It has been a turbulent couple of years for North Korea and virtually anyone in North Korea’s periphery. At one point, President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un were taking the decade-long conflict to new heights of tension (who can forget “little rocket man” vs. “dotard?”) But it soon went from little rocket man to vague promises of denuclearization, with Kim Jong-un meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-in and later Trump. This was followed by Chinese authorities easing up on restrictions for travel to North Korea and a subsequent bump in Chinese tourists to the hermit kingdom. However, complaints from U.S. authorities appear to be causing China to slow down tourism growth to North Korea.
The resumption of large numbers of Chinese tourists traveling to North Korea appears to have stalled once again
The resumption of large numbers of Chinese tourist arrivals to North Korea appears to be related to diplomatic efforts occurring on the sidelines of the highly publicized Singapore summit. Kim made multiple trips to China for meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and, presumably, other government officials. According to a Sunday report, the latest such meeting in Beijing involved Kim appealing to Xi to help end sanctions against his country following the Singapore summit with his U.S. counterpart.
For China, the apparent improvement of ties between Washington and Pyongyang poses a potential geopolitical risk as it strives to become the dominant power in East Asia. A unified, U.S.-friendly Korea at China’s border would jeopardize that.
China hopes that the promise of Chinese tourist spending will prevent North Korea from leaving its orbit
Perhaps with this—and Kim’s explicit encouragement—in mind, China quickly reversed any previous curbs on Chinese travel to North Korea, and further “tourism collaboration” received the highest level of encouragement.
In terms of flights, China announced the resumption of Air China flights between Beijing and Pyongyang ahead of the Trump-Kim summit. After the summit, China also announced that it would allow North Korea’s flag carrier Air Koryo to offer flights between Xi’an and Pyongyang—this in addition to an Air Koryo Chengdu-Pyongyang route announced in May.
All this happened in spite of what could be the worst Chinese tourist incident in years: a North Korea tour bus crash that killed 32 Chinese tourists back in April.
Complaints from U.S. authorities appear to be the primary factor in influencing Chinese authorities to reduce the flow of Chinese tourists to North Korea
Today, however, China’s reignited North Korea tourism ambitions appear to have been forced to take a backseat in the face of Beijing’s deepening trade conflict with the United States. According to a Monday Yonhap report, China is now slowing the pace of its “tourism sector cooperation” with North Korea after complaints were lodged by the United States. According to the reports, Washington has urged Beijing to avoid lifting any sanctions on North Korea before the country’s “complete denuclearization.”
An apparent first casualty of Beijing’s backtracking on North Korea tourism expansion was Air Koryo’s Pyongyang-Chengdu service, which was canceled on the very day it was supposed to launch. The abrupt cancelation has reportedly embarrassed Chinese tour agencies which had started selling Pyongyang tours to customers ahead of the flight’s scheduled launch.
Sales of certain group packages to North Korea from China have been suspended
“All group tour packages using the Chengdu-Pyongyang charter flights were booked until early July. But sales have now been halted. It has been known that the suspension was caused by political reasons,” an industry official quoted by Yonhap said.
Needless to say, the fate of Air Koryo’s Chengdu-Pyongyang flight puts the scheduled launches of the other planned flights between China and North Korea into question.
While Beijing’s eagerness to launch new tourism links between the two countries may have been premature, the whole series of incidents underline the tough balance that China is currently trying to strike. On the one hand, it wants to keep Pyongyang happy (and strategically aligned), and on the other hand, it needs to play nice with the United States to avoid any further escalation of the already quite advanced trade conflict.