I’ve been to North Korea many times. A new ski resort is the latest sign of a shift in the regime’s mentality towards foreigners
All the hoo-ha that’s surrounded the recent opening of North Korea’s ski resort, framed as it’s been by the western press as the answer to chubby Kim Jong Un’s wont to indulge his Swiss ways, has overlooked the fact that every dollar spent on tourism is a dollar not spent on centrifuges or Mercedes.
I’ve been to North Korea many times since 2002, when I first went to research for a guidebook on the land, and genuinely, a tourist ski resort is really quite a canny investment. Dollar for dollar it has the potential for a far quicker and greater return than investing, for example, in manufacturing industry, which depends on regular supplies of power, raw materials, detailed and up-to-date market data and actual access to international markets, none of which the North has. For a ski resort, the hill’s free, the snow’s free, it’s just up to the tourists to decide to come.
Building a tourist industry provides jobs for locals who’d otherwise be working in bomb factories, if they had work at all. It diversifies the North Korean economy away from weapons’ exports. It provides and demands skills ranging from designing and building quality accommodation, to the people skills required in servicing hotels guests, and brings in investment in infrastructure, roads, railways, airports, health facilities and food supply chains that ever more areas will seek to benefit from as they open up to visitors.
All in, tourist dollars help to expand the economy and create dependents at every level on tourist dollars, which creates a great incentive not to go around starting wars. That’s one reason South Korea built the large industrial zone near Kaesong city in North Korea, a large development right on the flashpoint DMZ. The North closed the zone during April’s stand-off – but, note, they didn’t smash it up, and it’s now reopened. The world’s press did much to exaggerate the state of tensions during the stand-off, but tourism to North Korea continued, and British-run tour firm Koryo Tours was, for the very first time, opening up the formerly closed border city of Sinuiju.
Tourism also brings foreign currency into the North, which might be spent on something nefarious or may be used to import foodstuffs that international donors have refused to give since April’s stand-off.
The reality is the ski resort is the latest small, but tangible shift in the mindset of those running the state. A friend of mine who specialises in tours of North Korea was just this year sent to the east coast port of Wonsan to check out buildings that formerly housed former Korean People’s Army officers but are now being converted to civilian use as hotels. If the Korean People’s Army is getting out of goose-stepping and into tourism, surely that’s a good thing.
Of course, tourism will only profit the army as it does the state overall, and they may spend any profits on sinister things. But in this multi-connected world. you can’t get out of bed without money being taxed or profited into the hands of bad people. Tax is the state’s racket, but it’s only when we talk about North Korea that tourism is framed by what the government there does – no-one complains that the billions spent on touring the US helps fund drone strikes on Pakistani children, for example, or the British government spends billions on Trident nuclear submarines while demand at food banks continues to rise.
I’m no supporter of the regime that runs North Korea. The regime spends an inordinate amount of energy trying to convince its people that we westerners are terrible savages. But the regime isn’t going anywhere. It’s survived for over 60 years on a war footing with the South and the US (which almost wiped the North off the map during the Korean War); it’s survived famine and total economic and diplomatic isolation. My tourist dollars contribute as much to propping up the regime, funding its gulags or its nuclear program, as they did 20 years ago when there were no tourists nor nukes.
But most importantly, I don’t see why anyone should dictate to me where I can go, be it the regime or outsiders, nor who I’ll meet in North Korea, what opportunities in engagement that come from that and why the local people should be denied the livelihoods and learning of skills and languages.
Additional tourism in North Korea will help locals see that outsiders aren’t all awful people, and outsiders to see that the North Koreans are not the soulless automatons or brainwashed actors terrified of meeting foreigners that the western press loves to portray them as. They’re real people, who might have other concerns than to immediately give westerners the attention they think they deserve, but if they catch your smile they’ll wave back with genuine warmth, if not actually talk to you (assuming they are confident in English, more than I am in Korean). This is increasingly true, in ever more places. Let’s go meet them.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663875/s/32c4aefc/sc/10/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Ccommentisfree0C20A130Coct0C220Cnorth0Ekorea0Eski0Eresort0Etourism0Egood/story01.htm