President Bush may consider it a member of the "axis of evil" and its leader may be an eccentric dictator, but North Korea is nonetheless a hot travel ticket this summer.
North Korea will allow U.S. passport holders to enter on visas Aug. 10 to Oct. 10 to go to the 2006 Arirang Festival in Pyongyang and to attend the 2006 Mass Games, a synchronized gymnastics performance with thousands of participants. Travel companies and universities are taking the opportunity to visit a place that has been largely off-limits for Americans for most of the past half century. But some apparently are doing so with mixed feelings.
An e-mail message from the Harvard Alumni Association alerting former students about its $6,360, 12-day trip said, "such an offering is not without controversies," but adds "the confluence of events that made it possible has convinced us that it is something we should make available to our alumni."
Walter L. Keats, a Harvard alumnus and president of Asia Pacific Travel, is leading the trip. "By more people seeing it, we will have a better understanding of what's going on there," Keats said. "I don't think we accomplish anything by not having anything to do with them."
"It's a controversial destination," said Jason Graham, director of operations for High Country Passage, an educational tour operator that is arranging seven trips to North Korea this summer for several universities, including Harvard. The question for each organization offering the trip is: "Do you engage or do you isolate?" Graham said.
The United States does not ban travel to North Korea, but does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with the country, either. Geographic Expeditions is offering 11-day trips starting at $5,190 per person that include home stays with North Korean families and visits to the cities of Kaesong and Panmunjom on the edge of the demilitarized zone; geoex.com, 800-777-8183. Asia Pacific Travel is offering 12-day tours starting at $4,199; northkorea 1on1.com, 800-262-6420. (Neither includes airfare.)
Travelers contemplating a journey to North Korea must bear in mind that their trip is arranged through a government agency and that there will be little if any freedom of movement. Tourists are expected to follow customs, such as bowing to the statue of Kim Il Sung when visiting Mansudae monument in Pyongyang.