Interview with North Korean travel provider Uri Tours founder Andrea Lee


Uri Tour founder Andrea Lee
Uri Tour founder Andrea Lee


My family and I started to travel to North Korea in the 90s as part of a Korean-American delegation. We founded Uri Tours because we felt passionate about the destination and wanted to make it more accessible to other travelers. Now, Uri Tours is the largest American provider of North Korean travel and tours with over 15 years of experience. We are the exclusive sales and ticketing agent of Air Koryo in the Americas. We specialize in adventure tourism. Our featured offerings include Pyongyang Marathon tours, surfing, skiing, biking and sightseeing tours.

1) Why visit North Korea?

North Korea (the “DPRK”) is the ultimate frontier in travel. For adventure seekers and globetrotters, there aren’t many untouched destinations left in the world. People visit North Korea to experience a radically unique culture and new landscapes and see a country that is very different from our own. Travelers go there to learn more about the world and to see the country with their own eyes. It’s seldom that a country is exactly the way that foreign media portrays it, and I would say that is true of North Korea. Once you touch the ground there, you see that people are human and that life is experienced with the same depth and significance as it is for the rest of us all across the world.

2) How safe is it to visit the country?

North Korea is a safe country to visit. The country sees between 6-8,000 western tourists and over 100,000 Chinese tourists per year. Crime is virtually none and people are very friendly. I once left my camera in a bathroom stall in a city 2 hours away from the capital. We returned the next day and it was hanging in the exact same place. However, like any country, they have their own set of rules and laws, and visitors are expected to abide by them strictly. Those who break the law will face consequences. I have been traveling to the DPRK for 15 years and in my direct experience, people are not detained at random. If they were, we would not be able to stay in business. The recent arrests have been due to proselytizing, leaving Bibles in public places, seeking asylum by ripping up a tourist visa, and most recently for attempting to steal a public propaganda sign. 

3) What is your stance on the American student who is now serving a sentence in North Korea?

Otto Warmbier was not one of our travelers, so we don’t have any direct information about his case. From what we’ve read, he’s a good student with a bright future ahead of him. Our position is that he should be pardoned for his actions and that he should be released as soon as possible. 

4) Is North Korea actually like the way the media presents it?

Yes, in some ways, North Korea is the way it is portrayed in the media. The military does play a large role in society, and their leaders are revered in dynastic fashion. However, this is not the complete picture of North Korea. Korea as a whole has a rich history dating back over 4,000 years. (It’s only through modern history that the country became divided by Allied forces after WWII, and then re-divided after the Korean War in 1954.) North Koreans value family above anything else, good education and stability in job, tradition and camaraderie. The cold noodles is a local staple, and people eat it during weddings to signify long life.

5) Will North Korea ever become tourist friendly?

It’s open to tourists now, and nearly all of our travelers return with positive experiences. However, it may be a while until tourists can roam around freely in the country and do more independent travel. Currently, all tourist travel must be done with guides and through licensed tour operators like Uri Tours.

6) What advice would you give to those wanting to visit North Korea?

Keep an open mind and ask questions. But stick to the rules — don’t steal signs, don’t leave Bibles in public places, don’t insult the leadership and don’t rip up your visa to seek asylum. Outside of that, stay adventurous and enjoy being off the beaten path!

We would like to thank Andrea for talkin with us.

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