Satellite images show North Korea could restart cross-border tourism soon

Light detected in two border spots suggest a coming uptick in tourism and trade.
By Seo Hye Jun for RFA Korean
Satellite images show North Korea could restart cross-border tourism soon Areas of Dandong, China, and Sinuiju, North Korea, are lit up at 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, 2024 in this image from the Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System satellite.
Image from SNPP VIIRS. Analysis by RFA. Image production by Chung Song Hak

Satellite photos show nighttime activity in two North Korean cities near the Chinese border, indicating that the reclusive country may be preparing to welcome cross-border tourists and boost trade, an expert told Radio Free Asia.

Images taken by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System taken at 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 6 showed bright lights in the northwestern city of Sinuiju and the customs area of Dandong, a city that lies across from Sinuiju on the Chinese side of the Yalu River. 

Light was also detected in the Samjiyon tourist zone, a major government project that was supposed to be a tourism cash cow upon its completion in December 2019, but has been unable to live up to expectations because all international tourism was cut off due to the pandemic just one month later. 

The zone’s ski resort, hotel, train station, and areas of Samjiyon’s downtown were illuminated in the satellite pictures, suggesting that North Korea was preparing to open up to tourists during the holiday period between the Lunar New Year last weekend until the Day of the Shining Star, which marks the life of leader Kim Jong Un’s predecessor Kim Jong Il this Friday.   

A night view of the Korean Peninsula captured at 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, 2020 shows North Korea covered in darkness except for Pyongyang, Sinuiju and Samjiyon, in blue circles. (Image from SNPP VIIRS. Analysis by RFA. Image production by Chung Song Hak)

In contrast, the images showed that the rest of North Korea, which suffers from severe power shortages, was, as usual, awash in darkness save for the capital Pyongyang.

The activity around Sinuiju and Dandong suggests “night work is in full swing in the customs office,” Bruce Songhak Chung, a researcher at the South Korea-based Korean Institute for Security and Strategy told RFA Korean.

“Looking at Sinuiju, the area around the Dandong-Sinuiju customs office is brightly lit,” said Chung. “This appears to be due to logistics trade activities between Dandong and Sinuiju using the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge. I also thought that it might be a gift for General Secretary Kim Jong Un.” 

North Korean traders have a responsibility to prepare luxury goods for Kim per instructions from the Central Party.

Chung also noted that there was faint light detected at the Uiju Airfield, about 14 kilometers (nine miles) from the border. He said that may indicate that nighttime workers are carrying out the quarantine process on cargo from China.

Lights are seen centered around a hotel and ice rink in Samjiyon, Ryanggang province, North Korea. (Image from SNPP VIIRS. Analysis by RFA. Image production by Chung Song Hak)

In Samjiyon, meanwhile, the lights at all the tourism relevant locations strongly suggest it will be open for business very soon, Chung said.

“The area around Samjiyon City was brightly lit,” he said. “I assume that is to resume tourism in the Mount Paektu district. Areas such as ski resorts, hotels, and ice rinks were renovated and lit up at night to prepare for tourists.”

 North Korea is known to have recruited about 100 Russian tourists for a 4-day, 3-night trip from February 9th to 12th. The itinerary would have taken them to Masikryong Ski Resort in Wonsan, Kangwon Province, which is nowhere near the border. 

That the ski resort in Samjiyon is lit seems to strongly indicate that cross-border tourism will resume soon, according to Chung.

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong.


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