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Report: South Korean Firm Gets Pass to Bring Tourists to North Korea

In this Oct. 8, 2015 file photo, North Koreans gather at a monument built 10 years ago to honor the founding of the Workers' Party of North Korea, in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's ruling party says it will hold its biggest convention in decades next May. The Workers' Party …
AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

A South Korean tour company appears set to be the first in the nation to organize trips to North Korea, according to a report by the nation’s Yonhap news agency Friday.

South Korean nationals would be banned from the tours, but the South Korean company would profit, creating a situation similar to the one created by Carnival Cruises landing a deal with the Cuban communist regime to send cruise ships to Havana contingent upon a complete ban on American citizens of Cuban descent on the ships.

Carnival ultimately abandoned the policy after Cuban-Americans threatened to sue under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Unlike Cuba, North Korea is under both domestic and international sanctions. The former prohibits the company from bringing South Koreans into North Korean territory, making the choice not open to the tour agency.

Yonhap has identified the company as Sunwoo Airlines Travel Agency Co. “The tour operator said it will sell the North Korea tour products to anyone except Koreans, Chinese nationals and Americans, who are now banned by the U.S. government from visiting the North,” according to Yonhap, and will target foreigners already vacationing in South Korea. Sunwoo appears to have received permission for such a business deal through an exclusive partnership with a Chinese tour company. China has long allowed tour groups to bring Chinese nationals into North Korea; much of North Korea’s tourism revenue comes from older Chinese communists seeking to experience a purer form of Maoism than what currently exists in their home country.

The deal with the Chinese company means that, since North Korea is not on the same contract as the South Korean company, Sunwoo appears to have avoided sanctions on business with Pyongyang.

Yonhap says the agency hopes to begin selling tour tickets in October.

“The North Korea tour packages will be offered to foreigners alone due to the sanctions on the North. If the sanctions are lifted in the future, we will push to sell the North Korea tour packages to South Korean nationals, too,” an unnamed company official told Yonhap.

Dictator Kim Jong-un has made increasing tourism revenue for the nation a priority since succeeding his father Kim Jong-il in 2011. One of his first projects as chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) was the construction of the Masikryong Ski Resort, a massive complex designed to attract foreign tourists and built during a period of intense scarcity for commoners in North Korea.

North Korea has also always welcomed tour groups targeting foreigners sympathetic to North Korea’s communist regime and its regular use of human rights atrocities to silence dissent. Among the most famous of those tour groups is Young Pioneer Tours, the agency that Otto Warmbier hired for his visit to the country, where he was imprisoned for allegedly tearing down a poster and left in a comatose state for over a year. The Warmbier case prompted the United States to ban Americans from traveling to North Korea entirely, Young Pioneer Tours banned Americans from their tours shortly before the law became official.

More recently, Kim has invested more in artistic and sporting spectacles meant to attract Chinese tourists close to the border, who can travel easily across and attend these events. Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported this month that Kim has ordered the return of the “Arirang Festival,” which it describes as a gymnastics spectacle that may feature up to 100,000 performers. The first performance since 2013 will be called “The Glorious Fatherland” and has reportedly attracted a great deal of interest in China.

Kim has also orchestrated the return of the “Mass Games,” which Reuters describes as “a huge pageant that has produced some of the most iconic images of the isolated country” and often features children forced into grueling practices that human rights groups have denounced as violations.

“Exact numbers are not available, but tour operators say flights and accommodation in Pyongyang booked up so fast after the Mass Games were announced that North Korean authorities put holds on some tour groups from China,” Reuters reported on September 13.

Kim has also reportedly expressed an interest in developing the seaside town of Wonsan into a full resort city. Kim was reported to have pitched Chinese Communist President Xi Jinping to invest in the development of Wonsan and forced journalists in North Korea to cover the alleged shutdown of the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site to mention how delightful Wonsan was to visit in reports about the site.

“We could know that progress is being made in all fields of the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] on the way to Wonsan, a coastal city of this country,” China’s state-run news service Xinhua reported during their excursion into North Korea for the Punggye-ri event. “Buildings for the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area under construction have already taken their shapes, and outer design and afforestation and greening are also very unique.”

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