Restriction-Free Travel by Chinese a Source of Envy For North Koreans

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
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Chinese tourists return to Beijing following a cruise to South Korea, Sept. 15, 2013.
Chinese tourists return to Beijing following a cruise to South Korea, Sept. 15, 2013.

According to recently published statistics, around 11 million foreigners visited South Korea in 2013.

Of these foreign visitors, the majority was from China with about 4 million people. The number of Japanese tourists was much smaller at 2.7 million, and only 740,000 Americans and 560,000 Taiwanese visited the country in 2013.

These statistics show that Chinese people make up the largest portion of tourists visiting South Korea. This is a new phenomenon because in the past the largest number of tourists hailed from Japan, particularly middle-aged Japanese women visiting glitzy Myeongdong, Apgujongdong and other tourist spots.

Middle-aged Chinese women have now taken their place. In the past, not knowing the Japanese language made it difficult to attract foreign customers in South Korea. Recently, there has been a major increase in South Koreans who are learning Chinese to deal with tourists from that country.

This shift in tourism has largely occurred because of China’s economic development. The rapid development of the country’s economy due to reforms and opening has allowed the Chinese middle class to travel overseas in large numbers for the first time. Of course, there are still places in China that are very poor. However, there are many people from big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai who can travel abroad on their own dime. That being said, these people are not rich. In the past, most of the Japanese middle-aged women who visited South Korea were housewives. The middle-aged Chinese who travel to South Korea now are mainly working professionals like engineers and doctors.

Why South Korea?

One could ask why these Chinese women are coming to South Korea? Simply put, they lack the money and experience to travel to countries further away like those in Europe or America. South Korea is close, and relatively cheap to get to. Korean culture, having been influenced by China to a certain degree, is also easy to understand for Chinese people.

Chinese people are further attracted to South Korea because it is much more developed than their home country. The Chinese find South Korea to be well-off, easy to travel around, clean, and full of fun and interesting places to see. The country also provides them with an image of what their own country could look like in the future.

While South Korea and China have many similarities historically, the two countries are also very different culturally and politically. Chinese people find this to be an attractive feature because going abroad is at its essence the opportunity to see, hear and feel a place very different from one’s own country.

Hope for North Koreans

The South Korean government has worked hard to welcome Chinese tourists into their country. The rise in Chinese tourism has been a boon to the South Korean economy because of the money these tourists bring in.

Meanwhile, the fact that Chinese people can take restriction-free trips abroad must be a source of envy for North Koreans, who are not allowed to travel abroad except under very limited circumstances.  The North Koreans must not give up hope, however. The entrance of reforms and opening in China by the early 1980s soon allowed Chinese people to enjoy travel abroad. It is only a matter of time before North Koreans will be able to enjoy the same.

Translated by Robert Lauler.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.





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