North Korea’s Schizophrenic Tourist Policy
Image Credit: flickr/ northkoreatravel

North Korea’s Schizophrenic Tourist Policy

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Given its status as one of the most isolated countries in the world, North Korea is in many ways the ideal destination for travelers seeking exotic getaways.

Even though travel to North Korea is criticized because it garners hard currency for the government, there has been long been a steady flow of people from various countries traveling to the Hermit Kingdom.

Even as it furthers its isolation with various provocations, North Korea has launched a PR campaign aimed at boosting tourism to the country. This campaign has included opening up different parts of the country to foreign tourists to entice them to come, as well as offering many tourist packages that include activities like skiing, hiking, fishing and even Taekwondo.

Chosun Sinbo, the Japan-based pro-DPRK publication, ran a story this week claiming that the new packages have been a hit with tourists, particularly the one that allows them to interact with ordinary North Koreans. It added that North Korea intends to continue developing new packages to meet tourists’ needs.

North Korea has also sought to improve infrastructure as part of its bid to bolster its tourism industry. For example, it announced a plan to connect North Korea’s major tourist attractions, such as Wonsan, Masikryong Ski Resort and Mt. Geumgang, with roads and high-speed railroads. It has also pledged to upgrade and repair its airport and port in Wonsan as well as the electricity in the Mt. Geumgang area.

North Korea’s even reorienting its higher education in order to bolster tourism. According to the Chosun Sinbo, about 100 North Korean students are currently studying hotel and tourism management at Jang Chul Gu College of Industry’s Service School, which was opened in April this year. The report explained that the school focuses on improving students’ singing, dancing, music and foreign languages skills with the aim of producing higher quality entertainment for foreign tourists.

Park Dong Chang, the principal of the school, told Choson Sinbo that since newly built hotels have struggled to find qualified workers, the school’s role is very important. He added that they will soon be engaging in academic exchanges with universities in China.

In fact, there have been several news reports showing Pyongyang’s recent efforts to attract foreign tourists in recent months.

NK News recently reported that a bar in Pyongyang that was once reserved for local citizens is now opening its doors to foreign tourists, which is a dramatic departure for the North Korean government that has historically gone to considerable lengths to insulate its people from foreigners. Rowan Beard, a guide at Young Pioneer Tours, a U.K.-based travel agency specializing in vacations to North Korea, told NK News that the government’s rationale for opening the bar to foreigners is not clear, but speculated it was possibly done because his company and other tour companies have urged the DPRK to allow tourists to drink with locals as a means of enhancing their experience.

Meanwhile, the Washington D.C.-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this week that foreign tourists will also soon be able to ride all of Pyongyang’s subway lines. Previously, tourists were only allowed into the more sophisticated and modern subways the capital city has to offer.

Despite these considerable efforts to bolster its tourism industry, North Korea’s simultaneous erratic behavior often undercuts its goal of attracting foreign tourists.

For example, in 2008 a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier while she was visiting Mt. Geumgang. Seoul asked Pyongyang to investigate the incident but North Korea failed to do so, seriously disrupting inter-Korean relations.

Similarly, even as it has rolled out new attractions to entice foreign tourism, North Korea has been detaining American tourists on an ever more frequent basis. There are currently at least three Americans are being held by North Korea, one of whom — Kenneth Bae — has been detained since 2012 and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly aiming to topple the DPRK government.

The other two Americans currently in North Korea’s custody were both detained while visiting the country in April of this year. Late last month the government announced it is charging both men with unspecified crimes. The government did claim that both men had committed “hostile acts” as confirmed by evidence and their own confessions. North Korea often forces foreigners it has detained to make false confessions for public consumption as a condition for releasing them.

There are already clear signs that this erratic behavior will inhibit North Korea’s efforts to expand tourism. Following the detention of the two Americans in April, the U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory for North Korea stating that it “strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea” It noted that Americans visiting North Korea “have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention” even if they had a valid visa.

It also warned Americans that using private tour groups will not necessarily prevent them from being detained. “Do not assume that joining a group tour or use of a tour guide will prevent your arrest or detention by North Korean authorities,” the advisory said. “Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not succeeded in gaining their release.”

More recently, the British government updated its foreign travel advice for North Korea. Although it didn’t warn British nationals against visiting North Korea, it did recommend using a group tour. In addition, London told tourists to avoid bringing any books or other Korean-language materials with them when traveling to the DPRK.

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