Korea open up after the death of Kim Jong-Il? It looks unlikely. The limited information that leaks from the country indicates that Kim Jong-Un will follow in his father's footsteps with his detention camps for dissidents and disastrous foreign policy.2012 is a special year for the nation as it is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung, so if cult of personality is of interest, and if you want to try to find out firsthand if the country will change, then North Korea in 2012 could be on your travel wishlist.