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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korea is planning a range of measures to boost tourism to the country and hopes to attract more Chinese investors to help in the process, a senior official in the industry told Chinese state media last week.
In a July 24 interview published on Friday, National Tourism Administration (NTA) Director for the Department of Promotion Kim Chun Hui is quoted as having said that the DPRK “welcomes Chinese entrepreneurs to invest in hotels, tourist attractions, and infrastructure.”
Admitting that infrastructure is an area in need of improvement, Kim added that the government “will provide various preferential measures for Chinese investors,” Kim told the Xinhua News Agency in an interview in Pyongyang.
Current UN sanctions on North Korea, however, prohibit Chinese citizens and others from engaging in activities likely required to carry out such investments, including bulk cash transfers, working with DPRK banks, and setting up “joint ventures or cooperative entities.”
This has not stopped North Korean entities and Chinese partners from continuing to promote investment opportunities in the North, however, with overlap in specific offerings showing up on the official trade site of the Ministry of External Economic Relations and Chinese sources online.
But according to writer and researcher on the North Korean economy Peter Ward writing for NK News’s sister site NK Pro in May, many investment proposals, at least with regards to the Wonsan-Mt. Kumgang tourist region, may fail to attract Chinese investors.
He also said the “zone’s proposed investment projects do not appear to have been devised in a coherent manner,” possibly pointing to a lack of understanding of target investors.
In her interview with Xinhua last week, NTA department director Kim signaled that the east coast zone remains the country’s top priority among tourist destinations, specifically mentioning the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area and the Yangdok Hot Springs Tourist Area.
She also cited Samjiyon County in the northeast as a third zone – all currently under construction – being turned “into world-class tourist attractions in order to attract more foreign tourists.”
The above zones have only rarely been described in state media as aimed at attracting foreign tourists, and are mostly promoted as projects to be used by North Korean people.
But with the NTA director’s confirmation, it appears Chinese tourists may be a primary target to help recoup costs as the state pours significant resources into the large scale construction projects.
Other areas of focus for the NTA, according to Xinhua, include addressing internet connectivity issues for tourists, improving entry and exit procedures, and providing new tour packages and destinations.
Kim reportedly said the NTA “is actively working in cooperation with relevant units to solve telecommunication problems as soon as possible,” with the article pointing out that foreigners cannot yet take advantage of international roaming from their home providers while in the DPRK.
Another related issue to be addressed, the article said, is the fact that tourists are still unable to access Wi-Fi from inside their hotel rooms – a standard amenity in most international hotels in other countries.
At present, tourists in North Korea can purchase Wi-Fi access in select hotel lobbies in Pyongyang, or by purchasing temporary plans on sim cards with local carrier Koryolink.
Among new planned routes and packages, Kim also suggested more nature- and cultural heritage-based tours, while suggesting there should also be more tours targeting elderly Chinese.
In order to prepare for a possible uptick in tourists, Kim said “the tourism sector is also striving to cultivate more tourism management and service personnel.”
According to Kim, more than 200,000 foreign tourists visited North Korea in 2018, “90% of whom were Chinese.”
And while NK News and other outlets have recently reported on daily limits to entries of Chinese tourists, Kim confirmed to Xinhua that restrictions are merely due to “limited reception capacity of entry-exit ports” and the “inadequate capacity of railway transportation.”
The NTA itself does not place such restrictions, she said, adding that “for foreign tourists who have already entered the country, North Korea has sufficient tourism reception capacity.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News