Near the Sino-North Korean border crossing at Quanhe-Wonjong, tourists on a trip around the northeastern Chinese region of Yanbian are peering through binoculars at the opposite bank.
“Can you see any beautiful North Korean ladies?” asks one of the local vendors supervising the binoculars and selling various ‘Korean’ and ‘Russian’ trinkets which he displays on a low table. The levity of his tone, characteristic of much of the discussion of North Korea in Yanbian, speaks of a local approach to the country over the river which continues to diverge from how it is seen in much of the rest of the world.
This difference in approaches has become still more starkly evident in recent months in the field of Chinese tourism to the DPRK.
Following the death in June of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was detained whilst on a 2016 tour to North Korea, much western media attention and public discussion has focused on the possible risks of travel to the country for western visitors. With Young Pioneer Tours, the firm with which Warmbier traveled, has stopped taking U.S. tourists to the DPRK, broader media discussion has also questioned whether American citizens, in particular, should be going there at all.
But along the eastern stretch of the Sino-North Korean border, the departure point for many of the thousands of Chinese tourists who travel to the DPRK each year (profiled in depth by NK News here and here), few such discussions are taking place.
BUSINESS IS BOOMING
On a recent NK News visit to Yanbian, local tour operators remained upbeat about the health of their sector. Here, companies offer a selection of tours, including overnight visits to the North Korean special economic zone of Rason and a summer itinerary to the east side of Mt. Paektu.
“We have groups of at least 20 tourists leaving for North Korea four days per week at the moment”
These are advertised alongside trips around Yanbian itself and excursions to neighboring parts of Russia, with Vladivostok a favored destination. Travelers from elsewhere in China make their way up to this part of the country via a high-speed railway opened in 2015 which runs along the China-DPRK border.
“We have groups of at least 20 tourists leaving for North Korea four days per week at the moment,” noted one source at a travel agency in the town of Hunchun, which lies directly across the Tumen from Rason. “There’s lots of interest from both locals and visitors, and we haven’t seen any drop in numbers recently.”
Indeed, many of the agency staff spoken to by NK News had not even heard of the death of Warmbier and were unclear on the details of recent North Korean weapons tests, despite an ICBM missile launch – reported on in Chinese media – having occurred only days previously.
Chinese tourist visits to the DPRK are such an everyday phenomenon here and happen in such volumes that travel is not immediately linked in local thinking to the political situation on the peninsula. These are circumstances very different from that which prevails among western North Korea tour operators, who are, mostly, in close personal contact with political observers and analysts on the country.
This is not to say, however, that no one at all in Yanbian was aware of the situation, and at another travel agency, the manager was more up-to-date with recent developments, including the Warmbier affair.
“Yes that thing with the American was bad,” said a man called Mr. Zhao laconically, over a bowl of cold Chinese liangpi noodles he was eating for his lunch. “We suggest that third-country [i.e. non-Chinese] citizens don’t go there with us, although it remains possible in principle. But who knows – if a foreigner goes these days there’s a risk they might not come back, and that would be a lot of bother for them and for us.”
Mr. Zhao’s warnings about the complexities of the situation were more explicit than those voiced elsewhere, where the potential for a non-Chinese tourist joining a Chinese group was seen as unproblematic. But like other operators, Mr. Zhao was nevertheless resolute in painting a picture of unwavering Chinese interest in travel to the DPRK and their purported immunity from any possible danger.
“Chinese people don’t care about all that stuff, and besides China and North Korea are brother countries,” he continued. “There’s no security problem for us. To be honest the only reason not to go is that it’s not really as fun as other places,” he added, before stopping short on this line of discussion for fear of discouraging the potential customers browsing his shop’s poster advertisements.
The views of Yanbian locals with less interest than Mr. Zhao in promoting travel to the DPRK for commercial gain, similarly, held that the country remains a risk-free, if not especially interesting, travel destination for Chinese travelers. Far more common than any reference to potential danger is the refrain that North Korea is ‘poor’, ‘backward’ and ‘spends all its money on weapons’, all of which for some make for a somewhat questionable travel destination.
Chinese visitors increasingly cite North Korea’s ‘mysterious’ qualities as a reason for wanting to go
Those who follow the news closely are aware that a certain antagonism has crept into the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship of late, something which, in recent months, appears even to have found expression in rival Chinese and North Korean newspaper opinion pieces.
But despite itself previously having been subject to political shifts – notably when Chinese tours to Mt Paektu were suspended in 2013 following the DPRK’s third nuclear test – tourism today remains a sphere apart.
This is interesting, because Chinese tourism globally is hardly immune from the impingements of geopolitics. Indeed, on the national level both China’s media and its online sphere take an increasing interest in the activities of their fellow-citizens abroad, and whilst poor behavior by Chinese travelers has met with strong disapproval – and a 2015-instigated blacklist for ‘uncivilised tourists’– any purported abuse or exploitation of Chinese travelers also provokes fierce reaction.
A 2013 withdrawal of kettles for boiling water by a Maldives-based resort to stop PRC tourists from making instant noodles instead of using room service led to calls for a Chinese boycott of the country.
“THEY CAN’T TOUCH US!”
Any news of suffering befalling a Chinese visitor to the DPRK would lead to a full-throated response from many Yanbian residents. North Korea would, in any case, be ill-advised to mistreat any visitor from over the northern border: such people represent the overwhelming majority of tourists to the country and, as Mr. Zhao acknowledged, are a key financial resource.
“Chinese people just hand over loads of foreign currency. They can’t touch us!” he noted with his habitual directness. As noted previously by NK News, the Chinese authorities stopped publishing figures for tourists to the DPRK in 2012, but they have always far outnumbered visitors from anywhere else.
For those Chinese tourists who are not able to afford a trip to the distant Maldives, and find the very different political and economic climate of the DPRK curious rather than off-putting, the country does continue to offer a unique but convenient taste of something foreign and different.
Indeed, more so than with Russia, the other local ‘international’ destination, Chinese visitors increasingly cite North Korea’s ‘mysterious’ qualities as a reason for wanting to go. As represented by the tourists pictured above, even for those not crossing the Tumen, peering over the river as though at some strange and distant land, and dressing up in colorfully ‘exotic’ Korean clothing, are popular pastimes.
Recent indications in Yanbian suggest that, regardless of any questions being asked in the western DPRK-focused tourist industry, the situation in China is likely to remain very distinct, barring any truly cataclysmic shifts in the Sino-North Korean relationship. And on a local level “beautiful North Korean ladies” will continue to figure over politics among those considering a cross-border trip.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News
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