Though they're busy constantly threatening nuclear war, maintaining a secretive totalitarian state, and squashing dissent among the citizenry, the leaders of the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (DPRNK) always find the time to welcome foreign visitors and currency. The country's total international arrivals – not counting Chinese – number fewer than 6,000 most years; even so, North Korea's leaders have long made encouraging tourism a priority. This is the paradox in which the MIR Corporation, a well-respected American outfitter offering several new trips into the DPRNK, now operates.
MIR's founder, Douglas Grimes, began his career as a welcoming committee for tourists visiting America's political adversaries three decades ago with a series of volleyball games between traveling Yankees and USSR loyalists. Since then, MIR has taken skiers, climbers, and other adventurous travelers into some of Europe and Asia's most difficult-to-access regions, from Iran to the Caucasus Mountains. North Korea is just the latest destination – and one that Grimes says doesn't quite live up to its reputation as a bizarre, dangerous hellhole. On his scouting trip, Grimes found beautifully pastoral agricultural areas and an immaculate, even pretty, capital.
"I didn't feel like people weren't happy, which I was kind of expecting," he says. "I was pleasantly surprised that people seem to be relatively okay and going about their daily lives and not repressed." Grimes says the beauty of traveling is getting to see beyond the news stories. The country is undeniably a wreck, but not every North Korean spends all day suffering – they're too busy having lives.
Still, visiting the country is a bewildering immersion in weirdness. Empty streets as wide as a football fields are common ("We'd be going down the highway and we wouldn't see another car for 20 minutes," says Grimes) and the Mass Games, a propagandist display of gymnastics, dancing, and acrobatics performed by some 100,000 people doesn't exactly speak to an emphasis on individualism.
Some critics question the ethics of supporting a country – visitors stay in government-operated hotels because everything is government operated – with a questionable-at-best human rights record and shaky relations with the U.S. But interacting with a truly foreign culture is always a worthwhile experience, even under the watchful eye of a government minder.
More Information: MIR handles the incredibly complicated process of applying for and receiving a visa for its clients. The company's first North Korea trip will visit Beijing, Pyongyang – where the Mass Games take place – several mountain parks, and the DMZ over 11 days ($5,195, plus $650 for round-trip flights from Beijing and Pyongyang.) MIR also runs trips to Eastern Europe, Russia, Iran, and a handful of 'stans.