New North Korea tour company needs approval from the feds

A new company is trying to get into the North Korea tourism game. Korea Pyongyang Trading USA, based in New York, is looking to diversify out of its current business – importing Pyongyang Soju from North Korea. Founder Steve Park has his eye on Mount Kumgang, the site of a resort that involved a joint venture between South Korean companies and the North Korean government. It went sour when a South Korean tourist was shot there in 2008.

It seems like an interesting business opportunity, given how interesting the hard-to-reach company is too many travelers. And, since it’s so hard to do business with the regime, competition is unlikely to be stiff. The regulatory red tape, on the other hand, is a different story.

South Korea is saying that Korea Pyongyang Trading USA will need to get permission from the U.S. government in order to get the operation off the ground. The Dong-A Ilbo reports:


A government source in Seoul said, “According to U.S. Executive Order 13570 (effectuated on April 19), all products, services and technologies brought into the U.S. require permission from the U.S. government,” adding, “If a company seeks to engage in the service business of Mount Kumgang tours with North Korea, it should win approval from the U.S. government.”

So far, the application hasn’t been submitted.

There’s a reason South Korea is weighing in on this. Inside Investor Relations explains:

This deal [with Steve Park] follows several years of difficulties over managing Mount Kumgang through an agreement with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan. The resort provided significant cash to North Korea, but the arrangement was terminated in 2008 when a North Korean soldier shot dead a tourist from Seoul. South Korean officials demanded an apology, and its northern neighbors say they will “deprive Hyundai of its exclusive right to the mountain tour project and seize all of its assets in the region.”

Is there an ownership or rights dispute in the works? According to The Dong-A Ilbo, officials in Seoul are struggling to accept that North Korea can yank Hyundai Asan’s “exclusive right to the tours.” Of course, there’s always a shot that the U.S. deal will fall apart (with North Korea, this is always a concern!). The Dong-A Ilbo continues, “The South Korean government understands that the North is taking steps to attract another foreign business other than the American company.”

The odds of this happening, however, seem low.

photo by yeowatzup via Flickr

Five Unique Ways to Visit North Korea in 2011

You’ve listened to enough friends and co-workers drone on and on about the boring, conventional vacations they take. In the pre-social media days, these people would have bored you to death with slide show and photo albums. Now, they just clutter your Facebook news feed. Want revenge? Take the most unusual vacation imaginable, and they’ll forever be embarrassed to waste your time with worn out tales of roller coasters and walking tours.

The answer to your problem is easy: North Korea.

I just heard from Koryo Tours that there are three great tours in the works for this year, each a cure for the common vacation. Even if you’ve been to this reclusive country in the past, there are some new opportunities that are bound to blow your mind.

1. Hang out in Hamhung: this is North Korea’s answer to Boston. Once you’ve been to the big city (Pyongyang), explore its smaller cousin. The east coast city hasn’t seen a whole lot of westerners. Most of the non-locals who have passed through were East Germans (I know, that’s not even a thing any more) who were involved in rebuilding the region after the country’s 1945 “Liberation from Japan.” Last May, Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours became the first tourist to put leather on the ground in Hamhung since North Korea became a country. Now, the way is paved for you! Local attractions include the Hamhung Grand Theatre and the Hamhung fertilizer factory (where Kim Il Sung once imparted some wisdom!).


2. Make merry at Outer Mount Kumgang: Also an east coast destination in North Korea, Outer Kumgang is home to a Hyundai-run resort and is now open to access via North Korea for the first time since the 2008 incident when a soldier shot a tourist there (ouch!). It’s a great place for hiking, and Samil Lagoon is apparently not to be missed.

3. Rock Rason: Koryo Tours is now offering independent tours of the Rason area of North Korea, making it the only western travel company ever to do so. This is a rare treat and a chance to see something beyond Pyongyang if you’re an old pro at North Korean travel.

4. Take on the Tuman Triangle:
visit China, Russia and North Korea in one trip, as you explore the area around the river that creates the borders for these three countries. According to Koryo Tours:

The route that our pioneering group of 18 took was a flight to Yanji in NE China’s Jilin province, then to the North Korean free trade zone of Rason (previously known as Rajin-Sonbong, a place where western tourists are almost unheard of but which Koryo tours have been visiting since 1996). We spent 4 days in the area doing a diverse range of activities such as seeing ports and seafood factories, playing beach football against Russian railway engineers, shopping in a public market – the only place this can be done in North Korea – going to the obligatory revolutionary sites, visiting the doctors (!) and local kindergartens, going to a deserted casino, doing a boat trip around the nearby islands, and more!

The last group was the first ever to cross into Russia by train at the town of Khasan, blazing a trail for you to experience what few can only imagine.

5. Sheer stupidity: you could always try to cross the border sans guide, visas and common sense, but that usually doesn’t work out all that well. Your best bet when visiting North Korea is to find a travel company that really specializes in the destination.