These Are the Last Americans to Visit North Korea

Before the United States banned travelers from visiting the closed nation, a small group rushed to get there for one last tour.

Tourist Jacob Augustine takes a selfie from the top of Juche Tower in Pyongyang.

For all of its restrictive laws, its harsh ruler, and its reputation as the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea has long been open to visitors. For years, Chinese tour companies have brought foreigners into the country—including roughly 1,000 Americans per year—for a curated tour of daily North Korean life. Americans have been able to spend time at North Korean amusement parks, schools, and subway stations. Almost all left without incident.

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A traffic policeman in Kaesong, North Korea.
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North Koreans practice traditional dancing at an event in Pyongyang.
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U.S. passport holder Joe Lim dances with North Koreans during a traditional dance in Pyongyang.
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A soldier and pet dog near a statue calling for reunification of the Korean peninsula.
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A grid painted on the street in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to mark where participants in mass parades should stand or march.
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A video of a missile launch is projected on a big screen as acrobats fly through the air like missiles themselves during a performance of the circus in Pyongyang.
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A monument to the late leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il illuminated in Pyongyang.
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A train station conductor stands before a statue of Kim Il Sung at a Pyongyang subway station.
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North Koreans ride a roller coaster at the Fun Fair in Pyongyang.
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Souvenirs are sold to tourists at a rest stop halfway between Pyongyang and Kaesong.
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A man places a handkerchief over his head to protect himself from the rain as he stands next to a pile of umbrellas left by participants in a traditional dancing event nearby.
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U.S. tourist Amy Kang takes a selfie photo at a propaganda monument in Panmunjom, North Korea near the DMZ.
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Tourists at the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, North Korea.
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Shoppers in a Pyongyang supermarket.
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Daily commuters in front of an apartment block in Pyongyang.
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A guide looks out across Pyongyang from the top of Juche Tower.
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A North Korean sailor inside the captured USS Pueblo, which is now at the War Museum in Pyongyang.
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A guide and a sailor at the captured USS Pueblo in Pyongyang.
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A rural road in the countryside near Kaesong, North Korea.
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A microphone for karaoke hangs on the wall in a restaurant in Pyongyang.
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Commuters in the subway in Pyongyang.
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Commuters ride the subway in Pyongyang.
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U.S. and French tourists have dinner at a restaurant in Pyongyang.
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Tourists at a foreign language bookshop in Pyongyang shop for DVDs of North Korean movies.
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An American tourist bowls at an alley in Pyongyang.
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North Koreans bowling at an alley in Pyongyang.
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A man passing through Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang.
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Commuters play with their child in a Pyongyang subway station after disembarking from a train.
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But that changed after the June 19 death of Otto Warmbier, the American student detained in Pyongyang for stealing a poster from a hotel. Citing Warmbier’s inhumane treatment––and amid the country’s deteriorating relationship with Washington over the regime’s nuclear weapons ambitions––the U.S. State Department restricted all U.S. passports from being used to travel to North Korea. (The regime called the ban a “vile measure.”)

Before the new travel ban took effect on September 1, photojournalist David Guttenfelder joined a group of six American tourists eager to see inside the world’s most secretive nation. For almost 20 years, Guttenfelder has been one of the few western journalists allowed inside North Korea, making nearly 50 trips, some while on assignment for National Geographic, to document its political and military situation.

All of the travelers said they were motivated by intense curiosity. Brad Yoon, an Uber driver from California, had never traveled abroad before; he told his parents he was going to China so they wouldn’t worry. Amy Kang, a Korean-American, went with her husband in hopes of learning about her heritage.

“It was completely different from anything I was expecting,” Kang said. After all the horror stories she had heard about the repressive regime and the widespread lack of freedoms, she was surprised to find in Pyongyang an element of normality: people who had jobs, families, and who could name their favorite American movies.

Of course, being a tourist meant staying in a bubble of predictability and calm. There were no sudden movements, no surprises.

top:  A North Korean woman sells snacks at rest stop between Pyongyang and Kaesong.

bottom: A North Korean military choir performance is broadcast on a big screen TV inside a restaurant in Pyongyang.

There were planned visits to a grocery store, a bowling alley, a brewery, and a circus. No one mentioned the country’s nuclear threats, or Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un’s war of words with U.S. President Donald Trump. When the North Korean military launched a missile over Japan in late August that drew international rebuke, Guttenfelder learned of it on Twitter via his cell phone’s limited wireless coverage. No one else around him, including his handlers, had any idea.

One could, however, sense the tension of potential military conflict. Guttenfelder, who has visited North Korea during four presidential administrations, observed that in the Trump era, the people seemed to be tense, but not as tense as he'd seen in the past. On the roads there were more propaganda billboards than usual bashing the United States. At a children's play place in the airport, an old piece of art showing children building missiles out of blocks seemed to fit the current tensions.

A Rare Look Into the Lives of North Koreans

The tour included a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the area straddling the 38th Parallel where North and South Korean soldiers traditionally stare stone-faced at each other across a courtyard bisecting North and South.

The threat of war at any moment has always kept the two militaries prepared to fight. But to the American tourists, the impending travel ban also brought an urgency to buy keepsakes. At various stores selling trinkets, the Americans and other foreign tourists clamored over stamps, art, ginseng products, and North Korean alcohol. One especially popular souvenir: anti-American propaganda posters.

 

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