Kim Jong-un visited Samjiyon in November 2021 (Rodong Sinmun)

◆ N. Korea’s big expectations about the restart of tourism

According to an ASIAPRESS reporting partner in Yanggang Province in mid-September, North Korean authorities have begun maintenance work and training of staff to prepare for the coming of Chinese tourists in Samjiyon, which is located near the border with China at the foot of the scenic Paektu Mountain. North Korea shut down its borders and ended trade and tourism with China following the outbreak of COVID-19, leading to a severe shock to the country’s economy. Now, all eyes are on whether Chinese tourism to the country will begin again. (KANG Ji-won / ISHIMARU Jiro)

In November 2016, Kim Jong-un ordered for Samjiyon to become a “world-class international tourism special zone.” The North Korean leader has frequently visited the construction sites in the area ever since. Construction work continued at lightning speed, ending in November 2019. North Korean authorities aimed to bring in Chinese tourists to climb Paektu Mountain to earn foreign currency given that tourism was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

However, following the end of construction work, the COVID-19 virus began spreading through China, leading North Korea to immediately shut down its border with China. Up until that point, no Chinese tourists had even visited Samjiyon.

◆ Staff trained in Chinese and manners

The recent moves to reopen tourism in Samjiyon involves the province’s tourism bureau repairing tourism facilities and training staff. The reporting partner told ASIAPRESS that, “A ‘city construction team’ has been deployed to conduct daily inspections for the repair, maintenance and construction of hotels and other tourist facilities.”

New personnel has been added to the staff at these facilities and they are now being trained.

“All staff at hotels and other tourist facilities have to participate in the trainings. They are studying Chinese along with how to deal with tourists. Professional teachers have been deployed from Pyongyang to conduct the trainings. The province’s tourist bureau chief now practically lives in Samjiyon. Yangang Province residents have high expectations, with many saying that the border will soon be reopened, and that trade will soon restart.”

With the expectation that tourist facility staff will soon be interacting with a large number of foreigners, staff are undergoing two hours of training regarding the Workers’ Party’s tourist-related rules along with political lessons. Staff are in training until 2 PM each day, and are mobilized the rest of the day to local farms to harvest potatoes.

◆ Staff are starving due to insufficient rations

However, people sent to Samjiyon lead difficult lives. The reporting partner explained:

“People in the service industry are given 10 days’ worth of food and a place to stay, but the portions of food they’ve been given are small, so they’re having a challenging time. Young people deployed from Pyongyang and other parts of the province are having a particularly tough time. They make up reasons to go back to their hometowns, but are forced to stay because the authorities won’t issue them with certificates to leave. They are telling themselves to endure the current circumstances out of the belief they can earn money when the Chinese tourists come.”

※ A special certificate is issued by the authorities to people who want to change jobs. Without the certificate, people are unable to move to new jobs, nor can they receive government rations.

◆ China decides when tourism will restart

On September 26, North Korea-China railway-based trade restarted after a four month hiatus. North Korea is suffering from an acute lack of foreign currency due to its continued border lockdown. The country’s leadership likely wants to restart tourism as soon as possible, but it doesn’t seem likely that this will happen soon.

The Chinese, for their part, strongly mistrust North Korea’s disease control system and the lack of transparency on the part of the North Korean government. China still maintains a “zero coronavirus” policy, which means that foreigners have a difficult time entering or leaving the country.

Moreover, the Paektu Mountain climbing season is soon set to close with the oncoming of the winter. Tourism in Samjiyon may in fact restart next spring.

※ ASIAPRESS communicates with its reporting partners through Chinese cell phones smuggled into North Korea.

Map of the northern region of North Korea (ASIAPRESS)