Although the North Korean government is known for being paranoid about foreign visitors, it has recently adopted a softer attitude toward Chinese tourists. Chinese tourism has proven one of North Korea’s best sources of foreign currency to help offset losses after United Nations sanctions from 2009 shut down opportunities for the country to earn hard cash. Some 60,000 to 70,000 Chinese tourists visited last year, up from an estimated 40,000 visitors in 2010.
The totalitarian regime has also been modernizing its infrastructure to lure Chinese visitors.The waiting time for group visa processing has been shortened from weeks to 24-hours in China’s border city of Dandong. And at the border, North Korean customs didn’t even bother to check these group tourists’ passports.
Rules for tourists’ photo taking have also been relaxed. In order to satisfy their visitors’ curiosities, the North Korean government has revised its original rules banning foreigners from taking photos from coaches. Security guards that were sometimes planted at the end of tourist coaches have also been removed. The new rule is that photo taking in Pyongyang is allowed, including spontaneously inviting locals to take photos together.
Still, Chinese tourists are not easy to deal with in North Koreans’ eyes, even though the two countries are supposed to be “as close as lips and teeth.” North Korean tour guides, who were used to taking national security as their priorities, now try their best to ensure their guests not leave with negative impression. However, once Chinese tourists enter the “Hermit Kingdom”, North Korean tour guides have to repeatedly urge them to keep their voices down and stick to group activities – these tour guides are obligated to take responsibility for their clients’ behavior. Even so, Chinese tourists usually fail to cooperate.
What must really irritate North Koreans is Chinese tourists’ arrogance with their wealth. In a recent visit with a Chinese tour group, three college students in their early 20s lured North Korean children to take photos with them in downtown Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square with candy. At night, these three Chinese college students further tested their minder’s patience by sneaking out of Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo hotel, wondering around in downtown Pyongyang and eventually dining in a Korean barbecue restaurant. On their way back, they talked three North Koreans into giving them rides to Yanggakdo hotel for 20 yuan (about US$3.20). At the end, one of them convinced one of the North Koreans to sell his Kim Il-sung badge to him, and the hotel’s security guards showed up out of nowhere to kick the North Korean to the ground when they were bargaining. In North Korea, losing a badge of the dear leaders could severely jeopardize lives of North Koreans.
Chinese tourists are now allowed to travel to North Korea from China’s border cities, including Liaoning province’s Dandong and Shenyang, as well as Jilin province’s Yanji and Tumen. From here, they can reach Pyongyang, Hoeryong, Chongjin and Rason.