North Korea Sends Tourism Agency Team to Cuba

Tourists take photos from a viewing deck of the Juche tower in front of the city skyline of Pyongyang on September 6, 2018. - North Korea is preparing to mark the 70th anniversary of its founding on September 9. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP) (Photo credit should read ED …
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea state media revealed Tuesday that the communist nation had sent a delegation from its tourism agency to its close ally Cuba, presumably for advice on how to generate more revenue for the government without having to make material changes to its atrocious human rights record.

Cuba, also a communist state, has maintained diplomatic ties to North Korea since the 1959 Cuban Revolution that placed longtime dictator Fidel Castro in power. It recently sent the nation’s second-in-command, “President” Miguel Díaz-Canel, to Pyongyang to enjoy several art performances, a massive parade, and a “grand banquet” hosted by dictator Kim Jong-un. Cuba and North Korea regularly collaborate on intelligence, technology, and foreign policy.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced Tuesday that Havana would soon receive “a delegation of the National Tourism Administration … headed by General Director Jo Song Gol.” The agency did not provide any further details on what the delegation’s goals were for the trip or whom Jo and his team would meet with once arriving in Havana.

Kim Jong-un has been transparent in his desire to see North Korea develop a more lucrative tourism industry despite the widespread poverty in the country and its repressive political system making labor camps as much a part of the nation as hotels. Kim has reportedly pushed the hardest for the construction of a luxury tourist resort in Wonsan, a port city with stunning beaches that Kim has publicly hoped will attract tourists. Kim recently announced an aspirational end day of April 2020 for the construction of the Wonsan vacation facilities, previously anticipated to open in October 2019 but extended, Kim said in his announcement, so workers do not sacrifice construction quality for speed.

Following Kim’s first meeting with President Donald Trump last year, South Korean media reported that Kim urged Trump to help him build the Wonsan destination into a “world-class resort,” something Kim has lacked the money to do thanks to international sanctions on his illegal nuclear weapons program. Kim also appeared to be doing research into building the Wonsan destination during his second in-person meeting with Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. On that occasion in May 2018, Kim traveled to the Chinese beachfront city Dalian and toured its shoreline features.

Since then, Kim appears to have succeeded in attracting significantly higher numbers of tourists to North Korea. The outlet NK News reported this month that North Korea has been forced to strictly adhere to a 1,000-person daily limit following soaring demands for tours of Pyongyang and the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the historic border between the two Koreas. North Korea is limited in the number of tourists it can welcome per day because the communist regime requires that all tourists be assigned a personal guide that ensures the tourists do not openly speak ill of the regime or venture outside of government-approved tourist destinations and see the real North Korea.

The increase in Chinese tourism followed articles in Chinese state media promoting Wonsan and Beijing opening a new bridge into the country in April.

If North Korea is looking to increase its revenue from beachside tourism, it has much to learn from Cuba, which has consistently attracted wealthy tourism despite its well-documented human rights abuses, lack of modern automobile transit, dilapidated buildings, and poor infrastructure. Cuban officials are anticipating as many as five million tourists visiting the island by the end of 2019; the country is expanding its “luxury” tourism market with boutique stores accessible only to the wealthiest travelers and offering more lavish experiences for foreigners at its hotels. Like North Korea, the Cuban government keeps a healthy distance in cities like Havana between the tourist destinations and residential areas, where finding enough bread, eggs, or oil to feed a family can be an Odyssean challenge for the average Cuban.

The Cuban regime welcomed 4.75 million tourists to the island by the end of 2018, in large part helped by the U.S. cruise industry, which was allowed to use Cuba’s stolen ports to dock under the pro-Castro policies of the Obama administration.

“Cuba, however, wouldn’t have achieved any growth in international visitors if it weren’t for a 48 percent spurt in cruise ship arrivals,” the Miami Herald reported. “Cruise lines, most of which depart from the United States, have added dozens of itineraries that include stops in Cuba and by the end of 2018, cruise passenger arrivals are expected to reach 850,000.”

Trump banned cruise ships from departing to the United States and docking in Cuba this month, as tourism is illegal under the longstanding U.S. embargo, which is far less limited than the embargo the Cuban government places on America and its citizens. Trump also allowed, for the first time in history, Americans to sue corporations in U.S. court that made money using property stolen from their families during the Cuban Revolution. The families who rightfully own the ports of Havana and Santiago became the first this year to use their legal right to sue, choosing Carnival Cruises, the corporation making the most off of this sort of sea voyage.

Cuba does not publicly acknowledge that it keeps political prisoners, many of whom suffer extreme torture in prison at the hands of both guards and common criminals that the regime uses to torment them. In addition to those serving long sentences, Cuban police regularly beat, arrest, torture, and release in the short term the island’s most prominent dissidents, including many members of the Ladies in White, a peaceful Christian dissident group whose sole act of protest is to attend Catholic Mass on Sundays carrying the photos of their relatives, political prisoners. A report published last week revealed that Cuba has added to its repressive repertoire the forced expulsion of political dissidents, whom police force to choose between exile to neighboring countries, most often Guyana, or prison.

Cuba is also believed to participate in drug trafficking and terrorist activities in Venezuela, its colony and also an ally of North Korea.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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