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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.
Amid stalled inter-Korean diplomacy, senior South Korean government representatives have in recent days increasingly talked about the possibility of allowing citizens to tour North Korea.
But that’s despite concerns suggesting any resumption of South Korean mass tourism programs like the former Hyundai Asan itineraries to Mount Kumgang could breach UN sanctions due to involving bulk transfers of cash, among other issues.
President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday, for example, that the “limitations of international sanctions” had restricted inter-Korean cooperation more than he would have liked, but noted that “independent tourism” did not fall within their scope.
The next day, Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-cheol said the ROK is now “paying attention to the possibility of inter-Korean cooperation on tourism…with measures such as receiving applications for independent tour of Mount Kumgang.”
And unification ministry spokesperson Kim Eun-han said last Friday that Seoul could be open to allowing citizens to travel on “independent tours” so long as their “safety can be guaranteed.”
So, how realistic is South Korea’s potential openness to renewed inter-Korean tourism given the frozen state of relations?
What would need to change for “independent tours” to facilitate South Koreans going to the North outside the parameters of the mass tour programs of the early noughties?
And what could be the potential impacts of large numbers of South Korean citizens beginning to take tours to the North in this format?
A POTENTIAL WORKAROUND?
But it stopped suddenly when a South Korean tourist was killed by a North Korean guard after walking out of her hotel in the black of a July 2008 night to an allegedly military-controlled area.
Ever since, unilateral and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions have evolved to the point where it would now be very difficult for Seoul to facilitate mass tours to North Korea any time soon.
On the one hand, South Korea’s so-called “May 24 Measures” have since 2010 explicitly prohibited ROK citizens from going to North Korea and outlawed all inter-Korean trade. Furthermore, if South Koreans were to travel by Air Koryo, unilateral ROK sanctions on the airline dating from 2016 would also probably need to change.
On the other hand, UN sanctions essentially prevent financial institutions from sending money to North Korea and outlaw “bulk cash” transfers which could help support its weapons programs are prohibited.
As a result, the current sanctions environment would make it almost certainly illegal for a South Korean conglomerate like Hyundai to play a role in facilitating mass tourism to the North.
At the same time, however, there are no UN-level sanctions that specifically outlaw tour programs to the DPRK, allowing Western firms like Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours to continue to send thousands of foreigners there each year.
It’s the absence of UN measures which may also explain why Beijing stimulated such a dramatic spike in Chinese tourist numbers to North Korea that coincided with improving DPRK-PRC relations since 2008.
As a result, recent statements suggest that Seoul is edging towards the possibility of facilitating inter-Korean tourism outside the scope of the traditional mass tour programs of days gone by.
Given the geopolitical deadlock between the two countries, however, it seems that any resumption of South Korean tourism to the North would have to commence in a third country to stand any chance of success in the short-term.
In other words, if Seoul approved citizens to freely apply to visit North Korea using tour agencies in neighboring countries, it would resemble giving its own citizens the decision-making power to visit DPRK restaurants overseas.
And as with South Koreans dining in overseas DPRK restaurants – a common practice – this would give the North Korean government total control as to whether or not to proceed with accepting their business or not.
Although South Koreans going on “independent tours” like those offered by Western companies in China would not technically require changes to the UN sanctions regime, changes in South Korean domestic legislation would still need to take place.
Firstly, South Korea’s May 24 Measures would need to be altered or scrapped, at the very least to allow citizens to freely go to North Korea without fear of breaking the letter of the regulations.
Secondly, the MOU’s own long-standing policies would need to change: South Koreans currently have to obtain an invitation letter from the North to visit, which must then be provided to the unification ministry for review and approval.
Given invitation letters aren’t normally issued when foreigners tour North Korea and that the bureaucracy is limited only to the pace official DPRK bodies issue travel permissions, the need to have a prerequisite letter and MOU approval would therefore need to be changed.
However, even if Seoul were to make the necessary legislative changes, support and approval from Pyongyang would also be necessary.
And while NK News estimates at least 350,000 Chinese visitors went to North Korea in 2019 alone, it’s not clear that Pyongyang would embrace South Korean visitors in the same way – even if ROK interest could likely be significant.
In analyzing recent South Korean comments on the issue of “independent tours,” it’s worth considering that North Korean tourist authorities have historically been very particular about how they process visitors with Korean heritage – even if the person in question has little or no actual connection to South Korea.
“When an ethnic Korean wants to travel with our travel company they must sign a letter stating that they have no family and do not wish to make any attempts to contact them,” said Rowan Beard, Tour Manager at Young Pioneer Tours.
Furthermore, the letter also requires ethnic Korean visitors to state which country they were born in and to specify how long they have lived in any other third country.
This is because “the person usually needs to have spent some time (5-10 years; it isn’t too clear) as a naturalized citizen” outside of South Korea, said another travel industry insider on condition of anonymity.
Simon Cockerell, General Manager of the Bejing-based Koryo Tours, said his company also required ethnic Korean visitors to sign the same kind of letter because of rules relating to South Korea.
“We can’t apply for a visa for anyone traveling on an ROK passport,” he said. “But if they are using a different passport then it is really not a problem.”
Yet the presence of a signed letter is not always enough, illustrating the sensitivities North Korean host agencies hold towards visitors even potentially connected to South Korea.
“Whilst ethnic Koreans can visit as tourists, with Choson Exchange’s work we travel under a different visa scheme and have not yet been able to bring them,” said Ian Bennett, program manager of the Singaporean not-for-profit that brings foreign volunteers to teach entrepreneurship to North Koreans.
Even “partial Korean heritage” can be problematic, he added.
“We recently had a case where a European passport holder with one Korean parent whose application was denied.”
“This may be a function of Choson Exchange working 1:1 with Korean entrepreneurs without supervision, as there are programs this year where other foreign groups are dealing with the same in-country partner on different projects, and ethnic Koreans can join those.”
IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO
Given the sensitivities within existing channels capable of facilitating travel to North Korea, how likely is it, then, that Pyongyang could be interested in Seoul’s recent suggestions?
“In terms of interest I would imagine if you asked anybody from the tourism field in the DPRK they would diplomatically say that if their government permitted it then they would support it,” said Cockerell of Koryo Tours.
“In private, I would imagine they would have some nerves … but in the end the field they work in is a business and taking lucrative opportunities is what businesses are supposed to do.”
Others agreed that there could be interest.
“I’ve heard there is interest within North Korea,” said the anonymous tourist industry insider. “I think the main opportunity (for the DPRK side) would be $$$ and potentially some attempts to invest quietly or indirectly.”
Beard, of Young Pioneer Tours, said “it would be a great opportunity for the North and I’m sure there’s people within the National Tourism Association who are very interested in having this again.”
“I’ve heard stories from guides who were involved with the Kumgang tourist zone back in the noughties and it allowed a lot of business and improvement to the North’s living standard to those involved,” he said. “It brought Koreans together and they were able to put their differences aside and enjoy what their Northern half of the peninsula had to offer.”
“I’ve heard there is interest within North Korea”
And Rob Koh, a Seoul-based Korean American who formerly directed a company specializing in bringing foreigners to the DPRK, calculated there would be “a flood” of North Korean travel agencies who would “race to work with South Koreans if there was a chance, even if it meant going through a 3rd party company or country.”
However, even if travel industry insiders judge that DPRK partners would be eager at the prospect of South Koreans on “individual tours,” the North Korean government’s cautious approach to hosting ethnic Koreans suggests there could be resistance to the idea at a high-level.
One key reason might be due to security concerns: North Korea currently hosts six South Korean citizens in detention, several of whom have been accused of working on behalf of South Korea’s spy service.
Nevertheless, in the event necessary DPRK approval was to come, changes to facilitate visiting South Koreans from third countries could be relatively minimal, travel sources said.
“Basically their tourism law for accepting ROK citizens would need to change – from no, to yes – and I imagine some other laws too, but within tourism really it would only be a policy change,” said Cockerell of Koryo Tours.
Beard, of YPT, agreed.
“As long as South Koreans have a tourist visa for China or Russia, I don’t see any additional hurdles from the North of them visiting from a third country,” he said. “I could imagine the North handling the South Koreans much of the same way they handle any foreigners.”
All who spoke to NK News agreed, however, that such tours would have a dim prospect of getting off the ground if they required inter-Korean border travel.
“Anything coming over the DMZ would require special involvement of other entities (military, security, etc.) and becomes really complicated,” said the anonymous tourist industry insider.
Cockerell agreed that third country travel would be easiest.
“It might even be simpler as there would be no physical crossing of the demarcation line, so that would remove any need for official DPRK/ROK face-to-face dealings at that point,” he said.
Even still, Beard of YPT cautioned that some routes would likely still be restricted.
“If this were to be given the green light I would imagine it wouldn’t be possible for South Koreans to take the train or visit any border town cities, only fly in and out (of Pyongyang) like Americans before,” he said.
TOURISM WITH SOUTH KOREAN CHARACTERISTICS?
If North Korean authorities became amenable to South Koreans visiting in a manner that required no ROK government approval or interaction, how might things look on the ground?
“Visiting South Korean groups are likely to have different interests to Chinese groups, so itineraries would differ,” said Ian Bennett of Choson Exchange.
“There would also be challenges about groups wandering around in public; whilst plenty of Korean speakers visit at the moment, including ethnic Koreans, these are typically only a one or two in each group,” he continued.
“Having a large group composed entirely of South Koreans walking through a busy supermarket or mingling with crowds at a mass dance would pose new challenges, not to mention cultural sensibilities of paying respects at monuments and not disputing markedly different interpretations of history from those to which they are accustomed.”
However, the anonymous industry insider said North Korean guides would personally have few problems.
“I think the North Korean side would be able to accommodate more ethnic Koreans relatively easily into the normal travel framework,” the source said.
“Some issues might be retraining guides to give their talks in Korean (most are not accustomed to doing so), including more traditional Korean activities or foods, and potentially visiting ancestral places.”
Yet there’s also the impact a large surge in ROK numbers could have on the DPRK’s extremely limited infrastructure.
“The main issue I can imagine would be very high demand butting up against limited supply of tourism services (hotels, guides, plane tickets, etc) which already exists even without any South Korean tourists visiting the country,” said Cockerell.
A bigger issue would likely foreshadow logistical considerations, however.
With the 2008 shooting of a South Korean tourist at the Mount Kumgang tour resort having led Seoul to promptly suspend tourism to the North, a mechanism for assuring ROK visitor security would likely be a necessary priority for both governments to proceed.
“There would be concerns of course about who to call if there is some safety issue,” Cockerell conceded.
Could “Sweden represent South Korean citizens,” he asked – as it does with U.S. nationals facing legal problems inside the DPRK? “If not them, then who?”
Koh, the Korean-American guide who used to offer tours to the North, said as far as South Korean visitors might be concerned, they and their hosts would need to be more aware of each other’s cultural sensitivities to avoid security problems.
“Don’t be disrespectful to their society. Don’t take pictures of things they don’t want you to take. Don’t steal paintings off of their walls. And definitely don’t leave your hotel room at 4:30 in the morning only to run off into a restricted area when they specifically tell you not to do this before the start of every tour,” he said.
“You stick to these rules and you will have an amazing time there and see things you’ve never experienced before in your life.”
However, he conceded that “this might get hairy and super subtle with South Korean citizens because they speak pretty much the same language there.”
As such, it would be important for South Koreans “not to tell North Korean people how bad their government might be, how much better you think it is in the South, how great your own religion is or how much they don’t know about the rest of the world.”
“Both sides need to be aware that these nuances exist and compromises need to be made,” he continued.
And in that regard, he said that “3rd party countries could be a good mediator for this,” so long as “staff members are sensitive (and) trained on conveying these subtleties.”
And if such opportunities emerge, Koh said, his Korean Tour Guide firm would “want to be the first ones in there exploring the country.”
Jeongmin Kim contributed to this report
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham