North Korea has conducted seven ballistic missile tests so far in 2017, the latest coming last Sunday with the launch of the new Hwasong-12 rocket. It reached an altitude of 2,111.5 kilometers, which John Schilling of 38 North called “a level of performance never before seen from a North Korean missile.”
“We will conduct ICBM tests anytime and anywhere in accordance with the decisions made by our central leadership,” Ji Jae Ryong, North Korea’s ambassador to China, announced, as KCNA, North Korea’s state-run news agency, declared that the Hwasong-12, which can carry a large nuclear warhead, put the United States within its “sighting range for strike.”
While the White House tightens sanctions and threatens a possible preemptive strike on Pyongyang, North Korea’s tourism industry remains open for business. The country’s provocations never fail to provoke endless speculation and an understandably grave level of concern across the rest of the world, but according to westerners who have been inside North Korea during past launches and tests, they barely register when you’re actually there.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
Andrea Lee, co-founder and CEO of the Kearny, New Jersey-based Uri Tours, was in Pyongyang during a February 2016 missile launch, which she says was announced over the loudspeaker, in Korean, while her group rode the Pyongyang Metro. The rest of the itinerary—lunch at a local restaurant; a trip to the top of the Juche Tower; an evening at the Kaeson Youth Park, among various other local activities—went ahead as planned.
“We have been in the country during several major political events like missile tests, or we’ve entered the country right after, and nothing actually changes on the ground,” says Lee. “The country doesn’t stop, people go about their daily lives, and tourism runs the same way—there’s no effect on safety. I know it’s disconcerting to some people, but the bottom line is, most of these things happen way outside of life in general.”
Matthew Reichel was in his room at Pyongyang’s Changgwansan Hotel when he heard about the February 2016 launch. As he was getting ready to go downstairs, Reichel says he tuned the TV to the BBC, which is available in certain tourist hotels, but strictly off-limits to locals.
“I was like, ‘Oh shit, there was a missile test here this morning,’” says Reichel, whose Vancouver-based Pyongyang Project organizes academic and cultural exchanges to the country. “My North Korean friends heard about it a few hours later on state media. We saw some mass rallies later practicing to celebrate, but you see mass rallies all the time in North Korea.”
“The country doesn’t stop, people go about their daily lives, and tourism runs the same way—there’s no effect on safety”
Like Reichel, a 2006 missile launch would have escaped Simon Cockerell’s attention altogether if he hadn’t had the TV tuned to the BBC in his room at the Yanggakdo Hotel. Cockerell, the general manager of British-run, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, says the event caused “no issues at all.” (According to Cockerell, Al Jazeera has now replaced the BBC in the Yanggakdo’s rooms; Reichel notes that DW, RT, and Fenghuang are also now available.)
After the segment, Cockerell went down to the Yanggakdo lobby bar where he ran into some North Korean acquaintances who hadn’t yet heard about the launch, but were decidedly blasé about the whole thing.
“I had a drink with them and mentioned it had happened,” Cockerell recalls. “They treated it like a minor piece of news, they hadn’t heard by that point, which to me was unexpected.”
NK News witnessed this attitude first hand during a press visit to North Korea this year to mark celebrations of the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth on April 15, known in the country as the “Day of the Sun.”
Only a few hours after celebrations wrapped up, North Korea tried, but failed, to launch a missile from its east coast. When told about the test that morning, a high-ranking local minder responded: “I know… don’t mention it.”
Simon Cockerell was also in North Korea for an underground nuclear detonation carried out in 2009, and the March 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. As with the 2006 launch, neither of these “dramatic moments,” as Cockerell describes them, had any noticeable effect on the ground.
As North Korea has relaxed its tourist restrictions ever so slightly in recent years, Cockerell has been able to get his news by way of an internet SIM card in his North Korean mobile phone, where the citizenry doesn’t have access to the open web. If anything happens during his next trip to Pyongyang, an alert will simply pop up on Cockerell’s phone, as it would anywhere else in the world.
North Korea doesn’t release tourism data, but Cockerell says it hit a peak in 2012, when roughly 6,000 westerners—“What the North Koreans call ‘European tourists, which embraces everyone who is not Chinese”—visited North Korea, about 2,000 of whom went with Koryo.
It remains legal for Americans to visit North Korea, although at least four U.S. citizens are currently jailed there, and the State Department strongly advises against it.
“U.S. citizens in the DPRK are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” the latest State warning reads, using North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States and threatens U.S. citizen detainees with being treated in accordance with ‘wartime law of the DPRK.’”
Although every tour operator in the business maintains that travel to North Korea is perfectly safe—and statistically speaking, the chances of being arrested while there are extremely low—no fewer than 16 Americans have been detained in the past ten years, per State Department data. And, “being a member of a group tour or using a tour guide will not prevent North Korean authorities from detaining or arresting you.”
Through it all, Koryo’s bookings have held steady at 1,500-1,700 western tourists per year
State’s warning also asks travelers to do a bit of soul-searching before booking a trip to North Korea.
“The DPRK funnels revenue from a variety of sources to its nuclear and weapons programs, which it prioritizes above everything else, often at the expense of the well-being of its own people. It is entirely possible that money spent by tourists in the DPRK goes to fund these programs. We would urge all travelers, before travelling to the DPRK, to consider what they might be supporting.”
Through it all, Koryo’s bookings have held steady at 1,500-1,700 western tourists per year, according to Cockerell, with “no significant increase or decrease in general” since then, with the total American proportion of Western tourists per year at between 20 and 25 percent.
All Koryo tours are going ahead as planned, he says, and while a small handful of people did indeed pull out of recent trips, Cockerell described this as “not uncommon,” and that “the proportion was not much larger than for any other tours at any other time.”
(On one of Koryo’s recent trips, the group spotted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, visiting the South Korean side of the DMZ, from their vantage point on the North Korean side. “A group of North Koreans, apparently tourists, waved across the border during Tillerson’s visit,” the Los Angeles Times reported, semi-accurately, the next day.)
Kim Jong Un has said that he hopes to attract two million tourists annually to North Korea by 2020. Nuclear tests “probably don’t help, but these things just don’t deter people the way you might think they would,” says Lee, who is now branching out into other destinations beginning with a tour to Vietnam in April. (Uri’s non-DPRK trips will be run by a spinoff called Before Travel.) Still, all of Uri’s trips to North Korea, like Koryo’s, are proceeding as scheduled.
“In terms of the overall industry, there are no hangups in terms of logistics on the North Korean side. I would say they are looking at growth,” says Lee.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, says Reichel, that Pyongyang’s bad behavior actually attracts visitors.
“The missile tests, honestly, that’s kind of why a lot of people go to North Korea,” he says. “Because they do this crazy stuff.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: Koryo Museum by Clay Gilliland on 2013-10-02 06:52:31