AUSTRALIAN student Alek Sigley has been showing curious visitors the sights of North Korea for years, but he can still remember his first trip to the “Hermit Kingdom”.
It was 2012 and Sigley, who was studying the North Korean language in northeast China, crossed the border for a field trip.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Sigley, 27, tells news.com.au. “I’ve travelled a bit and I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world quite like it.”
An industrialised country that had no advertising, no McDonald’s, no internet. It was, he says, “a little world of its own.”
But it had him hooked, and, within a year, he started Australia’s first and only specialist tour company operating in the enigmatic country of 25 million people.
Since then, he’s been to North Korea more times than he can count and he leads several tour groups there each year with his business Tongil Tours.
Despite its reputation as the world’s most isolated country, North Korea is on a tourism drive and dictator Kim Jong Un has set an ambitious goal of growing foreign visitors from just over 100,000 annually to two million by 2020.
School children play in a fountain in central Pyongyang. Picture: Reuben Teo/ Malaysian Photographer and Expert Partner at Tongil ToursSource:Supplied
A number of special tourism zones have been established over the past few years and, along with the more traditional tours of state sites and monuments, visitors can now go snowboarding, surfing and will soon be able to stay in an underwater hotel.
But facing sanctions for its nuclear weapons program and unable to shake allegations of enslavement, torture and public executions, boosting tourism numbers will be tough.
Sigley, who is from Perth but currently based in Seoul, says it was surprisingly easy to establish his tour business. He is partnered with one of three state-owned tourism companies and sees the country’s tourism drive as a positive sign.
“Tourism is something that the North Korean government wants to encourage. I think that more engagement with the outside world is a good thing.”
Still, a holiday in North Korea is unlike any other. Independent travel is out of the question, and foreigners can easily find themselves in trouble for seemingly innocuous crimes.
American tourist Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for stealing a political banner from a hotel in 2015. The year before, Australian Christian missionary John Short was detained and then expelled from the country after he left pamphlets promoting Christianity at a Buddhist temple.
Sigley says if you use common sense and obey local laws it’s actually very safe. There are just a few fundamental rules that all visitors have to follow.
“The main one is that you have to accept that your movement is restricted and you have to follow the group. You have to follow the itinerary and you have to follow the guide,” Sigley says, adding each group is assigned two guides.
Beyond that, visitors are told to refrain from proselytising, disrespecting North Korea’s supreme leaders and taking photographs of soldiers or military areas.
“You cannot simply go there and walk down the street as you please. It can be a bit frustrating at times,” Sigley says.
Getting a glimpse of life beyond each carefully orchestrated tour can be difficult, but Sigley says it’s not impossible.
“Just driving around you can get a fair idea of what it’s like for people. You see stuff like ox-drawn carts and things like that, you see people hitchhiking and you see cars that have been outfitted to run on coal — they give off a big plume of black smoke as they go down the road,” he says of life outside the capital Pyongyang.
North Korea remains one of the most repressive societies in the world, according to Human Rights Watch, and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea is deeply suspicious of foreign ideas, many of which are deemed subversive.
Puhung ‘revival’ Station in Pyongyang. Picture: Reuben Teo/ Malaysian Photographer and Expert Partner at Tongil ToursSource:Supplied
However, that doesn’t mean visitors are completely boxed in and unable to interact with locals.
Along with visits to architectural sites, skiing and hiking trips, Tongil Tours whisks visitors to supermarkets and pubs in Pyongyang where they can rub shoulders with locals.
The tourist bars have microbreweries on site or serve North Korea’s national beer Taedonggang, Sigley says. Just don’t expect the latest Western pop hits on the speakers.
“A lot of people find the opportunity to interact with foreigners to be exciting. They’ll invite you to sit down and share food with them, give you some of their soju [a local spirit],” he says.
Despite the level of state control in North Korea, Sigley thinks visitors leave with a good picture what life is really like inside the country.
He’s also bullish on the benefits of tourists spending their money on a trip there.
“A lot of people say tourism and any form of engagement is not ethical, but I don’t agree,” Sigley says. “To the contrary, I think that engagement with North Korea is the only ethical way.
“How is North Korea going to integrate with the rest of the world if it doesn’t have contact with the world?”