May 7 7:00 AM

A very lonely planet

North Koreans arrive at Pyongyang's Mansu Hill to pay their respects to the country’s late leaders on Kim Il Sung’s birthday, April 15, 2014.
David Guttenfelder / AP

North Korea is a popular subject of Western fantasy — a little sci-fi, a little Cold War — but, to date, not many of us have made the journey. It’s the world’s least-visited country, a “mystery wrapped in an enigma,” according to, a website devoted to all things Pyongyang. Yet between 5000 and 6000 Western tourists are visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) every year, and about 25 travel agencies now specialize in making the arrangements.

Today, releases the “North Korea Travel” app, designed in a hammer-and-sickle palette of black, red and white. On its swipe-able surface, it’s organized like most travel guides, but in addition to History, Society and Culture, users can also learn about Ethics, Travel Warnings, Ideology, Arrest Cases and Factories. Under the “Ethics” header, Kookmin University professor and ex-Soviet citizen Andrei Lankov encourages reluctant visitors to overcome their qualms about the cult of Kim: “I can testify that Western tourists were one of the most powerful conveyers of the truth of the Soviet Union’s relative social and economic backwardness.” Your next vacation might just bring about a regime change!

But the app is not overly sanguine. On the map function, fueled by a less-than-detailed zoom-in technology (thank North Korean cartographic demurral), the description for Sariwon folk village begins: “despite being a bit odd and only taking a few minutes to see…” The Korean-language phrasebook warns, meanwhile: “your guides [read: minders] and any North Koreans you meet will be held responsible for any conversation they have with you that broaches topics the regime deems sensitive, and engaging a guide in conversation about a political subject could get them in trouble.”

Another important tip: Don’t get yourself in trouble. The North Korea Travel app reassures us that most foreigners arrested by the DPRK have “suffered for pre-existing mental health conditions or some other form of impaired judgment.” Case in point is Matthew Miller, who’d recently traveled to North Korea with Uri Tours, one of the companies linked through the “book a tour” app function. In an email newsletter sent May 6, Uri Tours wrote: “We were told that Mr. Miller ripped up his visa and declared that he was not a tourist. We believe that this is a very unique situation and we are continuing our tours.” describes Miller as having sought asylum from Pyongyang.

Like many postwar, ethnic Koreans, I fantasize about landing in Pyongyang, 120 miles and a world away from Seoul. This is probably true for many diasporic peoples these days. We are all making incomplete trips to our ancestral homelands, finding them broken up, discovering them piecemeal.

As I swipe through the North Korea Travel app, I feel a bittersweet wonderment. How would it feel to make the trip? One of the app’s zoom-in taglines — for Chongjin, the DPRK’s “third city” — sums it up. “As with anywhere in North Korea expect to leave with more questions than you arrived with….” 

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Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


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