A newly revived display of gymnastics and artistic performances staged this month in the North Korean capital Pyongyang is pulling in large amounts of badly needed foreign cash for the sanctions-hit regime as travel agencies promote the show to Chinese tourists, who are flocking to the performances in large numbers, sources say.
The Arirang Festival, which was suspended in 2013, has been brought back this year as “New” and involves as many as 100,000 performers who appear in separate sections of the show.
This year's show, called "The Glorious Fatherland," will run several days each week from Sept. 9 through Oct. 10.
Chinese travel agencies in China that promote travel to North Korea are now “thriving because of the New Arirang Festival,” a source in Yanji city in China’s Jilin province bordering North Korea told RFA’s Korean Service this week.
“It is natural that travel agencies will do everything they can to attract tourists,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “And travel agencies from border cities, including Yanji, are doing their best to attract travelers to North Korea by promoting North Korea’s mass gymnastics performance.”
Agencies are now pushing aside less expensive tour packages to Rason, a special economic zone on North Korea’s eastern coast, and Chilbosan, a scenic mountain range, in favor of promoting the more costly travel options to Pyongyang, the source said.
“This is because the Rason travel package costs only 850 Chinese yuan [U.S. $123.67], while the package for Pyongyang, including the New Arirang Festival performance, costs 5,000 Chinese yuan [U.S. $727.44],” he said.
Chinese media including CCTV and the People’s Daily newspaper are highlighting the “long-term friendship” of North Korea and China in connection with the Sept. 9 anniversary of the founding of the North Korean state, the source said.
“So the number of travelers to North Korea is now steadily growing.”
'Welcomed, and at home'
Also speaking to RFA, a second source in Yanji said that travel agencies’ business in the city is now booming.
“The New Arirang Festival created for the anniversary of the founding of the North Korean nation has stimulated the curiosity of Chinese travelers,” the source said, also speaking on condition he not be named.
“North Korea’s Arirang mass gymnastics performance has been well known to people in China for a very long time,” he said, adding that Chinese audiences attending the performances are attracted by the show’s size and content.
“Performers also give narrative introductions in Chinese for those parts of the show related to China, so the Chinese audience feels welcomed and at home,” he said.
Both for North Korea and for the travel agencies, the New Arirang Festival is proving to be a good way to pull in cash, the source said.
“However, I feel sorry for the poor students who have been mobilized to participate in the performances, and who have been kept for months from going to school,” he added.
China ordered North Korean companies and North Korea-China joint venture companies including restaurants to shut down, under the UN Security Council’s resolution 2375 that was adopted in September, 2017.
However, resolution 2375 does not include travel to North Korea travel on the sanctions list so Chinese travelers’ group tour to North Korea is not subject to sanctions so the spending by Chinese travelers in North Korea is not a violation of sanctions, South Korean officials believe.
“Everything seems to be considered as if they are all on the UN sanctions list, but there are a number of areas that (North Korea) can find a way around. North Korea travel is not on the sanctions list," Lee Hae-chan of the Minjoo Party of Korea said in February.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Richard Finney.