North Korea is planning a major tourism push beginning with new helicopter tours of Pyongyang this month in an attempt to boost one of its largest, and only, industries.
The Korea Times notes that the communist nation appears to be taking advantage of the fact that, while the United Nations and a plethora of non-governmental organizations have condemned the Kim Jong-Un regime for human rights violations, visiting North Korea is not yet a violation of any international sanctions. Curious tourists would not come under fire legally for taking a trip to Pyongyang.
The Times cites Yoon In-joo, an expert at the Korea Maritime Institute, as having calculated that North Korea made between $30- to $43 million in tourism revenue last year, and that number is only expected to grow as the nation continues to promote itself as a unique destination. “North Korea could capitalize on tourism as a growth engine to escape poverty,” Yoon said.
Last year, Yoon added, most tourists came from China, with only about 5,000 Westerners touring the country. North Korean officials said in July they hope two million foreigners will be touring the country by 2020. Experts note that elderly Chinese communists appear to be the most likely demographic to visit North Korea. Those who supported Mao Zedong in his youth would enjoy visiting the many monuments to communism in Pyongyang, experts argue.
“Our studies show a considerable number of elderly Chinese and those from former Stalinist states often want to recollect memories of the early Cold War era,” a researcher at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP) told The Korea Times. “Those people want to visit the place where everything around them looks communist, such as square with a red flag of the yellow hammer and sickle hanging on a tall flag pole, as well as people wearing Mao suits and Soviet-style military uniforms,” the researcher added.
Indeed, the North Korean government’s tour offers are all communism-themed, and the only way to tour the country is through a tour package that forbids tourists from leaving the side of their government handlers. On the DPRK’s official website, the nation lists a number of Pyongyang attractions such as the “Monument to Party Founding,” “Kim Il Sung Square,” “Monument to Victorious War,” and “Friendship Tower.” The last of these is actually a monument to Chinese communists, not North Koreans. “The Friendship Tower was set up in memory of heroic mettle of the Chinese Volunteers who fought in the Korean War and to enrich the DPRK-China friendship,” the site notes.
The site also promises extended tours for members of the “Korean Friendship Association,” a group designed to organize foreigners who support Kim Jong-Un. It lists its goals as “Show the reality of the DPR Korea to the world,” “Defend the independence and socialist construction in the DPR of Korea,” “Learn from the culture and history of the Korean People, and “Work for the peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula.” The next KFA tour will occur in January to celebrate the “Anniversary of the Great Leader KIM JONG IL.”
To attract more foreigners to North Korea, the Kim regime began offering helicopter tours of Pyongyang in November. The flights will occur on a Mil Mi-17, which the Daily Mail describes as “a Soviet-era military transport helicopter known for its small, porthole-like windows.” “We’ll swoop around the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, do a low fly-by of the Taedong River past the Juche tower, and get a great glimpse of May Day stadium – the world’s largest stadium,” a tour guide promises.
North Korea’s active courting of tourists has sparked an international conversation on the ethics of visiting Pyongyang and funding a regime that unjustly imprisons, murders, and starves its people. Lee Hyeon-Seo, an activist and North Korean refugee, argues that tourists are forced to be in government propaganda and are used to instill fear and awe in North Koreans. “They are required to bow to the large statue of our first dictator, Kim Il-sung, and these images are used by propagandists to show North Koreans that foreigners come from all over the world to pay homage to the Dear Leader,” she warns.
Those who support travel to North Korea argue that the funds that go to the regime, though trips often cost around $1,500 excluding flights, are negligible compared to the benefit of exposing North Koreans to the outside world. “This is exposing people to some kind of reality of what North Korea is like. Not the whole country, but some kind of idea of what it’s like,” claims Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, a North Korean tour company. “And even greater than that, exposing North Koreans to foreigners who aren’t caricatures off the TV, murdering families, or from movies about the Korean War. The benefit to me is very clear and it sits on one side.”