Tourism boost to North in works – and this is good

Yesterday the Jong Ang Daily reported that Hyundai Asan hopes to draw more tourists to the DPRK this fall, but their forecasting record is not exactly stellar:

The number of tourists to Mount Kumgang tallied 350,000 last year. The North Korean tour unit of Hyundai Asan hopes to pull the number of visitors up to 430,000 this year, 10,000 of whom would head to Kaesong, which began tours in December, and 15,000 of whom would visit Mount Paektu, with tours slated to start in May.

Hyundai Asan had marked annual losses from 1999 until it made profits in 2005. Its 2007 profits totaled 10 billion won.

Today, Andrei Lankov, writing in the Asia Times, chimes in on his experiences with the new Kaesong Tour and gives a rationale for western participation in such activities:

The Kaesong tour is the first project which gives the average South Korean, Mr Kim or Ms Pak, an opportunity to see a semblance of North Korean life. Hitherto, only a handful of South Koreans, most of them government officials, have been able to visit North Korean cities. Now, for the first time in 60-odd years, a very limited opportunity is open for an anybody who is willing to pay a fee.

Of course, North Korean authorities went to extraordinary lengths to prevent any interaction between locals and visitors. The list of prohibited items is quite impressive. Tourists cannot take any kind of printed material, computers and computer equipment, mobile phones, radios and video cameras, universal serial bus and other memory devices. The old film cameras are banned as well. Only digital cameras are allowed into the North, since at the border check point North Korean police officials check every single picture taken by every single tourist.

Despit the limitations, Lankov still feels that these types of exchanges are ultimately worthwhile…

The extraordinary security measures undertaken by the North Korean authorities ensure that only a very limited number of northerners are allowed to approach the visitors. Nonetheless, the tours are a major event.

Every single day, a small city is invaded by an impressive motorcade: 10 large imposing buses, half a dozen jeeps and other vehicles – incidentally, produced in South Korea. The preparations are thorough and, one might suspect, seriously disrupt the city’s routine. The North Koreans can see, albeit from the distance, the visitors – their dress, their height, their behavior. The South Koreans can immediately see how poor the North is. It seems that North Koreans, being necessarily street-smart, also instantly feel the South Korean prosperity.

The waitresses, girls in small stalls and even a handful of genuine guides (not the plaincloth intelligence operatives) who can see the visitors will also notice a lot. Even the willingness of the guests to spend a dollar on a cup of instant coffee or a few cookies is an important sign to them – after all, the average monthly salary in Kaesong is about $4. Those South Korean guests definitely do not look like impoverished victims of evil US imperialism. For a while it will be possible to explain away their extravagant behavior by insisting that those people come from the exploitive elite. But the longer the tours continue, the more difficult the task will become.

So why did the North decide to open Kaesong in the first place? It seems that the major reason is the easy currency income the project brings to Pyongyang. Every visitor pays 180,000 won ($190) – a hefty sum for a one-day bus trip. Out of this amount, 100,000 won goes to the North Korean authorities. All investment into necessary infrastructure is done by Hyundai Asan, so for the North this is easy money. Since 17,000 visitors joined the tours during the first two months of its operations, annual earnings could be in excess of $10 million.

At the same time, they might believe that the Kaesong area has become ideologically contaminated anyway. The Kaesong industrial park is located just a few kilometers from the city. In this facility, some 15,000 North Korean workers are employed in factories owned and run by South Korean capital, largely small businesses which are in desperate need of “cheap labor”.

These workers interact with South Koreans regularly, and they also see life inside the industrial park, which presents a remarkable contrast with their native towns or villages: well-paved roads, trees planted everywhere, modern buildings and round-the-clock supply of water and electricity. Even traffic lights, famously absent from North Korea, are present in this de-facto South Korean enclave.

So why did the North decide to open Kaesong in the first place? It seems that the major reason is the easy currency income the project brings to Pyongyang. Every visitor pays 180,000 won ($190) – a hefty sum for a one-day bus trip. Out of this amount, 100,000 won goes to the North Korean authorities. All investment into necessary infrastructure is done by Hyundai Asan, so for the North this is easy money. Since 17,000 visitors joined the tours during the first two months of its operations, annual earnings could be in excess of $10 million.

The only way to promote change, evolutionary or revolutionary, is to bring North Koreans into contact with the outside world. The North Korean dictator and his elite might see partial exchanges as an easy way to earn money, which is necessary for them to maintain their caviar and cognac lifestyle. In the short term they are probably right. But in the long term, the exchanges will make breaches in the once monolith wall of information blockade. Sooner or later, those breaches will become decisive.

The full articles can be found here:
Tourism boost to North in works
Joong ang Daily
Moon So-young
2/6/2008

A breach in North Korea’s iron curtain
Asia Times
Andrei Lankov
2/7/2008

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One Response to “Tourism boost to North in works – and this is good”

  1. […] According to Dr. Lankov, the price to customers is W180,000, W100,000 of which is paid to the DPRK.…  If these numbers are correct, the DPRK has grossed (and probably netted) W10,000,000,000  since […]