Is the United States a booming travel market for North Korea?!

North KoreaInternational relations may be strained, but that’s not stopping the tourists. According to Yonhap News Agency, the number of North Koreans visiting the United States in the first half of 2011 surged more than 50 percent from the same period in 2010. The report cites data from the Department of Homeland Security, which puts the number of visitors in the first six months of the year at 139. In the first half of 2010, only 89 people visited the United States from North Korea.

Interestingly, this comes even as official contacts between the two governments fell off, not to mention a “general cooling off in bilateral relations.”

Of course, the visits weren’t strictly recreational. A delegation of scientists came over from North Korea in February, with an economic delegation following in March. In June, 17 martial arts folks visited three states on the east coast.

%Gallery-109277%

Photo by yeowatzup via Flickr

Eight interesting facts about North Korea’s airline

What do you know about Air Koryo? Probably not much. The state-run airline for North Korea, it’s the only realistic way you can fly into the country, unless you have some sort of crazy commando resources at your disposal. Of course, there’s a lot you have to do before booking your ticket, and getting a visa can be quite difficult for Americans and other westerners. If you do make it through the red tape though, you’ll find yourself with more options than you realized.

So, ready to book your trip to Arirang and sample the beer and pizza of the most reclusive nation on the planet? Here’s what you need to know about the airline that will take you there:

%Gallery-105693%1. More destinations than you’d expect: the Beijing-Pyongyang route is the one for which Air Koryo is “famous,” but the state-sponsored airline actually connects to eight other cities: Moscow Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Shenyang, Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Kuwait City. Of course, if you want to use these cities to enter North Korea, you’ll still need to jump through the many hoops necessary to secure a visa.

2. Road warriors don’t get squat: are you a frequent flier to North Korea? Well, don’t expect much in exchange for your loyalty. While airlines around the world offer rewards programs, a mileage run on Air Koryo is worthless, as the carrier doesn’t have a program, according to a comment it made on its Facebook page.

3. A new home: as of July 15, 2011, the airline’s new terminal at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang is open for business! The airline claims on Facebook, “The new terminal features modernised facilities for luggage, security, customs, border control and the list goes on to an extent.”

4. Mongolia may be next: it’s always hard to tell when Air Koryo is going to add a route, but this comment to a prospective customer offers some hope: “Flights to Uanbator have been tossed up for a while now, since there is a decent amount of DPRK citizens traveling to Mongolia for a number of reasons. Also vice versa. We havn’t [sic] heard of any flights for August, but we will make some inquiries.”

5. Kuwait’s on the map for a reason: it may not be as busy as the New York-to-London route, but Pyongyang and Kuwait City seem to comprise an important city-pair for Air Koryo. According to the person operating the Air Koryo Facebook page, “Between 5 and 10,000 North Korean workers currently reside in Kuwait. These numbers change weekly with the flights by Air Koryo now enabling the DPR Korean direct flights to Pyongyang.”

6. True dialogue in social media: social media marketers have always discussed the importance of “dialogue” via social media, rather than generating revenue. Well, Air Koryo is a fantastic model. A user responded to the above claim about North Koreans living in Kuwait, “‎between 5 and 10000″ … Wow, that is an accurate answer !” The airline’s intended range was probably “between 5,000 and 10,000,” but the fan appears to have a fetish for the exact. Showing a bit of style, Air Koryo replied, “We’re [not] exactly demographers here, so exact figures are beyond us. Sorry.” The missing word in the response makes the whole exchange even funnier.

7. Online check-in: okay, this is not in Air Koryo’s future, probably because the carrier has a different set of priorities. According to SFGate: “‘You kidding right?’ Air Koryo responded. “There are many things to do before even looking at ‘Online check-in’ such as actually creating a website.'”

8. Don’t expect much love from the cabin crew: in the United States, you only need to worry about bad serviceand the occasional meltdown. In North Korea, the flight attendants will great you with such pleasantries as “I hate America!” But, they do follow it with, “What would you like to drink today, sir?”

Sir?! Now that’s service!

[photos via Wikipedia]

Candid look inside North Korea


In this video, Steve Gong goes into a North Korea hair salon and gets his hair cut “Pyongyang style.” Like the city it is named for, Pyongyang style is a largely unchanged fashion. This metropolis on the banks of the Taedong river appears much as it did when the U.S.S.R. was its principal ally many years ago. The ghost of communist Russia hovers over Pyongyang like a specter, and in this light, North Korea is the little brother that never grew up. The stunted growth of communist ambition creates a haunting aesthetic. Massive plazas, ornate subway stations, and dear leaders born out of mountains all speak to the idiosyncrasy of North Korea and its stubbornly unique ideology.

The video provides a long glimpse inside the hermit kingdom. Unlike the Vice Guide to North Korea (my personal favorite North Korean Doc), Steve Gong provides candid HD shots void of commentary. It is like being a voyeur in the most reclusive nation on the planet. If you watch closely, you will even catch a glimpse of the hideous Ryugyong Hotel.

North Korea resumes construction on world’s most hideous hotel

North Korea

North Korea is the hermit kingdom; a strange land of mass games and dear leaders trapped in a 1950’s communist time warp. While they may not have modern supermarkets or PlayStation 3, North Korea does have one of the tallest hotels in the world, and it looms high above Pyongyang like a tribute to the ill advised whims of dear leader Kim Jong Il.

According to USA Today, The pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel began construction in the late nineteen-eighties and was spearheaded by Orascom – an Egyptian architectural firm. Construction of the abominable structure was halted after the fall of the Soviet Union. Without Soviet subsidies, North Korea could not afford the expensive project. Today, the 105 story building is again under construction and may cost as much as two billion U.S. dollars to complete, or 5% to 10% of estimated North Korean G.D.P. Relative to American G.D.P. terms, it would be like the United States sinking over a trillion dollars into a hotel project.North Korea The windowless and hollow structure stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city. It is a metaphorical monument to a country plagued by its own agitprop claims of supremacy and the central lunacy that drives this madness further. The North Koreans even spent years denying the structure’s existence, removing it from photographs and excluding it from maps of Pyongyang. Too much shame, it seems, in the very obvious failure.

When completed, the Ryugyong Hotel will have 3000 rooms and roughly 3.9 million square feet. The original plan entailed three wings rising at 75 degree angles capped by several revolving restaurants and an observation deck at the hotel’s pinnacle. For a country that just opened its first burger spot last year, it is very ambitious stuff.

Many architects in the international community are questioning the suitability of the project. Bruno Giberti, a professor at California Polytechnic State University’s department of architecture, called it “the worst building in the world.” The European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea deemed the structure irreparable almost fifteen years ago, citing curving elevator shafts. From a humanitarian standpoint, a nation filled with malnourished children could probably make better use of the estimated $2 billion project.

With elevator shafts more crooked than Kim Jong Il’s epic golf game and decades of structural decay, the “ghostscraper” faces a long road to accepting its first guests. North Korea plans to open the hotel to coincide with the posthumous 100 year birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung in late 2012.

flickr images via John Pavelka

North Korea cuts Pyongyang in half because of food shortage

Pyongyang North KoreaPyongyang is North Korea’s showplace. It’s one of the few spots in the country foreigners are allowed to see, and even then under tightly controlled circumstances. The people allowed to live in the most prestigious city in the unusual nation tend to be politically reliable, favored by the regime and, quite frankly, not fat or ugly. Well, the best address in North Korea is about to get a lot more exclusive.

According to an AFP report, the North Korean government has halved its capital’s population. Food shortages drove the move. Interestingly, it wasn’t just the population that got chopped – the city itself did too. The southern districts of the city were reallocated to North Hwanghae province, which touches the capital.

Half a million people had their addresses – and social status – changed as a result of this. Also, they lose the benefits associated with living in Pyongyang, a change that will save the perpetually cash-strapped regime some more money.

%Gallery-109277%

[photo by David Stanley via Flickr]