The Bittersweet Taste of Soft Power: North Korea’s flirting with tourism

The unexpected death of Kim Jong-il creates foreseeable tensions on the Korean peninsula. But it

Koryo Tours, this British-led, Beijing-based tour operator has an unprecedented access to destinations in North Korea

could also be a ripe time for North Korea to exercise its soft power moves. We all know it – the country is in desperate need of rebranding, as well as many more urgent improvements.

Winning over the hearts and minds around the world has never been easy. Earlier this year, there was a rather lame effort to flirt with Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland region by sending a statue of Joshua Nkomo after having trained back in the 1980s local troops to kill ca. 20,000 people there. In 2010, the North Korean soccer team was protested against and did not camp in Zimbabwe on its way to South Africa. Supporting Zimbabwe National Parks makes sense, but who knows what this exactly implies with such underreported transactions.

It may come as a surprise to most our readers but some steps to put North Korea in a more positive light and lure tourists are already being done. And it’s not just individuals like Joshua Spodek or Rita Colaço, Macao-born author of an interesting blog about DPRK in Portuguese who visit the country. There are actually companies that offer tours to the North. Yes, yes!

Two men to watch. Simon Cockerell is the General Manager at Koryo Tours, a British-run, Beijing-based company that has been leading tours to the DPRK since 1993 , that has also helped produce several award-winning documentaries on the country.  Walter Keats is President of Asia Pacific Travel, a U.S. company that has been conducting tours to N.E. Asia since the 1970s, and visits specifically to North Korea since 1995 (click to listen to an interview with both).

Koryo Tours is  is one of a handful of non-Chinese foreign firms to successfully do business in North Korea, an economy in which glacial change is under way — several Western consultants and entrepreneurs are now active in Pyongyang. There is even a pair of Italian-invested pizza restaurants.

North Korea joined the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in September Juche 76 (1987) and the Pacific-Asia Tourism Association (PATA) in April 1996. Hong In Chol, a department director of the State General Bureau of Tourism, says that they have travel offices in China, Malaysia and Germany.

According to Cockerell, approximately 2,000 tourists visit North Korea each year. “We take about 50% of these 2,000 people – 10-15% of them are US citizens, and we take about 80-85% of the Americans.  It’s expensive to visit.  However, once you get over that, the visa process is quite easy – they don’t generally arbitrarily deny visas, but it is harder for journalists and South Korean citizens to get in,” he explains.

“Certainly there are some restrictions – tourists aren’t allowed to wander off anywhere they want, and generally they are asked to stick to an all-inclusive itinerary that doesn’t involve wandering around town – but they are generally not in danger.  They just have to be aware of some limitations,” he further explains.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFqNNtFVZmM]

“Every year, there’s an event called the Mass Games – this is what most people go to see. It’s enormous, and takes place over a 10-week period in October. 60-70% of the market goes at this time. Over 100,000 performers take part in a 90-minute show over this period every single day,” explains Cockerell. People often visit during leaders’ birthdays and other holidays too.

Brand new Air Koryo Tu-204-100B pictured in 2010

Some attractions offered by Koryo Tours include: a bicycle tour of the DPRK, Pyongyang International Film Festival, Chollima Steelworks, Tae’an Heavy Machine Tool Complex, Tae’an Glass Factory, Nampo Taekwondo School and Nampo Park.

Why visit North Korea? According to Joshua Spodek,

if you travel to explore new places, North Korea is one of the few frontiers left that tourists haven’t overrun. You see people living in a world different than yours. The more different a society, the more you can see yours from a new perspective.

Although this traveler reminds us that

They have imprisoned foreigners for life for things that we wouldn’t consider illegal.., and you have no right to due process.

How to get to North Korea? What a better way for a Steppes-trotters there is than to fly in on the North Korean flag carrier Air Koryo. According to an informative online publication North Korean Economy Watch, under the EU ban, Pyong­yang’s Air Koryo can only fly two new airliners it purchased from Russia last year to the EU member states.

Says Koryo Tours co-founder Nick Bonner, “Tourism requires legal channels for doing business. You

Bonner with Hong Yong-hui, the star of the film “Flower Girl,” at the Pyongyang International Film Festival 2008. (Courtesy of Nick Bonner)

don’t have it in war zones, so it requires North Koreans to set up a structure to deal with the outside world and I think that is very positive. People will disagree, but it would be difficult to further isolate the country and I think engagement is a better policy; non-engagement has not worked.”

Given his positive experiences in Pyongyang, Bonner was shocked to discover early this year that his website had been firewalled by Seoul. He flew there, but after speaking to the Broadcasting Standards Commission, discovered there was nothing that could be done. “We seemed to be classed rather seriously. I don’t think we are undermining the South Korean government. We do not take South Korean tourists in, but what does hurt is we have been making films to show people a glimpse into a closed society.”

Still, the meeting seems to have had a delayed effect. In November, once again, without communication or explanation, the firewall on Koryo Tours was removed.

That has proven to be a relief. Bonner’s latest project film is not a documentary, but a (currently untitled) North Korea-based romantic comedy about a coal miner who dreams of being a circus performer, filmed in Pyongyang and the surrounding region. It’s now in post-production. South Korea will be a key market.

Though Koryo has expanded to Central Asia and Russia’s Far East, for Bonner himself, North Korea remains the focus.

How are the Christians doing in North Korea, by the way?
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