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Simon Calder on why UK tourism in North Korea will return sooner than you think

Exclusive: British visitors could be back in the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ by the summer

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 15 February 2024 13:26 GMT
Welcome back? Tourists have not been allowed into North Korea since January 2020
Welcome back? Tourists have not been allowed into North Korea since January 2020 (Dylan Harris)

Four years after North Korea cut itself off from the world as Covid spread, the nation’s frontiers look set to open once again to tightly controlled tour groups.

One UK adventure company predicts British travellers will be able to return during the first half of the year.

North Korea closed completely to foreign visitors in January 2020 and has remained off limits for four years. This week a group of Russian tourists flew in from the far eastern city of Vladivostok to Pyongyang, on what was described as “a test tour delegation” ahead of a full reopening.

The trip, run by the travel firm Vostok Intur, followed a meeting last September between North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and Russian president Vladimir Putin. North Korea’s economy is believed to have shrunk significantly as a result of the Covid closure and international sanctions.

Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based firm that before the pandemic was a leading operator to North Korea, said: “This is a special Russian group going on a ski trip, not quite a normal tourist trip due to links between military cooperation between the two states making this trip possible – thus outside of anything like normal tourism process.”

In the UK, Lupine Travel has a waiting list of 150 prospective visitors impatient to travel to the self-styled Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Dylan Harris, founder of Lupine, told The Independent: “As soon as reopening is announced, we’d hope to have tours on sale within a month – and to run a trip by June.”

But Mr Harris said the prospects of being able to cross the heavily defended “Demilitarised Zone” between North and South Korea “won’t be happening any time soon”.

A decade ago he predicted the frontier between the two nations might open within five years, but he now believes it will not happen “for the foreseeable future”.

Before the pandemic, Lupine Travel was planning to run the first rail trips from its UK base of Wigan in northwest England to North Korea. The initial journey to Pyongyang, planned for April 2020, sold out immediately and a second was planned for September that year. But both were rendered impossible by international border closures.

The Wigan to Pyongyang rail trip, which was to start with Avanti West Coast and also involved the Warsaw to Moscow sleeper and the Trans-Siberian Railway between the Russian capital and Irkutsk, is not feasible at present.

The Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to North Korea. It warns travellers: “The North Korean authorities have reportedly detained some foreign nationals and denied them access to consular support.

“While daily life in the capital city Pyongyang may appear calm, the security situation in North Korea can change with little notice and with no advance warning of possible actions by the North Korean authorities.

“This poses significant risks to British visitors and residents.”

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