World's Most Controversial Destinations
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Why go: You don't go to North Korea to eat at great restaurants or see UNESCO World Heritage sites. You go to join an elite club and gain insight into one of the world's most xenophobic, repressive, and little known societies. U.S. passport holders are restricted to four-night stays timed to coincide with annual mass games in Pyongyang (August 4 to September 31, 2008). It's unlikely you'll have witnessed a sporting event quite like this one: Think synchronized performances of 100,000 gymnasts, dancers, and musicians, while uniformed school children flip colored placards to create images of birds, flowers, Kim Il-sung, and his son Kim Jong-il, the current leader. Visits to the capital, Pyongyang, usually start with Mansudae Monument, where foreigners must bow and lay flowers at the feet of a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of Kim Il-sung (pictured), who died in 1994 but remains the country's Eternal President. Cultural highlights include a ride on the Pyongyang metro, where murals declaring "Korea Is One!" form the only public advertising. Outside Pyongyang, the government tourism bureau lays on sightseeing to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Why not go: North Korea not only has a nuclear weapons program, it also stockpiles a biological arsenal including anthrax, cholera, and the pneumonic plague, and maintains at least eight chemical weapons manufacturing plants, according to intelligence reports. Leaving the country without permission is considered treason, and the U.S. Committee for the Rights of North Koreans claims some 200,000 political prisoners are being held in remote labor camps. In the 1990s natural disasters combined with economic mismanagement led to the starvation of an estimated two million people, nearly 10 percent of the population.
Experts say: While the North Korean government has taken a vitriolic anti-American line since Kim Il-sung's ascension in 1948, hostility on the part of ordinary citizens is aimed at the U.S. government, not at individuals.
If you go: All travel must be conducted in the company of North Korean government guides on prearranged itineraries. The Beijing-based, British-managed Koryo Group has specialized in North Korean travel since 1993, and has long relationships with guides who are slightly more relaxed and permissive as a result (Tel: 86-10-6416-7544; koryogroup.com). Director Nicholas Bonner encourages and sometimes personally accompanies tours for U.S. citizens, who must travel via Beijing to obtain a North Korean visa.