In recent days, North Korean leadership has called for an attack on the United States, said it’s already at war with South Korea and put the world on edge with the threat of a missile test launch, prompting Tokyo to ready its defenses. Pyongyang even warned foreigners in Seoul to be prepared to evacuate and said it was unable to guarantee the safety of diplomats in Pyongyang.
In response to the escalating tensions, Chinese tour operators have been ordered to suspend overland travel to North Korea until further notice. The Telegraph’s Malcom Moore tweeted Tuesday evening that the China-North Korea border had been closed, effectively barring entry for Chinese visitors. Further, a travel agent in the Chinese border city of Dandong told Reuters Wednesday, "All (tourist) travel to North Korea has been stopped from today, and I've no idea when it will restart."
Yet, even as Pyongyang bangs the drums of war and Chinese tourism to the North has been brought to a halt, Western tour operators Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours are moving ahead with planned trips.
“Tours entering the country by plane are all going ahead, as are tours not involving Chinese tourists,” Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours told The Diplomat. “We haven’t had any tours disrupted by all this tension. We have a good number of tourists going in on Saturday, including me, and we have quite a few there already. Tourist numbers for us are strong for this time of year.”
The same is true for tourists approaching from the South Korean side, who are making the trek to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Yesterday, buses full of curious foreign visitors could still be seen making their way to the DMZ where tours conducted by UN chaperones proceeded without incident.
Despite North Korea’s elusive image, government-sanctioned tour operators escort thousands of guests annually to the North. To be sure, there are numerous restrictions: video cameras, plants, animals, pornography and propaganda are no-nos. However, to the surprise of many, analog and digital cameras, laptops, CD/MP3 players, books and magazines are permitted in the Hermit Kingdom. Tours typically include excursions to all things that glorify the state – lots of bronze statues, museums and mausoleums – closely supervised by North Korean guides.
When considering whether to go forward with tours in the face of the ongoing crisis, Cockerell chooses to take a long-term view, giving more weight to expert analysis than Pyongyang’s rhetoric. “I don’t think any serious analyst is expecting an actual war to start so we believe cool heads are called for,” he said, noting that so far North Korea hasn’t done anything new. “It’s just that now it’s all happening at once and the rhetoric is louder than usual.”
As Andrei Lankov, North Korea expert and professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, explained yesterday in an op-ed for The New York Times, Pyongyang has become “remarkably adept at manipulating global opinion.” Lankov points to Seoul’s populace, which remains markedly calm, despite the fact that the city is a mere 35 miles from the border and 120 miles from Pyongyang.
Lankov further emphasized this point to CNN, pointing out that no country had issued travel warnings or alerts for South Korea. The reason for this calm, Lankov explains, is simple: South Koreans are already used to this bluster – what he calls “diplomatic blackmail” – and understand Pyongyang’s behavior, which is used as a ploy for more foreign aid.
Other possible reasons posed by analysts for Pyongyang’s recent behavior include new leader Kim Jong-Un’s effort to rally domestic support and an attempt to initiate direct talks with Washington. Other analysts generally agree with the assessment that the heightened threats are more or less business as usual.
This seems to be true on the ground level too, according to Cockerell who added, “The situation is largely normal. People aren’t responding any differently (to Western tourists) at all. I think the kind of person wanting to go to North Korea with us isn’t really that put off by this behavior, as they have some knowledge of the country and know when there is a problem for them to be on tour and when there is not.”