12.11.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The peculiarities of tourism in North Korea

The peculiarities of tourism in North Korea

The Russian audience was very surprised when, during a visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated at a press conference that he would recommend Russian citizens to rest in the DPRK. They wondered what there was to see in North Korea other than statues of leaders and wondered if there were beach holidays in North Korea, and, of course, recalled the sad stories of Park Wang-Ja and Otto Warmbier, pointing out the safety of travelling.

In fact, there is something to see in North Korea not only for a person who wants to plunge into the socialist past. Moreover, in the modern DPRK, this opportunity is significantly reduced. Although there are many buildings in Pyongyang made in the local monumental style, reminiscent of the Stalinist Empire style, crossed with traditional forms of architecture, new blocks of apartment buildings or other significant structures built under Kim Jong Un in the likeness of the Temple of Science and Technology, are made in such a modern style that when demonstrating them to an unprepared audience, the audience was not sure about the fact that Pyongyang is the front, and not Seoul or some Chinese millionaire, where typical 40-storey buildings often find themselves in a niche of cheap and affordable housing.

Nevertheless, some neighbourhoods of Pyongyang remind many people of the Soviet Union of the 70s or 80s, although it should be remembered that external similarities can be deceptive. North Korea has never been a clone of the USSR, but people who want to understand how the Juche country lives will have the opportunity to do so, because a visit to the Mangyongdae Memorial Complex, where the founder of the state Kim Il Sung was born, or the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are buried, is likely to be on the programme of almost any tour.

What to see besides these? North Korea is a country rich in natural vistas. Kumgansan or Myohyangsan Mountains are wonderful places where natural monuments are combined with quite comfortable for Russian tourism service. The tourist complex in Kumgansan started at the turn of the century as one of the very first working inter-Korean projects, but now it is being remodelled to more modern standards and a Chinese or Russian client.

For those who want to go downhill skiing, there is Masikryon, built to the standards of European resorts, where, despite the sanctions, modern European equipment has somehow found its way. Rumour has it that it was modelled on the ski resorts in Switzerland, where Kim Jong Un studied as a teenager, but this is more of an attempt to make rational use of the country’s tourist resources: if we have mountains suitable for ski tracks, why not build a normal resort designed for both local and foreign users, because despite the sanctions pressure the authorities are trying to do something for their citizens, and building recreational infrastructure is something that can be done in a situation where even a pianist is not allowed to do anything. In addition, the current level of UNSC sanctions does not impose an official ban on tourist travel, and the stance on sanctions by Moscow and Beijing, starting in spring 2022, suggests that there will likely be no new tightening of sanctions binding on everyone.

There are also opportunities for beach holidays in the DPRK. On the Kalma Peninsula, near the city of Wonsan, a tourist complex with several lines of hotels on the beach was built, which, in terms of appearance, is not inferior to hotels in Eilat or Antalya.

The large complex was almost completed, but then a pandemic happened. However, it is very likely that if there is demand, it will be reactivated and completed. Finally, we note the possibility of recreation for children. There is a Seondowon children’s camp, which is called the North Korean Artek. Children from the Far Eastern regions of the Russian Federation often visited it before the pandemic, sharing good reviews.

As you can see, North Korea can provide opportunities to satisfy the curiosity of different groups of tourists, and theoretically, the tourist authorities of the DPRK can take into account the wishes of customers. For example, given the growing interest in the topic of the Korean War in Russia, it is quite possible to develop a week-long tour that would allow you to show the places of key battles or other significant buildings, similar to the museum of victims of American imperialism in Sincheon County, a third of whose population was killed by South Korean paramilitary volunteer formations, with the non-interference of the United States.

Now let’s turn to security issues, because, at least in the past, North Korea’s strategy for dealing with foreign tourists has been to minimise their unauthorised contact with the local population. Because of this, for example, the Yanggakdo Hotel, where tourist delegations usually stay, is on an island that you can’t just walk out of. And the hotel itself has a technical floor where monitoring is done. The Kalma Peninsula is also an isolated tourist cluster, where tourists can have free rest, but the rest of the country will be visited only during organised excursions. Note that such a strategy has not only minuses, but also pluses, minimising the problems that occur if foreign tourists do not understand the local cultural code well.

And here we return to the story of Otto Warmbier, the details of this tragedy are already too well known. The organisation that organised the tour did it under the slogan “your mother would never let you go to a place like this”.

As a result, the general atmosphere of this and other excursions oriented towards Western tourists was “make fun while the official guide is away”. All of this was accompanied by a lot of alcohol, and as a result, on the last night, a young man was driven to exploits, after which he broke into the technical floor and tried to tear off a large slogan mentioning Kim Jong Un from the wall. This moment is on the video, where the tall stature of the figure unequivocally indicates. That the fact was, and it was not disseminated by the liberal media “accidentally pulled a propaganda poster off the wall.”

And then Otto Frederick chose the wrong line of defence. Either continuing to make fun of himself, or oriented to the methodology that would help in the case of American juries, instead of saying “I was drunk, I don’t remember anything, I repent”, he began to tell how a poor student was hired by the Protestant church to steal a slogan for $20,000 and a car to be used in the church as a doormat. Here everyone who knew the young man could already start laughing into his fist, because he came from a very wealthy Jewish family (by the way, it was for religious reasons that the young man’s body was not autopsied).

In the United States, an attempt to shift responsibility and present himself as a victim of circumstances might have worked, but in North Korea, instead of hooliganism, Warmbier said sacrilege, and received an unexpectedly large sentence.

Note that this practice is not only found in North Korea. Tourists travelling to Arab countries usually receive a long list of instructions on what not to do in order to avoid explanations with the Sharia police, but a much more referential analogue for us would be Article 122 of the Thai Criminal Code, which is explicitly called “insulting the Majesty”. It applies not only to actions against the current monarch, but also to all his ancestors, as well as any images of the sovereign, including those reflected on banknotes. Demonstrably trampling or burning money with the image of the king can be fraught with a very serious term, and there is a well-known precedent when a certain French tourist, who also, drunkenly or for fun ruined four portraits of the king, received five years for each. Only the personal pardon of the previous monarch reduced the term to five years, but I would like to draw attention to something else. When a European tourist ends up in a Thai or Dubai prison for insulting majesty or indecent behaviour, the international community reacts with “the sentence may be too harsh, but if you are travelling in a country, you have to respect its national cultural peculiarities. But North Korea is different, although if Otto Warmbier had ended up in Thailand instead of the DPRK, his problems would have been similar.

Now about Park Wang-Ja, a South Korean tourist who was killed in 2008 at the Kumgangsan tourist complex. The story is presented in such a way that you might get the impression that a soldier shot her out of the blue. In fact, the elderly tourist put on her best dress in the early morning hours and went to the guarded area where she tragically died.  When South Korea demanded an investigation and punishment of those responsible, the North Koreans said that the sentry had acted strictly according to regulations and there was no fault on his part, so no one would punish him. Of course, after this the tourist project was closed, but what is important for us in this story is that the death was not the result of state arbitrariness, but either due to safety violations, or we have a case of what in the United States is called “suicide by cop”.

Thus, in fact, if the rules of behaviour are followed, there are no serious risks for Russian tourists, especially given the positive attitude towards Russia.


Konstantin ASMOLOV, candidate of historical sciences, leading researcher at the center for Korean studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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