Five North Korea trips for 2011, and a “no taxation” celebration

It isn’t easy to visit North Korea. The country makes it intentionally difficult for outsiders to get in. For those of us in the United States, the distances to be traveled increase the barrier even more. Well, I just got the list of tour options from Koryo Tours, and it looks like North Korea is more open than ever!

There are several ways you can get to Pyongyang and other cities in 2011 – and not just for the Arirang event. Chartered planes, bikes and new destinations are on the itinerary, making this an exciting company to reach the most isolated nation on the face of the planet. Take a look below at five ways you can visit North Korea next year.


1. Arirang 2011 confirmed: if you’ve always wanted to see Arirang in Pyongyang, next year’s dates have already been confirmed. Westerners will be able to witness the spectacle from August 1, 2011 through September 9, 2011. For those short on time or cash, consider taking a Mass Games Mini Break jaunt for three days.


2. Second city access: don’t stop at Pyongyang! In 2011, you have the option to visit Hamhung, on the east coast of North Korea, and Rason, the country’s free trade zone. From Rason, you’ll leave the country by train to Vladivostok.

3. Take your time: visitors to North Korea who don’t want to miss anything can take advantage of a 16-day excursion into the world’s most isolated country. In addition to a deep look at Pyongyang and the surrounding areas, you’ll fly by chartered plane out to Mount Paekdu, one of the most important sites in relation to the Kim family. Chongjin, Hamhung and Mount Kumgang are also on the itinerary.


4. Ride a bike: for the first time, you can bike across parts of North Korea (five-day and nine-day options are available). Pyongyang, Nampo and Sariwon are on the list, as well as Kaesong, the ancient capital. For the long option, you’ll also fly to Mount Paekdu by chartered plane for even more scenic cycling. This has never been done before!

5. No taxation: visit Pyongyang in late march to celebrate Tax Abolition Day (March 21, 2010). This is the anniversary of North Korea’s abolishing what the sixteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution permitted. Maybe we’ll see some of the “Tea Party” folks on this one?

[photo by David Stanley 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.

North Korea Threatens “Historical Punishment” for Vacation Blocking

Korea Central News Agency, the official mouthpiece of North Korea, is mad – damned mad – that South Koreans aren’t heading across the border any more.

Mt. Kumgang tours were made possible at one point, but the South Korean government has suspended them, according to the North, because the Ministry of Unification and other governmental bodies have expressed doubts about the personal safety of visitors. This has been interpreted as “nothing but an intention to completely suspend tourism.”

The absence of vacationers has had profound consequences, it seems: “Mt. Kumgang has been driven into a catastrophic crisis owing to the desperate obstruction of the present regime.” Ouch! The KCNA also reports that the South is “depreciating the achievements made in the past economic cooperation work under the unreasonable pretexts.”

Though Kumgang may be exposed to a “catastrophic crisis,” the Seoul regime will not emerge unscathed. According to the KCNA, the authorities down south “will be bound to face punishment by history if they persist in the hostile policy toward the DPRK and hinder the south-north cooperation, the organizations urged them to immediately opt for resumption of the tour of Mt. Kumgang.

Undiscovered New York – Exploring Koreatown

Like many other large cities, you might already know that New York has a large and continuously growing Chinatown. Yet in a city that is home to more than 100 distinct immigrant groups, it’s also home to a surprisingly diverse assortment of residents from homes across the Asian continent. One strip of authentic Asian culture that tends to get overshadowed by Chinatown is Koreatown, its lesser-known neighbor on 32nd Street between Broadway and 5th Avenue.

Also known by its nickname “K-Town,” this densely-populated block packs in a huge range of entertainment and culinary options, enough in fact to make a full evening out of it. Sandwiched inside the upper floors of surprisingly drab commercial office buildings are hidden Korean Barbecue joints, raucous BYOB Karaoke dens, swanky lounges and rooftop bars with stunning views of the Empire State Building. It’s a city in and of itself, and a strip that’s particularly ripe for exploration.

Want to learn more about where to go and what to see to make the most of your trip? Step inside Undiscovered New York’s guide to Koreatown.
Bon Chon Chicken
Think you’ve had some great fried chicken before? You haven’t lived until you try the spicy and soy-garlic style Korean fried chicken at Bon Chon. This swanky spot offers a range of Korean bar-food favorites including the aforementioned chicken, Latin American-style sweet corn, sushi and rosemary french fries. It’s a Korean smorgasbord in the best possible sense – trust me, the combination of food sounds odd, but it works. And when you take that first bite of chicken you’ll be making plans for your next trip back.

Karaoke Dens
Koreatown is not just about eating – it’s just as much a street that’s made for entertainment. And when we’re talking about evening plans in Koreatown, that typically means Karaoke. As you walk down 32nd street you’ll find any number of signboards advertising karaoke bars on the floors within. Just find any place that looks interesting and walk on in. Those with a severe case of stage fright shouldn’t despair – almost all karaoke spots in Koreatown let you rent private rooms so you can belt out that off-key rendition of Barry Manilow without fear of embarassment. A karaoke session typically includes a private room, a variety of bar snacks and server to bring you drinks. One of the better known spots on 32nd Street is iBop, well known for its “bring your own alcohol” policies.

Korean Barbecue
As you might expect on a street specializing in the food and culture of Korea, there’s a plentiful assortment of Korean Barbecue restaurants. A meal typically consists of an assortment of plentiful grilled meats, prepared on an in-table grill as well as an array of small dishes like the ubiquitous kimchi and other pickled vegetables. Though there’s a number good Korean Barbecue spots on 32nd Street, our favorite is actually Kum Gang Sang, if for no other reason than the insane fake-rock grotto complete with grand piano wedged in the corner of the restaurant. Another good choice is Seoul Garden, a restaurant located in an unassuming corner of the second floor of an office building.

Million Dollar Views
One of the more interesting characteristics of Koreatown is its proximity to one of New York City’s most iconic buildings, the Empire State Building. Want to get a bird’s-eye of this amazing structure? Shhhh….you’ve got to keep it a secret though. Koreatown visitors in the know head to the rooftop patio at the La Quinta Inn, called Mé Bar, where they can drink in million dollar views along with a beverage of choice. Its perhaps the perfect way to end an evening in one of New York’s lesser known but fantastic neighborhoods.