Build it and they will come (if you let them)



One could not have made up the headline juxtaposition in my inbox yesterday: “Pyongyang Races to Complete New Airport” and “North Korea Bans Foreign Tourists Over Ebola Threat.” That second one made me wonder if in some kind of budgetary legerdemain the Voice of America had been privatized and taken over by the Onion.

The first story, by Eric Talmadge, at the frequently maligned AP, concerns “thousands of soldier-builders are working feverishly these days to give the capital a fancy new airport.” The article describes “impressive swarms of workers..flattening out a new tarmac area, digging tunnels for drainage and putting the finishing touches on the main terminal building” mainly by hand or with simple tools. The upside is that these construction techniques are labor-intensive and that is actually what one wants at this stage of the North Korean economy. The downside is that post-apartment building collapse, projects completed at “maximum battle speed” do not inspire confidence.

Yet despite its desire for tourist dollars, the government has put the most crazed Tea Party paranoiac to shame, stopping foreign tourists from entering the country. No word on how many of said foreign tourists come from Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea (or even the United States and Spain for that matter). According to VOA, “It is not immediately clear if the move will also apply to other foreigners in North Korea, including diplomatic personnel.” While state media have followed the lead of US news outlets in hyping Ebola there have been no reported cases in North Korea, or even in countries bordering North Korea. Too bad one cannot say the same thing about TB. Message to readers: stop whimpering about Ebola and get your flu shots.

Steph Haggard passed along a substantive article by Park Ju-hee at New Focus International on the ethical tourism conundrum. Park interviews a recent defector, Kim Sucheol, who claims that the industry is organized by the infamous Office 39 which controls the revenues, organizes the surveillance of the tourists, and even trains the North Korean volunteers with whom they have “spontaneous” contact. What’s interesting about the piece, which given its New Focus International provenance is predictably critical, is the conclusion: as the regime’s reliance on tourism revenues increases, the outside world—and here the tour operators are key—should put greater demands on the regime for less control over the tourists and greater genuine opportunity for North Koreans to interact with foreign visitors.

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