Strict Schedules Dictate Westerners' Trips To North Korea

Audie Cornish talks with Political Tours director Nicholas Wood about the little-known tourism industry for those who want to visit North Korea.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Well, North Korea's missile program and nuclear threats are not a concern to at least one eccentric former basketball star. As you've likely heard, last month, Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea. He ended up courtside with the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, watching North Korea's favorite sport - oh, and partying at Kim's palace. And this week, Rodman told a North Dakota TV station about future travel plans.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you anticipate going over there again?

DENNIS RODMAN: Yes, I will, in August.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You are going over there.

RODMAN: Yes. I'm vacationing with him. Yes.

CORNISH: Vacation. In North Korea. Well, as it turns out, North Korea is actually a tourist destination, and generally speaking, Americans can travel there. But how exactly it's done and why anyone would have North Korea on their travel list is a question for Nicholas Wood. He organizes trips for Western tourists to North Korea as director of a British travel company called Political Tours. Nicholas Wood, welcome to the program.

NICHOLAS WOOD: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: So, tell us, what are the ground rules for a trip to North Korea? How would you go?

WOOD: Well, any group of foreigners who want to go to North Korea go with a state tourism company, and they have official guides with them. And there's a selection of preset places that you are allowed to visit. And as a company going into North Korea, we can choose those places, so there's some freedom to choose those places. Once you're there on the actual tour, you have to stick to that itinerary quite strictly. And also, you - if you wander off and, you know, try and do your own thing, it's not you that's going to get into trouble, it's actually your guides. So there's a system of trust between you and the guide who's taking you around. You're not under so close supervision, you're not so constantly followed around, but you do have to stick to this quite rigid itinerary.

CORNISH: And what's on that itinerary? I mean, what are the sights of North Korea that people are going to see?

WOOD: Well, in many cases, they're going to the museums, they're going to the official sights, they're going to see the statues and the monuments that commemorate their leader. And the Kim family is obviously, tremendously important to the country. We try and spend a bit more time looking at every-day things, so schools, universities, factories, so people have a bit more of an opportunity to see how every-day life works.

CORNISH: Paint us an image. If you're in downtown Pyongyang, what does it look like? What are people seeing?

WOOD: Downtown Pyongyang looks like a very modern city, but from the 1970s in a way. It's very clean. It's got high-rise buildings. It's got increasing amounts of traffic. There are more and more cars in the road, but it's comparatively empty compared to other big cities around the world. And, you know, you see rush hour. You see people getting on the subway. You see people coming back from work. It is very ordered. It is very regimented.

CORNISH: Why do people want to go on these tours?

WOOD: I think people are fascinated with a part of the world that is so completely different from anywhere else. This is, you know, the last really, you know, communist - Cuba, as well, obviously, is a communist regime, but North Korea is unlike any other. And how has it managed to exist until now? And I think people will ask that question: How does it manage to tick?

CORNISH: Now, let's talk about an ethical dilemma that travelers to North Korea may face. On the one hand, they're paying a chunk of money to this repressive government that really wants to get its hands on foreign cash and at the same time they're potentially helping to sort of crack open the doors to a closed regime. How do you reconcile those perspectives?

WOOD: I mean, I think it's a good question. I mean, by anyone's standards, North Korea has a very autocratic regime. From our perspective, it is repressive. I think there is a dilemma. Yes, you - the money that we are paying for the tours, obviously, does contribute to the system. But at the same time, I think it also helps to - helps North Koreans see a different impression of the world. And also, I think it gives outsiders a valuable opportunity to understand the mentality of North Koreans themselves.

CORNISH: So Dennis Rodman, good or bad for business?

WOOD: For our business? North Korea is very successful keeping in the headlines whether Dennis Rodman is there or not.

CORNISH: Nicholas Wood, he's the director of Political Tours, a travel agency that runs tours to North Korea. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WOOD: Thank you.

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