A North Korean cruise

A North Korean cruise


The North Korean state launched itself into the glitzy world of cruise tourism when about 130 passengers set sail from the rundown port of Rajin, near the China-Russia border, for the scenic Mount Kumgang resort near the South Korean border.

. Rason, North Korea. Reuters/Carlos Barria

Local residents attend the departure ceremony of a cruise ship. Isolated North Korea's "state tourism bureau" teamed up with a Chinese travel company to run the country's first ever cruise aboard an ageing 9,700 tonne vessel which once plied the waters off the east coast of the divided peninsula shuttling passengers between North Korea and Japan.

. Rason, North Korea. Reuters/Carlos Barria

Members of a Chinese tourism delegation dance aboard the cruise ship. A top local official told reporters that China and Russia had invested heavily in the region in order to gain access to its three east coast ports in the towns of Rajin and Songbon, which are the main centres for the secretive North's Rason special economic zone.

. Rason, North Korea. Reuters/Carlos Barria

Beer and dried fish on the deck area.

. Kumgang, North Korea. Reuters/Carlos Barria

An employee enters a room at a hotel in Mount Kumgang resort.

. Rason, North Korea. Reuters/Carlos Barria

Members of a Chinese tourism delegation relax on the top deck. Destitute North Korea's push to breathe new life into its economic relationships with China and Russia appears to be bearing fruit in the far north of the country where foreigners are busily helping to rebuild the region's creaking infrastructure.

. Rason, North Korea. Reuters/Carlos Barria

A waitress throws garbage overboard as the ship arrives at Rason City.

"Vacation in North Korea?"
Carlos Barria, Reuters Photographer

If you are planning to take an exotic vacation, maybe Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is your place.

A week ago I joined a group of foreign journalists and a delegation of Chinese tourism agents on a trip highlighted by a cruise that left the port area of North Korea’s Rason City and headed south to the country’s famous Mont Kumgang resort. To get to the ship, we took a bus from China to a border crossing in Hunchun. Before we arrived at customs, our Chinese guides collected our mobile phones. North Korean authorities don’t allow foreigners to carry any type of mobile communications.

When we crossed a bridge over the river Tumen Jiang, which marks the border between China and North Korea, we passed from a modern highway to an unpaved country road.

On the way to Rason City we had the rare chance to see rural life in one of the most isolated countries on the planet. My first impressions were of people riding old bicycles along the road, green corn fields, gentle rolling hills, and the sensation of breathing clean air.

When we arrived in Rason City, things changed. As the bus pulled onto the city streets, we left behind the green of the countryside and entered a sprawling grey landscape, where the only bright colors were on propaganda paintings.

We stopped for lunch in a place that looked like a restaurant for officials or special guests. Inside, 28-year-old Pak Ok Hui waited for costumers at a food-gift shop, with just with a few scant items for sale – eggs, dried fish and a handful of mementos.

My first interaction with a local in Rason City was at the reception of the hotel during the check-in. A woman in her fifties was talking on the phone in front of a big world map. It showed the Korean peninsula marked in red, with a white star in the middle. It served as a reminder of the idea of a single Korea; one big communist country.

After visiting a monument of the leader Kim Il-sung , schoolchildren performed and we were taken to an art exhibit of propaganda paintings. Then we arrived at the port where we boarded a 1970’s cargo ship that had been converted into a cruise ship.

As we were waiting for the departure ceremony a groups of locals (brought there by the authorities) arrived holding plastic flowers and North Korean flags to give us a celebratory send-off.

The trip was organized by Korea Taepung International investment group as part of an effort to promote Mount Kumgang resort as a tourist destination. The resort was initially a joint project between North and South Korea but it ran into problems after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean woman who strayed outside of a tourist zone.

After this incident, South Korea stopped sending tourists and demanded an investigation. Eventually, just weeks ago, North Korean authorities took full control of the resort and expelled the last South Koreans working there, with the intention of reviving it.

The resort is surrounded by rock mountains and waterfalls and includes seven hotels, as well as a commercial area with an auditorium, a golf court, sand beaches and picturesque lakes. The resort also boasts a perfect summer climate.

In contrast with this beautiful landscape and the potential of this area, I was very surprised to see crew members of the cruise ship throwing all the restaurant’s garbage overboard, into the sea. Members of the Chinese tourism delegation did the same with their empty beer bottles.

Overall, if you plan to take a vacation completely disconnected from normal life, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is your place.