Exploring the Possibility of Tourism in North Korea

North Korea

In recent months, whispers of change have been emanating from North Korea, often referred to as the “hermit kingdom” due to its historical isolation from the rest of the world. While it may still be a guarded and enigmatic nation, there are indications that the doors to tourism might soon creak open once more, allowing the world a chance to glimpse into this secretive land. In this article, we delve into the evolving situation, discussing the recent resumption of flights, the challenges faced by tour companies, and the intriguing dynamics surrounding American travelers.

The Reopening of Air Koryo: A Glimmer of Hope

North Korea Tourism

Late August witnessed a significant development in North Korea’s international relations—the resumption of Air Koryo flights between Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, and Vladivostok, Russia, and Beijing, China. For the first resumption of such services since January 2020, it raises the tantalizing prospect that North Korea may be considering a broader reopening to international travelers.

However, unraveling the intentions of North Korean officials is no small feat. Due to the opaque nature of the clandestine government, tour operators have long questioned if and when they would be able to bring visitors back into the nation, which has been a worry for the tourist sector.

Simon Cockerell, general manager of the China-based travel company Koryo Tours, which specializes in group tours to North Korea, provides a detailed description of the current situation. He notes, “There’s no Ministry of Tourism, so there’s no high-level government officers or anything like that involved in tourism.” Consequently, obtaining reliable information has proven to be an arduous task, leaving tour operators like Cockerell and his colleagues in a perpetual state of anticipation.

The suspension of tourism to North Korea, as imposed in 2020, took a severe toll on tour companies like Koryo Tours. For more than three and a half years, they faced the dire situation of being unable to access their market, serve customers, or generate income.

North Korea Tourism

Koryo Group offers excursions to other Asian countries, including Kazakhstan and Mongolia, as a means of keeping the business viable. However, these endeavors could only partially compensate for the loss of North Korean tourism, which was a cornerstone of their operations.

A Murky Road Ahead: Vaccines, Quarantines, and Restrictions

The return of foreign flights is encouraging, but we must also acknowledge the many new difficulties that the post-COVID-19 period presents. The travel environment is unclear, even if tour businesses like Koryo Tours are permitted to resume excursions. Will vaccines be mandatory for travelers? Will quarantines and other COVID-19 restrictions be part of the equation? These are questions that continue to linger.

International flights

Tourism in North Korea, before the pandemic, was indeed permitted but under stringent restrictions. Tourists often had to register with a company like Koryo Tours since group tours were typically guided by minders and tour guides who were designated by the government. The North Korean government carefully selected and supervised all of the locations and events.

The American Angle: A Complicated Relationship

One distinctive aspect of North Korean tourism is the absence of American tourists, and this is unlikely to change anytime soon. The United States established a ban on travel to North Korea for its citizens in 2017, and that restriction has been extended at least until 2024.

According to an official government memo, the decision to prohibit tourism to North Korea was motivated by worries that visitors’ spending there might inadvertently support Kim’s repressive rule. The memo stated, “It is entirely possible that money spent by tourists in the DPRK goes to fund (weapons programs). We would urge all travelers, before traveling to the DPRK, to consider what they might be supporting.”

North Korea

It was Otto Warmbier‘s tragic death in North Korea while traveling with Young Pioneer Tours that spurred this limitation. Otto was an American college graduate. The theft of a propaganda poster led to Warmbier’s detention in North Korea in 2016; he was held captive for 17 months. Tragically, he became a vegetative condition upon his discharge and returned to the United States in June 2017, and he died not long thereafter at the age of 22.

The Uncharted Path Forward

As we contemplate the possibility of tourism in North Korea resuming in some form, it is essential to acknowledge the complexity and sensitivity of this issue. In the past, North Korea didn’t let individual tourists visit. Instead, group trips were the rule. These tours often departed from Beijing, necessitating the acquisition of a Chinese travel visa in addition to any North Korean permits.

International Flights

One intriguing facet of North Korea’s approach to the pandemic was its reluctance to allow its citizens to return home from abroad. While many nations with stringent border restrictions have allowed individuals to return home, North Korea has taken a different approach. This decision left many North Koreans, including restaurant managers and construction workers, sent abroad to generate income for the regime, effectively stranded overseas.

On August 27, however, things changed drastically when the North Korean leadership declared that its nationals residing overseas would be allowed to return home. Yet, this policy change comes with the requirement of a one-week quarantine upon arrival, highlighting the nation’s continued commitment to strict health measures.

In conclusion, the possibility of tourism returning to North Korea is a topic rife with intrigue, complexity, and uncertainty. While the resumption of international flights offers a glimmer of hope, the challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the sensitive geopolitical dynamics surrounding North Korea must not be underestimated. As we watch and wait for further developments, the world remains eager to see if the hermit kingdom will indeed open its doors to the curious and intrepid travelers of the future.

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