North Koreans to Chinese Visitors: Please Stop Throwing Candy at Our Children

As tourism from China increases, citizens of the Hermit Kingdom ask to be treated with more respect.
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A member of a Chinese delegation takes pictures at the coastal area of the Mount Kumgang resort in Kumgang, North Korea. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Chinese tourists' boorish behavior has raised hackles from Egypt to Washington, D.C. in recent months as growing incomes send millions of Chinese overseas, often for their first-ever trip outside the country.

Now it is North Korea's turn.

Mainland Chinese tourists throw sweets at North Korean children "like they're feeding ducks," Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours told the South China Morning Post. Not surprisingly, "North Koreans think that's undignified and offensive." North Koreans also complain that Chinese visitors are too loud, and pick up strangers' children for photographs.

Making matters worse, North Koreans "always thought of themselves as richer than the Chinese or having a purer brand of socialism, and they are now very jealous of China's wealth," Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times told the SCMP. Chinese might be even less popular than Americans in North Korea, she added.

China is North Korea's largest trading partner and biggest oil provider. But trade has slowed and relations chilled between the two countries after North Korea's nuclear test in February.

Tourism, though, still appears to be booming, with dozens of companies in China specializing in tours to North Korea. The number of Chinese traveling to North Korea is disputed, with estimates ranging from 10,000 a year by tour operators to more than half a million by North Korean officials.

The itinerary of these trips is tightly-controlled and full of staged events. This four-day tour with Dandong Chosun Tour Service, for example, features a stop at the "International Friendship Hall where gifts presented from foreign countries to President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il are displayed" as well as stop at the the Pyongyang Children's school to "appreciate the performance of children," and mandatory attendance at the Arirang Mass Games, a summer festival intended to showcase North Korea's athleticism and cultural prowess that features gymnastics and a flower show.

Tourists traveling with a Chinese group to North Korea are encouraged to bring Chinese renminbi, U.S. dollars or euros (no Korean money allowed), to keep their thoughts about the local government to themselves and are forbidden from leaving their hotel without their tour operator.

What about handing out candy to children? Maybe the Chinese tourists were just taking their cue from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. This year on his birthday, he distributed a kilo of sweets to every child in the country.

Heather Timmons is an Asia correspondent for Quartz.

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