For Americans, A Way to Game North Korea?

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  02.16.09 | 11:07 AM ET

Photo by yeowatzup via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Though the North Korean government hasn’t officially announced it, it looks like the country will hold its renowned Mass Games from August through October this year, opening a window for American tourists to travel to the otherwise closed nation. The Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which handles travel for about half of all Westerners who visit North Korea yearly, is currently accepting applications from Americans interested in traveling during the Mass Games period, based on North Korea’s history of allowing Americans to visit during the event (as happened in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2008).

Koryo’s Simon Cockerell says he’s already seeing thousands of North Koreans practicing for the Games on the streets of Pyongyang, so his company anticipates confirmation of the event in early summer. He expects the usual restrictions to apply to U.S. travelers, including a four-night maximum stay and mandatory arrival by plane rather than over land. Other Westerners can travel to North Korea year-round, apart from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, when the country closes to all tourists.

So what is it about the Mass Games—a highly choreographed gymnastics/dance extravaganza in the best Communist tradition—that makes the North Koreans take a softer line on Americans? Like so much else in the country, it’s mystery. Notes Cockerell, “They allow tourists to the Mass Games to try to make money, but the low numbers of Western tourists and the high cost of [the event] mean that this doesn’t really happen.” The Chinese, however, pour in by the planeload.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

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