A version of this was originally written for the Beijing Cream Blog.
A new North Korea travel app hit the stores today. Niche? Fore sure, but not as niche as targeting fans of Playboy who literally do “buy it for the articles”. How does it work?
The creator, Chad O’Carroll, who runs the indispensible NKnews website, told CNN that the app “is designed for armchair travelers as well as people who are actively interested in visiting”. Armchair traveling is fine and the app certainly is good for that: it has great pictures, interesting tidbits about the locations and facilities and geo-tagging by Curtis Melvin, perhaps the world’s foremost North Korea satellite imagery expert.
However, if you’re living in Beijing – or, God forbid, disgusting vapid Shanghai* – the cost is relatively low and Pyongyang is really quite easy to get to. So is this app useful for people thinking of actually visiting the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?
In short: useful. In particular the “custom tour” section is uniquely worthwhile and is a better interface than any of the DPRK tour operators have for putting together such tours. Really, without this app, you have to get on the phone with someone and talk through options. Here, one neatly chooses what one wants to see and then sends out requests to tour companies to get back to you with pricing.
For group tours – which are quite a bit cheaper – I couldn’t get the results to pop up, though I think this was a first-day-in-the-app-store-glitch. It promises to be a handy one-stop shop for comparing the offerings of the various tour agencies rather than wading through the websites of individual tour companies. (Who has the time, right?) This glitch was the main problem with my experience. I’ve given feedback to the developer and they’re on the case. (note: this glitch was fixed by 8 p.m. CST on the first day of the app's release.)
Just for the fun of nitpicking, the language section could be more focused: I don’t really need to know how to say 10,000,000,000,000,000 in Korean. Indeed, I’m not sure what it is in English. Nor is a section on “asking directions” much needed when visiting a country in which you don’t have freedom of movement.
Other useful sections include a comprehensive FAQ and an “ethics” section, which is essentially an essay by the eminent professor Andrei Lankov, making the case for the positive effects of tourism in North Korea.
Still, if you're a non-American businessperson, economist or lawyer and feel uneasy about “just touring”, one can also travel to North Korea with Choson Exchange, a Singaporean non-profit that runs workshops in entrepreneurship, economic policy and law. Um. I may work for that organization.
*sorry, I just wanted to get stuck into this silly expat faux-rivalry.