Reclusive North Korea opens its door a crack for tourists

This reclusive and secretive country is now officially open for business — the tourism business, that is.

It has mountains, rivers, waterfalls and pine forests. Pyongyang, the capital, boasts 70 parks, water so clean you can drink from the tap, wide boulevards uncluttered by traffic or neon signs, beautiful traffic policewomen at nearly empty intersections, and a plethora of soaring monuments and memorials.

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Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg gives viewers a look inside one of the most secretive places in the world, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg gives viewers a look inside one of the most secretive places in the world, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

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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.

A correspondent and interpreter from The Washington Post, as well as a reporter and cameraman from German television station RTL, were allowed to accompany the group on the four-day, three-night trip to Mount Kumgang and Pyongyang.

The attempt at isolation began at the Harbin airport when members of the group were instructed to leave all cellphones and MP3 players behind, sealed in plastic bags for retrieval on the return trip.

In Pyongyang, the group was instructed not to leave the confines of the high-rise hotel, conveniently (though not for the tourists) isolated on an island in the Taedong River. The visitors were also told not to take photographs of construction sites or unfinished buildings, which guides warned might be used for propaganda purposes outside the country.

In the capital, the visitors were shuttled between tourist sites and monuments — North Korea founder Kim Il Sung’s childhood home; the “Arch of Triumph,” which bears an uncanny resemblance to Paris’s Arc de Triomphe; a monument to Chinese-North Korean friendship; and Kim Il Sung Square, ringed by an art gallery, a library (or “Grand People’s Study House”) and various ministries. Most of the monuments are a safe distance away from normal street life, and even the square was devoid of people other than the tourists.

All meals had to be taken at the hotel buffet, and shopping was restricted to one designated tourist shop, even after some of the Chinese tourists loudly protested that they simply wanted to visit a local restaurant for a bowl of noodles and shop in the local department store.

The government guides explained that mingling with ordinary people was prohibited because North Koreans would not be comfortable speaking with foreigners or having their pictures taken. They at one point angrily scolded a Chinese tourist for trying to give a small packaged sausage to a child standing with his mother, even though both the mother and child were smiling.

Kim Gwang Yun, the North Korean official in charge of the Mount Kumgang resort project, said in an interview that he understood tourists wanted to have contact with the outside world. He said the park area had been designated a “special zone for international tourism,” where foreign visitors would be allowed use of the Internet and e-mail.

“In the near future, it will be possible to come into this zone without visas, and with access to the Internet,” Kim said. “The main goal is to give more international tourists more freedom and convenience.”

Increasing reliance on China

Before the shooting of the tourist, as many as a quarter-million South Korean tourists were visiting Mount Kumgang resort each year, with cash-strapped North Korea making $487 million from Hyundai Asan, according to South Korean media reports. Kim said that from August, when North Korea reopened the resort, through October, about 10,000 tourists had come, the bulk of them from China.

The Pyongyang stop was added for the group that came in from Harbin, but generally the government wants to confine foreign tourists to the special zone, flying them in and out of a closer airport at Wonsan, about a two-hour drive away. The first direct flights from Harbin to Wonsan are scheduled to begin in April or May.

The turn to China for tourism reflects North Korea’s increasing reliance on its neighbor as its chief benefactor. Most contact with South Korea was halted after a series of provocative actions blamed on the North — the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March 2010, thought to have been caused by a North Korean torpedo, and the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong eight months later.

After that incident, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak officially ended his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.

With South Korea and the United States suspending food aid to the North, China has become the Pyongyang government’s main supplier of food and most of its energy needs, although the precise amounts are not made public.

China is also believed to be the main conduit for luxury goods still flowing into North Korea despite U.N. sanctions aimed primarily at the ruling elite. Pyongyang is a city of few cars — but some of the cars seen on the streets were new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.

Bringing Chinese tourists and investors to North Korea seems in many ways a natural fit. The two neighbors are close, having fought together against the United States and South Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s.

Also, Chinese still view North Korea as a somewhat exotic place, with clean air and abundant natural beauty. “Chinese people come here because it’s so mysterious,” said Wang Dongxu, vice chairman of a pharmaceutical company in Harbin. “The economy is so underdeveloped. There’s a potential to invest.”

But after four days, many of the Chinese visitors were chafing under the tight restrictions of the trip.

“I really want to experience what’s happening with the middle class and just wander around the streets,” said Li Fengshi, who made the trip with her husband. “But it’s not allowed. They won’t let us talk to ordinary people.”

Tourism is one thing. Making investments is quite another leap most were not yet ready to make.

“I wouldn’t invest in this place, at least not right now, because it’s so backward,” said Li Zhigang, a businessman from Heilongjiang province.

Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report from Pyongyang and Mount Kumgang resort.

 
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