Across the border and into the North
British explorer organizes tours to communist country
By Agnes Yu
Meet Gareth Johnson. He’s been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) a.k.a. North Korea, 31 times and if you’d like, he can take you there. Tourist travel to North Korea is only possible as part of a guided tour and that’s what Johnson does ― organizes group or individual tours.
As the managing director and founder of Young Pioneer Tours which currently ranks the second largest agency taking people into the North, Johnson has so far organized over 200 tours and arranged for some 1500 people to visit the isolated regime just across the 38th parallel.
He organized his first tour in October 2008 with six people. He basically recruited his friends but for the second one, also a group of six people, one was an actual client, his first. In the beginning they were mostly Europeans. In January 2010 North Korea lifted the restrictions on American citizens who are now free to visit anytime of the year. Although many agencies have since cropped up, Johnson offers more diverse, more customized and affordable travel itinerary options that attract open-minded, educated, and already well-traveled tourists. They come prepared and often want to return; about 15 percent are repeat clients.
On the website, Johnson wrote ``I found there was nothing in the way of a budget company that catered to the demographic of people that would not usually do “group tours,” so felt I could combine my love of travel with my new found love for the people and culture of the DPRK!’’
Having traveled to as many as 80 countries, Johnson is a true intrepid explorer and a true expat who is originally from England but is currently based in Xian.
At 15, while gazing upon a world map in history class, Johnson’s eyes glazed over with the many different places he could visit. He pointed to Bangladesh and told his English-Bengali friend standing next to him that he would like to go there someday and that next summer they did. A one-month trip turned into three and his 16th birthday was spent wandering the streets of Dhaka. Johnson was never the same again.
The sense of adventure, of ``never knowing what the next place will be like, arriving at an airport with only question marks and then departing from that same airport after figuring out the puzzle of where you had just been is a great sense of accomplishment for me,’’ Johnson said.
Asked about some of the changes Johnson has noticed from his multiple trips to Pyongyang, he mentions “massive changes compared to five years ago.” He listed the surge in taxis, greater cell phone use, new apartment blocks, more foreign restaurants and even traffic jams.
This year Johnson, along with his colleagues ― four other dedicated tour guides, expects to take up to 500 people to visit the DPRK.
The company profile on the website reads that they ``not only enjoy fabulous relations with our colleagues in the DPRK, but have firsthand knowledge and know how to open doors that would otherwise remained closed if not traveling with us.’’
Last year there was a fellow on the tour named Albert Kim, a Korean American who was working at a bank but was caught in the rut of monotony, feeling “easily replaceable.” He took an eight-day tour In August, 2011, and while sitting there at the base of Mt. Baekdu, Gareth had seen Kim get on well with the North Koreans and approached him. Eventually they started working together.
Inspired by rather humanitarian and human rights issues, Kim created Yangpa Tours, an agency that targets overseas Koreans and their friends with trips that highlight the food and culture of the North. By encouraging people to visit directly he hopes to inspire feelings of urgency regarding reunification. Kim is based in Chicago and has taken six tours of groups between 10 and 12 to the DPRK. He is especially fond of the city of Cheongjin, located in the northeast. The Yangpa website states, ``Just like an onion, North Korea is a travel opportunity with many layers waiting to be uncovered.’’
Kim says the success of a tour hinges on the personality and enthusiasm of the guides themselves and new drivers of growth are finding different tour routes.
Both Kim and Johnson were in Seoul over the weekend on a new “North/South” tour which started with four days in the North, the ferry from Dandong to Incheon followed by a day at the DMZ and the war museum in the South, which offers a great contrast to the war museum outing in Pyongyang.
Hoping to “push the envelope” they say tourism in the North is always changing and certainly opening up. Johnson says the people he deals with in the North speak “flawless” English and even under the strains of hierarchy and limited flexibility there is a straight forwardness in the business dealings. A “yes” means yes, a “no” means no and a “maybe” really means maybe, whereas in China, it’s always ``maybe.’’ As more destinations in the country become accessible, perhaps even skiing down the slopes of Mount Baekdu could be a possible tour, Kim imagines.
Each visit can be considered unique depending on the length and time of the year you decide to travel.
Johnson admits that everyone he has taken on a tour to the DPRK says that the trip exceeds their expectations. ``It’s not for everyone, but they come because they really want to come,’’ he said.
The website also offers tours to other ‘risky’ destinations such as Iran or Tibet.
For more information visit wwwyoungpioneertours.com or wwwyangpatours.com.