Philharmonic's visit to North Korea is music to ears of U.S. travelers

It's too soon to tell whether this week's historic visit to North Korea by the New York Philharmonic orchestra will signal more melodious interactions between the USA and an insular, totalitarian regime branded as rogue nation and charter member of the "axis of evil."

But the symphony's performances of the North Korean national anthem and The Star Spangled Banner, as well as a government invitation to rocker Eric Clapton to perform, have spurred inquiries from been-there, done-that Americans who are eager to pin a dot from a forbidden destination on their world travel maps.

In contrast to its Cuba travel policy, the USA doesn't prevent American tourists from visiting North Korea. But the country restricts U.S. citizens to carefully orchestrated and controlled visits during its Grand Mass Gymnastic and Artistic Performance, or Arirang festival. The spectacle in the capital, Pyongyang, involves 100,000 or so participants and, observers say, makes the opening of the Olympics look like a kindergarten pageant.

Klaus Billep, whose company, Universal Travel System in Santa Monica, has been selling North Korean tours on a limited basis for the past decade or so, believes the Philharmonic concert could generate more interest in the destination. He sent about 150 Americans to the country in 2007 and has sold tours to about 60 people for this year's festival.

But "the better d├ętente gets, the less exciting North Korea will be," predicts John Sugnet of Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco. The company has offered tours to the Arirang festival for the past two years but decided to suspend them this year because of the vagaries of dealing with North Korean officials. One of the company's two 2007 departures was canceled because of bureaucratic red tape and flooding near the stadium, he says.

Walter Keats of suburban Chicago's Asia Pacific Travel has been to North Korea 11 times since 1995, and he says North Korean authorities have eased such draconian tourist policies as a requirement to bow before the Grand Monument, a 65-foot statue of the nation's founder and "Great Leader," Kim II Sung. Still, he says, there are strict restrictions on photography and cellphones.

And "you can't just step out of the hotel and mingle with the masses. If you want to 'meet the locals,' they could get into big trouble from the security police."

Haute cuisine and wild nightlife aren't part of the itineraries in poverty-plagued North Korea, but tours do include stops at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the Pyongyang Maternity Hospital. One of the city's top attractions: the USS Pueblo, a captured U.S. Navy spy ship whose captain surrendered to North Korea in 1968 without firing a shot.

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