Last chance to see North Korea for US tourists

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

The Western­ers lined up yes­ter­day be­fore gi­ant stat­ues of North Korea's founder Kim Il-Sung and his son and suc­ces­sor Kim Jong-Il and, on com­mand from their guide, bowed deeply. It is a rit­ual that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion in­tends to stop US tourists per­form­ing, with Wash­ing­ton due to im­pose a ban this week on its cit­i­zens hol­i­day­ing in the Demo­cratic Peo­ple's Repub­lic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is of­fi­cially known.

The move comes amid height­ened ten­sions over Py­ongyang's nu­clear and mis­sile am­bi­tions-it launched a rocket ear­lier this month which spe­cial­ists say could reach Alaska or Hawaii-and af­ter the death of US stu­dent Otto Warm­bier, who had been im­pris­oned for more than a year by Py­ongyang. Warm­bier was con­victed of crimes against the state and sen­tenced to 15 years' hard la­bor for try­ing to steal a pro­pa­ganda poster from a Py­ongyang ho­tel. He was sent home in June in a mys­te­ri­ous coma that proved fa­tal soon af­ter­wards.

Most tourists to North Korea are mo­ti­vated by cu­rios­ity and the de­sire to ex­pe­ri­ence a dif­fer­ent des­ti­na­tion. The iconic 20me­tre-high (66-feet) stat­ues at Mansu hill look out over Py­ongyang and groups of North Kore­ans in suits and ties ar­rive reg­u­larly to pay their re­spects. Pass­ing traf­fic is obliged to slow down. As the tourists reached the plat­form speak­ers played "We miss our gen­eral", about Kim Jong-Il, the fa­ther of cur­rent leader Kim Jong-Un.

"Pres­i­dent Kim Il-Sung lib­er­ated our coun­try and built a peo­ple's par­adise on this land," they were told. Call cen­ter man­ager Kyle My­ers, 28, from Ire­land, said he wanted "to go some­where very dif­fer­ent from what I'm used to" for his first trip to Asia, "to see some­thing that not a lot of peo­ple from back home have seen". The mounting ten­sions in the year since he booked the tour had made him ner­vous, he said, but he added: "I don't see the threat here for tourists as long as they be­have them­selves and they fol­low the rules of the coun­try."

'A lit­tle dis­qui­et­ing'

Some of the vis­i­tors-who paid from 1,850 eu­ros ($2,157) for the tour-ex­pressed en­thu­si­asm. Aus­tralian IT man­ager Pallavi Phadke, 43, was among those who placed a bou­quet be­fore the stat­ues. It was "a sign of re­spect", she told AFP. "It's the same as cov­er­ing your head when you go to a mosque or re­mov­ing your shoes when you go to a tem­ple. "The peo­ple seem happy, they cer­tainly don't ap­pear to be op­pressed or any­thing," she said. "They're very proud of their coun­try, they're proud of their his­tory and it's nice to watch them be pa­tri­otic."

Many dis­agree, with the United Na­tions, mul­ti­ple West­ern gov­ern­ments and in­de­pen­dent groups ac­cus­ing Py­ongyang of wide­spread hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. Other tourists were more skep­ti­cal. Mark Hill, a writer and ed­i­tor from Cal­gary in Canada, com­pared the stat­ues to "a very grim Mount Rush­more". "It's all very im­pres­sive and also a lit­tle dis­qui­et­ing," he said. For years the US State Depart­ment has warned its cit­i­zens against trav­el­ling to North Korea, telling them that they are " at se­ri­ous risk of ar­rest and long-term de­ten­tion un­der North Korea's sys­tem of law en­force­ment", which "im­poses un­duly harsh sen­tences for ac­tions that would not be con­sid­ered crimes in the United States", in­clud­ing show­ing dis­re­spect to the coun­try's lead­ers and pros­e­ly­tiz­ing. It is "en­tirely pos­si­ble that money spent by tourists in the DPRK" goes to fund its weapons pro­grams, it adds. The ban will go into force 30 days af­ter it is for­mally de­clared, said depart­ment spokes­woman Heather Nauert, and "US pass­ports will be in­valid for travel to, through and in North Korea".

'Mono­lithic evil force'

The vast ma­jor­ity of tourists to North Korea are from China, its sole ma­jor ally and key provider of trade and aid. Amer­i­cans make up around 20 per­cent of the 4,000 to 5,000 West­ern tourists who go to the coun­try each year, ac­cord­ing to Si­mon Cock­erell of Ko­ryo Tours, the leader in the niche mar­ket, which brought Sun­day's vis­i­tors to Py­ongyang. Warm­bier's death had al­ready ham­mered the mar­ket, he said, with book­ings down 50 per­cent since then. "It's would-be cus­tomers' per­cep­tions that any­body can make a mis­take," he told AFP. "And al­most ev­ery­one in their lives has made some mis­take and of course they don't want the con­se­quences of that mis­take to be so dev­as­tat­ing."

But Wash­ing­ton's move, he said, was self-de­feat­ing. As well as the po­ten­tial ram­i­fi­ca­tions for North Kore­ans who earn their liv­ing from tourism, he said, it would "com­pletely elim­i­nate any hu­man in­ter­ac­tion be­tween United States cit­i­zens and North Korean cit­i­zens". Py­ongyang's state pro­pa­ganda about the US was "100 per­cent neg­a­tive", he said, but con­tacts be­tween tourists and lo­cals "work against the idea that for­eign­ers are some kind of mono­lithic evil force out to un­der­mine the North Kore­ans".

"The idea that tourism is some­how sus­tain­ing the gov­ern­ment is ab­surd," he added. "The num­bers are very low, the rev­enues are very low." Young Pioneer Tours, the firm which brought Warm­bier to the North, had al­ready said it would no longer take US cit­i­zens to the coun­try. Among Sun­day's tour group was com­edy writer Evan Sy­mon, from Los An­ge­les, who as a re­sult of Wash­ing­ton's ban is likely to be one of the last Amer­i­can tourists to the coun­try for sev­eral years. "It's just what hap­pened," he said. "Kind of cool in a way, I guess." — AFP

Tourists (right) take pho­tos be­fore the Tae­dong river in Py­ongyang.

Tourists take selfie dur­ing a visit to a sub­way sta­tion in Py­ongyang.

A tourist poses for a photo be­fore the Tae­dong river in Py­ongyang.

Tourists pose for a group photo be­fore stat­ues of late North Korean lead­ers Kim Il-Sung (left) and Kim Jong-Il (right), on Mansu hill in Py­ongyang. — AFP pho­tos

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