But Kim Jong Un’s new focus on tourism doesn’t necessarily signal that his regime is opening up. “North Korea has never been a ‘Hermit Kingdom’ in the sense of cutting itself off entirely from the outside world,” Armstrong explained. “Rather, the government has tried to control external contact as much as possible and limit North Korean citizens’ exposure to foreigners and ‘dangerous’ foreign influences.” He added that the tourism push, which is occurring alongside a tightening of border security and an escalation of internal surveillance, could be a pragmatic part of this larger strategy.
According to Andrei Lankov, professor of Korean Studies at Seoul’s Kookmin University, Pyongyang has always searched for ways to fill government coffers while leaving the old system intact—and is now turning to tourism to do so.
“They want tourists—preferably not those noisy Chinese, but well-behaving and dirty-rich Westerners—to come, to spend [a] few days in North Korea or, rather, in specially designed tourists ghettos, to happily pay exorbitant prices for pretty much everything, and then leave,” Lankov said by email.
Lankov dismissed the regime’s target of attracting 1 million foreign visitors as a “pipe dream.” There’s a limit, he argued, to what the country can offer tourists. The climate is cold, there are no great beaches, the architectural heritage is modest, and what locals see as the embodiment of extreme luxury won’t impress well-traveled Westerners.
“So far, North Korea attracts those Westerners who love to go to weird and unusual places: People want to see a Stalinist dictatorship in its ugly glory, and this is indeed what they get from their trips,” Lankov explained. “But how many people are interested in this type of tourism and are willing to pay [a] hefty sum for such things?”
Cockerell of Koryo Tours, who has organized initiatives such as sports exchanges and documentary film projects, said his business seeks to promote mutual understanding and dialogue. “We believe that pretty much every act of human-level engagement works to humanize both sides,” he said. Lee of Uri Tours agrees, noting that “tourism becomes a space where we can try to take a bit of the focus off of the political and historical mistrust that exists between the DPRK and the West.” With a laugh, she recalled the question a North Korean child once asked her about living in America: “But don’t they kill you?”
Contrary to popular belief, tourists in North Korea can and do interact with locals. At the waterpark, a nervous 17-year-old waitress inquired in poor English about my age, family, and country of origin until she ran out of words and just smiled. At a remote rest stop in the mountains, a group of women shyly approached me and toyed with my hair, telling me through Uri Tours’ Lee, who translated, that I was the first foreigner they’d seen outside of films. At an ice rink, a middle-aged man who was skating and holding hands with two women suddenly grabbed me and swept me around the rink. Opera blasted from a screen on the wall as he yelled in heavily accented English: “friends!” One evening, over beer and a billiards game, I asked one of my guides if North Koreans are indeed happier than people in the West, as North Korean propaganda often suggests. He hesitated, then shook his head. A middle-aged father, he hoped that his son would one day travel abroad and learn about the wider world, but admitted that the chances of him doing so were slim given North Korea's international isolation.