While nearly two-thirds of Americans view North Korea as a “serious threat” and most would rather vacation literally anywhere else following the death of college student Otto Warmbier, Chinese adventure-seekers are visiting the North in ever-greater numbers, according to Reuters. The wave of tourism has been inspired by the fear that the latest escalation between Pyongyang and Washington might lead to the toppling of the Kim regime, which has successfully kept the forces of modernization at bay for decades, offering tourists a rare opportunity to catch a glimpse into the past that some say reminds them of a "young" China.
North Korea has become a favorite destination among wealthier, more adventurous Chinese travelers. Another tour operator who targets the affluent said he’s been fielding more questions about whether it’s safe to visit the North, Reuters reported.
"But those that inquire often already have their heart set on going," the operator, who declined to be named, told Reuters. "The idea of a bit of danger adds to the thrill and mystery of North Korea."
While the looming threat of nuclear annihilation is keeping some tourists at bay, more daring travelers say they are trying to visit the North before regime change brings the country into the 21st century, according to one tour guide.
"There have been quite a few tourists in my groups who say they want to see North Korea in its reclusive state while they can," he said.
"It won't be the same if the regime collapses."
China stopped publishing national data about tourism to North Korea in 2012. But regional data show that more than 580,000 Chinese from the province of Dandong crossed the border into North Korea during the second half of 2016, more than the double the 237,000 Chinese who visited the country during 2012.
“China's tourism authority has not published a breakdown of the total number of Chinese visitors to North Korea since 2012, when it said 237,000 made the trip.
But the number traveling just from Dandong spiked to 580,000 in the second half of 2016 alone, according to the state-run China News Service. The report said 85 percent of Chinese tourist visits to North Korea originated from Dandong.
That's still only a fraction of the 8 million Chinese who visited South Korea in 2016.”
According to Reuters, tourists can take ferries or charter speedboats down the Yalu River – the border between the North and China – to catch a glimpse of North Korea villages and the heavily armed guards who patrol the border.
Other fun activities include paying respects to a statue of Kim il-Sung.
“A flyer for the one-day tour to Sinijiu tout a trip to the city’s central plaza, where you can pay respects to a bronze statue of North Korea's founding president Kim il-Sung, as well as visits to a cosmetics factory, a revolutionary history museum, art history museum and a cultural park.
"You can feast on the North Korean specialty food by warm and hospitable North Koreans," it says.
As we reported last month, trade between China and North Korea expanded by 10% during the first half of the year, as have the number of border crossings. Meanwhile, traffic, especially on lower-end group tours, has grown steadily to one of the world's most isolated states over the past few years, despite North Korea's persistent nuclear and missile tests, which have elicited increasingly tight U.N. sanctions.
Few of the Chinese who spoke to Reuters were concerned about the North’s missile tests, or the economic sanctions imposed by the UN. Most said they saw the opportunity to visit a “piece of history” as too attractive to pass up.
“Undeterred by escalating tensions between Pyongyang and Washington rattling nerves globally, a steady stream of tourists from China each morning passes through the immigration checkpoint at the border trading hub of Dandong.
Greeting them on the North Korean side are dozens of tour buses, collecting them for itineraries ranging from a day in neighboring Sinijiu to a week visiting North Korea's main cities, including the capital Pyongyang.
"We're curious. We want to see how they live," Xu Juan said on Thursday before crossing the Yalu River, which marks the border between the two countries. Xu was traveling with friends and family from Hangzhou, in eastern China.
"I just want the sense of nostalgia, to see a country that is poor, like (China was) when I was young," said a man in his early 50s, from Jilin province, declining to give his name.”
If the Chinese government has its druthers, the North’s status as a living wax museum likely won’t change any time soon: According to an article in the Global Post, the Communist Party has vowed to step in if the US or South Korea tries to topple the Kim regime.
Though no official US records are available, it’s believed that hundreds of adventure-seeking US tourists would visit North Korea every year. Typically, they would arrange tours through Switzerland, or sign on with a Chinese tour company based near the border. However, relations between the two countries have deteriorated to such a degree that any US tourist crazy enough to visit the North should get it over with soon: The State Department has banned US passport holders from traveling to the North after Sept. 1.
For any American hoping to visit a foreign country ruled by a hostile government, we hear Eritrea is beautiful in the fall.