Last spring, when North Korea's Kim Jong Il announced plans to allow a handful of U.S. outfitters and their clients into the Hermit Kingdom for the first time in 50 years, observers weren't sure what to make of the reclusive ruler's sudden change of heart. "Clearly they want hard currency," offers Robert Hathaway, an expert on North Korea with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "They are squeezed financially, and this is a cost-free way to bring in money."
GEOGRAPHIC EXPEDITIONS: 11 days, ,190; www.geoex.com ASIA PACIFIC TRAVEL: 12 days, ,199; www.northkorea1on1.com UNIVERSAL TRAVEL SYSTEM: 8 days, ,460; www.uts-travel.com POE TRAVEL: 10 days, ,663; www.poetravel.com
So what will your money get you? "It is not exactly a sun-sea-and-swimming destination," says Nick Bonner, of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which has been leading trips for nonU.S. nationals since 1993. Indeed, most of the outfitters are offering a roughly ten-day tour centered in the capital city of Pyongyang. While accompanied by at least two government guides, you'll visit the daily Arirang (Mass Games), in which a cast of 100,000 dances the history of North Korea's collective struggle; take in the 65-foot-tall bronze statue of Kim Il Sung (Jong Il's father); and view the country's enormous collection of giftslike the stuffed upright crocodile carrying a cocktail tray, sent by the Sandinistasat the International Friendship Exhibition. One outfitter, Geographic Expeditions, is offering a chartered flight to 9,022-foot Mount Paektu, but options for thrill seekers are limited. Your best bet: a trip to a Pyongyang barber.