Everybody loves Arirang according to North Korean news agency

It’s Arirang time! The North Korean group gymnastics festival is under way, and the crowds are predictably adoring. According to the Korea Central News Agency, the twenty-fifth batch of campers of the Songdowon International Children’s Camp “appreciated the grand gymnastic and artistic performance.” But, that shouldn’t come as a surprise because it was in KCNA.

Shockingly, the KCNA continued:

Zhaoli, head of the group of Chinese campers, said that the performance is the acme and the Korean people are demonstrating before the whole world their dignity under the wise leadership of General Secretary Kim Jong Il.

Russian campers were happy, too. Nataliya Andreyevskaya, who headed up the sixth group, “keenly felt through the performance that each country and nation can become glorious and powerful only when they have a great leader.”

And since no KCNA report is complete without this … “[Nataliya Tatarina of the first group of Russians] stressed that no force on earth can match the strength of the Korean people closely united around Kim Jong Il, the sun of the 21st century.”

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

Shanghai: New route from China to North Korea

It isn’t exactly a wide-open commercial route, but at least the door is slightly ajar. Korean Air charter flights will start flying from Shanghai to Pyongyang on August 6, 2010, when the first group of tourists will take advantage of this (rather slight) liberalization of North Korean travel rules.

The goal, of course, is to “help to further promote cooperation and exchanges between China and North Korea in trade, tourism and culture,” according to People’s Daily Online.

It doesn’t look like the move is coincidental, as this is the 60th anniversary of the start of what we call the “Korean War,” though on the other side of the border, it’s given the moniker, “the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”

August is a great time to go to Pyongyang, given the Arirang Festival, which usually runs until October. And since North Korea is now a new destination for the Chinese tourist travel market (since April 12, 2010), the locals can take full advantage of this unique opportunity.

[photo by yeowatzup via Flickr]

Five rules for traveling to North Korea

I’m told that travel to North Korea is quite safe, as long as you follow the rules (and don’t do anything stupid). You have to realize that, politics aside, you’re entering a country that just does things differently. Of course, the consequences that come with straying can be severe. The trip will be scripted, but you know that going in. Follow the bouncing ball, and you’ll be just fine.

This year, we’ll get a sense of how widely North Korea is willing to open its doors to the line of westerners waiting to enter. In 2009, the window for Arirang-related trips was extended, and there are some indications that this year will bring further liberalization to travel rules for Americans. There’s nothing but opportunity, it seems, for travelers interested in seeing the most remote country on the planet.

Again, travel to North Korea is safe, I’m told, as long as you stick to an established tour group, preferably one that specializes in excursions for westerners. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to be hyper-conscious of your environment. Here are five ways to make sure you don’t extend the “Ugly American” stereotype to Pyongyang.

1. Stay on the beaten path
Every travel writer in the world seems intent on delivering super-local, “insidery” insights, encouraging you to really blend. In North Korea, that’s the worst advice you could possibly receive. Want to see something strange? The beaten path will give you plenty.

2. Bring cigarettes

Fuck the Surgeon General! Everything I’ve read suggests that North Korean cigarettes suck. Use packs of Marlboros as tips, and you’ll be treated very well throughout your vacation. Pick up a few cartons at home, preferably in a state that doesn’t tax the hell out of them.

3. Be careful with your camera
There is no shortage of rules about what you can photograph (and how). When in doubt, ask your tour guide. First, you don’t want to run afoul of the regs. More important, though, is that you don’t want to ruin someone else’s day … which could end in a damaged career or worse. This is especially the case if you want to take pictures of North Korean people (which is almost always forbidden).

4. Don’t go political
Be open to having a good time. The official guides are actually quite personable and seem to realize, if subconsciously, that they are in the service industry. Your North Korean tour guides will probably be more accommodating than the flight attendants you encountered en route from the United States. Interact with your guide as guides — not as politicians. These people aren’t setting North Korean policy any more than you’re setting U.S. policy.

5. Interview the tour company
The people taking you into North Korea will make a difference. Stick with a reputable company that has a track record of running tours for westerners. Before you make a purchase, talk to the people who run the company. Get comfortable with them. Don’t be afraid to ask even the strangest questions. The right tour company will not only be open to them, it will answer you from a position of expertise and experience.

North Korea extends Arirang again!

Well, it looks like this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will be offered again this year. That’s what happens, though, when you’re dealing with Pyongyang – you never know what to expect. The latest news is that the Arirang Mass Games festival has been extended from the end of September to October 17, 2009, giving Koryo Tours time to schedule one more outing for western visitors.

Like the last trip offered, this short run through the most isolated country on the planet will last three days and includes flights to and from Beijing, all meals and hotel stays, transportation, entry fees, guide services and just about everything else (though you are encouraged to bring gifts for your hosts). You’ll also have two opportunities to see the Arirang spectacle, along with the usual North Korean sights: Juche Tower, Pyongyang Metro, Kim Il Sung Square and others.

The trip comes at a price of €850 (around $1,100), though discounts area available for students, children and groups of three or more booking together. Of course, the dates aren’t flexible – this is North Korea, after all. The trip runs from October 15 to 17, and the booking deadline is October 3. Americans are welcome on this trip.

So, if you saw the last deal from Koryo Tours and weren’t sure, you have another shot at visiting this unusual destination.

Not sure what Arirang is? Check out the video after the jump.

Spend a weekend in Pyongyang

If you didn’t get a shot at the last short trip that Koryo Tours organized into North Korea, you have another chance coming. This rare breed of travel company – which brings westerners into the most isolated country on earth – is planning an excursion for September 24 – 26, which will include the sights of Pyongyang and the opportunity to witness the Arirang Mass Games spectacle.

The “mini-break,” as Koryo Tours is calling it, starts and ends in Beijing (so you’ll need a double-entry visa for China) and includes all fees, accommodations, transportation, guide services and flights for the Beijing-to-Beijing roundtrip – you’ll have to arrange your own travel to and from Beijing. Along the way, there are two chances to go to Arirang, not to mention Juche Tower, the Korean War Museum’s interesting take on history, Kim Il Sung Square and the Pyongyang Metro. U.S. citizens are permitted to join in on the experience.

So, if you’re looking to cross into the unknown, make your reservation by September 14. At €850, it’s an absolute steal. If you have any misgivings, Koryo Tours says, “A fascinating, safe and unique experience is guaranteed.”