A version of this article appeared in print in The Korea Times on 5/8/2014. Photo courtesy of Uniquely Travel.

By Kim Young-jin

Exploring North Korea, one of the world’s most opaque countries, may have just gotten a bit easier.

North Korea Travel, an app for mobile devices from London-based Uniquely Travel, makes it possible to access a trove of information about the country’s tourism industry from one’s phone or tablet.

Created by a team including multiple North Korea watchers, the app includes information on some 350 places of interest including monuments, natural destinations and hotels and restaurants.The locations were mapped by a satellite imagery specialist.

An estimated 5,000 Western tourists visit the North each year, despite tensions over its nuclear tests and violations of human rights.

Critics are wary that such travel ― during which visitors are accompanied by minders ― helps prop up the Kim regime by providing it with foreign currency.

Project manager Chad O’ Carroll said the app will help those considering a trip to the North make an informed decision. And for those not planning to travel, it provides a chance to “virtually” tour the country.

“Many of the sites blow a massive hole in the argument that North Korean tours only allow visitors to see the best places in the country,” said O’ Carroll, who is also director of the website NK News.

“From small villages rarely visited by even the local North Korean guides, to stunning nature spots in the far-reaches of the country, the app will really help those planning a visit to try and get beyond the sites on a classic itinerary.

“For those that have no intention of going, the app provides lots of interesting material to read about, material that will hopefully add nuance to users view of life in North Korea.”

In addition to tourist information, the app (which costs $0.99) includes sections on history and culture as well as one on the ethics of visiting the country. It also has a feature that allows users to compare prices offered by various travel agencies.

The makers said that after the launch, apps on other less-traveled destinations such as Iran, Myanmar and Libya would follow.

The descriptions offer reminders that a trip to North Korea will be unlike any other. For instance, a section on the Koryo Hotel, one of Pyongyang’s main hotels for foreigners, warns, “Its more central location is only a minor benefit because of rules prohibiting tourists from wandering off without a guide.”

The app has an offline mode so that it can be used inside the North, where access to the Internet is rare.

The increasing numbers of Western tourists come despite several high-profile detentions of American citizens in recent years.

Last year, an 85-year old American was detained on charges of war crimes during the 1950-53 Korean War. A Korean-American has been held in the North for over a year on charges of state subversion.

In a sign of the tension that has gripped the peninsula, South Koreans have been barred from visiting since shortly after Pyongyang torpedoed the warship Cheonan in 2010. It’s also illegal to spread propaganda from the North.

The section on ethics is written by Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University. Lankov argues that “while this tourism has its dark side, on balance it helps to change the country by influencing the hearts and minds of (North) Koreans,” citing Western tourism to the Soviet Union.

However, the pros and cons remain debatable.

In a piece on NK News, propaganda expert Brian Myers argues that visitors serve as props for the regime. “When engagement makes money for the regime,” he wrote, “and treats Pyongyangites to the spectacle of Americans bowing down before statues, it does more to strengthen the status quo than to weaken it.”

O’ Carroll acknowledged that not everyone would accept Lankov’s arguments.

“Some believe that isolation, crippling sanctions, and a ban on tourism would best serve the North Korean people. Others think tourism, engagement and exchange will help.

“But I would point out that the app also includes wide-ranging information that can help make an educated decision about visiting,” he said.

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