N Korea: ‘We don’t care’ about the US travel ban

US pass­ports will not be valid for travel to iso­lated coun­try

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

PY­ONGYANG: Wash­ing­ton’s ban on US ci­ti­zens trav­el­ling to North Korea will have no ef­fect on the coun­try’s tourism in­dus­try and Py­ongyang does not care about it “at all”, a se­nior de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cial in­sisted yes­ter­day.

The mea­sure is due to be en­acted this week and once it goes into force US pass­ports will no longer be valid for travel to the iso­lated coun­try, which is sub­ject to mul­ti­ple sets of United Na­tions sanc­tions over its nu­clear and mis­sile pro­grams. Around 5,000 West­ern tourists visit the North each year, tour com­pa­nies say, with Amer­i­cans num­ber­ing about 20 per­cent of them. Stan­dard one-week trips cost about $2,000. But Han Chol-Su, vice-di­rec­tor of the Won­san Zone De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, de­nied that the loss of busi­ness would have any im­pact.

“If the US gov­ern­ment says Amer­i­cans can­not come to this coun­try, we don’t care a bit,” he told AFP in Py­ongyang. Wash­ing­ton an­nounced the move af­ter the death of Otto Warm­bier, the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia stu­dent who was sen­tenced to 15 years’ hard la­bor in the North for try­ing to steal a pro­pa­ganda poster. Warm­bier was sent home in a mys­te­ri­ous coma last month-Py­ongyang said he had con­tracted bot­u­lism-and died soon af­ter­wards, prompt­ing US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump to de­nounce the “bru­tal regime”.

‘Risk of ar­rest’

The State De­part­ment has long warned its ci­ti­zens against trav­el­ling to North Korea, telling them 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”. Han’s or­ga­ni­za­tion is try­ing to pro­mote the Won­san-Mount Kum­gang In­ter­na­tional Tourist Zone, a grandiose vi­sion of a tourism hub on the east coast.

He said Wash­ing­ton’s move was po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated. “The US has been con­tin­u­ing with sanc­tions against us but we don’t care at all,” he said. Py­ongyang of­fi­cials con­sis­tently say that sanc­tions against their coun­try have no ef­fect on it. But ac­cord­ing to tour com­pa­nies busi­ness has al­ready been hit hard by re­cent de­vel­op­ments, in­clud­ing ten­sions over the North’s weapons pro­grams, with Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials warn­ing that mil­i­tary ac­tion was an op­tion on the ta­ble. “Cer­tainly, of all the dra­mas that have gone on lately, the Warm­bier is­sue is the big­gest one for tourism,” said Si­mon Cock­erell, gen­eral man­ager of mar­ket leader Ko­ryo Tours which has seen book­ings fall 50 per­cent. “It’s de­pressed the mar­ket quite con­sid­er­ably.”

The US de­ci­sion, he said, would hit North Kore­ans work­ing in the tourist sec­tor, and wipe out “any pos­si­bil­ity of a hu­man­iz­ing hu­man el­e­ment be­tween those two sides who de­mo­nize each other so much”. Matt Kulesza, of Young Pioneer Tours-the com­pany which brought Warm­bier to the coun­try-said the ban’s ef­fect on the North would be “ab­so­lutely noth­ing”. But Amer­i­cans, he added, would lose “the free­dom to travel to DPRK (North Korea) and ex­pe­ri­ence the DPRK for them­selves”.

Gleam­ing tow­ers

A pro­mo­tional video for Han’s project takes in beach re­sorts, the Masikry­ong skiing cen­tre, and Mount Kum­gang, renowned through­out the penin­sula for its beauty. It shows the port of Won­san trans­formed into a mass of gleam­ing tow­ers, shop­ping, en­ter­tain­ment and trade dis­tricts, served by mul­ti­ple trans­port links in­clud­ing a dual car­riage­way with four lanes in each di­rec­tion-a far cry from the bumpy pot­holed road with un­lit tun­nels that cur­rently links it to Py­ongyang.

Air routes from China, Rus­sia and Ja­pan are also dis­played, but no reg­u­lar in­ter­na­tional flights have so far been sched­uled to Won­san’s newly-built air­port. In 2015, said Han’s col­league Ri Ky­ong-Chol, there had been ne­go­ti­a­tions to start di­rect flights to Bei­jing and Shang­hai. But “since then, be­cause of po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances, the par­tic­i­pants of the other side balked”. The vast ma­jor­ity of for­eign tourists to North Korea are Chi­nese. Han was un­able to put a cost on the scheme. For­eign in­vest­ment would be wel­come, but so far none had been forth­com­ing due to US sanc­tions, he said. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of South Kore­ans used to visit Mount Kum­gang ev­ery year, trav­el­ling to a Seoul-funded tourist re­sort that was the first ma­jor in­ter-Korean co­op­er­a­tion project. But that came to an abrupt end in 2008 when a North Korean sol­dier shot dead a South Korean tourist who strayed off the ap­proved path and Seoul sus­pended the trips. New South Korean pres­i­dent Moon Jae-In fa­vors en­gage­ment with the North to bring it to the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble as well as sanc­tions.

In a five-year plan un­veiled last week, his gov­ern­ment said it would move to re­sume tours to Mount Kum­gang and re-open the shut­tered Kaesong Joint In­dus­trial Zone, where South Korean firms em­ployed tens of thou­sands of North Korean work­ers, “when con­di­tions are ripe”. But the North’s tourism de­vel­op­ment plan did not fac­tor in vis­i­tors from the other side of the di­vided penin­sula, Han said. “We don’t need to think of them,” he said. “North and South should co­op­er­ate among them­selves but be­cause of US sanc­tions, this is not be­ing done. South­ern au­thor­i­ties have no in­ten­tion to do so ei­ther.”


PY­ONGYANG: A photo taken on July 24, 2017 shows groups of peo­ple gath­ered on Kim Il-Sung square ahead of ‘Vic­tory Day’ cel­e­bra­tions.

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