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Ready to Vacation in North Korea?

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted August 7, 2007

Few would have dreamed of gallivanting around China during the Cultural Revolution. Now, the country is a tourist hotbed and host of a major tourism industry gathering this year. Could North Korea turn the same corner in a few decades?

Before I traveled to the Middle Kingdom, the lead researcher on the project I was sent to work on handed me a guidebook written in 1990. Meant to familiarize the uninitiated foreigner with the historical, economic, and social nuances of a Chinese junket, the text was long out of date.

It advised me to pack pencils and pens for my Chinese hosts, who would "ooh" and "ahh" at my fancy western writing implements. I should also remember to bring plenty of toilet paper, since the stuff was a rarity even in Beijing in those days.

That was before one of the most remarkable economic explosions the world has ever seen.

Now, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), a country widely known as the "Hermit Kingdom" because of its reclusive leadership and shut-off citizenry, is being coaxed in the direction of China and Vietnam’s market-based socialism.

In the shadow of the Six-Party Talks, the dominant international framework for trying to corral North Korea into nuclear non-proliferation, Chinese diplomats and advisors have cast themselves as a sort of wise older brother to the DPRK. Importantly, while the Kim family (Il-Sung and his son Jong-Il) has ruled the Korean Peninsula above the 38th parallel for more than a half-century, Mao Zedong’s successor was the wise Deng Xiaoping.

Deng initiated the market-based reforms of the late seventies and eighties that allowed China to eventually rise from a paradigm of lifelong peasant work to upward mobility and desire for spending money. "To get rich is glorious," Deng said.

The Great Wall isn’t supposed to keep out foreigners anymore–now waiguoren (as outsiders are called) jump over it on skateboards.

Great Wall Dude

Recently, Hong Chol-Ho, director of the North Korean Ministry of Land and Environmental Protection, said that major cities on the country’s east and west coasts would be developed into tourism sites by 2018, according to Chosun Sinbo, a pro-regime newspaper run by DPRK expatriates in Japan.

The country is in dire financial straits. If you think the United States economy is on shaky ground despite or because of Chinese support (Beijing holds $1 trillion in dollar-denominated foreign currency reserves), consider that China provides 70% of the international food and fuel aid that North Korea receives.

Plainly put, North Korea would revert to famine if it weren’t for China’s turnaround from Party patronage to capitalist motivation. Before China kicked into high gear, North Korea lost millions of loyal subjects to famine in the post-Soviet 1990s, when Soviet-sponsored states like it and Cuba got the revolutionary rug pulled out from under them.

The Kim Il-Sung University has set up academic programs specializing in coastal development–the entire Peninsula can enjoy two coastlines within just hours’ drive from each other, assuming one has access to a car. The National Integrated Coastal Management Training Center has also educated and conducted research towards the goal of tourism and industrial development.

In a country where GDP growth reaches a whopping 1.1% per annum (compared to China’s 11.1% in the past year), it would be hard for the economy’s momentum to be any more sluggish.

Perhaps the Chinese could take a lesson from the North Koreans in how to "cool" their national economy, which Beijing’s central bank and government watchdogs have been unable to do with rate hikes and public executions.

Then again, the Chinese wrote the book on economic stagnation during the Mao era–it’s just the North Koreans who didn’t read Deng’s epilogue.

North Korea has attracted South Korean companies to the Inter-Korean Industrial Complex in Kaesong, North Korea, where southern businesses can take advantage of lower wages.

Mount Kumgang, an alpine resort destination in the southeast, has been open to travelers from the South since 1998, in spite of the technical state of war between the North and South. But in 2002, southern suggestions of further opening of Kumgang to golf, ski, and other entertainment attractions fell on unreceptive ears in Pyongyang, where such activities are viewed with Stalinist disdain for their decadence.

Should a beach or a mountain be enough? In a nation of bare lightbulbs and empty streets, maybe. But for prosperous South Koreans, spartan accommodations could only be classified as "quaint." The Chinese have learned their lesson, inviting foreign investors to pour money into hotel projects by the thousands in the past couple of decades.

The Beijing-based China National Tourism Administration announced in 2001 that it expected tourism to account for 8% of GDP by 2020. Statistics released this July note that in the first part of 2007, 12.12 million foreign tourists visited China. That’s an increase of 18.47% from the first half of 2006.

As for Chinese tourists in their own country, that number jumped by over 6% from the same period last year. All in all, from January to June $18 billion in tourist revenue circulated in the People’s Republic of China, whose official name still has a Marxist ring to it.

The country is even set to host the World Tourism Marketing Summit in Beijing this October, where it will convene the brightest minds in the industry. North Korean delegates are not confirmed as attending, but let’s hope for the sake of that starving country that the Hermit Kingdom takes a page from the Middle Kingdom’s new book.



Sam Hopkins