Before the shooting of the tourist, as many as a quarter-million South Korean tourists were visiting Mount Kumgang resort each year, with cash-strapped North Korea making $487 million from Hyundai Asan, according to South Korean media reports. Kim said that from August, when North Korea reopened the resort, through October, about 10,000 tourists had come, the bulk of them from China.
The Pyongyang stop was added for the group that came in from Harbin, but generally the government wants to confine foreign tourists to the special zone, flying them in and out of a closer airport at Wonsan, about a two-hour drive away. The first direct flights from Harbin to Wonsan are scheduled to begin in April or May. A group of 70 Chinese tourists and potential investors was allowed in this month on what was billed as the maiden tourist charter flight from the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, in Heilongjiang province. Most of the visitors owned or worked for travel agencies and took the trip to check out the possibilities. A handful of others were Chinese of Korean origins, coming to see the land of their parents or grandparents.
The turn to China for tourism reflects North Korea’s increasing reliance on its neighbor as its chief benefactor. Most contact with South Korea was halted after a series of provocative actions blamed on the North — the sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March 2010, thought to have been caused by a North Korean torpedo, and the shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong eight months later.
After that incident, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak officially ended his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.
With South Korea and the United States suspending food aid to the North, China has become the Pyongyang government’s main supplier of food and most of its energy needs, although the precise amounts are not made public.
China is also believed to be the main conduit for luxury goods still flowing into North Korea despite U.N. sanctions aimed primarily at the ruling elite. Pyongyang is a city of few cars — but some of the cars seen on the streets were new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.
Bringing Chinese tourists and investors to North Korea seems in many ways a natural fit. The two neighbors are close, having fought together against the United States and South Korea during the Korean War in the 1950s.
Also, Chinese still view North Korea as a somewhat exotic place, with clean air and abundant natural beauty. “Chinese people come here because it’s so mysterious,” said Wang Dongxu, vice chairman of a pharmaceutical company in Harbin. “The economy is so underdeveloped. There’s a potential to invest.”
But after four days, many of the Chinese visitors were chafing under the tight restrictions of the trip.
“I really want to experience what’s happening with the middle class and just wander around the streets,” said Li Fengshi, who made the trip with her husband. “But it’s not allowed. They won’t let us talk to ordinary people.”
Tourism is one thing. Making investments is quite another leap most were not yet ready to make.
“I wouldn’t invest in this place, at least not right now, because it’s so backward,” said Li Zhigang, a businessman from Heilongjiang province.
Researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report from Pyongyang and Mount Kumgang resort.