There are terrible vacation plans, and then there are deadly ones. A tipster recently forwarded us a promotional email from the Chinese travel agency Taedong Travel, copied below, hawking “the first Christmas tour of North Korea,” costing approximately $1,000 (€740) for five days and four nights in the capital city of Pyongyang. “You can now join local North Koreans for a Christmas and New Year to remember!” the pitch promises. “Will you be visited by Santa Claus, enjoy Ginseng flavoured Turkey or listen to familiar Christmas carols?”
One problem! In North Korea, celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ—indeed, practicing Christianity in any way—places you at risk of imprisonment, torture, and death. The country’s leaders consider religion, even if not publicly displayed, such an extreme existential threat to state power that citizens and even visitors suspected of endorsing or spreading it have been arrested and dispatched to the state’s secretive working camps. (Where state sentries beat captives in the chest and genitals, shove slivers of wood under their fingernails, simulate forced drownings with a plastic bag and a tank of water, and publicly execute those who try to resist.)
It’s not unprecedented for Westerners to spend the holiday season in North Korea. Another travel agency, for example, arranges New Years vacation packages. But Taedong’s appears to be the first ever tour explicitly centered around a religious observance.
Taedong Travel’s founder Stuart Leighton, writing from Taiwan, assured Gawker that the trip was real. “The Christmas tour is particularly special as it has not been done before, and we were the first to arrange it with KITC about a month or so ago,” Leighton told us. He added: “There is no problem for those practicing religion to enter the DPRK, but we stress to all our tourists that they should in no way try and force their views and ‘convert’ the guides or any North Koreans that they meet during a tour.”
Still, the state aggressively polices anything that might be construed as religious activity. Washington State resident Kenneth Bae, a Christian missionary who frequently traveled to North Korea to feed orphans, was arrested in December 2012 for unspecified crimes against the country and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
In any case, the tour already seems to be a tough sell. The agency’s website entices the undecided like so: “IF THIS IS NOT CHEAP ENOUGH THEN WE’LL THROW IN A 70 EURO WINTER DISCOUNT FOR YOU. NOT EVEN SANTA WOULD DO THAT!”
Taedong Travel’s promotional email:
From: Stuart Leighton
Date: Fri, Sep 27, 2013 at 1:07 AM
Subject: PRESS RELEASE: CHRISTMAS IN NORTH KOREA 26/09/2013, Beijing, China, Taedong Travel.
PRESS RELEASE: CHRISTMAS IN NORTH KOREA 26/09/2013, Beijing, China, Taedong Travel.
What is your most cherished Christmas memory? Novelty knitted jumpers, overcooked Brussels sprouts and family arguments? Time to try Christmas in North Korea!
2013 is the first year that tourists have been permitted to enter North Korea throughout winter - you can now join local North Koreans for a Christmas and New Year to remember! Will you be visited by Santa Claus, enjoy Ginseng flavoured Turkey or listen to familiar Christmas carols? Just how is the festive period celebrated in North Korea? No one knows - this is the first opportunity to spend the Christmas in North Korea, no tourist has ever been allowed in the country at this time before.
Those who visit will have the most unique Christmas of their lives, impossible to predict moments, such as building a snowman in Kim Il Sung square, could be just one of the many highlights of this truly one-of-a-kind trip!
After a great deal of effort Taedong Travel have finally secured permission to operate the first Christmas tour of North Korea, taking place from December 24th to Sunday December 29th, (5 days, 4 nights). Price starts at only 740 EUR, a small price to pay for the memories and bragging rights that a Christmas spent in North Korea will bring!
Taedong Travel is a specialist North Korea travel organiser founded by Stuart Leighton, a frequent visitor to the DPRK since 2008. Taedong Travel has published a full range of tours to North Korea in 2014 for the discerning budget traveller. In an increasingly open market Taedong Travel Company has carved a niche for itself as the go-to company for those looking for the maximum possible experience on the lowest budget.
For more information on the Christmas tour and application procedures: http://taedongtravel.com/tours/
For more detailed information, itineraries, application process and pictures
Beijing Tel: [removed]
Beijing Tel: [removed]
Stuart Leighton’s response:
Yes, this Christmas package is very real, as are all our other tours for 2014. The Christmas tour is particularly special as it has not been done before, and we were the first to arrange it with KITC about a month or so ago.
In terms of religion, there is no problem for those practicing religion to enter the DPRK, but we stress to all our tourists that they should in no way try and force their views and ‘convert’ the guides or any North Koreans that they meet during a tour. It is ok for tourists to state to the guides in conversation that they have religious beliefs, as long as they are not being pushy or trying to preach in any way.
In terms of how many trips we have planned and successfully executed, we are moving into our second year of providing tours, having successfully run 15 this year. Next year we have 9 group tours currently planned, this is not including those who wish to embark on independent tours.