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Traveling to the closed country: Tourism in North Korea

Traveling to the closed country: Tourism in North Korea
Author: Teemu Jalli
1 Commentries
North Korea, one of the world's most isolated countries does not sound like a holiday paradise or even a tourist destination for that matter. If North Korean officers are careful that no information leaks outside the country's borders, with the exception of "information" that is meant to do so of course, they are even more careful that no information about the outside world reaches normal North Korean people. This does not sound very good starting point for tourism but surprisingly even North Korea is considered as a tourist destination and a limited number of tourists are allowed to visit the country every year despite the high security and secrecy levels. It is controversial that, although North Korea allows tourists to visit the country, should anyone really visit North Korea?

At the end of second World War the Korean peninsula was split in two at the thirty-eight parallel. The war between North Korea and South Korea ended in 1953 when an armistice was signed and demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established at the thirty-eight parallel. After the war North Korea practically isolated itself from the rest of the world and adapted the juche ideology, which can roughly be explained as a Marxist-Leninist political model of autonomy and self-reliance.

Tourism is allowed in North Korea and it provides much needed foreign currency, although underdeveloped service sector, inadequate infrastructure and political tensions are stymieing greater tourist. Organized tours are the only way a person can travel to North Korea. Tourists are always accompanied by two government-approved local guides, who will not just work as tour guides but also look after the tourists and make sure they obey all laws and regulations. Unaccompanied individual tours are not possible.

South Koreans, Israeli, American, British and also Japanese people may face difficulties in visiting North Korea. All visitors will need a visa which will only be issued after the tour has been booked, paid for and authorized by North Korean authorities. Journalists will also face difficulties as North Korea do not allow journalists to visit the country on tourist visas.

As North Korea considers all tourism information confidential, very little is known about statistical data. Year 2000 is the latest year for which tourism figures of tourists visiting North Korea are available and in that year some 130 000 tourists visited North Korea. Some 2000 Japanese tourists are visiting North Korea per annum. Other main sources of tourists are Russia, Hong Kong and Macao. North Korea's national airline Air Koryo and Air China are making scheduled flights to Pyongyang from Beijing and Vladivostok.

North Korea has been a member of the World Tourism Organization since 1987 but as North Korea refuses to give statistical tourism information all figures are estimations or outdated. Library of Congress' country profile of North Korea states that by 1999 there were 60 tourist hotels with approximately 7500 beds

Tourists in North Korea do not in general have freedom to choose what they want to do but are rather taken to different attractions by guides. Most common type of transportation for tourists is a tourist bus as tourists are normally not allowed to use any public transportation. Talking to local people is allowed and the guides can do some translating when asked. Mobile phones are not allowed in the North Korea and they will be taken away when entering the country and given back when leaving. Taking pictures is permitted but tourists should be extra careful when taking pictures of statues of Kim Il Sung as all photos should be respectful. Despite the food shortages, visitors should get enough food. Tourists should never, under any circumstances, say anything that could be perceived as an insult to Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, Juche or the North Korean people or government as this would most likely cause serious trouble.

Visiting North Korea would certainly be something different from other holidays but should one really go to see North Korea, that is a very controversial topic. It is true that tourism brings money to North Korea but does the money go to North Korean people or the government? Most, if not all, tourism organizations and agencies in North Korea belong to public sector and are practically run by the government. It is also true that even if one decides to visit North Korea, is the real North Korea that is going to be shown to tourists? Is right to visit a country that suffers from food shortages and eat in local restaurants? These are questions that everyone who is seriously thinking about visiting North Korea should think about first but if any of those is not a problem, North Korea could offer a new and certainly different experience.


Air Koryo, http://www.korea-dpr.com//Air%20Koryo/index.htm, accessed: 21.4.2010
Kim S S, Timothy D J, Han H C, (2007), Tourism and political ideologies: a case of tourism in North Korea, Tourism Management, 28, pp. 1031-1043
Library of Congress - Federal Research Division, (2007), Country profile: North Korea, pp. 1-20
Lonely Planet, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/north-korea, accessed: 19.4.2010
U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs, (2007), Country specific information: Korea Democratic People's Republic of, pp. 1-8
Wikitravel, http://wikitravel.org/en/North_Korea, accessed: 20.4.2010
Comunism Beliefs: Ethical Tourism Impacts regarding the Case Study of Korea
Author: Jo-Anne Hewitt
This commentary has a similar theme to my paper and because of my interest in this subject I felt that after seeing the title and thereafter, reading your work I had to comment on the subject of communism in Korea. This commentary has made some interesting points regarding tourism in Korea however I feel that some of the discussion regarding the tourist aspect could of included some case studies such as Mt Gumgang tourism project and Seoul Olympics.

Although it is true to say that tourism is indeed minimal, restricted and monitored, an argument made by Kim et al (2007, p. 1031) contends that "society has a duty to enable its citizens to participate in tourism." However, Kim et al (2007) agrees with some of your comments that not all countries support travel as a basic human right because of their political beliefs.

In many countries particularly those with communist backgrounds use tourism as a tool to give positive information regarding communist political ethics and to discredit negative information regarding their political ideology. Many socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as the communist countries of Asia are candidates for this type of exposure of their political background and tourism provides a useful tool to spread the message of communism and instill civic pride in their nation (McLean, 1998).

A contrast of different communist counties could of been added to this summary as there are several common denominators in the political characteristics of tourism between other communist states, such as the Eastern bloc in Europe and those of North Korea, but there are also some prominent differences. It is very true as the author of this commentary has mentioned that the development of North Korea has been powerfully controlled, regulated, and reluctantly allowed to grow on a small scale. The use of tourism has been seen to promote a socialist ideology that is common with all communist states, yet domestic tourism has received a much higher standing in other communist countries, as it was often encouraged as a reward system for citizens that stayed loyal to the party's beliefs.

An article you used gave an insight of the relationship between North and South Korea has been difficult for over 50 years. Yet the example of the North relying on the inter-Korean Mt. Gumgang tourism project was not used. This was significant as the Mt. Gumgang tourism project attracts visitors from overseas to bring in foreign revenue and restore economic growth. Another reason to mention this was to discuss that the project has built inter-relationships between the two Korean states that has provided a way to ease political tension (Go, 2002 in Kim et al, 2007).

An example of tourism in South Korea, the Seoul Olympics, 1988 could of been used, North Korea boycotted the games. Events like the Olympics gives countries the chance to make a political stand and initially both North and South Korea was applying for the bid together yet due to a breakdown in communication and transport problems to cross the border. North Korea's Communist allies in Cuba and Ethiopia supported North Korea's political statement (Uchiumi, 2006).

To conclude, although the summary has spoken about various ethical issues regarding tourism in North Korea, there are also many other issues that could of been discussed. The Mt. Gumgang tourism project has eased political tension between the two states of North and South Korea. However, the Seoul Olympics is an example of how political stands can prevent the progress of tourism and that allies supporting the socialist beliefs unite to instill their political views to the wider world and to provide civic pride to their citizens.

Reference List

Kim, S., Dallen, T. and Hag-Chin, H. (2007) Tourism and political ideologies: A case of tourism in North Korea. Tourism Management. Vol 28, pp. 1031-1043

Kim, S. and Prideaux, B. (2005) Marketing implications arising from a comparative study of international pleasure tourist motivations and other travel related characteristics of visitors to Korea. Tourism Management. Vol. 26, pp.347-357

Uchiumi, K. (2006) The Olympics and Capitalist Society: Examination of Research Problems in Japan and Internationally. Hitotsubashi journal of arts and sciences, 47(1) , pp 9-19.

McLean, F. (1998) Museums and the construction of national identity: A
review. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 3(4), pp. 244-252.