NEW YORK CITY – Yesterday, Koryo Tours general manager Simon Cockerell was the first-ever western tourist to visit the North Korean border town of Sinuiju.
There is quite a bit of cross-border trade — Sinuiju is a mere 900 meters across the Yalu River from its Chinese neighbor, Dandong — and Chinese travelers have long been permitted to make day trips, so, as Cockerell pointed out in a telephone interview upon his return to his home base in Beijing, “It wasn’t like when Columbus landed in the New World.”
“At the same time,” he told me, “my local guide/translator, who spoke English quite well, had never met someone who wasn’t either Chinese or Korean before. When I asked her, ‘How’s it going?’ she looked at me and said, ‘You have very blue eyes…’ So, there was a bit of that, too.”
Cockerell was in Sinuiju, North Korea’s sixth-largest city, on, as he as he described it, “a reccy,” in advance of Koryo’s upcoming inaugural trip in with a group. He did, in fact, once spend an afternoon stranded in Sinuiju in 2004 when his train couldn’t get him to Pyongyang. But, until 24 hours ago, he hadn’t actually explored it himself.
“I’ve passed through Sinuiju on the train probably 100 times, but had never been out into the city before,” Cockerell told me. “It was always a little frustrating — Chinese tourists have been going there for years, so the infrastructure exists for visitors. This is something we’ve believed could happen and it’s finally paid off.”
Though certain North Koreans in the area travel back and forth between Sinuiju and Dandong for business, those who enjoy this particular luxury do so within certain parameters.
“You go because you need to, not because you wake up in the morning and fancy a trip to Dandong,” Cockerell said. However, the differences between gritty Sinuiju and booming Dandong — with its big, modern tower blocks easily visible from the riverbank — are “clear to anyone with eyes.”
Koryo Tours will be offering day trips to Sinuiju from Dandong, as well as Sinuiju add-ons to their Pyongyang tours. “We’re very excited to open Sinuiju up to tourists,” Cockerell told me. “This is a chance for people to see something quite different.”