Page last updated at 13:24 GMT, Wednesday, 17 September 2003 14:24 UK

On holiday in North Korea

By Kate McGeown
BBC News Online

Grey apartment blocks, bugged hotel rooms, an erratic electricity supply and rumours of a secret nuclear arsenal - North Korea is not everyone's idea of a perfect holiday destination.

But plenty of South Koreans signed up for their first chance to visit the North's capital Pyongyang this week, and they are not the only tourists trekking to this isolated communist state.

The main street in Pyongyang ( photograph courtesy of Robert Willoughby)
The lack of fuel means that Pyongyang's streets are eerily quiet
In fact, according to Robert Willoughby - the author of the Bradt travel guide to North Korea - there has never been a better time to go.

"The number of things to see and do is growing all the time," he told BBC News Online.

There is no denying that a visit to North Korea is both expensive and difficult to organise.

And the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon, thanks to the country's almost pariah-like status within the international community.

But 1,500 Western tourists still visit every year, together with thousands more from Asia, and according to Mr Willoughby the country's isolation is the very reason they go.

'Stalinist theme park'

Pyongyang is the obvious first stop on any tour of North Korea.

Its many statues and monuments - most of them dedicated to the now-deceased "Eternal President" Kim Il-sung - are a must-see.

In fact they literally must be seen, as the compulsory guides who accompany all foreign tourists are certain to include them in the itinerary.

North Korea's tourist attractions

The grand statue of Kim on Mansu Hill is likely to be first on the list.

Tourists are expected to buy a wreath to place at the foot of the statue, and doff their hats in respect, Mr Willoughby said.

The Juche Tower is another key attraction. The tower honours Kim's concept of Juche, or self-reliance, which became the country's guiding philosophy.

Many tourists are also taken to the Mangyongdae Schoolchildren's Palace, where children sing and dance in honour of Kim Il-sung and his son, the current leader Kim Jong-il.

Pyongyang is very modern in some respects, but completely alien in others, said Mr Willoughby.

"There's absolutely no reference to the outside world - no adverts, no symbols," he said.

"At night, because of the energy shortages, there are no lights and it's absolutely silent. You can hear babies crying from the other side of the river."

It's not Torremolinos yet ... but there's no place like it
Nicholas Bonner, Koryo Travel
Reporter Ben Anderson, who travelled to North Korea for the BBC Four series Holidays in the Axis of Evil, said the country was strange to the point of being surreal.

He described it as a "Stalinist theme park", complete with a different version of historical events to the rest of the world.

"It must be very tough for the South Koreans, as most of what you see is about the North Koreans winning the war," he told BBC News Online. (The Korean War actually ended in a stalemate.)

The two Kims are treated as virtual gods, and dominate every aspect of North Korean life.

"On a visit to a co-operative farm, we were even shown the 'Great Leader's Pomegranate Tree'," Mr Anderson said.

He also visited the International Friendship Museum, which is devoted to gifts given to the two leaders.

Among the more eccentric items on display are a warthog from Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, a limousine from China's Chairman Mao and a stuffed crocodile from Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu.

Even the hotels and restaurants provide a new and strange experience.

"There is a road called Restaurant Street, which has several food outlets, all of which are empty," he said.

"There are no menus, as you get what there is in stock. The best restaurant in town served us a burger with a fried egg."

'Last bastion of communism'

If a visit to North Korea proves somewhat bizarre, the entry procedure should give a few clues as to what lies ahead.

"Few people are actually refused entry, unless they are a spy, a journalist or an American," said Ben Anderson.

Juche Tower
The Juche Tower honours Kim Il-sung's policy of self-reliance
The passenger's passport details are required in advance, as well as their curriculum vitae and a letter from their workplace.

But according to Nicholas Bonner, from Koryo Travel, which specialises in trips to North Korea, most Westerners wanting to visit the country are prepared for the extensive paperwork.

"A lot of them have read up about the place beforehand. They want to go and see the last bastion of communism," he said.

A few, however, go for more unusual reasons.

"We've had people who want to see the country's rollercoasters, and others who want to tour Pyongyang's revolving restaurants," he said.

But the number of people prepared to travel to this isolated nation is still relatively few, Mr Bonner conceded.

"It's not Torremolinos yet," he said, "but there's no place like it."

Many of the images used in this article are courtesy of Robert Willoughby or Koryo Tours.

S Koreans' first visit to Pyongyang
15 Sep 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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