Taiwanese Tourists Newly Welcomed into 'Mysterious' North Korea

Taiwanese Tourists Newly Welcomed into 'Mysterious' North Korea
Photo Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen CC BY 3.0
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A North Korean travel agency has partnered with Taiwanese proprietors to offer new travel opportunities to prospective Taiwanese visitors.

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After Kim Jong-un took meetings with his American and South Korean counterparts earlier this year, there is a sense that North Korea is warming up to the outside world. U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking after the June 12 summit, certainly thought so. “They have great beaches,” he told journalists in Singapore. “You see that whenever they are exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said, boy, look at that view, wouldn't that make a great condo? And I explained it. I said, instead of doing that, you could have the best hotels in the world.”

On July 19, a North Korean travel agency came to Taipei to tout travel opportunities in the DPRK. In a press conference, the “Mysterious North Korean Immersive Experience Tour Group” was launched, featuring two tour packages: a four-day, three-night tour, and a six-day, five-night excursion, with rates ranging from NT$30,000 (US$980) to NT$60,000 (US$1,960) depending on itineraries. For the first time, Taiwanese travelers who want to visit North Korea will not need to go through third-party agencies.

The initiative was spearheaded by the Korean Heritage International Travel Company. A joint venture between China’s Jiangyin Huaxi International Travel Service and the North Korean National Bureau for Cultural Property Conservation, it is North Korea’s only travel agency which operates overseas. On July 20, in cooperation with Taiwan’s Chung Hsing Travel Service, it celebrated the opening of its Taiwan sales center, symbolizing that North Korean tourism had officially landed in Taiwan.

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Photo Credit: Joseph Ferris III CC BY 2.0
North Koreans snap photos with their mobile phones.

Taipei’s new sales center has partnered with several regional travel agencies, according to the China Times. Chung Hsing Travel Service chairman Ringo Lee (李奇嶽) said that Mandarin Airlines and Uni Air would operate flights to Beijing or Shenyang, where customers would transfer to Air Koryo flights for Pyongyang. There will also be itineraries which allow customers to take a train into North Korea from Dandong in China.

Korean Heritage International Travel Company representative Ku Ke-yen (顧克燕) explained that, due to political factors, unsupervised private tourism is banned in North Korea. All tourist attractions and itineraries are determined by the state. The agency offers unique tourist attractions exclusively authorized and opened for the first time by DPR Korea Tourism, the country’s de facto tourism bureau.

Since May, said Ku, the number of Chinese tourists has boomed just about tenfold, from about 100 to over 1,000 per day. Chinese make up the vast majority of tourists in the DPRK, while less than 1,000 Taiwanese visit North Korea every year. If North Korea’s economy begins to grow, its number of Taiwanese visitors may swell alongside it.

Lee explained how the newly offered tours will work. “Because North Korea is developing its economy, everything from the itinerary to the package prices are set by DPR Korea Tourism,” he said. “The six-day, five-night package includes airfare and shuttling and should only cost between NT$40,000 and NT$50,000. If you plan to go during September where there will be many festivals and activities, then the travel expenses will rise to around NT$50,000.”

He added that in November, the agency will be promoting the tour packages at the Taipei International Travel Fair. He also revealed that a delegation from Taiwan’s tourism industry is expecting to make the trip to North Korean themselves in early September, although the accompanying media delegation is still awaiting an official review.

Lee also reminded us that Taiwan has no direct flights to Pyongyang, which is why all flights must transfer in China. However, there are hopes of direct chartered flights from Taiwan in the future, as well as private flights that will serve high-end customers.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Migok Farm, in North Korea's Sariwon City.

The North Korean immersive experience tour currently includes three major attractions. First is Migok Farm (미곡 농장), which is known as the best-developed farm in North Korea. Visitors at Migok Farm are permitted to break with the usual restrictions by interacting and speaking with designated farmers.

The second sight is the Sariwon Scenic Area (사리원시), a famous relaxation spot where visitors can learn about the history of North Koreans and their customs. Finally, there is the Rakwon Department Store (락원 백화점) in Pyongyang, where tourists can truly experience the daily lives of North Koreans and see what the city does for fun.

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Photo Credit: Clay Gilliand / Flickr
Sariwon Scenic Area in North Korea, one of three new attractions being touted to Taiwanese tourists.

Ku, according to ETtoday, said that North Korea usually bars tourists from interacting with local farmers. However, the exclusive package being offered by the Korean National Heritage International Travel Company will take Taiwanese visitors into the farming complex to communicate with the locals. He added that this is something other travel agencies cannot provide, calling it a highlight of the tour.

The Rakwon Department Store tour also breaks from North Korean tourist tradition, as the DPRK’s shopping malls are usually not open to foreign visitors. The agency hopes that, by entering a department store only meant for local people, visitors will learn and understand more about their lives.

Tourists will also be allowed to enter Mount Kumgang (금강산), a national park and important military stronghold near the demilitarized zone (DMZ) bordering South Korea, and appreciate its natural beauty.

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Photo Credit: Uwe Brodrecht / Flickr
North Korea's Mount Kumgang, a national park located 50 kilometers from the South Korean border city of Sokcho.

“Everything offered on the tour complies with the service standards approved by North Korea,” said Lee. “Those service standards, which include having two tours guides on each coach, are proof that the country is pouring its efforts into creating the best experience for tourists.”

He also said that, as all sightseeing in North Korea is standardized by the state, the food, accommodation, and transportation are all of very high and consistent quality.

Ku told the Liberty Times that tour prices will likely top NT$50,000 only if they coalesce with monthly public holiday performances, such as DPRK Foundation Day. He said the pricing was due in part to a law prohibiting tourists from owning or using North Korean currency. However, foreign currency is readily available as legal tender in North Korea, including the U.S. dollar, Euro, and Chinese Renminbi.

He added that many people were curious as to whether it would be possible to bargain in local shops. Even though there are usually small discounts, he said, prices are usually not dropped too much. Ku went on to warn that, like most tourist attractions around the world, goods sold to tourists often come with a slightly higher price tag.

Taiwan’s tourist professionals reminded potential visitors to proceed with caution when visiting North Korea, according to PTS News. As it is still a special tourist area, travelers must keep certain rules in mind. Visitors may not directly say the name of their tour guide, imitate the poses of bronze statues, or take photos of the military or police.

They must also take only full body shots of statues of North Korean leaders, as half-body shots are forbidden. Politically sensitive conversations are also strictly taboo. All electronic products must be openly declared when entering the country, and while mobile phones may be used for taking pictures and videos, they will not have any signal.

Foreign nationals have been imprisoned for breaking North Korean law while touring the country. In January 2016, American student Otto Warmbier was accused by North Korean security of sneaking a poster out of his hotel while on a sanctioned tour of the country. According to a lawsuit filed by his parents, he was forced to confess to an "act of subversion on behalf of the United States government," and was tortured in a labor camp for a year and a half before being returned to his parents in a coma. Warmbier passed away in June of 2017.

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

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Translation: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall