North Korea Still Beckons US Tourists Despite Prosecutions

(Photo Credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea is still open for Western tourists, according to the agencies that organize such trips, despite word that at least two Americans are being prosecuted there.

"If you're looking for a vacation that comes with bragging rights, you've found it!" New Jersey-based Uri Tours' website beckons.

"Nobody parties like the Workers Party of Korea!" New Korea Tours of Connecticut proclaims.

"We don't know 100% [if hotel rooms are not bugged] but hey, that's part of the excitement and mystery of such a journey!" the FAQ section of Pyongyang Travel, based in Germany, reassures.

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The excitement and mystery have probably worn off for Americans like Kenneth Bae, who has been detained since 2012, and, most recently, Matthew Miller, 24 (who took an Uri tour), and Jeffrey Fowle, 56, who are reportedly being put on trial in the Hermit Kingdom for so-called "hostile acts."

Bae, a Korean-American, has voiced concern over his deteriorating health, and his family has sought the help of U.S. citizens, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, to get him out, to no avail.

Miller and Fowle were reportedly detained for separate infractions, and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that the United States has "humanitarian concern" for their safety.

U.S. tourist and Korean War veteran Merrill Newman, 85, was also held for a month last year, getting pulled from a plane Oct. 26 while preparing to leave the Communist nation after a 10-day tour. North Korea finally let him leave after he apologized for training and advising a U.S.-led North Korean partisan unit during the war.

The men didn't visit for lack of warning by the United States. While North Korea welcomes U.S. tourism (just not journalists or professional photographers), the State Department's latest travel warning for the country, issued May 20, 2014, strongly recommends against traveling there, citing the inability of tour groups to get visitors out of dangerous situations.

"Do not assume that joining a group tour or use of a tour guide will prevent your arrest or detention by North Korean authorities," the warning states. "Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not succeeded in gaining their release."

And yet glossy websites still advertise the allure of skiing the Masik Pass, witnessing celebrations of what's known as "Victory Day," commemorating the cessation of Korean War hostilities, and even ringing in the New Year with the "Pyongyang Bell."

And a number of Americans - albeit a dwindling one - are still drawn to North Korea each year out of sheer adventurism, interest in international relations or, in the case of Bae, a desire to expose the citizens of North Korea, where religion is forbidden, to Christianity and other faiths.

It's that last goal that particularly riles the country's dictator Kim Jong-un, said Mike Green, a member of President George W. Bush's National Security Council and an Asia expert, noting that the Kim dynasty has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a sort of holy family.

"This is in some ways even more threatening than to a normal Communist regime because we're not talking about religion versus godlessness; but we're talking about the Kim family being gods," Green said.

Fowle, who entered North Korea April 29, is accused of leaving a Bible in his hotel room, a criminal act in the country, although his family says he was not there on a mission for his church.

Miller, on the other hand, reportedly tore up his tourist visa upon entry on April 10, shouting that he wanted to seek asylum, which North Korea says was "rash behavior" and a "gross violation of its legal order."

Tour groups who encourage Americans to visit North Korea say these are highly irregular situations, and that Americans in North Korea are usually treated with open arms.

"In more than 10 years of operation we have never before had an incident concerning the safety of our travelers," Uri Tours wrote in a blog post shortly after news broke of Miller's detention.

"Nobody can avoid certain crazy people who can get in any tourist group," said "Mark," a director for New Korea Tours who would not give his last name when reached on the phone.

"I think that if you follow instructions, certain rules, and you behave professionally, you will be out of danger," he continued.

But it's probably best, Psaki of the State Department said Monday, to stay out of the country altogether.

"The reason we provide information about a range of countries is to ensure people know what circumstances they're walking into," Psaki said, adding that while she didn't have the travel warning in front of her, "I can assure you that it suggests strongly not to travel at all to North Korea."

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