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September 16, 2011

A glimpse of North Korea

North Korea has long been enigmatic - especially to the West.  An elaborate cult of personality created around the ruling Kim family permeates both the cultural and political lives of the nation. The world's most militarized nation, it has been developing nuclear weapons and a space program.  In 2002, President George Bush labeled North Korea part of an "axis of evil," primarily due to its aggressive military posture but also because of its abysmal human rights record.   North Korea has long maintained close relations with the People's Republic of China and Russia.  In an attempt to ameliorate the loss of investments due to international sanctions over its weapons program, North Korean officials have initiated a tourism push, focused on Chinese visitors.  Still, every travel group or individual visitor is constantly accompanied by one or two "guides" who normally speak the mother language of the tourist.  While some tourism has increased over the last few years, Western visitors remain scarce.  The last several photos in this post are by Associated Press photographer David Guttenfelder, who offers rare glimpses of life in the shuttered country. -- Paula Nelson (54 photos total)

Rolling out the red carpet for tourists is not commonly associated with the reclusive North Korean government, but that is what workers did for the departure ceremony of Mangyongbyong cruise ship in Rason City on Aug. 30. About 130 passengers departed the rundown port of Rajin, near the China-Russia border, for the scenic Mount Kumgang resort near South Korea. North Korea's state tourism bureau has teamed up with a Chinese travel company to run the country's first ever cruise. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Local workers take a break before the departure ceremony of a cruise ship at the port of the North Korean special economic zone of Razon. Destitute North Korea's push to breathe new life into its economic relationships with China and Russia appears to be bearing fruit in the far north of the country, where foreigners are helping to rebuild the region's creaking infrastructure. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A flurry of white and red confetti matches the shirts and ties of local residents at the maiden launch of a cruise ship in the North Korean economic zone of Razon. A top local official told reporters that China and Russia had invested heavily in the region in order to gain access to its three east coast ports in the towns of Rajin and Songbon, which are the main centers for the nation's Rason Special Economic Zone. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

In all, about 500 North Koreans, some waving artificial flowers and flags, bid the ship farewell in a choreographed performance. The vessel had previously served as a ferry to Japan and cargo ship before international sanctions limited trade after the nation conducted missile and nuclear tests. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A North Korean, with a bouquet of artificial flowers, joins the ceremony celebrating the departure of the cruise ship. Tourist agents said that In addition to traveling along the picturesque eastern coast of North Korea, passengers could take advantage of casinos in Rason and Kumgang. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Foreign journalists gather in a cabin aboard the cruise ship Mangyongbyong in the first-ever cruise from Rason in North Korea. Some of the high-end cabins had private washrooms; others had bunk beds or mattresses on the floor. Water in bathrooms was brown, when available. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images) #

Members of a Chinese tourism delegation relax on the top deck of the Mangyongbyong cruise ship near Mount Kumgang resort on Sept. 1. North Korea joined with Chinese travel officials to launch the cruise line. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Crew members don North Korea's colors aboard the Mangyongbyong cruise ship. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Budweiser and dried fish are part of the cuisine served to passengers on plastic tables on the deck area for the Mangyongbyong cruise ship's inaugural voyage. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Members of a Chinese tourism delegation dance aboard the Mangyongbyong cruise ship during its inaugural trip. Tour operators also sang karaoke in the dining hall, which featured North Korean flags hung from the ceiling. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A North Korean naval officer keeps watch in the foreground as the cruise ship Mangyongbyong prepares to dock at Mount Kumgang port in the first-ever cruise from Rason in North Korea. The trip took 21 hours. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images) #

A member of a Chinese tourism delegation has the deck of Mangyongbyong cruise ship to herself as it approaches Mount Kumgang resort on Sept 1. North Korea has only been open to Western tourists since 1987 and remains tightly controlled, but more destinations are gradually opening up to tour groups keen to see the country. Officials said they had bigger plans for the cruise, including a 1,000-passenger ship, if enough interest is expressed. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A man stands on the bow of the Mangyongbyong ship during its trial cruise to Mount Kumgang resort, also known as Diamond Mountain. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

A border officer talks with tourists at the border between China and North Korea in Rason on Aug. 29. The destitute North Korean government broke ground this past summer on a joint project with China to develop the area as special economic zone. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A couple point out sites on massive map along a wall in Mount Kumgang resort. The area is noted for its dramatic ravines and beautiful lagoons. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A North Korean waitress serves in a restaurant in Rason city, a separately administered economic zone in North Korea's far northeast. Officials in the city, a few hours' drive from the Chinese city of Yan, have enlisted the help of Chinese businessmen to try to revitalize the area. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

A Chinese tourist poses near mountains peaks at the Kumgang mountain resort in North Korea. Once a shining example of the possibility of reconciliation between the two Koreas, the resort is now at the center of an international dispute. Pyongyang had joined with South Korean businesses to build and run the resort, which had attracted South Korean tourists and much-needed revenues for the North. After a tourist was killed by North Korean guards in 2008, however, the resort has been shuttered. Now North Korea has seized the assets and is trying to lure other tourists to the resort. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan) #

Bicycles are a key mode of transportation for the people of Rason. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A young boy performs at an auditorium in the Special Economic Zone of Rason city. North Korean officials have been eager to show the vitality and possibilities of their country. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Children practice backstage before their performance at a local school in Rason city. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

The performers take their singing and dancing skills to the center stage of a theater in Rason, North Korea. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

North Korean children perform at a theater in Rason. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

A North Korean border guard watches tour buses pass through the checkpoint into China from the northeastern port city of Rason. China is building a road, Russia a railway, and Thailand is setting up the Internet in Rason, a special area in communist North Korea that is seeking to attract investment from abroad. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images) #

Pulled by an ox, a North Korean travels along the Wonjong border crossing to Rason city, which North Korean officials have been trying to transform from a backwater port into an economic engine for the country. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

A North Korean soldier guards the border between China and North Korea in Wonjong-ri, Rason. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Chinese tourists gallivant along a golf course at the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea. The course has been closed for three years, after a South Korean tourist was shot to death by North Korean guards at the resort and South Korean officials banned tourists from the site. This summer, North Korean officials started a program reaching out to Chinese tourism officials and others to restore the resort. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images) #

Children walk home after school in a rural area near the North Korean special economic zone of Razon. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Chinese tourists admire the view from a bridge at the Mount Kumgang tourist zone in North Korea. Once a thriving resort and a symbol of cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang, shops in North Korea's Mount Kumgang are now shut, hotels vacant and the golf course empty. The lush region opened in 1998 as a jointly-run scenic spot for South Koreans, but tours there were suspended after a North Korean soldier shot dead a visitor from the South who had strayed into a restricted zone in July 2008. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP/Getty Images) #

Workers pack the back of a truck near the North Korean special economic zone of Razon. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A member of a Chinese delegation takes pictures at the costal area of the Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea, near its border with South Korea. Long grass grows around the idle hotels here, shops are covered in cobwebs, and a big padlock hangs off the front of the bank at the deserted shopping center. This is a North Korean ghost-town, one funded by its wealthy southern neighbours. The deserted Mount Kumgang tourist resort was once a symbol of cooperation between the two Koreas, but today is stark reminder of the big divide that still stands between the sides who are still technically at war having only signed an armistice, not a peace treaty, to the end 1950-53 Korean War. Three years ago the shooting of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier here resulted in Seoul halting tours to the complex, effectively drying up a source of much needed hard currency for the impoverished North. Now, North Korean officials are reaching out to Chinese tourism officials in an effort to reopen the resort. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

A restaurant in Rason, North Korea. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

A Chinese tourist poses near a portrait of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il at a theater in Rason. Kim, whose government is the target of international sanctions of its nuclear weapons program and testing, has been reaching out to China and other nations for help in rebuilding his nation's infrastructure in an attempt to bring in much-needed currency. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

North Korean waitresses stand by for waiting tables at a hotel in Mount Kumgang in North Korea on Aug. 31. Since South Korean tourists have been barred from the luxury resort, known abroad as Diamond Mountain, North Korea begun during the summer courting Chinese and other international tourists. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press) #

Walking and biking are primary ways to get around in central Rason city in North Korea. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

Women stand in a street in Rason city, northeast of Pyongyang. North Korea, which has famously been a very secretive society, recently allowed foreign journalists more freedoms, part of an effort to attract outside investments. (Carlos Barria/Reuters) #

North Korean soldiers (front) join North Korean traffic police in a tour of the birthplace of Kim Il Sung to pay their respects at Mangyongdae, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

North Korean soldiers smoke cigarettes on a street corner in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

Female North Korean soldiers hold hands as they tour the birthplace of Kim Il Sung at Mangyongdae, North Korea. Service in the militaristic nation is compulsory and female soldiers are nearly as numerous as males. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

Newspapers are posted inside a subway station in Pyongyang, North Korea. The government strictly controls the flow of information inside the nation and all journalists there are members of the Communist Party. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

A girl carries a flower through a memorial cemetery in Pyongyang, North Korea, for men and women who died fighting against the Japanese occupation. The Korean peninsula was a kingdom for centuries before Japanese forces occupied it after their war with Russia in 1905. The peninsula was taken from Japan after World War II and split into communist north and democratic south. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

North Korean soldiers walk past a small village near the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas outside of Kaesong, North Korea. The two nations are still technically at war, since only an armistice has been signed and not a peace treaty. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

A member of a marching band has her photo taken with a woman and young boy at an event to mark the birthday of Kim Il Sung at a park in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim is considered the founder of the nation. The regime of his son, Kim Jong Il, has marked 2012, the centenary of Kim Il Sung's birth, a banner year and has been trying to bolster its economy to support festivities. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

North Koreans stroll along the Taedong River in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Koreans consider the river the cradle of their civilization. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

A girl plays the piano inside the Changgwang Elementary School in Pyongyang, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

Rows of portable stereos populate a music library room at the Grand People's Study House in Pyongyang, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

A European tourist photographs a North Korean woman working at the Pyongyang airport as passengers from a North Korean Air Koryo flight arrive from Beijing. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

A photograph of Kim Il Sung hangs on a wall next to a light made from a grenade inside an exhibit, made to look like underground bunkers used during the resistance against the Japanese occupation, at the war museum in Pyongyang, North Korea. Kim was a guerrilla leader, then an officer in the Soviet Red Army in its successful taking of the Korean peninsula. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

An unidentified North Korean town is next to a body of water along the highway from Pyongyang to the southern city of Kaesong. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

Children look through a subway car window in Pyongyang, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

North Koreans pay their respects at a monument to Kim Il Sung at Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

Concert-goers wait for a classical music performance to begin in Pyongyang, North Korea. (David Guttenfelder/Associated Press) #

Central Pyongyang, North Korea at dusk. David Guttenfelder/Associated Press. #

Soldiers walk along the side of a street in Pyongyang as the sun sets. David Guttenfelder/Associated Press #

A multi-lane highway, empty of vehicles near Pyongyang. David Guttenfelder/Associated Press. #