Adrian Bridge, The Daily Telegraph, May 02, 2013
Britain’s leading tour operator to North Korea is to press ahead with a trip next month to the little-visited north east of the country - even though this was the region in which an American citizen, sentenced this week to 15 years hard labour, was leading a group of tourists prior to his arrest.
A spokesman for Regent Holidays, a Bristol-based firm, said the company had “no qualms” about proceeding with its tour “Remote North Korea - Rason, Chongjin and Chilbo”, a new itinerary aimed at travellers who had already been to the country and were curious to see more.
“We are not at all concerned about going into that part of the country,” said Carl Meadows, the tour leader. “We know they are very strict out there but we also know how to keep within the rules.”
Kenneth Bae, an ethnic Korean with United States citizenship, was this week sent to a labour camp for unspecified "crimes against the [North Korean] state". Mr Bae, a tour leader, had been showing a group of Europeans around the Rajin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone in the north east. His conviction came after a period of sustained tension on the Korean peninsula and threats from the north of a nuclear strike on South Korea and the U.S.
“No one really knows what Mr Bae did, but it must have been something they didn’t like,” said Mr. Meadows. “His imprisonment will undoubtedly be used as a gambling chip and I am sure he will be released. We are not letting it affect our proposed tour.”
The Rajin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone, close to the point where North Korea meets China and Russia, was set up in the 1990s to be a prospective hub for international development. But although economically it is more open than much of the rest of the country, it is very difficult to visit as a tourist, with no permitted access for those travelling from the country’s capital Pyongyang.
The Regent tour group will enter the zone from China. It will visit attractions including a shoe factory, a foreign language institute, a children’s art show, the Sonbong Revolutionary Site and Pipa Islet, from which there will be a seal-spotting boat trip. The tour will then take in the city of Chiongjin (Provincial Museum and Library and a kindergarten) and the coast close to Mt Chilbo, where there will be possibilities to hike - and/or spend time on a beach. (“A slightly surreal prospect,” conceded Mr Meadows.)
All tours to North Korea have to be prearranged and there is no scope for independent travel. Visitors are not able to wander freely and are often told what they can and cannot photograph. Ironically, once visitors have got there, restrictions in the north-east are a little less severe - although tourists are still closely monitored.
“The North Koreans are very strict and we all know that but it really is another world,” said Mr Meadows, about to undertake his 14th visit to the country. “North Korea gets to you; once you’ve been there everywhere else seems a bit mundane.”
The Foreign Office does not advise British tourists to avoid the country.
Indeed, Regent reported a surge in inquiries as tensions rose earlier this year. “We expect to send more people this year than in 2012,” said Mr Meadows.