Beauty waiting for a beholderThe sun is low and the sand is warm, bathed gold in the afternoon light. Turquoise waves curl ashore, embraced by piney hills. Quaint weatherboard cottages, the same color as the sky, are nestled among the dunes. Close your eyes, and you might forget you are in one of the most repressive nations on earth.
Welcome to Chujin beach, North Korea.
Like many beaches along this nation’s northeast coast, Chujin remains as empty as the promise of a “People’s Paradise.” Yet even while clinging stubbornly to its hardline Juche (self-reliance) ideology, Stalinist dictatorship and withering economy, North Korea may appear to the visitor to be just that: a paradise.
“It’s stunning,” says Swiss-born Kathi Zellweger, who, after 42 visits as director of the Hong Kong-based relief agency Caritas, has seen more of the world’s most reclusive nation than perhaps any other Westerner.
“I’ve been to every province in North Korea; it has everything from rugged mountains to pristine rivers and springs,” Ms. Zellweger says. “But those long trips up the northeast coast were truly beautiful. I can still picture myself sitting on a white-sand beach as the sun goes down, watching the stars come out into the clear, cool night. It’s unimaginable.”
And uninviting as well. Even before the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in 1948, the Korean peninsula had earned the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” for its long history of isolationism.
It was colonized by Japan in 1910, and carved up between the Soviet Union and United States in 1945. The Korean War (1950 to 1953), triggered by the North’s invasion of the South, ended with an armistice but no peace treaty. Thus, for the past 50 years, over 1million troops have faced each other across the world’s most heavily armed border, the Demilitarized Zone.
Apart from the persistent threat of war and the occasional cross-border skirmishes, division has had other consequences. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did North Korea’s economy. A series of natural disasters followed, leading to more than a decade of famine. Meanwhile, the country’s saber-rattling diplomacy turned it into an international pariah.
Despite its regular appeals for food handouts in recent years, Pyeongyang continues to spurn outside efforts to engage it ― even from its neighbor and only possible ally, China.
Yet, because of its hermetically sealed past, North Korea remains one of the least industrialized and most unspoiled regions in Asia. Faced with the economic realities of global trade, there are signs, too, that it is slowly opening up.
“I’ve noticed a lot more tourists in the country over the past 18 months,” Ms. Zellweger says. “Particularly those from China. You see a lot of them down at the DMZ, mostly the older generation who fought in the Korean War. Of course, they also go to the casinos to gamble...”
While no official figures exist, at least 30,000 Chinese are thought to visit North Korea each year. They don’t need visas, but like everyone else, they must go with an official tour group. (Not even North Koreans can travel around their own country).
Far from being sightseers, many Chinese go to gamble in one of North Korea’s two casinos, both owned by Hong Kong businessmen.
The $30 million Casino Pyongyang, next to Communist Party headquarters in the capital, was opened in 1999 by Stanley Ho, the Macao gambling magnate. The following year, the entertainment guru Albert Yeung opened the Emperor Group Hotel and Casino at a cost of $64 million. It is on the northeast coast, not far from Chujin beach, inside the Rajin-Seonbong special economic zone on the Chinese-Russian frontier. Both casinos cater almost exclusively to Chinese.
“Our casino-hotel receives 80 to 100 arrivals from the mainland each day,” says Iris Ying, president of the Emperor Group international, where rooms start at $64 a night. “Most are Chinese gamblers. Others visit because it’s one of the few cheap places compared to China. Many [landlocked] northeast Chinese come to enjoy the beaches, eat fresh seafood or get away to a less crowded and unspoiled place. Some just want to see what Korea is like after being closed for so many years. But Japanese, Western and Russian businessmen also stay at our hotel, as it’s the only luxury accommodation in the area.”
Ms. Ying says it is easier to obtain visas for Rajin-Seonbong than other parts of the country. “Officially, Americans are banned from the DPRK,” she says, “but we can arrange for them to visit our hotel.”
As allies of the United States and enemies, South Koreans are also officially banned from entering, despite the North being the ancestral homeland for some. There is one exception: the Mount Geumgang resort, near North Korea’s southeast coast and the border, has drawn over 500,000 South Koreans since the Hyundai Group opened it to them exclusively in 1998. Apart from a handful of staff, North Koreans are forbidden to go near it.
Visitation from the South has been falling steadily since late last year, however, after Hyundai admitted to secretly paying Pyeongyang $400 million for its license and other deals. Until last year, all tours were conducted by boat, but not even a historic new road cut through the DMZ last December could boost interest. Hyundai says it is losing up to $1.5 million a day on its venture.
Despite its rugged mountain vistas and a 2,500-kilometer (1,550-mile) coast, not everyone comes for the scenery. “It’s like a Stalinist theme park or a Monty Python gulag,” quips Tony Wheeler, co-founder of the Lonely Planet guidebook series. “It’s a show. It’s fascinating. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But it’s also like something out of a movie. All those huge stone monuments and edifices; you half expect to walk around behind them and see everything’s made of cardboard.”
Mr. Wheeler, an Australian, joined a two-week tour of the North last year that included a train ride from the northern border town of Sinuiju to Pyeongyang, a tour of Mount Chilbo on the east coast and a chartered flight to Mount Baekdu on the Chinese border, the mythical birthplace of Korean civilization 5,000 years ago.
“I met a strange bunch of tourists while I was there,” Wheeler recalls. “One of the things that surprised me was how many people weren’t on their first trip to North Korea. One British couple was just starry-eyed about it. They later popped up in Iraq. I think they were doing an Axis of Evil tour or something.”
Nicholas Bonner, a tour guide out of Beijing who organized Mr. Wheeler’s trip, laughs at this: “Yes, we have a few eccentrics wanting to visit.” He has taken people to Pyeongyang to see the world’s tallest hotel, unfinished at 105 stories. He has also escorted bird-watchers along the DMZ, steam-train spotters, “even one person who traveled all the way to ride the Revolutionary Funfair roller-coaster!”
Mr. Bonner, a British national, has been running Koryo Tours exclusively to North Korea since 1993. While his numbers are still low ― around 200 Westerners a year ― he says none forget their experience. “It must be one of the most bizarre destinations on earth. Everyone who’s been here said it was the best place they’ve ever traveled to, whether they liked it or not!
“The fact is, the North Koreans see tourism as an invitation to their country, so you are expected to respect their ideologies and vision of the Great Leader,” Mr. Bonner says. “This includes laying flowers and bowing to the 20-meter (66-foot) statue of Kim Il-sung in Mansudae [in Pyeongyang] and other locations. If you are not prepared to do this, it’s better not to visit the DPRK as you will cause offense to your guides ― and they’re the ones who will be in trouble, not you. But then, that’s all part of what the country has to offer, an insight into a very different society. The interest in North Korea is implicit because few have ever visited. That’s the paradox.”
There are signs that even the North Koreans are warming to the idea, by hosting such spectacles as last year’s Arirang games. “It was one of the biggest shows ever on this planet,” says Mr. Bonner. “A billion man hours, 120,000 performers. They even let Americans and South Koreans enter the country to see it.”
Mr. Wheeler, who also witnessed the event, adds: “If wars were won by which army danced the best, the North Koreans would win every time! There’s certainly potential for tourism there, but right now it’s a cash cow they don’t know how to milk.”
Indeed, the Orwellian wonderland still has a lot to learn about marketing. Despite the mammoth effort to organize it, the Arirang festival was announced only weeks before it was to begin. Not only did it clash with the World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan, but visa formalities left precious time for bookings. Only about 20,000 foreigners traveled to see it ― mostly South Koreans invited in the final hour.
The wariness appears unlikely to end in the short term. Just as the number of visa-free Chinese was injecting life into its tourism business, the North Koreans decided in May to admit only those with passports, something hard to come by in China.
Ms. Zellweger has her own theories, after seeing North Korea advertised more in tourist brochures in European countries such as Switzerland and Germany.
“It’s a country where few people go, so I think that interests Europeans,” she says. “It’s still untouched by commercial tourism. I also think the North Koreans realize their own potential, so in that respect the Chinese tourists are really a little bit like guinea pigs. It’s probably what China was like 30 years ago when it first opened up: you could only go to certain hotels, you had a tour guide and everything was organized.”
Mr. Bonner, who spent 1992 in Pyeongyang but has lived the better part of a decade in Beijing, is slightly more critical. “To me the difference is North Korea went off on a tangent. It’s not that it stayed behind, it just went off on a totally obtuse angle. The actual tourism setup compared to Chinese standards even now is still quite high. The whole system is there and their level of English is stunning, as well as the other languages they speak. And they don’t try to drum anything revolutionary or political into you.
“Tourists are becoming more of a sight now,” he continues. “After 10 years, the authorities have become a little bit more flexible. But the money they bring in only just keeps the hotels ticking over, so it’s a catch-22.”
Though the government’s official tourist agency has tried to improve its services, it continues to rigidly control where visitors go, Mr. Bonner says.
“Yet when things do start opening up, the country has some of the cleanest and most beautiful places on earth. If Mount Baekdu ever opens up to South Koreans, it would be massive.”
Chinese tourism figures support this. Already, more than 100,000 South Koreans visit the Chinese side of Mount Baekdu, known as Changbaek Mountain in its native Jilin province, each year. “It’s every Korean’s dream to visit Baekdu,” Ms. Zellweger says.
Amid all the hype, the ethical question of traveling to North Korea lingers, and Bonner addresses it in his tours. “The argument over whether tourism is good or if it supports the system isn’t really an argument; there’s not enough money to support it,” he says. “But I’ve seen the impact of tourism in China, and I’ve seen it change things for the better. I was told recently by a friend of mine in North Korea, ‘We are making an effort to learn more about the outside world,’ and I really feel that. Tourism is having an impact. People smile at us now.”
For Ms. Zellweger, though, the dilemma is more profound. “I do think I’m privileged, but sometimes it’s just hard... I’m there for the purpose of humanitarian aid and you see people really struggling for survival. Yet you see also how beautiful the country is. I hope that one day, instead of taking people in on so-called misery tours, I can take them just to see the sights.”
Making a run for the border
So you’d like to visit North Korea? Unfortunately, if you’ve got a U.S. passport, there’s only a slim chance your visa application will be approved. However, you may still wish to discuss your options with Nick Bonner at Koryo Tours in Beijing (www.koryogroup.com or call 86-10-6416-7544). Koryo can arrange three-night tours for most other nationalities starting from $1,290. All tours originate and end in Beijing.
Another option for Americans is to visit the Emperor Group’s hotel-casino. The company can arrange visas through its Hong Kong office, (852) 2835-6688. Options for South Korean passport holders are limited to the Mount Geumgang Resort run by Hyundai-Asan. Overland tours start at 198,000 won ($170) for two nights and three days; sea-route tours are priced at 450,000 won and up. Call Hyundai-Asan in Seoul at (02) 3669-3000 for tour information.
by Cortlan Bennett