Behind North Korean Tourism
The biggest attraction to North Korea for Western tourists has always been the country’s opaqueness. “I went to Gaeseong to say I went, to have pictures nobody else had, and to see just what all the fuss was about,” said Brent Meske after visits to Gaeseong and Mount Geumgang.
Some tourists are surprised by horse-drawn buggies in the countryside, while others are taken aback by the immaculateness of the capital. Then there are those who go for the thrill of visiting a dying country.
Inter-Korean tension and a temporary ban on North Korean travel from the South notwithstanding, the tourism industry is a lucrative source of foreign currency for a country whose trade volume was only $3.41 billion last year.
Just 3,000 non-Korean tourists make the trip annually. But that dwarfs in comparison to the number of South Korean tourists that had been crossing the border. In 2009, 240,000 tourists visited the North’s Mount Geumgang resort via South Korea and thousands more went to the ancient capital city of Gaeseong.
Meske booked his tour through Hyundai Asan, a South Korean company that shelled out $942 million to Pyongyang for exclusive rights to operate tours to the North from the South for 30 years. And it’s big business. Demand had been enormous in South Korea to get a peek at its northern half, which it has been separated from since the 1950-53 Korean War. But tours from the South have been on hold since relations deteriorated to their worst level in decades.
Until that changes, anyone wanting to enter North Korea will have to do so on either an Air Koryo or Air China flight from Beijing.
There are somewhere in the range of 20 travel groups that can reserve space on a highly-regulated tour of North Korea. They act as intermediaries between tourists and the state-owned (North) Korean International Travel Company. It’s the KITC guides who will be responsible for you once inside North Korea.
Hong Kong-registered Koryo Tours is by far the most popular group that facilitates travel into the North from China, with roughly 50 percent of the market share. Last year, 1,300 people booked tours through Koryo. In 1993, its first year in business, it took 15 tourists to North Korea.
Its Beijing office has eight Westerners who accompany the tours. All speak Chinese and can communicate in Korean. They have been to North Korea dozens of times; among them, Simon Cockerell is closing in on his 100th visit and Nancy Pellegrini is said to be the most travelled American in North Korea.
For a company doing business in a country ranked dead last in the Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, Koryo Tours has done quite well for itself. Through personal connections in the country, it has pried open new sites for foreign tourists, the most recent example is Haeju city and Humhang this year. Koryo Tours also works with schools (spend a day at a Korean school) and football teams, arranging “friendship matches.” During the Peace and Friendship festival in 1995, Koryo Tours brought in over 100 tourists – the most Westerners that had entered the country at once since the Korean War.
That’s not to say it has been a smooth ride. In an interview, co-founder Nicholas Bonner described the company’s beginnings as an “arduous march.”
Since Koryo Tours started promoting tourism into North Korea, the country has gone through a dynastic transfer of power, a devastating famine, suffered economic collapse, conducted two nuclear tests, was subsequently sanctioned by the United Nations, shot to death a South Korean tourist, sunk a South Korean warship, and last November bombed a South Korean civilian-occupied island into oblivion.
And you thought your job was tough.
“Challenges are enormous,” Bonner admitted. The group spent five years working with North Korean artists to produce work for the Asia Pacific Trienniale at Queensland Modern Art Gallery, Australia, in 2009. The intent was for the artists to create pieces different from revolutionary art, which is standard in North Korea. The artists were to travel to Australia to explain their pieces to visitors. The government of Australia, however, rejected all six North Korean artists’ visas were at the last minute. “Crazy, all this work and then stopped by some well-intentioned bureaucrat/politician who thinks engagement is not the way ahead.”
“Judging by the response from tourists we take in, we are doing something right – we take great care to get you as much access as possible and not just do the standard tour,” Bonner told Groove magazine. “I think we are genuine, profit is a motive, but engagement is the incentive that drives us.”
Last year Koryo Tours was busy. The office brought Middlesbrough Ladies FC to North Korea to play two North Korean local sides. In December they had the U.S. film “Bend It Like Beckham” broadcast nationwide – marking the first time a foreign film had been aired in North Korea, “and that makes us really happy,” said Bonner.
There’s no shortage of those opposed to travel into North Korea. It’s a logical position in light of the ruling regime’s dismal human rights record. And for many, it’s a grinding question: To what extent is my revenue supporting a regime that has done little more for the proletariat than coerce rice aid from South Korea, while thousands die of starvation because of the Songun doctrine (army-first policy) adopted in the mid-90s?
Engagement is the key word for Koryo Tours. Even during the famine that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands, Koryo Tours operated. “It helped the position of our Korean colleagues to have a direct income – and you realize the positive impact of tourism, just how many people the industry supports.
“Tourism has such a positive impact – the big difference now that English is the second language in Korea and tourism introduces North Koreans to a new world of experience via tourists,” said Bonner.
“Certainly North Korea is like a tabla rasa – you see what you want – and it is quite handy to be able to speak to one of us to understand exactly what it is you are seeing,” he explained.
Jillian Ong went to North Korea through Koryo Tours. She said she had been living in the South and was curious about what was across the border. “I didn’t see as much poverty as I expected, but I expect we were shielded from all that. I was also rather surprised by Pyongyang – I was expecting it to be run-down and sad, but it was immaculate and almost pretty – in a Soviet-era sort of way.
“I was also struck by how single-minded the North Koreans were in their point of view. We went to a war museum in Pyongyang where, among many ludicrous claims, their version of history said that the South started the Korean War. And all that fervent stuff about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. And how evil the West –specifically America – is.
“And while it’s easy to write them all off as brainwashed, you have to wonder if their version of history has any truth, whether our point of view is any less revisionist or propaganda-led. It’s a strange place.”
Koryo Tours website has been blocked by Korean Internet censors since this article was published. -- Ed.