Life

What it's like to travel to North Korea — from an American who's been there 10 times

Military parade for Kim Il Sung's birthday centennial on April 15, 2012, in Pyongyang.
Mark Edward Harris

North Korea, a small country with a dictator, Kim Jong Un, isn't your typical dream vacation spot (though apparently, it may open a burger joint, as NBC reports). And a travel ban implemented last year prevents American citizens from visiting.

A street scene in Kaesong, North Korea.
Mark Edward Harris

Still, with a historic summit between President Donald Trump and Kim set to take place June 12 in Singapore; after the mysterious death of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, who was imprisoned in North Korea for stealing a banner while in the country as a tourist; and with the North Korea travel restriction being re-examined on Sept. 1, many people are curious about the country.

So what's it like to visit North Korea?

People bow to the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill, Pyongyang.
Mark Edward Harris

Mark Edward Harris, a professional photographer based in Los Angeles, has visited North Korea for work (his first trip was in 1997) 10 times.

"I have made it in and, more importantly, out 10 times without any major issues," Harris tells CNBC Make It. "That doesn't guarantee issues won't happen for me in the future or for anyone else traveling in a foreign country, especially one that is at odds with the United States."

Photographer Mark Edward Harris has been to North Korea ten times
Jackie Cheng

Harris has a fascination with the country, and he's published several photography books dedicated to North Korea, including "North Korea " (it won Photography Book of the Year at the International Photography Awards in 2013).

School children in front of a mural of the world in Wonsan, North Korea.
Mark Edward Harris

Harris says the country in itself is a tourist attraction worth seeing.

"The opportunity to explore a place that's so off the beaten path yet so very much in the news is exciting," he says.

Harris says in North Korea, tourists stand out since there are so few.

"The people are definitely curious about where you're from and what you're doing there. They also very much appreciate the effort you've made to get there," he says.

North Korea is also aesthetically very beautiful, says Harris.

School children with placards in the audience at the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang.
Mark Edward Harris

"Pyongyang, the capital and showcase city of the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea], is actually a relatively modern place with impressive architecture," says Harris.

"Pre-1990s architecture has a Soviet monumental feel to it," he says, "but the North Koreans love colorful fluorescent lights."

One of the architectural centerpieces of Pyongyang, says Harris, is the Arch of Triumph — its version of the Arc de Triomphe — "which is the same basic shape but 33 feet taller than the one in Paris."

Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea
Mark Edward Harris

Plus, all the cities and towns Harris has visited have large areas devoted to parks. And most of those are "dotted with revolutionary statues and murals dedicated to the exploits of the country's founder" Kim Il Sung, says Harris.

"The locals love to spend time in large groups having picnics and taking walks," he adds.

The DPRK has some beautiful mountains as well, says Harris, "including Kumgangsan [Diamond Mountains] on its southern border, Myohyangsan in the middle and Paektusan on its border with China."

Harris also has also taken a train to Wonsan, a seaside city with a major university.

"It was off its coast in 1968 that the USS Pueblo was seized, " says Harris. "The ship is now on display in Pyongyang at Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum."

This year is the 50th anniversary of the vessel's capture. "I had a chance to meet many of the crew at one of their reunions in the States," says Harris. "They are an impressive group of sailors."

Then there's Chongjin, known for its heavy industry with huge steel plants, which Harris also has visited.

"They have foodstuffs factories producing all sorts of products, including their version of Cheetos," he says.

Harris says most travelers make a visit to the DMZ — the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea — at Panmunjom.

"I've visited Panmunjom from both sides, and it's often billed as the most dangerous place on earth," he explains. "I do think that's a bit of hype. I've been to many more dangerous places, like Iraqi Kurdistan.

"That said, if fighting did break out again on the Korean Peninsula, this place would be obliterated," says Harris. The roughly 160-mile long and 2½-mile wide DMZ "is full of landmines," according to Harris.

There's one area, he says, where North and South Korean solders face off with each other — inches apart at times — in the Joint Security Area of Panmunjom.

"Both sides, close to their respective tour bus parking areas, have souvenir stands," says Harris.

A traffic guard in Pyongyang.
Mark Edward Harris

Of course, even when allowed, travel to North Korea can be complicated. Foreign tour operators send in their own people, and travelers are met at the airport or the train station by two North Korean government guides. On his trips, Harris has been with a guide the entire time, except when he was at his hotel or another controlled space.

"I never have felt hovered over like a lot of people think, but there have been times I wanted to photograph something and was asked not to," he says.

But "the more time you spend with the guides, the more relaxed they get with you. They're very curious about life outside the DPRK and are interested in engaging conversations about a wide range of subjects.

"Obviously, it's best not to discuss politics or religion."

As for accommodations, there are limited choices for hotels outside the country's capital, and they are booked by the tour operators working with the government.

A seaside scene in Rajin, North Korea.
Mark Edward Harris

"Some are more basic than others but all are clean," Harris says. "There are a couple of amazing properties, such as the Masikryong Ski Resort and a state-of-the-art Emperor Hotel & Casino in the special economic zone in Rajin near the Chinese-Russian-North Korean border. It caters to Chinese travelers with a good amount of dollars in their pockets." The Emperor Hotel & Casino is now called the Imperial Hotel and Casino, Rason.

In Pyongyang, most foreigners are booked at the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel, says Harris, which are basic, clean hotels. A 105-story, pyramid-shaped accomodation, called Ryugyong Hotel, is still not open, even though construction started in the late 1980s.

Recreational boaters in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Harris says in Pyongyang central there is actually "a very good Italian restaurant, an Austrian coffee house and a British-style pub as well as some very good Korean BBQ restaurants."

Harris says they are all full of locals. "I'm not sure where their money is coming from, since the prices are very moderate for foreigners, but way above what the average citizen would or could consider to spend on a meal.

"It's important to keep in mind that 99.9 percent of the population in the DPRK is not eating as well as you are during your trip to the country," he says.

Part of travelers' fascination with North Korea is its government-imposed isolation from the rest of the world.

The relationship between the U.S. and North Korean governments in particular has a long, uneasy history. The heart of tension dates back to 1945, when Korea, then united and a Japanese colony, was "occupied by the United States and the Soviet Union at the end of World War II," reports The New York Times. "The United States proposed temporarily dividing the country along the 38th Parallel as a way to maintain its influence on the peninsula, which bordered Russia."

In 1948, anti-communist southern Korea, backed by the Americans, declared its independence form the north as the Republic of Korea. Soon after, the communist northern faction, backed by the Soviets, became the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "Each regime was unstable, rejected the legitimacy of the other and considered itself to be Korea's sole rightful ruler," writes the Times.

In 1950, the Korean War began, with the U.S. fighting alongside South Koreans against North Korea, supported by the Soviets for a time, and China. A 1953 armistice stopped the fighting, but did not officially end the Korean War, explains Harris.

"North Korea was flattened," University of Chicago history professor Bruce Cummings told the Times, and the country saw it as a holocaust. In fact, "Its generals are still fighting the war," Cumings said. "For them it has never ended."

Since then, there has been the Pueblo incident; President George W. Bush named North Korea as part of the "axis of evil"; and President Barack Obama supported South Korea and imposed sanctions on North Korea. Trump, of course, has vacillated between threatening on Twitter that North Korea "won't be around much longer" to agreeing to sit down with Kim.

As for those who travel there, since Euna Lee and Laura Ling were famously detained in North Korea in 2009, nine other Americans have been detained as well, according to CNN, including Warmbier. All have since been released.

Military parade for Kim Il Sung's birthday centennial on April 15, 2012, in Pyongyang.
Mark Edward Harris

Soon, the travel ban will be reconsidered and Harris believes it will be lifted. However, it's important to remember that regardless, it can be a dangerous place for Americans to travel.

Until then, travelers can see North Korea without setting foot on land. "In South Korea, you can literally get a glimpse of North Korea on day trips to the DMZ, including the JSA (Joint Security Area) at Panmunjom," Harris says. The six- to eight-hour tour is about $140 per person, and 35 miles from Seoul. "It's a must for anyone traveling to South Korea's capital."

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Military parade for Kim Il Sung's birthday centennial on April 15, 2012, in Pyongyang.
Mark Edward Harris
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