Visiting North Korea? French publisher offers guidebook

Paris (AFP) - A French travel publisher presented Tuesday its first guide book for North Korea, offering 190 pages of tips for getting the most out of a trip to experience the "survival of a totalitarian communist state".

"The guide wasn't conceived to defend the current regime or to cast judgment, but to show the genuine touristic interest of the country," Jean-Paul Labourdette, a co-founder of the "Petit Fute" guides, said in Paris.

He said 4,000 copies had been printed -- more than enough for the estimated 400 French tourists which head each year to the pariah state, which has been isolated from the international community for decades.

North Korea has endured harsh UN sanctions to pursue its nuclear weapons programme under the Kim dynasty, which implemented a dictatorship that has been accused of provoking widespread hunger and human rights abuses.

The French foreign ministry strongly discourages tourists from visiting, while the US State Department only rarely grants exceptional permits for Americans hoping to travel to North Korea.

But Labourdette said "there are no security issues" for travellers, though he admitted "very restrictive" conditions, not least tight surveillance that limits foreigners to just a handful of hotels and restaurants.

And while tourist visas are readily granted, the guide warns that missteps are costly: "The punishments can be severe... as was the case for the American student Otto Warmbier."

Warmbier, an Ohio native who studied at the University of Virginia, was pulled away from his tour group at the Pyongyang airport in 2016 and charged with crimes against the state for allegedly taking down a propaganda poster in his hotel.

He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour.

After lengthy negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, Warmbier was released in a vegetative state in 2017 but died a few days later on American soil.

- 'Don't take pictures' -

Mainstream travel guides have steered clear of the repressive nation, with English-language stalwarts like "Lonely Planet" limiting their coverage to a few chapters in their Korea books.

"Don't take any pictures of airports, road, bridges or train stations," the "Petit Fute" warns, and make sure you don't throw away or even fold any newspaper with a picture of former or current leaders.

"Roll it up instead," the guide advises.

The book comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump are holding halting talks on ending the country's nuclear weapons efforts.

"We launched this project four years ago, we didn't wait for Donald and Kim to start their little friendship," Labourdette said. "But it took quite a while to find qualified French writers."

"Petit Fute" aims to publish guides on all the world's countries, or 204 instead of the 175 it covers now.

"We still don't have Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Liberia," Labourdette said.

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