Has thriving Chinese tourism emboldened North Korea?

Myohyangsang Tour Company
A North Korean bus with "Myohwangsang Tour Company" written on its side passing over the Sino-North Korean Friendship Bridge from Sinuiju to Dandong on Oct. 15, 2019. / Image: Daily NK

Chinese tourism into North Korea is thriving, which may have emboldened Kim Jong Un to recently order the demolishing of South Korean facilities on Mount Kumgang, Daily NK sources reported on Thursday. 

“The number of Chinese tourists traveling to North Korea has spiked recently,” a China-based source told Daily NK on Thursday. “With income levels rising in China, the number of people wanting to travel overseas has also increased. Because North Korea is close and inexpensive, it attracts a lot of Chinese tourists.”

Chinese tourists come into North Korea daily, taking trains and buses from Dandong in Liaoning Province, which is adjacent to Sinuiju in North Korea, the source added. 

According to the North Korean National Tourism Bureau, the number of overseas tourists who came to North Korea in 2018 was more than 200,000 people, 90% of whom were reportedly Chinese tourists.

MEANINGLESS TOURISM QUOTAS

“Before there used to be a quota on the number of Chinese tourists allowed into North Korea, but this quota has become meaningless,” said a China-based North Korea expert who requested anonymity. “Previously only 40 of the seats in an Air Koryo airliner could be filled with Chinese tourists. Today, however, Chinese tourists are sent into the country in stages. This means that if the planes don’t go over 40 Chinese tourists per trip, they won’t get in trouble. But it also means that there’s really no quota in effect.”

The expert also heard from someone who works in the Chinese travel industry that the number of Air Koryo flights between Shenyang in China and Pyongyang has increased. “At peak, there are nine flights a week,” he added. 

Daily NK sources have also witnessed empty North Korean buses with “Mount Myohyang Travel Agency” written on their sides crossing the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (Yalu River Bridge) from Sinuiju to Dandong in China. These empty North Korean tour buses have headed back to North Korea several hours later filled with Chinese tourists.

At the same time, Chinese tourists have also been seen getting off buses in front of the Dandong customs office and lining up to go inside. Chinese tourists asked by a Daily NK journalist about where they were going only answered they were “travelling.” 

Daily NK captured a similar massive line-up of Chinese tourists to North Korea back in Nov. 2018.

Not only has tourism increased, but North Korean authorities have actively tried to entice Chinese to invest in the country, even holding investment briefing sessions, the expert said.

“Chinese tourists who travel to North Korea are handpicked by the Chinese and North Korean authorities,” the expert explained. “North Korean authorities want to entice powerful and wealthy tourists to invest in North Korea.”

MONEYMAKING THROUGH TOURISM

UN Security Council sanctions ban North Korea from exporting minerals and seafood, which have been the main source of foreign currency for the country. The Kim Jong Un regime has instead turned to expanding its tourism businesses by developing its specialized tourist zones, including Samjiyon (in Ryanggang Province) and in Wonsan (in Kangwon Province). 

Experts who spoke to Daily NK agreed that North Korea has chosen tourism as a good alternative for earning foreign currency because tourism is not banned by international sanctions. 

“Because China has such a large population, even without tourism agreements with South Korea, such as the reopening of Mount Kumgang, by simply by targeting the Chinese with their tourism business, North Korea can earn a considerable amount of foreign currency,” one Daily NK source said. 

The website of the China-based Dandong International Travel Agency is currently advertising a four-night, five-day package deal where tourists can travel to Pyongyang, Kaesong, Panmunjom, Wonsan and Mount Kumgang for RMB 3700 (around USD 523).

Daily NK reported in Nov. 2018 about package tours into North Korea by Chinese tourist agencies.

Many of the experts Daily NK spoke with, however, also agree that North Korea cannot afford to completely ignore South Korean tourists as a potential market. Kim Jong Un’s orders to demolish the South Korean facilities at Mount Kumgang may also be interpreted as a tactic to apply pressure on South Korea to permit tourism on Mount Kumgang.

“North Korea can try to lure Chinese tourists to Mount Kumgang, but Mount Kumgang is geographically difficult for Chinese tourists to access except by plane,” said Dr. Lim Eul-chul, a North Korean studies professor at South Korea’s Kyungnam University. “North Korean authorities mostly want to entice South Korean tourists to Mount Kumgang, but because things are not working out the way they want them to due to the sanctions, they have made this dramatic move.” 

From the perspective of North Korea, South Koreans are the ideal tourists, the China-based North Korea expert told Daily NK. 

“They can earn more money from the South Korean tourists, and because they have more in common in terms of culture and language, the North Korean state authorities do consider it important to continue attracting South Korean tourists into North Korea, and will not give up on this,” he added. 

A MESSAGE TO THE US?

Some experts Daily NK spoke to suggested that Kim Jong Un’s remarks about Mount Kumgang were not simply meant to put pressure on the South Korean government; they must also be read as a message to the US.

“A review of Kim Jong Un’s comments shows that there is mention of how North Korea will create a tourism industry after independently attracting investment. This can be read as an expectation of the possibility that the US might directly invest,” the China-based expert said.

This in turn can be read as an indication of Kim Jong Un’s attachment to the Wonsan-Kalma region, which includes Mount Kumgang, the expert explained.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is also intent to send more tourists to North Korea, the expert said. “There will be more and more Chinese people heading to North Korea in the future,” he added. 

*Translated by Violet Kim

Please direct any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@gmail.com.

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