North Korea is poised to allow the entry of the first group of tourists since it closed its borders at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The chosen visitors are reported to be Russian tourists, with their trip scheduled for February.
This comes as a sign of openness by North Korea, hinting at a possible resumption of international tourism in the country.
A group of Russian tourists is expected to go on a four-day trip, starting on February 9, organized by the government of the Russian Far East region of Primorsky Krai and a Vladivostok-based travel agency.
The itinerary includes visits to the capital Pyongyang and a ski resort, Masik Pass, on the east coast of North Korea. Prices for the tour reportedly start at US$750. The tour is considered a positive sign by industry experts.
North Korea’s decision to welcome Russian tourists follows an easing of border restrictions that began with high-level delegations from China and Russia visiting in July of the previous year.
Additionally, commercial aircraft were sent to Beijing and Vladivostok in August to repatriate diplomats, students, and workers stranded abroad due to the stringent border measures.
The timing of the tour is important, as it coincides with a qualifying match for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, where Japan’s national women’s soccer team is scheduled to play in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Stadium on February 24.
This event, if it proceeds, could be an international sporting event in North Korea since the pandemic. However, there is speculation that the match against Japan, considered an arch-enemy by Pyongyang, might be moved to a neutral site for political reasons.
Tourism has been a means for North Korea to earn foreign currency, especially in the face of international sanctions.
Visitors from countries like China and Russia have played a role in generating foreign currency for the cash-strapped nation.
These tourists facilitated transactions abroad, allowing North Korea to engage in economic activities despite being cut off from international banking systems.
North Korea has faced accusations from the United States and others of supplying arms to support Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
The White House claims to have evidence that North Korea provided missiles to Russia, leading to joint condemnation from the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and other nations.
While the entry of Russian tourists is seen as a positive step, caution is advised against assuming an opening for all tourists. The tour’s special circumstances may not necessarily show a general relaxation of border controls.
The decision to allow Russian tourists comes because of the growing cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang.
The meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September signaled ties in economic, political, and military fronts, despite international sanctions.
The decision to welcome Russian tourists has surprised observers who expected China, North Korea’s traditional ally and economic partner, to be the first to send tourists.
This may have diplomatic implications and could be a result of specific agreements and discussions between Russian and North Korean authorities.
While the economic contribution of Russian tourists may not match that of Chinese tourists, the political importance of relations with Moscow is with North Korea’s current geopolitical narrative.
As of the situation, it remains to be seen whether North Korea will eventually open its borders to Chinese tourists.
Tourism is viewed as an avenue for earning foreign currency, especially under the existing sanctions regime.
However, North Korea’s reputation suffered a blow in August 2022 when it claimed to have beaten a domestic COVID-19 outbreak.