Uri Tours client Eric Hill suspended judgment during his six-day visit in February, which included Kaesong, the DMZ at the famous 38th parallel, Kim Jong-il’s mausoleum, the Friendship Museum, and a roller rink. “I was surprised by how many smiles there were,” says Hill, 30, who gave up ambitions for a career in dentistry to circumnavigate the globe. (His “epic adventure” to visit all 195 United Nations-member nations is chronicled on his Facebook page. “There is genuine happiness in a place where I expected grayness and sadness,” he says. “People had the life in their eyes. Whether it was brain-washing or true love for their great leaders, they wouldn’t stop talking about them.”
Another client, former Motorola executive Sandra Cook—who is soon to assume the duties of vice president of the American University in Kabul, Afghanistan—visited North Korea for eight days in April, at the height of Kim Jong-un’s warmongering blasts at the United States and his neighbor to the south. She says she certainly considered the moral implications of her journey and even read Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, on the way over, but decided her curiosity outweighed any possible qualms.
“I did ask a lot of awkward questions of our guide, Mr. Kim,” says Cook, who is happy not to have to look at any more statuary of the Great, Dear, or Supreme Leaders. “He was an extremely intelligent person and a remarkable individual. He never lapsed into ridiculous or laughable generalizations…Any question you’d ask he had an answer to it. It was as if there was some text somewhere that has the whole protocol—if they ask you this, this is how you answer. They’re also pretty sophisticated people, very smart, and they have been meticulously trained.”