On June 17, 2000, shortly after North Korea made unprecedented overtures to the West, the cover of The Economist magazine showed a photo of its leader, Kim Jong-il, his hand raised in salutation, beneath a headline that read, Greetings, earthlings!

The country (and its leadership) certainly has a reputation for quirky, perhaps alien, behavior. Our report last week about North Korea issuing visas to Americans for the period from mid-August to mid-October (Operators jump at chance to offer glimpse at North Korea, May 11, 2006) quoted executives of two tour operations who had been to the country. One said you wouldnt know that there was an authoritarian government in place. The other said that part of the allure of the country was that its so surreal.

Having been to North Korea, Ill break the tie. Its surreal. To visit it is to walk into an Asian version of 1984. No matter how carefully packaged the tour, Im not sure you could miss the fact that North Korea is ruled by an authoritarian government.

My Korean guide seemed very sincerely convinced that the North Korean system of government was superior to any other. He asked me several times to try hard to understand the North Korean way and how good it was. He emphasized that everyone was very happy.

Every piece of art, every book -- even guidebooks -- emphasized the accomplishments of the government and its leaders. The public art (largely in the form of murals, mosaics and sculpture) was without exception political in nature. Kim Il-Sung, the current leaders father, and Kim Jong-il feature prominently in most of the art, usually outlined in a golden aura that would put Maxfield Parrish to shame.

I received some history lessons from my guide. The Japanese surrender at the end of World War II is known as The Liberation (and, simultaneously, the beginning of The Time of the U.S. Occupation of South Korea, which endures). He stated that the Japanese occupation ended as the result of the peoples struggle and guerilla warfare on the peninsula, aided by the Russian Army.

The Americans, he added bitterly, never fought to liberate Korea.

Putting aside the Korean War for a moment -- my guidebook had already informed me that the U.S. had knelt before the Korean people and signed the armistice agreement -- I mentioned that, of course, Americans were quite busy during World War II fighting the Japanese elsewhere. Yes, I know all about that, he said, with condescension. I began to speak again, but he interrupted. You cannot disagree! This is what happened.

He had previously made it clear that if I persisted in asking narrow-minded questions, he would refuse to guide me, and I would be sent home early.

If what I have written so far would predispose you not to visit (or to send clients to) North Korea, let me state this as emphatically as I can: Go! I cant think of a destination as fascinating and absorbing that doesnt involve NASA or require pressure suits. North Korea, more than any other nation, has evolved along a unique and solitary path. Its a rarity in this era of flat-earth globalization.

And for any traveler who wearily responds Been there, done that to your destination suggestions, drop a mention that they can visit North Korea next fall. Its not every day that you can sell tours to an alternate version of reality.


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