Date: Sun, 7 Apr 2019 11:11:12 +0200

Pyongyang, April 7, 2019 (AFP) - Twice as many foreigners as last year gathered in Pyongyang Sunday for the city's annual marathon, tour firms said, as reduced tensions see visitor numbers rise in isolated North Korea.    The event -- part of the celebrations for the anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung's birth in 1912 -- is the highlight of the North's tourism calendar and offers the chance to run or jog through the streets of the tightly controlled city.

Around 950 Westerners entered the event, according to market leader Koryo Tours, compared to some 450 last year when numbers slumped.   That brought participation almost back to the levels of 2017, before tensions soared as the North carried out a series of missile launches and leader Kim Jong Un traded threats and personal insults with US President Donald Trump.   The same year, Washington also banned its citizens from visiting the North following the death of Otto Warmbier, a US student jailed for trying to steal a propaganda poster who died in a mysterious coma days after his release.

Several other countries subsequently raised their travel warnings, a combination of events that dealt a significant blow to the North's tourism industry.   The US ban remains in place but more Western tourists signed up for the marathon this time, tour operators said, following a year of high-level diplomacy between Trump and Kim.   "As political tensions have subsided, tourism demand has increased," said Elliott Davies, director at Uri Tours, another operator, adding: "You could plot a graph in this direct relationship."

- 'Marathon chasers' -
The vast majority of tourists to the North are Chinese and some 5,000 Westerners a year used to visit the North -- with about 20 percent of those from the US -- seeking unique adventures in one of the most closed countries in the world.   The annual race also attracts so-called "Marathon Chasers" who tick off runs around the world, said Matt Kulesza, a senior tour guide at Young Pioneer Tours.   Angel Arnaudov, a 34-year-old engineer from Macedonia, said Pyongyang came onto his "radar" after finishing more than 30 marathons in cities ranging from Tokyo, New York and Copenhagen.   "I want to experience the life in North Korea myself and see if it is like they say on TV or different," he said, adding he would be posting videos on his YouTube channel.

For third-time participant Jasmine Barrett, the Pyongyang Marathon was an opportunity to interact with ordinary North Koreans who line the streets to cheer on the runners, offering high-fives and posing for selfies.   "I keep coming back because I love to see the smiles on the children's faces," the Australian entrepreneur told AFP.   "I'd definitely recommend it to others because it's a great way to see the city and the people who live there," she added.   Tour operators advise visitors to take extra precautions about "what to do and what not to do" when travelling in the North.   Simon Cockerell, Koryo Tours' general manager, said: "This is vital when visiting North Korea and anyone wanting to travel shouldn't go without a briefing."
Date: Thu, 17 Jan 2019 07:33:49 +0100

Seoul, Jan 17, 2019 (AFP) - A giant beach resort in North Korea is nearing completion, a US monitor said Thursday, with satellite pictures showing rapid progress on the sprawling development, now equipped with a water slide and cinema.   The seaside strip known as the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area is squeezed between a new airport and the country's east coast, in an area that has previously been used for artillery drills and ballistic missile launches.

It is intended as a centrepiece of the isolated country's nascent tourism industry as Pyongyang seeks to develop its economy despite international sanctions imposed over its nuclear weapons programmes.   North Korea receives an estimated 100,000 foreign tourists a year, the vast majority of them Chinese, according to industry sources, but Pyongyang issues no official figures itself.   The site's construction has been closely overseen by leader Kim Jong Un and plans have been announced for a grand opening in October, when the country marks the 74th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.

The respected 38 North website released satellite images taken as recently as December showing that most buildings previously under construction were "nearing external completion and several new or redesigned buildings were in advanced stages".   Kim, who reportedly spent his childhood summers in the area, visited the site at least three times last year according to state media, sometimes berating officials in charge of the works and issuing detailed orders.

Kim "found that the whole street was not perfect in the artistic aspect", the official KCNA news agency reported after his October inspection.   "He instructed officials to envisage the construction of more hotels and inns with over 30 floors," it added, along with more games arcades, movie theatres and an "all-event stadium", plus a "large water park and funfair".   Satellite photos from December 28 indicated the resort was growing into a "vast beach complex", 38 North said.

- 'Great beaches' -
US President Donald Trump, a former real estate developer turned billionaire, applauded North Korea's tourism potential last year following his landmark summit with Kim in Singapore.   After a four-minute screening of a bizarre Hollywood-style trailer -- apparently part of an overall pitch that the US could help the North advance technologically and economically -- Trump pointed to potential property projects in the cash-strapped nation.   "As an example, they have great beaches," he told reporters.    "You see that whenever they are exploding their cannons into the ocean. I said, 'Boy, look at that view. Wouldn't that make a great condo?'"

Kim mentioned the Wonsan-Kalma project in his key New Year speech and 38 North said the push on the development showed "a desire to demonstrate that North Korea, despite the economic sanctions in place, has an economy that is moving forward and showing signs of prosperity.   "It may also reflect an expectation that as the country improves its external political relations, tourism will follow," it added.

At present the US bans its own citizens from tourism in the North.   Hundreds of thousands of South Koreans used to visit Mount Kumgang near the inter-Korean border every year, travelling to a Seoul-funded tourist resort that was the first major cooperation project between the neighbours.   The trips came to an abrupt end in 2008 when a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who strayed off the approved path and Seoul suspended travel.
Date: Thu, 6 Sep 2018 14:08:01 +0200

Pyongyang, Sept 6, 2018 (AFP) - Severe flooding in North Korea has killed at least 76 people with another 75 missing, many of them children, the Red Cross said Thursday.   Thousands of people have been left homeless after heavy rains triggered floods and landslides, toppling more than 800 buildings including houses, clinics and schools in North and South Hwanghae provinces, leaving Red Cross volunteers scrambling to find survivors.   "Thousands have lost their homes and are in urgent need of health services, shelter, food, safe drinking water and sanitation," said John Fleming of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) North Korea country office.   "With the cold season around the corner, we are also concerned this disaster will increase the risk of health problems and food insecurity for some communities."

Impoverished North Korea is vulnerable to natural disasters. More than 130 people died after floods struck North Hamgyong province in 2016, bringing down buildings and leaving hundreds of thousands in urgent need of food and shelter.   The country's territory is largely composed of mountains and hills that have long been stripped bare for fuel or turned into terraced rice fields, allowing rainwater to flow downhill unchecked.   A series of floods and droughts was partially responsible for a famine that killed hundreds of thousands between 1994-98, with economic mismanagement and the loss of Soviet support exacerbating the situation.
Date: Tue, 21 Aug 2018 07:21:10 +0200

Seoul, Aug 21, 2018 (AFP) - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has denounced his own country's health services, state media reported Tuesday, criticising officials for being "very idle and irresponsible".   Impoverished and isolated North Korea, which is subject to multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, suffers from chronic food shortages and inadequate health services according to international aid agencies. 

Hospitals lack medicines, equipment, and trained staff.   While Pyongyang regularly proclaims its desire to provide its people with a better life, Kim roundly condemned its health system on a visit to a medical devices factory.   Some sectors "have made remarkable leaps forward in recent years" Kim said according to the official Korean Central News Agency, "but the public health sector has never done so and become more and more passive".   "There is no unit keeping its environment well in the public health sector, to say nothing of equipment modernisation," he added at the Myohyangsan Medical Appliances Factory.

Such "field guidance" visits by the leader are the mainstay of the North's state media output, and a key part of the authorities' domestic messaging, sometimes lauding the quality of projects and sometimes criticising officials.   The ruling Workers' Party had stressed the need to improve health services, but "officials are very idle and irresponsible in doing so", Kim said according to KCNA.

In the Korean-language version, he berated them for "hibernating for a long time", adding: "Animals only hibernate once a year but the health sector has been holed up and hibernating for years and shouting empty slogans."   Since his summit with US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, Kim has stressed a focus on economic development, visiting industrial sites and factories across the nation.

In this year's "needs and priorities" assessment of North Korea, the UN Development Programme described its healthcare services as "inadequate", with a "lack of essential medical equipment, pharmaceutical remedies, appropriate referral systems, therapeutic equipment and assistive devices, as well as limited professional capacity".   "Furthermore, health infrastructure is poor with many [facilities] having inconsistent water, electricity and heating," it added.

North Korea has called for an end to sanctions against it, while the US has urged the international community to maintain a tough approach until its complete denuclearisation.   Following several ballistic missile launches and by far the North's most powerful nuclear test last year, Kim declared the development of its atomic capabilities complete and said economic development was the new priority.
Date: Tue, 14 Aug 2018 07:41:24 +0200

Seoul, Aug 14, 2018 (AFP) - North Korea has stopped processing tourist visas for foreigners ahead of a high profile anniversary next month, according to a China-based tour operator.   The measure follows reports that Pyongyang had suspended visits by Chinese tour groups as it prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the foundation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the country is officially known.

Koryo Tours, a popular agency among Western tourists seeking to visit the North, said on its website it had been "informed on 13 August by our partners in Pyongyang that they had been instructed from above that all tourist visa applications currently underway are to be frozen".   It was not given a reason for the freeze, the company said, but was told it would apply until the anniversary on September 9.   "This suggests to us that... a higher power in the country is simply pressing pause on tourism until it is clear to them who is coming in such delegations and how many people," it added.   Pyongyang has previously lavishly celebrated the date with military parades or mass games involving thousands of people performing acrobatic choreography in unison, and is expected this time to hold its first mass games for five years.

Speculation has also mounted that the nuclear-armed North could be preparing to mount a parade -- at which it normally shows off some of the weapons that have earned it multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions.   Chinese President Xi Jinping is speculated to be on the guest list, as officials in the North told South Korean journalists that he was invited to the event.   In his New Year speech in January, leader Kim Jong Un said North Korean people would "greet the 70th founding anniversary of their Republic as a great, auspicious event".

The occasion comes during a rare diplomatic detente on the Korean peninsula which has seen the South's president Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un meet twice, with a third summit planned for September.   The rapprochement also led to a landmark summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June, where the two leaders signed a vague agreement on denuclearisation.   Although Trump touted his summit with Kim as a historic breakthrough, the North has since criticised Washington for its "gangster-like" demands of complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament.   The US has urged the international community to maintain tough sanctions on the isolated regime.
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