Dressed in traditional costumes, North Korean women dance at a park in Pyongyang to celebrate the 99th anniversary of the birth of the nation’s founder Kim Il-sung, which fell on April 15, during an event open to foreign tourists. A growing number of travelers, including those from Western countries, visit the North each year, travel agencies say.
/ Courtesy of Uri Tours
By Kim Young-jin
The case of Eddie Young-su Jun, an American jailed in North Korea for reported missionary work, hammered the point home again ― don’t venture into the isolated country if you plan to do so on your own terms.
Jun’s arrest followed the North’s detention, and eventual release, of four Americans over the past two years for trespassing.
Beyond such headlines, however, lies another story ― a growing number of tourists, including some 2,000 Westerners, visit the North legally each year. And with Pyongyang pushing for bigger numbers, travel agencies abroad say it is eyeing tourism as a way to promote better relations with the outside.
“There’s a real focus in North Korea on increasing tourism,” a representative of U.S.-based Uri Tours, one of a handful of agencies specializing in travel to the North, said. “Yes it’s about generating revenue, but it also wants to show that the country is more than what the media portrays it as.”
The attention to tourism comes as Pyongyang makes various efforts to foster contact with other countries after diplomatic efforts have failed to ease tension in the region, still high over its two recent deadly provocations.
But travelers be warned: trips remain tightly controlled and governments such as the United States still caution nationals on the potential dangers of visiting the world’s last Stalinist country.
Analysts say the North’s tourism push carries one main objective ― attracting hard currency to buoy its heavily-sanctioned economy.
But the outcome of a recent trip by a delegation of Italian tourism experts suggests the reclusive regime could also be looking to deepen civilian-level exchanges.
“There’s an opportunity now to start organizing delegations of professionals, experts in various sectors, to have meetings with counterparts from North Korea,” said a member of the delegation, who requested anonymity. The trip was organized in coordination with Uri Tours.
Initiated by the delegation, the trip focused on prospects for tourism cooperation between the sides and included meetings with university deans and the chairman of a government tourist board.
The North Koreans were “very interested” in the prospect of a similar meeting with American tourism experts as well as groups in other fields, said the delegation member.
A tour by North Korean experts to universities in Italy to discuss tourism curricula was also mentioned as a possibility.
“They recognize the need to begin understanding each other better by sharing experience and knowledge,” the member said. “And they understand that there is a chance to give to the outside world a different image of itself.”
A short list of groups is also fostering greater contact through education: Canadian group Pyongyang Project brings students to the North for academic exchanges, while Uri Tours last year arranged for students of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government to meet with their peers there.
The Uri representative added that the travel body it works with in the North, the Korea International Sports Travel Company, had been “very receptive” to accommodating customized trips.
For South Koreans, traveling to the North remains unlikely after inter-Korean tourism projects fell through and the deadly shelling of Yeonpyeong Island forced Seoul to impose a travel ban.
Some also warn that visa applications for non-Koreans living in the South have a higher chance of rejection. Journalists too are rarely approved for visas.
But for others a trip requires little more than filling out a visa application through a travel agency, and, in some cases, a bit of extra legwork.
In countries without a North Korean embassy, where the visas are processed, agencies offer packages with which applicants can stop over in Beijing, where one can pick up the visa before heading in by train or Air Koryo, the North’s flagship carrier.
The Uri representative said the process usually takes less than three weeks but recommended contacting an agency at least a month in advance.
Typical tours involve sightseeing around Pyongyang, rife with monuments hailing country founder Kim Il-sung, and stops at the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas and the ancient capital of Gaeseong.
Many packages revolve around cultural events such as the Arirang Mass Games, where 100,000 performers engage in synchronized performance art, or holidays such as the late Kim’s birthday.
A travel agent in China said the annual Spring Friendship Arts Festival, for which hundreds of performers from Russia and other countries were flown in earlier this month, is also a potential cash cow for the regime. This year’s event reportedly drew a huge number of tourists from China.
The North has even dropped most of its travel restrictions on U.S. citizens, previously limited to visits only during the mass games. Americans are now allowed to visit at any time of year, but remain barred from crossing the border by train.
‘Things they cannot hide’
The U.S. State Department warns its nationals entering North Korea that visitors may be harshly punished for acts as innocuous as interacting with locals, which it says could be perceived as espionage.
But many visitors say that tour groups are so closely watched by guides, that as long as one sticks with the group, it will be tough to run into trouble.
“You’re not going to get hit by a car, nobody is going to steal your wallet,” Arnaud Minne, a recent visitor from Belgium said. “It’s all orchestrated.”
But the regime’s watchful eye doesn’t necessarily prevent one from gaining real insight on current conditions in the North, which strictly coordinate the tours to lean heavily on sites hailing Kim Il-sung.
“There are things they cannot hide,” said Minne, a graduate student at Yonsei University.
He said his group watched people line up for food on Kim Jong-il’s birthday in February, when the regime traditionally gives out gifts of extra rations, but did not see anyone walking away with anything to eat.
One of his guides, a twenty-something woman, had a surprising amount of knowledge of the outside world, including some about South Korean and American movies. This situation is increasing and a reflection of the rapid flow of information across the border.
The highlight of the trip, he said, was a circus staged for Kim’s birthday.
“The atmosphere was crazy. There were only six or seven foreigners in the middle of hundreds of North Koreans including generals, laughing and having fun,” he said.
Some say such events are staged specifically for foreigners, as previously done in other communist states, to put on a more palatable public image.
For Minne, whether the spectacle had been solely for his benefit remained a riddle left unanswered by the once-in-a-lifetime trip.
“It’s really hard to say,” he said. “It seems hard to believe, but one never really knows.”