KUALA LUMPUR — North Korea’s tourism office in Kuala Lumpur sits behind heavy wooden doors. The entrance is secured by two big steel padlocks.
According to a well-placed source within the building, the tenants of the DPR Korea Tourism left the office around the time of the alleged assassination of Kim Jong-nam. The source, who asked not to be named, said it’s unclear where they went and when or if they’ll be back.
The shuttered tourism office is not the only sign around Malaysia’s capital that what little travel there was from Malaysia to the DPRK is slumping, regardless of the mysterious airport murder. The tourism office lists 12 “accredited” travel agencies on its website. Of ten in Kuala Lumpur, only two still list DPRK travel packages online.
At one of those agencies, Malaysia Harmony Tour and Travel S/B, a representative politely declined to talk. An employee at Z.G. Nan Fang Holidays would only say that they stopped selling those packages last year.
Understandably, it’s a sensitive time to discuss travel packages to a country whose government is widely believed to have killed one its own people with VX nerve agent in your public airport.
Malaysia is the last country in the world to have visa-free entry to North Korea, and on the surface that may seem significant. However, many Malaysians, like Shahriman Lockman, suspect very few of their people are actually vacationing in the kingdom of the Kim family dynasty. Lockman is a senior analyst at the Institute for Strategic and International Studies Malaysia.
Even without a visa, he said, you need a special travel permit on top of a North Korea-approved tour package. Basically, Malaysians have received the same, tightly controlled look at the DPRK as the rest of the world.
Malaysians may not have a visa-free option much longer anyway. This week, Malaysia revoked visa-free travel for North Koreans, effective March 6. Pyongyang hasn’t commented about that, but according to Lockman, countries typically act with reciprocity.
And it’s not like Malaysia was benefiting from a boon of tourism from North Korea. Few North Koreans are allowed to travel legally outside their country’s borders.
Malaysia’s tourism and culture minister also recently discouraged Malaysians from traveling to North Korea. Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz called North Korea a highly unpredictable “rogue” state, according to The Star.
Other developments this week in diplomatic relations, or rather collapses, certainly won’t help boost tourism to the DPRK.
On Saturday, Malaysia’s foreign ministry informed North Korean Ambassador Kang Chol he has 48 hours to leave the country, according to The Star.
The Malaysian government demanded a written apology from North Korea after Chol cast doubt over the investigation by Malaysian police into the murder. The ambassador never offered one, and he’s days past the foreign ministry’s deadline to apologize.
An attitude about lackluster travel to North Korea was highlighted last month, before the visa-free deal was revoked, by satirical website fakemalaysianews.com.
The headline of one article reads: “North Korean tourism left reeling after all 3 Malaysians cancel trips.”
The website reminds readers not to take “FMN seriously,” but if you can get past the joke, this satire may bear some serious truth.