North Korean Tourism Dwarfed by Visitors Paying Homage to Elvis, Thai Sex Change Tourists, Those Seeking Nose Jobs in South Korea; And 1/15 of UK Citizens Traveling Abroad for Dental Treatment;
In 2012, North Korea welcomed nearly 30,000 visitors, including 4000 westerners, and official state media trumpeted this week that foreign tourism is “booming” days after they exploded a nuclear bomb drawing global condemnation. State news organ KCNA said the number of foreign visitors to the North has grown since 2000 and has surged after 2009, citing a spike in European visitors but offering no statistics. “The global popularity of tourism to (North Korea) is booming,” they said, citing socialist accomplishments by the Kim family hereditary dynastic regime.
Independent industry analysts have put the number of western visitors to North Korea at about 2,000 per year, but KCNA said this week tourists rose “sharply” from 2009. The respected independent NK News quoted Simon Cockerell, General Manager at Koryo Tours, the preeminent group tour operator to Pyongyang based in Beijing, saying numbers have spiked, but visitor numbers are so small “an unexpected increase of a few dozen can look like a large percentage surge.”
It is estimated that in 2012 perhaps 4,000 Western visitors traveled to the world’s most isolated nation, and KCNA said that “eye-catching achievements made by the country in the effort for building a thriving socialist nation in recent years are one of the attractions.”
But a tourism boom in North Korea is quintessentially relative. A cursory comparative look breaks the annual visitor arrivals to North Korea down to the equivalent of the number of tourists who arrive from abroad every 34 minutes in the U.S., and every 27 minutes in France.
Less foreign visitors travel to North Korea annually than take in the British Lawnmower Museum in the U.K. Foreign visitors to North Korea per year amount to less than 5% of those who visit the birthplace of Elvis Presley—Graceland in Memphis Tennessee which attracts 600,000 people annually to pay homage to the “King”. Graceland opened for tours on June 7, 1982. “We had no idea whether 30 people were coming, or 300, or 3,000 that first day, Fortunately, it was the latter,” said Jack Sodden, CEO of Elvis Presley Enterprises. They sold out all 3,024 tickets on the first day and the flow of tourists has remained steady, with an average of 600,000 annual visitors to the mansion.
The entire annual number of foreign visitors to the Hermit Kingdom is less than 3% of those who trek to visit the home of one of capitalism’s most storied robber barons, the Biltmore Estate of the Vanderbilt family in America’s deep rural South, which attracts 900,000 visitors per year.
Fetish Con, an annual sex conference celebrating all things kinky, attracts more than 10,000 people annually worldwide to a U.S. city by people interested in the whips, toys, videos, outrageously high high-heels and black leather stiletto knee-high boots, and features such offerings as Kinky Karaoke, with fetish enthusiasts dressed in outfits ranging from very little to full-body latex. That is more than twice the total annual western visitors to all of North Korea at the moment.
Each year about a half million leather clad bikers and their half naked girlfriends converge on the small town of Sturgis, South Dakota for the world’s largest motorcycle rally—more than 15 times the entire yearly total of foreigners who visit North Korea.
A more nuanced comparison makes the entire cumulative arrival of visitors to North Korea less than those who travel to Thailand for sex change operations. It stands, for instance as 1/15 of UK citizens who traveled abroad in 2011 for dental treatment. In 2006, Israel welcomed 15,000 foreigners who traveled there for medical procedures, bringing in $40 million of revenue. 30,000 people came to Iran in 2012 to receive medical treatment. About 1 million Californians go to Mexico for healthcare procedures, mostly to Tijuana seeking weight loss, and plastic surgery, in addition to alternative cancer treatments. According to the Secretary of Tourism of Baja California, Mexico in 2009, close to 8 million people went to Tijuana for some type of healthcare.
The most obvious comparison is in South Korea where in 2009, a total number of 60,000 medical tourists arrived, rising in 2010 to 80,000. The South Korean Ministry of Health has set the target for 2015 to up to 300,000 medical tourists. Currently, the most popular treatments for medical tourists are cosmetic procedures such as eyelid surgery, nose jobs, facelifts, and skin lightening.
There are no reports of any visitors choosing Pyongyang as a preferred destination for medical care.
So a surge in foreigners visiting Pyongyang is all a matter of perspective.
Tourists to North Korea must go on guided tours and must have their tour guides with them at all times. Photography is strictly controlled, as is interaction with the local population.
In 2002, the scenic Mount Kumgang close to the South Korea border was designated a special tourist destination, and South Korean tourist companies brought thousands of South Koreans to Mount Kŭmgang until that was suspended in late 2008 after an elderly South Korean woman was shot dead by North Korean soldiers for veering off the designated tourist paths. When tours had still not resumed by May 2010, North Korea unilaterally seized hundreds of millions of dollars of South Korean real estate assets developed to accommodate tourists in the region.
In July 2005, the South Korean Hyundai Group signed an agreement with the North Korean government to open up more areas to tourism, including Baekdu Mountain and Kaesong, which was opened to tours for South Korean and foreign tourists in December 2007, with North Korea charging US $180 for a one-day trip, receiving several hundred tourists each week.
The tours to Baekdu Mountain were suspended in December 2008 after Pyongyang objected to South Korea activists sending balloons filled with propaganda messages critical of Kim Jong Il which floated into the North. When South Korea did not respond to North Korean demands to stop the propaganda balloons, North Korea suspended the Kaesong tours. The tours to Kaesong resumed in April 2010, but were again suspended the next month in May 2010 after Pyongyang sent clandestine spies into South Korean territorial waters and torpedoed a South Korean ship, the ROKS Cheonan, which sunk, killing dozens of South Korean navy sailors.
Chinese tourists make up the lion’s share of the still miniscule tourist industry. In April 2010, tourist trains from Dandong, China began a highly controlled 4-day trip to North Korea. Prior to that, the international train from Beijing to Pyongyang was the only train allowed for tourists to the North. In June 2011, Chinese citizens were allowed on controlled bus tours to a strictly delineated zone near the Chinese border focused on shopping for the first time, and in January 2012, were able to bring their own mobile phones into the DPRK for the first time without being confiscated by border authorities to be returned upon departing the country, but without a North Korean sim card, strictly prohibited in North Korea, the phones are useless as they are unable to make or receive calls. The number of Chinese tourists visiting North Korea fell 70 percent from 2010 to 2011, with Chinese tour operators citing restrictions on where tourists can travel—only the capital Pyongyang and Mt. Kumgang–for the lack of interest.
The leading tour company for non Chinese citizens desiring to visit North Korea, is the quirky, but highly professional and knowledgeable British run, Beijing based Koryo tours, which have been running curious visitors to the hermit Kingdom for 20 years.
When visitors arrive by plane in Pyongyang, they land on an empty runway, and walk into an empty terminal. One visitor wrote “On a visit to North Korea I had a surreal experience as my Air China plane touched down at Pyongyang airport the music which was played into the passenger cabin was Isaac Watts’ Christmas carol “Joy To The World”:
Joy to the World, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room;
And let Heaven and nature sing.”
The nonexistent lines at customs efficiently immediately confiscate all mobile phones and electronic devices. Shortwave radios are sometimes allowed into the country—after they are taken in a back room and radio frequency access is sauntered to the state propaganda channel. Listening to foreign broadcasts is punishable by jail. Each visitor is met at the security gate by two government minders who accompany all visitors during every waking hour while in country.
Visitors can go to a handful of approved sites, which include visiting the captured US spy ship Pueblo, the war museum where guides lecture on American atrocities committed against Koreans, pay homage to the Kim clan at statues, and visit the $900 million building where Kim father and son lay embalmed, and houses thousands of gifts from every corner of the world given to the Kim’s when they were alive. The Palace of the Sun serves doubly as a museum, and visitors are forbidden from speaking and must remove their shoes and put on disposable plastic sleeves over ones feet to make sure no germs infect the sacred site.
A comparable experience is offered at the “International Friendship Exhibition” in Mount Myohyang-san, which has on display over 200,000 gifts given to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, carefully separated by country leaving the impression that the Kim’s have a fervent and massive global following. The gifts range from whole train cars and handguns from world leaders, to knickknacks from obscure communist sympathizers in the U.S. and Europe who are portrayed as famous renowned vanguard of these countries oppressed proletariat. Many of the groups one suspects have memberships in the single digits and the uninitiated might be shocked to learn that virtually none of their countrymen have ever heard of them. Other gifts include a stuffed crocodile in bow tie and waistcoat standing on two legs holding a cocktail tray and serving drinks, courtesy of the Sandinista National Liberation Front of Nicaragua, and a Tolpuddle Martyrs plate from the British parliamentary Labour party.
Formal attire is required of all visitors to both the mausoleum and gift repository museum, and all are mandated to bow to a statue of Kim Il-sung, march down marble corridors, pass through a wind tunnel to shake the dust from ones clothes, and then into a darkened room holding the embalmed body of Kim Il-sung where visitors line up in rows and must step forward three steps at a time, and bow three times from three different directions.
Then one is taken to another marble chamber where an audio recording is played of the reaction of North Korean’s when the Great Leader died which includes this typical clip: “All people were rending their hearts! And weeping scalding tears that as they hit the ground fossilized and became glittering pieces of stone! It was as if the earth itself had died!”
“After depositing our cameras and bags in the coat check room, we were instructed to line up in rows of four and walk to the security checkpoint…we were quickly forced back into a single line in order to get through the metal detector and subsequent pat down by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army. But then again, this is North Korea, and if you’re told to get in a row of four, you get in a row of four.
Having been checked for explosives, weapons, and cameras, we then encounter an incredibly long moving walkway. I was a bit surprised to see a standard airport feature in a somber mausoleum. We began walking on the moving walkway, as most people, save the exceptionally lazy, usually do, until we were quickly instructed by our guide that we were supposed to stand still and let the walkway slowly take us to our destination. So we stood there, quietly, and patiently, as the walkway delivered us to…yet another walkway. It seemed like we had traveled for a mile on these things. In fact, I’m willing to bet that, as with everything in the DPRK, it’s the longest moving walkway in the world.”
The tourist then continues describing “standing before the large white statue of Kim Il-Sung, which was bathed in a beautiful pink and blue lighting…while music plays in the background. God, this place is so weird. And we haven’t even gotten to the actual corpse yet.”
Then one is taken to another room with another statue of Kim and given audio headsets “which contains a track of an over dramatic man with a British accent telling us how the death of Kim Il-Sung was basically the worst thing to ever happen in the history of mankind.
Finally, it was time to see the Great Leader himself. First, however, we had to be purified, and were led through a chamber with powerful jets of air that blew any specks of dirt off of us American Imperialists. Thoroughly cleansed, we entered a dimly lit room with high ceilings. In the center of the room was a glass coffin containing the body of Kim Il-Sung, which was draped with a blanket so that only the head was visible. In front of us, rows of somber North Koreans bowed before the coffin, under the vigilant gaze of ramrod straight white gloved soldiers clutching their polished Kalashnikovs….Lenin’s Mausoleum truly has nothing on this place.”
Then it is on to another room with a “giant map showing all the places Kim managed to visit during his tenure, as well as his personal rail car and official vehicle.”
And then to another room “filled with all of the “awards” bestowed upon Kim Il-Sung by foreign governments and political parties. Most of them aren’t real awards, but rather trinkets with little value that have been put on display to give North Koreans the impression that their Great Leader was highly respected all over the world…I was quite amused to come across an honorary degree from Kensington University of Glendale, California.”
A cursory research of Kensington University reveals it is a fake degree program since eliminated as a fraud degree issuing mill by both the states of California and Hawaii, where it was once located run out of an obscure lawyer’s office in Glendale, California.
Kim Il Sung is not the only high profile dubious dictator to have obtained a degree from Kensington University. Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, since overthrown in a popular revolution and fled the country in January 2011, had a diploma from Kensington University hanging on his wall in his palace–a doctorate in political science awarded in 1999. The university was shut down by the state of California for granting diplomas by mail and having “little or no rigor or credible academic standards.”
The North Korean dictator didn’t go quite as far as the Cambodian dictator Hun Sen, who left school to join Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the jungle as a teenager. He was awarded an Honorary Ph.D. in Political Science by Hanoi in 1991 and another honorary Ph.D. in Politics from the Southern California University for Professional Studies in the USA in 1995. But his most treasured accolade was when, in 1996, he was presented with an Honorary Ph.D. of Law by Iowa Wesleyan College, USA. He publicly declared that he was now an accredited lawyer and on September 15, 2004, Hun Sen was accepted and sworn in as a member of the Bar Association of Cambodia.
Dong Zong Chairman, Dr. Yap Sin Tian – a controversial Malaysian leader pushing for Chinese education bought his doctorates from the Internet, including a PhD from the Kensington University in 1993 and another doctorate in Business Administration from Kensington University in 1991.
Dr Yap is the chairman of the board of the New Era College. Kensington University has no classrooms, no laboratories, no dormitories, and its so-called campus is housed in a small Glendale office building in California. Students could earn anything from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate – all without ever attending a single class or meeting an instructor, awarding inflated credits for “life experience”.
The California investigation revealed that students were awarded doctorates for four-months of “work”, by reading magazines and writing short reaction papers, according to the California report that resulted in closure of the diploma mill school by Californian authorities in 1996, whereupon it shifted its operations to Hawaii only to be shut down by the authorities there in 2003. It is also illegal in the State of Texas to use a degree from Kensington University.
Other graduates included Florida State Representative Jennifer Caroll, who was forced to resign from the National Commission on Presidential Scholars after being exposed for having a degree from Kensington University.
These revelations have not sufficiently concerned the Pyongyang government from displaying the degree awarded to Kim Il-sung, which is displayed alongside his embalmed corpse at his mausoleum in Kumsusan Memorial Palace, in Pyongyang.
Along with the fake Kensington University Doctorate degree, displayed also is a peace medal from Japan, which lies next to his “Medal “For the Victory over Japan”” awarded to him by the USSR. The room is dominated by large paintings and photographs of Kim Il-sung meeting various world leaders during their visits to North Korea and during Kim’s trips abroad, most of which have since been violently overthrown and executed by their own people during popular revolutions, including Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, , Nicolai Ceauşescu of Romania, Erich Honecker of East Germany, Gustáv Husák of former Czechoslovakia, Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, János Kádár of Hungary, Houari Boumediene of Algeria, and Moktar Ould Daddah of Mauritania.
Other leaders featured prominently at his tomb include Yasser Arafat of Palestine, former Soviet leaders Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko, and Mikhail Gorbachev, and other well-known people including Che Guevara, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Chairman Mao Zedong of China, Fidel Castro of Cuba, and Josip Broz Tito of former Yugoslavia
Also on the tourist itinerary is a visit to the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily mined piece of real estate on earth. The four lane highway typically has virtually no other vehicles. It is in fact a hundred kilometer long military air landing strip.
The leading European tour group is the British, excellently run Koryo Tours (koryogroup.com). Koryo Tours makes very clear what the prerequisites and terms of visiting are. Under a section titled “RULES”, the tour group says: “Please be aware that whilst we do the utmost for our tourists you are under very strict regulations as to what you can and cannot do and this is not negotiable. For example; you are not free to wander around on your own, there are photographic restrictions and video cameras are generally prohibited….WE CANNOT TAKE JOURNALISTS INTO THE DPRK. We therefore ask all journalists to notify us of their position so we can suggest other alternatives.”
They continue: “It is therefore only advisable visiting the DPRK if you can tolerate the following points:
1) In the DPRK you will be under close scrutiny from the guides and security. Use of cameras causes the majority of problems. You can only take a photograph of what the guides allow. The public are obliged to report all photography. Taking photos of soldiers, at check points, poverty, sneaked photos and close ups of people without their express permission will cause serious problems. Photography when being driven around is also restricted….DPRK regulations state that you cannot take a lens over 150 mm into the country.”
2) Leaving the hotel without the guides or the guides’ express permission is not possible. If you are feelng the need for ‘a breath of air’ then a casual stroll along the river is possible but only if accompanied with a guide. It is possible to stroll in the grounds of the hotel but please ask the guide and do not take your camera.
3) We are ‘invited’ to the DPRK and therefore we ask our tourists to respect the Koreans and their vision of the Great Leader – this involves bowing at the 20 meter statue on Mansudae and on various other occasions. Chewing gum, eating sweets and wearing scruffy clothing in places of Korean national importance (such as Mansudae statue to Kim Il Sung, the Friendship Exhibition and Manyongdae birthplace of Kim Il Sung) will offend guides.
The tour company reemphasizes the point again and again: “If any of the above poses a problem it is advisable not to visit the DPRK….”
The number of foreign visitors to the North has grown in the last decade and in 2009, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said “The global popularity of tourism to (North Korea) is booming,” without providing any details or numbers of visitors, citing the reason for the increase as Pyongyang’s “shining, socialist accomplishments” adding “Most tourists gave positive reviews about their experiences in (North Korea) on the internet and other media.”
Here is a list of National holidays:
January 1st – New Year’s Day
February 16th – Comrade Kim Jong Il’s birthday (1942)
April 15th – President Kim Il Sung’s Birthday (1912)
May 1st – May Day, International holiday of Workers
July 8th 1994 (Juche 83)Memorial day of the death of Kim Il Sung
July 27th 1953 Victory in the Fatherland Liberation War (Korean War 1950-1953)
August 15th – National Liberation Day (1945)
September 9th – Day of the Foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (1948)
October 10th – Day of the Foundation of the Workers Party of Korea (1945)
December 27th – Day of the Promulgation of the Socialist Constitution of the DPRK (1972)
And here is the list of government recognized “Major Commemoration Days”.
February 20th – Machine Workers’ Day
March 5th – Farmers’ Day
March 8th – International Women’s Day
March 22nd – Fishermen’s Day
April 5th – Public Health Day
April 6th – Reforestation Day
April 8th – Communications Day
April 25th – Korean People’s Army Day
May 11th – Railway Day
May 15th – Geological Survey Day
May 21st – Builders’ Day
June 1st – International Children’s Day
June 6th – Day of the Foundation of Korean Children’s Union
June 7th – Local Industry Day
July 1st – Miners’ Day
July 7th – Coal-Miners’ Day
August 10th – Forestry Workers’ Day
August 20th – Air Force Day
August 28th – Navy Day and Youth Day
September 5th – City Administration Day
September 15th – Commerce Day
October 9th – Metal Workers’ Day
October 14th – Broadcasting Workers’ Day
October 15th – Textile Industry Day
November 1st – Press Day
November 16th – Land and Marine Transport Day
December 6th – Chemical Industry Day