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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Slave to the Blog: Tourism and Academic Exchange Edition

by | April 23rd, 2014 | 07:28 am

For any other country, an analysis of tourism and academic exchanges would hardly seem newsworthy. This blog has covered these activities in some detail because getting into and out of the country is not altogether straightforward. A relatively limited number of tour companies operate and there is the perennial question of whether tourism is or is not supporting the regime—both materially and ideologically—and whether we should care if it does. Low-level personal engagement might have positive effects, and professional and academic exchange almost certainly does.

In addition, there is the problem of risk. John Short, Merrill Newman, and Kenneth Bae are exceptions, not the norm; thousands of tourists go into and out of North Korea every year without incident and these individuals clearly were naïve and took risks. But if you have any defined and public views on the country, who knows?

In the last several weeks, we have seen some interesting new entrants into the game as well as news on an old hand who has been forced  to give up.

First up, the Pyongyang Project. I had the pleasure of meeting Matthew Reichel—one of the founders of the venture–at a conference in Berkeley where he gave an insightful presentation on social change in the country. The Project is a self-sustaining social enterprise that is dedicated to capacity building, with a focus on younger professionals; its manifesto provides an articulate defense of a long-run engagement strategy. Exploiting its Canadian origins, the Project has done training both inside and outside the country, plowing a portion of the returns back into fellowships. Each year, it also runs an academic tour; more information can be found here. Among the attractions of the tour is extensive travel outside of Pyongyang—including on the East Coast—visits to middle schools, and the fact that the group has a working relationship with Kim Il Sung University.

Professor Kyung-ae Park at the University of British Columbia has also invested admirable effort in academic exchange programs through her Canada-DPRK Knowledge Partnership program; she has outlined the program in a post at 38North. In October 2013, Park managed to organize a conference on special economic zones (SEZs) that brought together 14 SEZ and development experts from 6 countries and nearly 70 DPRK officials. This meeting came very shortly before the country’s announcement of an effort to open 13 new special economic zones in 8 provinces my colleague Marc Noland outlined the constraints. The North Korean government has established a counterpart organization, the Korea Economic Development Association (KEDA), to manage exchanges around SEZs. In late April, Professor Park is going to take a group of specialists on SEZs on site visits, followed by a seminar in Pyongyang; we look forward to learning where the government is on the zones.

Finally, we noticed that Walter Keats, one of the pioneers of North Korean tourism, has been shut out of the country. His tours were high-quality affairs that drew on academic talent such as Charles Armstrong of Columbia University. In an announcement on the Asia-Pacific Travel website, the company explains that their DPRK tours will be suspended as of April of this year. Two years ago, Keats and Winnie Lu were banned. Asia-Pacific Travel suspects it may be related to a 2007 visit they organized for Adam Johnson, author of the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son (a conversation with Adam Johnson at UCSD in which I had the pleasure to participate can be found here.)

Asia-Pacific Travel generously refers interested parties to Koryo Tours, the largest tour agency going into the country. In February, Koryo Tours broke the story– reported in NK News—that there will be no Arirang Games in Pyongyang this year. The games were held from 2002-2005, missed in 2006, and then ran annually from 2007-2013. The 2004 British documentary on the games, A State of Mind, follows several participants in training and remains one of the best—and most disturbing—documentaries on the country.