A Chinese Tourist in North Korea: A Firsthand Experience

2014-01-24
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A North Korean staff member sells souvenirs to Chinese tourists at the monument to the Chinese People's Volunteers in Pyongyang, September, 2013.
RFA

North Korea, a last bastion of Stalinism and one of the most secretive regimes in the world, is open to foreign tourism on a very limited basis. Foreigners applying to travel to North Korea are subjected to rigorous review, and once inside the country, their personal freedoms are limited and their actions closely monitored. But as an RFA Cantonese Service reporter found on a recent visit, Chinese and non-Chinese visitors to the "Workers' Paradise" get rather different treatment:

At the airport downtown, the view is in sharp contrast to the bustling and prosperous scenes one sees in other countries. There are only a few foreign visitors going through immigration, and many are tourists from China. There is just one flight a day from Beijing to Pyongyang. Passengers on the plane are offered some North Korean propaganda materials to read, or they can read the Workers' Daily, the newspaper of the North Korean central government, which is printed in monochrome across four pages.

Once foreign tourists are inside North Korea, they are taken to their allocated hotel where they will stay. This hotel, the luxurious Yanggakdo International Hotel, was built in 1995 by a North Korean and French joint venture and boasts 47 stories and an in-house casino specially for the use of foreigners. The hotel's function is mostly to host major international events for the North Korean regime. When U.S. NBA star Dennis Rodman recently visited North Korea, he reportedly also stayed at this hotel.

However, Chinese visitors don't generally stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel, unless they have special status. North Korea has opened a number of hotels specifically to cater to Chinese tourists, but the accommodation is pretty basic; much like hostel facilities in mainland China.

Different itineraries

As well as different accommodations, Chinese and other foreign tourists are also given different itineraries. The Chinese are taken to sites with special significance for the Chinese people, in particular, the monument to the Chinese People's Volunteers in Pyongyang. This is a small-scale monument, about 15 meters (50 feet) in diameter, which looks distinctly shabby. On the monument above it are written the names of volunteer corps officers who died [in the Korean War of 1950-1953]. The name of Mao Anying, the son of former supreme Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who died in the war, is among them.

On the small hill where the monument is located, employees of its management office sell plastic flowers to Chinese tourists at 50 yuan (U.S. $8) a bundle [to place at the monument], the equivalent of three months' wages for residents of Pyongyang. This income is recorded by staff internally and then paid to the state.

Unless there are the usual Chinese tourists visiting, the ... monument is home just to birds. Koreans don't generally come here ... North Korean officials have played down China's role in the Korean War. The praises are all heaped on [late supreme leader] Kim Il Sung for his victory over U.S. imperialism. If it weren't for the Chinese tourists who come to visit this place, China's role in the war would already be wiped clean from people's memories. This reporter asked one of the employees who accompanied us for their perception of the Korean War. They replied somewhat dismissively: "Didn't your own Chairman Mao say it himself? Your involvement in the Korean War wasn't on our behalf, but in your own interests."

Other differences

And the Korean War isn't the only thing that's not mentioned in North Korea. They don't talk about any of the founding ancestors of communism—not Marx, nor Engels, Lenin, Stalin or Mao. The only images that did depict them on Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang have long since been removed. Foreign tourists can't get a copy of canonical Marxist works in North Korea, where shops only sell the works of North Korean leaders, along with some propaganda materials, maps, stamps and souvenirs. Visitors can't buy badges of North Korean leaders.

North Koreans fetishize their leaders. A badge or lapel pin of their leaders carries a special significance, symbolizing a special status, and only officials have them. They are handed out by work units, not offered for sale.

There are also differences ... in the regulation of Chinese and Western tourists in North Korea. Surveillance of Chinese people is generally much looser. Sometimes Chinese travelers will turn up the volume of [a radio] if accompanied by North Korean officials, if they want to talk about sensitive issues ... Some Chinese people take photos off limits, and their [minders] just ask them politely not to get them into trouble.

But Western tourists are regulated much more harshly, and the authorities ensure that larger numbers of staff accompany and monitor them. A 10-person tour group will be equipped with at least four people as 'bodyguards,' to provide services to travelers, as well as a dedicated photographer with heavy television cameras to film their every move.

Similarities

Sometimes, however, they get the same treatment. For example, it costs 80 euros (U.S. $110) for Westerners and Chinese alike to watch a mass performance of 10,000 people singing [Korean folksong and national favorite] Arirang.

And no foreigners are allowed to ride public transport in Pyongyang. They must have a North Korean state employee accompany them even to take a taxi, or the taxi-driver will have broken the law.

Pyongyang also boasts a 10,000-square-meter (107,600-square-foot) shopping mall called Recovery Street [named for the goal of 'recovering' South Korea]. This is the biggest shopping mall in North Korea, and inside are a good deal of Chinese goods for sale, like Meide electric fans. [Kim Jong Un's recently purged and executed uncle] Jang Song Thaek reached out to Chinese investors, and Recovery Street was the result. There are quite a few Chinese people running businesses there, but they are forbidden to have direct contact with North Korean citizens, and must go through North Korean trade groups to hire any North Korean employees.

Reported by Bi Zimo and Ma Wen for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.