Report: China may be shutting down some tourism into North Korea

April 9, 2013

A Chinese border guard stands lookout at a bridge crossing over the North Korean border. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The official tourism board in Dandong, China, a common transit point into North Korea, will not allow Chinese tourists to enter the country as of Wednesday, according to the North Korea-focused news site NKNews.

Update: Malcolm Moore of the U.K. Telegraph reports on Twitter, "Dandong tourism bureau says it has no information on whether the border to NK is closed." Moore also tweets, "Zhonghang Travel Agency in Dandong said they were told at 8pm last night that the border is now shut."

The NKNews story also says that Explore North Korea, a Chinese company that brings Western tourists across the border, has decided to shut down its tours. The company reportedly made that decision in consultation with North Korean officials, who oversee all visits by Westerners into their country. However, two Western tour operators say they are continuing trips into North Korea, suggesting that North Korean officials have not shut off tourism from their end.

Foreign tourism is an important source of revenue for North Korea, which often requires that tourists spend only foreign money, only cash, and that they travel to government-run sites. Most tourists in North Korea are from China, although individual Western tourists bring in far more currency.

If Chinese officials along the border really closed it off to Chinese tourists, it would seem to be another sign that China is increasingly unhappy with its belligerent neighbor. Beijing, though it still provides North Korea with crucial support, has become unusually critical of Kim Jong Un's latest provocations. Shutting off tourism would seem to punish North Korea by depriving it of the much-needed income. There are two ways to read this: as bad for North Korea and as good for North Korea.

The case that this is bad news for North Korea is straightforward. This is not a wealthy country or one that is especially well equipped for economic shocks. It has closed the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which is run by North and South Koreans and provides an important revenue stream into the country. That economic wound was self-inflicted, so Pyongyang likely calculated that it was worth the risk. But it leaves the country more exposed to any additional economic isolation.

The case that this is good news for North Korea also has to do with Kaesong. The government likely closed the facility to reinforce its threats that war is imminent, to make the brinksmanship more believable. It's urged foreign diplomats to leave Pyongyang, suggesting they will be unsafe once war begins. The diplomats have ignored this advice. If China were to close off tourism, that would give North Korea the evidence it craves that war could be coming.

So far, though, the only confirmed closure is from Explore North Korea. We'll let you know if there's any more information on whether Dandong authorities allow Chinese tourists across the border.

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Max Fisher · April 9, 2013