The Mount Kumang tourism initiative has abruptly been thrust into the spotlight once more. On Oct. 23, Rodong Sinmun reported that after visiting the Mount Kumgang tourist area, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un called for the demolition of tourist facilities built by South Korea, and for the construction of new North Korean facilities.
This announcement from North Korea can be interpreted in many ways. On the one hand, it can be read as an expression of disapproval towards South Korea’s Moon Jae-in government. On the other hand, there was no mention of closing down the Mount Kumgang tourist area. Rather, Kim Jong Un expressed a desire to develop Mount Kumgang as an international tourist destination. Moreover, North Korea is expending considerable effort into developing the nearby Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Zone, which will open in the near future. The Masikryong Ski Resort, which was the focus of so much concentrated effort immediately after Kim Jong Un came into power, is also not far from Mount Kumgang. Taking all of the above into consideration, it seems that North Korea still intends to mold the eastern coastal region into an international tourist area.
It is not difficult to guess at the origins of such ideas. Kim Jong Un’s youth spent studying abroad in Switzerland has crucially influenced his attitude towards the tourism industry. As is widely known, Switzerland, with its array of beautiful natural sites, is a global tourist destination. Kim Jong Un quite possibly reasoned that, as North Korea is also blessed with beautiful natural phenomena, it, too, might find success by mimicking Swiss tourism.
But the situations in Switzerland and North Korea are very different. Objectively, North Korea holds no appeal for wealthy tourists from developed Western nations. If Kim Jong Un imagines that the tourists that come to North Korea will be wealthy tourists from Western nations, his project will not succeed.
OBSTACLES TO BUILDING NORTH KOREA’S TOURISM INDUSTRY
There are several reasons why travelers from Europe and other developed North American nations are not particularly interested in traveling to North Korea, and they are obstacles that cannot be overcome with mere effort from North Korean authorities.
The first reason is that North Korea zealously places foreign visitors under surveillance and controls their every move. While there are countries with authoritarian regimes that nonetheless remain a popular travel destination for tourists from developed nations, such countries allow foreign visitors almost total freedom of movement within the country. They also allow foreign visitors to interact and communicate with the local residents. Interaction with local residents is commonly regarded by many people as a key part of travelling abroad. North Korea, however, has adopted an isolationist policy in order to maintain domestic stability and, accordingly, cannot allow foreign visitors to roam freely within the country.
Second, North Korea’s climate is less than ideal, and it does not have many tourist destinations. In the international tourism market, North Korea must compete with Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand or Vietnam, as well as China. The problem is that these countries, beyond beautiful beaches with warm waters, also have a wealth of cultural sites. While China may not have the best climate, it is rich in cultural and tourist sites. Not so for North Korea. While the eastern coast near Wonsan is not terrible, it cannot measure up to Thailand or Malaysia. While North Korea may be proud of its historical sites, they cannot compete with the sites of China or Japan in terms of quality or quantity to most foreign visitors.
Third, getting to North Korea is difficult. Foreign visitors must devote a significant amount of effort to find tourist packages that feature North Korea as a destination. Unlike the international airports of Switzerland’s tourist zones – where planes arrive every five or 10 minutes – on average Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang does not have even a single flight a day. Upon arrival at the airport, it takes six to seven hours on land to get to Wonsan-Kalma or Mount Kumgang. While on the one hand it would be inaccurate to describe North Korea’s hotels as completely backwards, they are nonetheless inferior by global standards. Moreover, North Korea’s reputation has been tarnished globally through issues such as its nuclear weapons or human rights violations. The majority of people around the world view travel to North Korea as dangerous, and a bad idea.
Finally, North Korea’s location itself is also problematic. Because North Korea is so far away from Europe and North America, travel costs a lot of time and money. In the case of Guam, for example, visitors from the mainland United States account for less than six percent of the total number of tourists. Considering that Guam is far more competitive as a tourist destination, North Korea faces an uphill battle when it comes to attracting the Western tourists it hopes for.
Of course, there do exist travelers from developed Western nations who want to tour North Korea. Yet for the most part such foreign visitors are seeking adventure in mysterious and secretive regions where not many others go. Such travelers cannot but make up a minority.
NORTH KOREA MUST FACE REALITIES
The tourists most likely to visit North Korea are in fact South Korean and Chinese. First, let us consider China. The number of Chinese visitors to North has recently spiked. However, there are two issues with Chinese tourists. The first is that they do not spend as readily as Western tourists. What kinds of Chinese tourists come to North Korea? Most are from the northeast region (Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang provinces), with a few from other regions who want to travel overseas without spending too much. Such visitors are not likely to spend a lot of money in North Korea. Of course, in terms of sheer volume alone, the profit from Chinese tourists cannot be disregarded. That being said, the sudden increase in Chinese tourists has little to do with the type of tourist industry North Korea hopes to build.
Second, tourism from China is liable to wane at any moment following the intervention and regulation of the Chinese government. During a period of crisis in the relationship between North Korea and China in 2016-2017, the Chinese government effectively banned recreational travel to North Korea. On the other hand, the Chinese authorities have the ability to stimulate tourism to North Korea when necessary. In fact, the spike in the number of Chinese tourists last year can be seen as an extension of Beijing’s support for North Korea.
What, then, of South Korea? South Koreans can spend as lavishly as Europeans and North Americans. However, they can also potentially provoke political problems within North Korea. North Korea could, of course, just restrict South Korean tourists to controlled tours in areas such as Mount Kumgang, but even such regulated tours come with their share of political issues. Moreover, South Korean tourism is also at the mercy of South Korean or international politics.
For all of the above reasons, Kim Jong Un and the North Korean leadership must not expect or hope too much of building its tourist industry. While tourism has the potential to contribute to North Korea’s economic development overall, its limitations are clear. North Korea is not Switzerland.
*Translated by Violet Kim
Views expressed in guest columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.