Escape to North Korea? Its government wants 2 million foreigners to visit annually by 2020

The state's tourism industry is booming, but guides control what visitors see and it may not be the "real" thing

Asking a person who risked his life to escape from North Korea why foreigners would pay to go on holiday there has a touch of the surreal.

Mr Kang Ji Min, who fled the country after his grandfather, a government minister, was imprisoned and his family placed under surveillance, struggles to understand it.

"Outsiders can't communicate with the citizens and the guides control all that they see," he says. "You cannot see the real North Korea as a tourist."

Yet despite tight restrictions and widespread human rights abuses, the number of people visiting North Korea is booming. In 2005 - around the time Mr Kang defected with his sister and mother - the number of Western tourists was in the hundreds.

Now, 5,000 visit every year, says Koryo Tours, the biggest operator taking tourists to the isolated communist dictatorship. That number is still dwarfed by Chinese tourists, estimated to be 100,000 annually.

And the North Korean government wants more. In recent years, it has opened new attractions such as the five-star Masikryong ski resort and the "tourist city" of Wonsan, and is training future tour guides at Pyongyang tourism college.

In June, the government said by 2020, it wants two million foreigners to visit annually.

The tour companies taking visitors in encourage the view that tourism is a positive thing, but the extent to which it helps remains difficult to unpick, with many remaining sceptical.

"If tourism were opening North Korea up, over the 15-year span of this industry, we ought to have seen some evolution in the restrictions and permissible exposure of foreigners to North Korean society," says Mr Joshua Stanton, founder of the OneFreeKorea blog. But we haven't."

As destinations go, North Korea is unique. State guides will accompany you throughout and there is no deviation from the government-approved itinerary.

Trips are not cheap - four nights can cost around £1,000 (S$2,145) excluding flights - and it is a profitable enterprise for all involved.

Mr Andrei Lankov, a specialist in Korean studies who attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University in the 1980s but has since been blacklisted, supports the view that tourism can subtly undermine the authoritarian government.

He draws from his own experience growing up in a working-class family in the Soviet Union and recalls seeing tourists from Finland, "They showed a very high level of living and individual freedom. Not a single person had any doubt that people in Western countries lived a better life than us."

But Mr Kang places less emphasis on the tourist connection. It is easier than ever, he says, for North Koreans to get information from the outside from other means - radio transmissions from China and South Korea are prime examples.

Ms Lee Hyeon Seo, a North Korean activist and author of The Girl With Seven Names, the story of her escape in 1997, is equally cynical.

North Koreans can get in serious trouble for trying to talk to a foreigner about any substantive issues, so this is "hardly constructive engagement", she says.

"Tourists are used as propaganda," says Ms Lee. "They are required to bow to the large statue of our first dictator, Kim Il Sung" and these images are used by "propagandists to show North Koreans that foreigners come from all over the world to pay homage to the Dear Leader."

She adds: "This is an effective brainwashing technique for the North Korean people, who think that if foreigners are making a pilgrimage to respect the leader... North Korea's supremacy must be true."

One of the first travel companies to specialise in trips to North Korea is Koryo Tours, founded in 1993, which takes around 40 per cent of Western visitors to the country.

Ms Vicky Mohieddeen, creative projects manager for Koryo Tours, says that many more North Koreans are now employed as guides and other jobs catering to the influx of tourists.

"They enjoy certain benefits because they work in the tourism industry," she says. "They are healthy and enjoy the wages and benefits of working as a tour guide and they get a glimpse of the outside world."

Mr Gareth Johnson, founder of Young Pioneer Tours, believes the gentle requests from travel companies to take visitors to new locations has played a "huge role" in encouraging the North Korean government to relax.

"If you go back eight years ago... If something opened - like the swimming pools or the aquarium - you wouldn't be allowed to go or you'd have to seek permission. Now, generally speaking, if something opens, you can."

Visitors are left with conflicted feelings. Ms Ludovica Picone, who travelled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours in 2012, describes the trip as a "propaganda tour de force" but believes tourism can be educational.

But for Ms Lee, it is disheartening to hear tourists claim that the real North Korea is so much better than the one they have read about.

For tourism to really become a force for good, tourists need to be asking critical questions of the regime, but "unfortunately, the regime will never allow this," she says, "because they know the danger of allowing free thought and expression."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Escape to North Korea'. Subscribe