The paradox of North Korea is that we love to talk about it, but have little clue what’s actually going on.
For example: As the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death on Dec. 17 approaches, we still don’t know the exact age of the nation’s new leader Kim Jong-un (most assume he’s 28 or 29) or who exactly his wife Ri Sol-ju is (she’s thought to be a former singer named Hyon Song-wol and currently pregnant). And because the government isn’t exactly forthcoming with the country’s plans, what we’re left with is speculation based on observation.
Put plainly, it’s kind of like anticipating Lindsay Lohan’s next move. We know it’s going to be more bizarre than the previous, but it always leaves us perplexed. And like Lohan, North Korea has its own cottage industry of so-called “watchers.”
The death of Kim Jong-il and ascent of his son last year cast a spotlight on the nation, and the stories that have emerged in the ensuing 12 months -- rockets aside -- appear perfectly packaged for tabloid gold.
National carrier Air Koryo, dubbed “the world’s worst airline,” launched a (nonfunctioning) English-language website in the fall. Soon after, German luxury hotelier Kempinski announced that the tallest building in the capital Pyongyang, commonly referred to as the “Hotel of Doom,” would open to visitors in 2013 after two decades of neglect. North Korea also tried its hand in the glitzy world of cruising by attempting to turn an aging ferry (banned from traveling to Japan under UN sanctions) into a luxury liner. And few who follow the latest developments in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) could forget when the “supreme leader” was photographed on a roller coaster during the opening of a new theme park this past summer.
There were, of course, other headlines, but this dizzying string of events left many watchers who cobble such information together believing that North Korea had suddenly abandoned some of its isolationist ideals to invest in its fledgling tourism industry, which is seen as a much-needed source of foreign revenue for the moribund economy.
But those who make a living out of visiting North Korea say this is merely a coincidence. They believe North Korea will, at least for now, remain as it is: a time capsule of a forgotten era and the final fold of the Iron Curtain.
The Most Anticipated Hotel Opening of 2013
Myanmar’s emergence from decades of isolation gave many analysts hope that North Korea would be next. Is there a different style of capital-friendly autocracy grumbling under the grim décor, some have wondered. Is the new supreme leader piloting his ship into friendly waters?
Slavoj Zizek argued in an essay for Foreign Policy the shift may have to do with the success of China and Singapore, where the marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism are euphemistically referred to as “Asian values.”
North Korea watcher Koh Yu-hwan, of Dongguk University in Seoul, believes North Korea is rethinking some of its attitudes toward opening up to the West. He calls the recent changes “a glasnost,” a pivot he said that’s supported by the leader and other old elite’s children who’ve traveled abroad and witnessed economic reforms like those of China.
Kempinski, too, seems to foretell of a more open North Korea in the future.
Michael Henssler, regional president of Kempinski China, confirmed that Ryugyong Hotel, which was for years airbrushed out of official photos of Pyongyang, will indeed open at least 100 or 150 of the planned 350 rooms next year under the Kempinski brand. Not only that, Henssler said the new five-star hotel will “absolutely meet international standards,” boasting five revolving restaurants, a spa, business center, ballroom, shops and even an artistic center at the base with a theater and cinema.
To call this ambitious would be an understatement, but Henssler believes Kempinski -- which is not investing in the project but merely managing it -- is positioning itself in an emerging untapped market like it’s done previously in Russia and China.
“We’ll be the first ones in, and the first one is obviously leading and defining a market and creating a benchmark,” Henssler noted. “People ask ‘what do you want there’ or ‘are you sure you want this?’ But history and time have shown that we are one of the strongest brands in China and Russia because we were there at the beginning.”
Henssler said friendly relations with top North Korean diplomats at the UN Office at Geneva led to Kempinski’s involvement in the project. He added that he’s optimistic about recent policies put in place to promote tourism.
“There is a wish to open up and let more people in,” he said. “It’s clearly the task of the government.”
But is a luxury hotel in a less than luxurious city really going to drive demand?
Highly Publicized Failures
North Korea only opened its doors to foreign travelers in 1987 and U.S. travelers in 2010. It’s remained tightly controlled ever since, but is seen by Euromonitor as a travel trend for 2013.
Indeed, all paths are soon to be beaten if we’re to believe the market research group’s new report, which claims Americans, in particular, are increasingly drawn to once-forbidden lands like North Korea.
"It's a small but growing market,” said Caroline Bremner, head of travel and tourism research at Euromonitor. “Most U.S. visitors to previously banned countries are expected to come from the Baby Boomer generation."
It’s true, North Korea’s tourism numbers are growing thanks to its neighbor and ally to the north, China, but there have been few policies put in place by the government to suggest a major push. Indeed many of its highly publicized forays into tourism have been complete failures.
After inviting members of the international media onto its ferry-cum-cruise ship last September for a ride from the rundown northeastern port of Rason to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang, the ship made just one or two more voyages, according to NK News founder Tad Farrell.
And if Mount Kumgang sounds familiar, that’s because it was the site of the infamous 2008 murder of South Korean housewife Park Wang-ja. A North Korean guard shot her on a beach near her resort, and the incident effectively suspended joint operations in the special tourist region between the communist North and capitalist South. The special region lies just north of the demilitarized zone on the east coast of the divided peninsula, but was developed in partnership with South Korea’s Hyundai Asan. Once seen as a symbol of cooperation, it was a major cash cow for the North with thousands of big-spending South Koreans allowed special access until the shooting effectively ended the bilateral agreement. North Korea recently seized control of the South Korea-built resort and reopened it to foreign visitors this year, prompting a new round cross-border bickering.
Farrell, a frequent visitor to North Korea, said stories about the government actively pursuing tourism are often “over-reported.”
“Whether or not there is a push for tourism is hard to say, but a lot of stories consecutively on the topic certainly gives this impression,” he supposed. “I think some people are just realizing the scope of tourism of the Chinese.”
Hong Yin-chel, head of the publicity bureau of the DPRK national tourism administration, told the audience at an exhibition held in the border city of Dandong earlier this year that the number of Chinese tourists crossing the border into North Korea has surged from 40 thousand to as many as 60 or 70 thousand. These numbers, while promising, are generally consistent with increases in Chinese tourists seen throughout the world.
South of the border, “Gangnam Style” has the Republic of Korea abuzz with prospective tourists. The nation expects the number of foreign visitors to easily top 11 million by the end of the year, from just 9.79 million last year.
Comparatively, North Korea might as well be on the moon.
How To Visit North Korea
It may be one of the least visited countries in the world, but getting a travel visa for North Korea is surprisingly easy, provided you’re not South Korean or a journalist and are willing to toe the line. Seeing the “real” North Korea, though, can be difficult in this land of propaganda and concrete, and many are ultimately turned off by travel warnings and the prospect of funding the regime.
Hannah Barraclough of Beijing-based Koryo Tours said her company works with state-run Korea International Travel Company (KITC) to escort about 50 percent of the 4,000 Western tourists who visit North Korea each year.
She said there are no caps on the number of visitors allowed to enter and, in fact, she’s often surprised by people’s impressions of the country.
“I went to a travel show last year and the number of people in the industry that didn’t know you could go [to North Korea] was astonishing. The reality is that it’s easier to get a visa for North Korea than China.”
Koryo Tours lobbies to open up new regions of the country to visitors and has helped organize everything from ultimate Frisbee tournaments to Pyongyang’s first ever DJ set. Yet, while visitorship and interest may be increasing, the hefty price tag Koryo Tours and others charge to see North Korea will likely keep numbers at bay. Tourists must be accompanied by two North Korean guides at all times, stay in approved tourist accommodation and eat at approved tourist restaurants, so there’s no such thing as budget travel.
“Chinese say it’s like China in the 1960s, but really it’s very unique,” Barraclough remarked. “I’ve been going for seven years now, done 85 tours, and I know a lot more than when I first started. A lot of questions are answered, but it’s opened up a lot more.”
Farrell said a lot of tourists go to North Korea and think they’re being spied on or monitored the entire time.
“I think for some people that’s part of the draw, but I would say it’s very presumptuous of them to think they’re important enough for North Korean authorities to waste their time. They’ve got bigger fish to fry.” Different people are likely to have different experiences, he said, but everyone leaves with “incredible dinner conversations for months afterward.”
Both Farrell and Barraclough agree that North Korea is a fascinating place to visit, but don’t see the government making a push to open up for mass tourism any time soon, as Kempenski and many of the watchers have indicated.
To invite more people in, the government would have to radically modernize its policies. And modern is a word few associate with the Cold War’s final frontier.
Mark Johanson is the travel editor at the International Business Times. He has traveled to and written about more than 30 nations and territories on every continent except...