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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
Western tourists will soon gain access to a new destination along the North Korea-China border and a new route through one of the country’s most secretive provinces, according to the tour company Young Pioneer Tours (YPT).
Starting from the Ji’an-Manpho border, non-Chinese tour groups will for the first time be allowed to regularly cross for group day trips in Manpho and to take a train through Jagang province to Pyongyang.
YPT tour manager Rowan Beard told NK News that the new option will become available “very soon,” though he said logistical preparations are still underway to allow both Chinese and North Korean customs to coordinate and manage the non-Chinese tourists.
Manpho has been open to Chinese tour groups for decades, though the town and Jagang province, in general, have remained largely off-limits to westerners in recent years.
The border crossing from the eastern outskirts of Ji’an to Manpho includes a rail bridge and a new road bridge mostly completed in 2012, but which was only connected to Chinese roads in an opening ceremony last month.
The opening was heavily promoted in Chinese media, and local tourists have since been allowed to resume group day tours in Manpho following a pause while the new customs complex on the Ji’an side was under construction.
Google Earth satellite imagery shows construction on buildings at the foot of the bridge on the North Korean side of the border, too, saw progress over winter – though some of the structures remain largely unfinished.
Beard said once western tourists are allowed to cross in Manpho, they will also be allowed to take the train route through Jagang province to Pyongyang – also only previously available to Chinese tourists.
The Manpho-Pyongyang route takes passengers through the Jagang province towns of Kanggye, Songgan, Jonchon, Songwon, Tongshin, and Huichon.
Beard said YPT has, until now, only been allowed to semi-regularly bring tourists to one city in Jagang, and only on a few occasions each year – for a hotel stay in Huichon in the province’s southern tip near Mt. Myohyang.
While the North’s plans for tourism in Jagang are still unclear, outer-track state media outlets have in recent months been promoting more potential tourist attractions in the province, many surrounding its capital Kanggye.
North Korean state television aired a special on Manpho on May 1 highlighting locations which are included in the tourist itinerary | Video: KCTV
Writing for NK Pro in 2017, expert on North Korean politics and the military Fyodor Tertitskiy found that the large-scale ban on travel to Jagang province had not always been so strict, and that foreigners began to find their access highly limited starting earlier this decade.
This, he found, is likely due at least in part to the concentrated presence of military-related facilities in the province.
But now, with the substantial Chinese investment in the new customs complex – 280 million yuan ($41,696,200) – it appears both sides are hoping to widen the scope of tourism to the province.
Relaying remarks from some locals in Manpho who may be set to benefit from an increase in tourists, YPT’s Beard said “they’re very keen” and that “they want Europeans.”
“They hear how well Sinuiju, North Hamgyong, and Pyongyang is doing with foreign tourists,” he added. “They want to be involved.”
And while Chinese tourists have been allowed to cross for day tours since at least 1992 when an agreement was signed with the Jilin provincial government, it appears this tourism, too, has seen a boost since the new crossing opened in April.
Beard said the previous day trip tourism was conducted “on a much smaller scale,” and that now “groups of about 100 Chinese” tourists each have been joining for the day tours recently.
He also said there are now English-speaking tour guides ready to assist the western tour groups.
Included in the Manpho day tour itinerary are a children’s traffic park, a local kindergarten, a wool factory, a pavilion with views of both sides of the border, and a souvenir shop selling alcohol, cigarettes, and other local items.
Until the new option opens up this summer, the only other location in North Korea currently offering day trips for westerners is Sinuiju – the busiest border crossing and main artery for much of the country’s trade with China.
The vast majority of foreign tourists traveling by train into Pyongyang at present also cross the Dandong-Sinuiju border at the northwest tip of North Korea.
The last opening of the North Korean rail lines to western tourists came in late 2017, when foreign tour companies were allowed to arrange regular trips along the eastern corridor crossing the Russia-DPRK border.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Young Pioneer Tours