Published on : Thursday, June 20, 2019
The friendship between North Korea and China strengthened when Mao Zedong sent millions of soldiers to save Kim Il-sung’s troops from defeat as General Douglas MacArthur’s men marched up the peninsula, China remains the isolated, nuclear-armed North’s key diplomatic backer and main provider of trade and aid. Now the Friendship Tower, as the monument is known, attracts growing hordes of Chinese tourists – and the renovations suggest it may also be on Xi’s itinerary.
The ordinary Chinese pay travel companies around 2,500 yuan (US$360) for a standard three-day trip, arriving overland by train in Pyongyang to tour the capital’s highlights, from the Arch of Triumph to Kim Il-sung Square. The next day they head south to the demilitarised zone that has divided the peninsula since the two sides fought each other to a stalemate in 1953, before returning home.
At the same time, Chinese tourism to the North has reached record highs, according to travel industry sources – so much so that Pyongyang has imposed a limit on arrivals.
No official figures are available from authorities on either side, but Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, the market leader for Western visitors, said there had been “a huge increase in Chinese tourists”. During peak times, 2,000 people a day had been arriving in Pyongyang, he said. “That’s far too many because there is no infrastructure to accommodate that many tourists, so [there are] problems with train tickets, with plane tickets, hotel space. As a result, North Korean authorities had themselves set a 1,000-a-day cap, he added, although it was unclear whether this applied across the industry or solely to Chinese, who make up the vast majority of arrivals. China has a proven willingness to use tourism as a geopolitical negotiating weapon – it banned group tours to South Korea after it deployed a US anti-missile system, THAAD.
The Chinese travel phenomenon is market-driven, rather than prompted by state order, and as well as the market offered by China’s huge population, the two countries’ border enables cheap overland journeys.