Just don’t bring your cellphone or BlackBerry, don’t try to send an e-mail, don’t plan to stroll down a street, and never try to talk to strangers or take pictures of ordinary people. None of that is allowed.
This is North Korea’s unusual experiment in opening its door a tiny crack — allowing foreign tour groups, their cash and investors into the country, but under strict admonition to restrict movement and to avoid even the most casual contact with daily life.
The vast majority of North Koreans are cut off from e-mail, the Internet, cellphones and almost every other form of contact with the outside world. Most days, there are just two government-run television channels — not on all day — with a third on weekends showing old Chinese movies. Opening this isolated country to tourists means risking the government’s near-total control over every aspect of what average citizens here can see, read, watch or hear.
But a limited opening is now part of the government’s plan. North Korea has been hit by U.N. and U.S. sanctions imposed because of its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Its economy is shrinking by some estimates, and the United Nations is projecting severe food shortages. So the country is looking to tourism — particularly from neighboring China — as a potential source of new revenue.
The government’s focus, for now, is on the Mount Kumgang tourist resort near the demilitarized zone on the east coast. The park — with its abundant peaks, red pine trees, waterfalls, Buddhist temples, hiking trails and crystal-clear rivers — was being jointly developed with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan company, a rare symbol of cooperation on the divided Korean Peninsula. But the South pulled out in 2008 in protest of the shooting death there of a 53-year-old female South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier, after it was said she wandered into a restricted area.
North Korea announced this year that it was seizing South Korean properties left behind at the resort and expelled the remaining South Korean maintenance staff members. Pyongyang now has decided to go it alone, and bring in new investors, mostly from China, but also from anywhere else it can find them.
A group of 70 Chinese tourists and potential investors was allowed in this month on what was billed as the maiden tourist charter flight from the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, in Heilongjiang province. Most of the visitors owned or worked for travel agencies and took the trip to check out the possibilities. A handful of others were Chinese of Korean origins, coming to see the land of their parents or grandparents.