Mansudae Korea

Is Tourism Staged in North Korea? Probably Not; Here’s Why.

Tourism to the DPRK has been going on longer than many would initially assume. Travel from many allied countries, most of which were members of the eastern-bloc of soviet-aligned nations, have been able to travel to the country for much longer than western tourists.

Mongolians under communist rule often travelled to the country as a holiday destination where trips to the coast were possible and sites such as the Songdowon Int’l Children’s Camp near Wonsan were opened to facilitate exchanges with Young Pioneer Organisations throughout the soviet world.

Western tourism opened up initially in the 1980s and the market has continued to grow and contract with no major leaps in numbers, nor any major drop off.

For those considering a trip, many have concerns over their own privacy, as well as a genuine belief that everything they will see if fake.

Here’s why it’s not.

The Claim: Everything you’re shown in North Korea is staged by the government.

The first, and most important, rule of thumb for these types of questions is to understand that you, the average tourist to the DPRK, is not that important. From the perspective of the government, your personal opinion of the country has no great bearing on their political standing internationally or domestically.

Often stories around this topic grow because of what I like to call the ‘Pyongyang Black Hole’ where information is so scarce, that even fanciful stories often seem true; usually because there’s little or nothing to compare them to and so there’s a general lack of relativity.

These stories can range from the simple stuff like:

“It’s so quiet in Pyongyang, maybe nobody really lives there?”

To one gentleman who I took on tour in 2019 who claimed he saw the trees in Pyongyang being dusted which somehow “proved” they were in fact just plastic.

How maintaining a city of plastic trees is any simpler than growing real trees still eludes me.

Of course, the country is always keen to put its best foot forward in every regard when it comes to foreigners, but the whole premise of this claim is based on the idea that somehow western tourist’s opinions are so vitally important to the country that they should invest heavily in building fake sets and hiring actors. Certainly not true.

The Claim: They only show the areas where things are good.

A more nuanced question certainly.

Often those who really push this theory are slightly less-informed than others on the current reach of western tourism into the country, not to say there isn’t some truth there.

At time of publication, all provinces in the DPRK are visitable by westerners, with the exception of Chagang Province (although you can technically stay in a hotel in Huichon, Chagang Province located just over the border from N.Pyongan).

It is also true that areas outside of the cities are rarely visited by foreigners, although what is not true is the blanket-ban on photos of the countryside.

Many websites like to produce articles entitled ’10 illegal photos from North Korea’ or ’10 photos North Korea doesn’t want you to see’ – but in reality, Koreans, in general, are aware of their economic situation, and they’re aware that we’re aware.

Local homes in the countryside near Sinuiju, North Pyongan Province

Whilst they’re not keen to show off the more economically depressed areas of the country, this hasn’t stopped them allowing visits to North Hamgyong Province, potentially one of the worst-hit regions.

Generally, yes, they will put an emphasis on new developments and where progress is being made, but they’re well aware that we can all look out the windows as we drive between cities; any difficult economic situations will often be blamed on US and UN sanctions, rather than internal management.

Claim: Hotels in North Korea are bugged and tourists are recorded

Nope. You’re not that important. None of my colleagues nor friends have ever reported finding bugs in hotels, and again, why would a western tourist’s opinion be of interest to the government?

A courtyard at the Minsok Folk Hotel in Kaesong

The Claim: Everyone you meet is handpicked by the government

Nope. Certainly not. Tour companies work with partners in the country who, in turn take responsibility for the tour whilst in-country. At each stop on the tour, local guides who work at the sites will discuss the area and explain the history – perhaps this is where the idea of handpicked locals comes from?

However, trips on the Pyongyang metro, walking the streets and many other situations are conducive to meeting people. Locals may not be too keen to engage with foreigners, although, as with anywhere, it depends on the individual.

Perhaps my most human experience was in Sariwon on a lookout over the city. Some young Korean People’s Army soldiers were taking photos of a few foreigners from my group, who had walked up the hill with me, with digital cameras and I responded, using my limited Korean; “Why are you doing that? We’re not that interesting”.

From there I got to spend 10/15 minutes having a tricky multilingual chat with these soldiers who were around my age – all hanging around with their shirts unbuttoned smoking Konsol (Construction) cigarettes; certainly not something that could, or would have been staged for us.

The Claim: The country portrays a utopia to bring in tourists for money

Not really. Whilst tourism has seen a recent boost within the DPRK with projects such as the Masikryong Ski Resort and the Wonsan-Kalma Tourist Region being developed, tourism really doesn’t bring in huge amounts for the economy.

The Mass Games is often wrongly accused of being a tourist trap aimed at foreigners

Most large scale events, which many tourists assume are put on for foreigners, are actually aimed primarily at a domestic audience. The Mass Games, for example, is often cited as a propaganda masterpiece aimed at enticing foreigners to visit the country; although, it’s not aimed at tourists at all, but at local Koreans – hence the difference in ticket price between local and foreigner!

No doubt this issue won’t go away any time soon, neither will new questions stop appearing. If anyone has any claims of their own then I’d be happy to respond, or even add them to this list.

Feel free to tweet us; @MansudaeK or direct message on any of our social media platforms if you’ve heard any claims that you’re interested in learning more about.

Benjamin Weston

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