Your Next Vacation to North Korea?

Summer is upon us. Planning your next family vacation? Uri Tours offers a unique opportunity sure to keep your co-workers brimming with fun travel stories, and lots for the kids to share on Back To School night.

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This one of a kind tour operator helps plan tours to North Korea–DPRK as it’s hiply referred to these days–Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

(“Uri,” by the way, is Korean for “our,” but also means “community” and “unity,” according to the travel agency’s website.)

Launching Uri over 10 years ago, people must have thought founder John Lee was either nuts or fearlessly innovative.  In a country more associated for its brutal politics than its fun vacations, Lee says he found a set of people, “not entirely different from those of South Korea, with a unique culture and distinct way of living.”

Before you book your next flight to the “Hermit Country”, a place the size of Mississippi and inhabited by approximately 24 million people, Amnesty International has published satellite imagery revealing horrific conditions in North Korea’s network of political prison camps, which hold an estimated 200,000 people.

Insung Kim, a researcher from the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights, says, the North Korea’s prison population has swelled amid a crackdown by young leader Kim Jong Un on those caught fleeing the country.

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“According to defectors living in South Korea and experts on Pyongyang’s notorious network of labor camps, Kim says, “They’re tightening the noose. This is to set an example to the North Korean people.”

Lee claims her company has a 33 percent market share of all foreigners’ trips to North Korea. Indeed, the travel agency helped organize the visits of the New York Philharmonic in February 2008, of Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson this past January, and of Dennis Rodman and Vice magazine in March.Today, Andrea Lee, John’s daughter, runs Uri. She’s a lapsed lawyer, who operates the business out of New York. She grew up in Santiago, Chile, where her South Korean father ran the business.

U.S. citizens are permitted to travel to North Korea and there are no restrictions from either government.

Prices range from around $2,500 for a five-day visit to $4,000 for an extended tour, including round trip airfare from Beijing on Air Koryo.

Though most tours operate five flights a week during the peak summer season on a Russian-made Tupolev aircraft (rated the world’s worst commercial airline and is largely banned from landing in Europe), Lee prefers to fly Air Koryo to rival Air China, which also flies from Beijing to Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport.