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North Korea aiming to entice Chinese tourists

Nov 13,2019
As it insists Seoul withdraw its investments from Mount Kumgang, North Korea is seeking closer tourism ties with China, reported Chinese state media on Tuesday.

According to the Global Times, an English-language propaganda outlet in China, Chen Qiufa, China’s party chief of Liaoning Province, last week met with North Korea’s Minister of External Economic Relations Kim Yong-jae, who requested closer cooperation in attracting Chinese tourists to the North.

Chen, who visited the North from Nov. 6 to Saturday, also met with a series of high-ranking officials, including Mun Kyung-duk, the North’s chief party secretary for North Pyongan Province, and Ri Su-yong, a former foreign minister and now head of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party International Affairs Bureau, signaling a growing bilateral rapport between the two countries.

The Global Times report said Chen proposed ways to strengthen “people-to-people and trade exchanges, promote agricultural cooperation, improve exchanges in people’s livelihoods and carry out tourism cooperation,” while Kim reciprocated by suggesting closer cooperation in terms of agriculture, healthcare and tourism.

According to a source in Beijing who spoke to the JoongAng Ilbo, bilateral cooperation between the two countries is mainly focused on tourism, with Pyongyang seeking to find ways to generate foreign currency amid the chokehold of international sanctions on its economy.

The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, also published a major piece devoted to diplomacy with North Korea Tuesday, promoting tourism courses in the country to areas in which Chinese troops fought in alliance with the North during the 1950-53 Korean War, like Pyongyang, Kaesong and Panmunjom.

The report described landmarks in these places with vivid and romanticized language, describing Kaesong as home to a major memorial graveyard where 15,000 Chinese People’s Volunteer Army soldiers are buried and Pyongyang as having cedar-tree-lined streets which the paper said were given to former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung by China after the Korean War.

Such storytelling appears to be designed to endorse tourism by Chinese citizens to North Korea, which has been the main source of tourism revenue for Pyongyang by far. In late June, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first official state visit to North Korea as president fostered a brief tourism boom to the country that saw train tickets from Dandong in Liaoning Province to Pyongyang quickly selling out.

Last year, Chinese tour operators even began offering a two-day package trip to border regions in North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s plans to complete the Wonsan-Kalma coastal tourist area by next April and his larger ambition to overhaul much of the country’s tourism infrastructure appear to be aimed at satisfying this demand. Analysts say Kim’s recent order to remove all South Korean-built facilities at Mount Kumgang could be intended to prepare the area to receive Chinese tourists, in case denuclearization talks with the United States flop and the prospects of receiving South Korean tourists in the area evaporate.

A senior official of South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration recently told the Korea JoongAng Daily that North Korea may be able to profit from tourism at Mount Kumgang without the South’s cooperation, as long as China’s help is ensured.

“From 1998 to 2008, 1.93 million South Korean tourists visited Mount Kumgang,” the official said. “Last year alone, nearly 150 million Chinese tourists visited overseas destinations. Even if only a fraction of those visit Mount Kumgang, it would be enough [to meet the North’s needs].”

BY YOU SANG-CHUL, JEONG YONG-SOO AND SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]