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Sunday, August 14, 2011

DPRK not going to collapse any time soon

Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about North Korea these days, with loaded words like “reform” and “collapse” on the tips of many tongues. Few, however, can speak of the secretive country from what they have seen with their own eyes.

Walters Keats, president of Illinois-based Asia Pacific Travel LTD (APTL), can talk from experience -- the tour operator has visited the North some 25 times. The country, he finds, is in the midst of change.

“There’s amazing sorts of things going on,” he said in a recent phone interview. “You sense a confidence there that wasn’t there five or 10 years ago. The idea that it’s just going to collapse is a pipe dream.”

Keats is the first to acknowledge that what he and his tour groups see is the best of what the communist country has to offer. But his remarks fall in line with recent reports of subtle conversion in Pyongyang and other major cities.

Some 600,000 North Koreans own cell phones while new buildings are reportedly going up and old ones are getting a facelift.

The progress, Keats says, is part of Pyongyang’s drive to become a modern and prosperous country by next year, when the North will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of its founder.

The American said they also reflect a renewed focus on the economy after gaining confidence in deterrence capabilities by conducting nuclear tests, most recently in 2009.

A growing number of tourists, including some 2,000 Westerners, visit the North each year. APTL caters to the “upscale” among them, those with higher incomes and often well traveled, looking for customized tours.

Pyongyang, which strictly regulates the flow of information into the country, monitors all tourism and restricts interaction with its people. Still, Keats said those who visit would see a country working to modernize.

Traffic in the capital has picked up, with newer cars brought in from Europe, Japan and the United States despite international sanctions, he says. Women dress in more fashionable clothes. Progress has been made on Pyongyang’s long-stalled 105-story Ryugyong Hotel.

Next year is also when many speculate the North will pick up speed on a tricky power succession from leader Kim Jong-il to his youngest son, Jong-un. Some analysts say improvements around the capital could aim to bolster confidence among the people.

Regardless, the North has been gradually opening up to greater tourism. In 2009, it even dropped most of its restrictions on tourists from the United States, with which it has historically chilly relations.

“They are way more flexible today in what you can do,” he said, adding tour guides are more able to accommodate on-the-spot requests. “But there are still limits. For some reason somebody says Americans cannot ride the train.”

For Keats, it’s all part of a passion for travel in Asia that took hold when he visited China in the waning days of the Cultural Revolution. The next year, he led his own group amid a sea of change and later began a company to trade with the giant.

The world’s second largest economy’s growth as a tourism destination could bode well for its communist ally, said Keats, who established APTL in 1978.

“The rising tide doesn’t lift all boats at the same time, but I hope the same could happen in North Korea too in the longer term.”

One thing that hasn’t changed during Keats’ three-plus decades in tourism, however, is the persisting tension over the divided peninsula, which in fact drives him to continue crisscrossing the globe to facilitate the tours.

“It’s almost become addictive,” he said of visiting the North. “It’s a sad situation. Here we are 65 years that this division has gone on. And it’s just because of human beings and stubbornness on all sides.”

In light of only intermittent dialogue between the sides, Keats believes the small amount of American tourism into the North has acted as a vital thread of connection.

“Tourism does help. They can see we’re not all devils and we can see the same about them.”

In a sign of greater exchange, Keats’ group was allowed to freely mingle over lunch with faculty and students from the prestigious Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

Only time will tell whether the North’s changes will benefit the entire country, said Keats, who hopes human interactions will only grow given lowered tensions.

“They are certainly doing things and talking about doing things that should improve the lives of the people. (The question) is just whether they have the resources to do it,” he said.

1 comment:

  1. I think he's right about tourism being a great thing for North Korea... We're not all bad! That's really interesting, they are trying to develop the country overnight to make it modern? I guess it's never too late! Here's to dialogue between the Koreas, if not, at least to increased tourism. Great share.

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