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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Yesterday North Korea’s state news agency proclaimed that foreign tourism is currently booming in North Korea, despite the fact that just one week prior the country conducted its third nuclear test. Pointing out that the tourist industry has been growing steadily since 2000, the Korea Central News Agency reported that North Korea has recently seen a high increase in European visitors, an expanding network of travel routes, and even a proliferation of positive reviews surfacing on online travel websites.
So what’s going on? Are tourist numbers sharply increasing or is this just a case of over-ambitious reporting by North Korean propagandists? If numbers are booming, what are the ethical implications? And finally, is tourism in North Korea something to be encouraged?
North Korea has been in the news a lot in recent years, having conducted three nuclear tests and launched four rockets since 2006. It’s also been involved in a number of military and political skirmishes with South Korea, some of which have been lethal. At the same time, an increasing number of human rights NGOs continue to draw attention to the harsh conditions and lack of freedom imposed on average North Koreans. So despite issues that you might think would put tourists off, have visitor numbers really been increasing?
For many years the number of western visitors to go to North Korea was reported by independent sources to be about 2,000 per year. However, in their latest report KCNA says that tourist numbers rose “sharply” from 2009 (coincidentally the second time the DPRK conducted a nuclear test). Simon Cockerell, General Manager at Koryo Tours, affirmed that numbers did indeed spike that year, though says that because overall numbers are so low for Western visitors, “an unexpected increase of a few dozen can look like a large percentage surge.”
Fast forward to 2012 and tourist sources suggest that North Korea last year welcomed approximately 4,000 Western visitors. In explaining the surge in visitors, KCNA said that “eye-catching achievements made by the country in the effort for building a thriving socialist nation in recent years are one of the attractions.” Perhaps more likely, the sharp increase in visitors in 2012 might be related to the high profile celebrations held in April for commemorating the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. Another reason could be due to the increased marketing efforts by a growing number of Western tourist agencies to draw people to North Korea and the the increasing number of travel blogs to focus on the country.
However, while western tourist numbers have no doubt increased in recent years, they are nothing when compared to the hundreds of thousands of South Korean citizens who used to visit North Korea at approved sites like Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong City. Generating serious income for North Korea between 1999 and 2008, the South Korean tourist flow stopped abruptly in 2008 following the fatal shooting of a tourist who had walked astray in a military area.
But while South Koreans can no longer visit the DPRK, Chinese and S.E. Asians can. Simon Cockerell says this group is now by far the largest demographic to currently visit North Korea, with tens of thousands of Chinese people visiting annually (many on day trips), and Malaysians arriving by charter flights in numbers that now rival Western visitors. For many Chinese, the trip represents a window back into the years of life under Mao Zedong, while affluent Malaysians and Singaporeans are able to visit due to increasingly easy access via plane.
As western tourist numbers continue to increase, the agencies capable of handling the interest are growing steadily, with British run Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours both now at the forefront of the market. These two agencies have seen a sharp increase in the number of visitors they take to the DPRK while also expanding the number and diversity of itineraries they offer. Increasingly specialized itineraries are now emerging, with cycling tours, fishing tours, political interest tours, and even business interest tours being offered by the two companies.
Juche Travel Services (JTS), a UK based operator, is now also offering aviation tours that see visitors take to the skies in a selection of Air Koryo’s vintage fleet for domestic flights throughout North Korea. These trips have proven highly popular, with aviation enthusiasts going in their scores on JTS group tours several times a year. Soon JTS will even be commencing a specialist train & railways tour of North Korea that will transport a group of visitors by charter train to areas of the country not normally accessible by tourist rail.
For its part, Young Pioneer Tours has even grander plans – with one specialist itinerary being planned that focuses around the urban sport of parkour / free-running (to be run in conjunction with Breathe Magazine), and others being prepared to focus on gymnastics, Taekwondo, and even North Korean medicine and healthcare.
What’s motivating these agencies to diversify their programming? One possible reason might be related to the increasing “normality” of visiting North Korea, a country rapidly losing its reputation as one of the most out of reach places in the world to visit. It’s also possible that the increasing diversity and number of photos, videos, and travel blogs are helping spread the message that visiting North Korea is both safe and easy. And as indicated above, another factor could be related to the increasing frequency that North Korea is reported on by world news outlets; a point some agencies use to showcase the “stand out nature” of visiting the DPRK.
While the DPRKs attraction as a tourist destination seems to be steadily increasing, given the countries’ egregious human rights situation it is fair to ask whether it is ethical to visit a society so cut off from the rest of the world. It’s a debate that has long been swirling, but that seems to be having less and less of an impact on the minds of those deciding to go.
Those who are against travel to North Korea tend to focus on the moral implications and belief that visitors could be fueling the government’s sometimes illicit activities. For his part, Casey Lartigue Jr. says that because of the high price, he won’t go. That’s because he points out that the $2500 price of some tours could be otherwise used to fund a human rights organization’s attempt to rescue a North Korean refugee. He adds,
I am not interested in going to North Korea as long as North Koreans are held captive. I could go one day, but for now, I can do without a government-guided tour by “men-stealers and women-whippers.
For her part, Melanie Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, warns that tour income could be used to fund nuclear and missile programs, as well as North Korea’s prison system. She also suggests that the people-to-people contact is too far limited to be of any real use. In a pointed comment, she adds,
It is fair to say that foreign visitors to North Korea are complicit in the evil perpetrated by the Kim family regime. They are helping to prop up the regime, thereby prolonging the suffering of the North Korean people.
Depending on how you look at things, the above could well be valid reason not to go. But renowned North Korea experts like Andrei Lankov and Aidan Foster-Carter both provide compelling arguments why tourism should be encouraged, because it is something that increases contact with outsiders and can sew the seeds for North Koreans to think differently about their own system. It’s worth reading their arguments in full, here and here.
I also argue that while we don’t quite know where tourist revenue goes, it is unlikely a deciding factor in the nuclear or missile programs.
Last year North Korea’s GDP was (conservatively) estimated by the CIA to be approx $40 billion. When considering that about 4,000 Westerners go per year, the revenue generated by tourist visits comes to about $400,000 per year* – or 0.001% of the sum total of the DPRK GDP. These figures are so small that frankly it is absurd to think that touring North Korea will in any way impact what the North Korean government chooses to spend its money on.
And what do North Koreans themselves think? In our Ask a North Korean feature, we recently found out:
I personally believe that increasing tourism in the DPRK is a very positive move. Frequent visits by foreigners will help improve the perception of North Korean people toward foreigners while promoting an opening and vitalization of the economy. North Koreans fully understand that the country is poor. They also know that foreigners are richer than themselves. So they hope to have better life by interacting with the outside world – and tourism is one way they can do this.
While it seems clear that tourist interest is increasing in North Korea, it doesn’t seem to be at any rate near the figures suggested by KCNA’s latest article. Although Pyongyang would love to see tourist flows return to the levels witnessed when South Korean nationals were allowed to visit, that seems highly unlikely for now. As such, 2013 will probably see a tangentially higher number of tourists visit than the approx net. 28,000 – 30,000 Chinese, Malaysian and Western visitors that visited last year.
While for some Westerners interest in going to North Korea is probably motivated by the chance of being able to regale guests at the dinner table for months to come, for others it is a chance to see the human side of life in the DPRK first hand, while slowly making a impact on how locals see the outside world. Either way, the presence of these two types of visitor will have a positive effect in this author’s perspective and should therefore be strongly encouraged.
Next week we’ll take a closer look at the moral debate on travel to North Korea, for whatever your perspective, it is clear that the debate about pros and cons should be more thoroughly explored.