A travel app that takes you on a virtual tour of the unfamiliar nation
We’ll begin our tour in Rajin, best known as ‘the World’s Worst Zoo’.
According to Koryo Tours, in 2004 it contained “three ducks, a turkey, some elusive foxes and a drawing of a monkey”. Next we learn about Vinalon, the synthetic miracle fabric made from, among other things, limestone. Boasting a range of benefits from “temperature regulation to sartorial elegance,” this is your chance to wear limestone before Pyongyang's runways. Finally, sink into a tub at Ryonggang Hot Spa Hotel, filled with hot water directly pumped from underground, so guests can take advantage of its sulphuric healing powers. As a bonus, close your eyes and listen to a unique soundtrack — “a loud, lengthy news/propaganda broadcast from a nearby village”.
Forbidding, secretive, intimidating — and fascinating for these very reasons — the DPRK is one of the world’s most restrictive nations. (The country’s officially chosen name translates to ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’. ‘North Korea’ is seen as an inappropriate moniker here.) Visitors have to be accompanied by government-approved travel guides at all times. Itineraries can only feature locations and activities that have been pre-approved by the DPRK’s tourist board. Journalists cannot enter on a tourist visa. And South Koreans are not allowed in.
Still want to go? Well. There’s an app for that.
Enter the freshly minted ‘North Korea Travel App.’ Developed by British start-up Uniquely.Travel, this guide matter-of-factly opens up the country. Despite featuring a format similar to most conventional tourist guides, this app stands out for content, put together by North Korea experts. They include Simon Cockerell, who works with Koryo tours, and has been to the country 140 times. And Curtis Melvin, reportedly the world's leading DPRK satellite imagery expert, subsequently banned from entering the country for helping the team map the DPRK.
With about 6,000 Westerners visiting every year, in addition to approximately 50,000 Chinese and Japanese-Korean, the number of tourists are much higher than one would imagine. However, the app’s real target seems to be people who are simply curious about North Korea, from arm chair travellers to history buffs. Just 24 hours after launch, they reported several thousand downloads.
Chad O’Carrol, Project Manager, banned from North Korea for his journalism on the country, set up NK News, a privately-owned specialist site on the country, in April 2010 after his first visit. Discussing the app, he says, “Friends of mine had an all-in-one App idea to combine a travel guide with a competitive booking platform. While they were unsure whether it could work for places like France or the U.S, it was clear from early on that tourists eager to go to countries of unique interest – like Iran and DPRK – could benefit from a concept like this.”
Since he had travelled to North Korea a few times before the ban, and had a strong network of contacts he suggested creating a “polished and comprehensive North Korea app” to begin with. “North Korea stimulates more interest from the general public than any other developing country in the world. For many, North Korea has a moon-like quality and as a result, few foreigners even know it is possible to visit. And for those who know they can actually visit, only a small minority know just how widely you can travel inside the DPRK,” he says.
Chad adds, “But for the first time the app - and map data – shows just how much of the country is open. Many of the sites blow a massive hole in the argument that North Korean tours only allow visitors to see the best places in the country. From small villages rarely visited by even local North Korean guides, to nature spots in the far-reaches of the country, the App will help those planning a visit to try and get beyond the sites on a classic itinerary. And for those that have no intention of going, the app provides lots of interesting material to read about, material that will hopefully add nuance to users’ view of life in North Korea.”
The project stalled repeatedly because of difficulty in obtaining photos or identifying GPS coordinates of certain areas. “Cost wise, it costs about $20,000 and a lot of time.”
The next issue is, of course, the obvious ethical problems raised by being a tourist in such a repressive state. “It is fair to say that tourism does indeed help the North Korean government: it provides Pyongyang with foreign currency that in reality, we have no way of knowing how is used,” says Chad. “And when sycophantic groups like the Korea Friendship Association visit the DPRK, they provide propaganda material and legitimacy for the authorities, too. The app's Ethics Guide – written by North Korea expert Dr. Andrei Lankov – does not shy away from these issues, with him concluding that despite the problems, the industry overall has a net positive effect due its potential to slowly change perceptions.”
The app certainly introduces you to a fascinating country. A place boasting a Foreigner’s Clinic, where doctors put patients on a saline drip, “a common catch all treatment in the DPRK”. By the way, the “clinic has a well stocked bar with beer and spirits from around the world.” Next explore the Youth Hero highway a almost deserted 10 lane highway running between Pyongyang and Nampo built under the direction of Kim Jong II by ‘young people’ (aged 17 to 40) and considered to be one of the state’s “great feats of engineering of the modern state.” Footnote: it’s “actually very bumpy, potholed and would benefit greatly from a total overhaul.” Let’s end with a quick snack: clam BBQ. “This involves covering the ground with a spread out pile of small clams, dousing them in gasoline and then setting them alight.” Eat. Repeat. “The strong smell of petrol may put you off, but the clams are usually nicely cooked. Occasionally you’ll get one that didn’t ignite properly, and is a raw clam shell full of petrol. But that’s just part of the fun. “
For more details visit www.northkoreatravel.com