'All for ourselves and nothing for other people' seems in every age of the world to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. -Adam Smith "All the 'truth' in the world adds up to one big lie." Bob Dylan "Idealism precedes experience, cynicism follows it." Anon

September 23, 2011

Can Tourism Help Change North Korea Like It Changed China?

Chain The Dogma

Can Tourism Help Change North Korea Like It Changed China?

 by Perry Bulwer

Speaking of governments spying on citizens, which the Canadian government is trying to do as explained in the previous entry on this blog, it seems that North Korea is now trying to lure tourists to the hermit nation. That news brought back memories of the time I tried to visit that closed country in the mid 1980s. I was living in Beijing at the time, teaching English during the 1985-86 school year, and although I knew that North Korea did not allow tourists in I decided to try anyway. I was out riding my bike one day when I passed the North Korean embassy, so out of curiosity I went inside to see what I could find out. It was a very eerie experience. The gate to the compound was open and no one prevented me from entering the main building. There was no sign of life anywhere, and in the sterile, nearly empty greeting room no receptionist or guard greeted me, but I had a strong feeling that I was being watched.

I had grown accustomed to being spied on as a foreigner living in a communist country. My activities were monitored constantly, both in the apartment complex for foreign workers I lived in and in my classrooms, where there was always a Communist Youth League member in attendance ostensibly as a student, but who was always more educationally advanced than the others. China had only recently re-opened to the outside world after the Communist Party had closed it off under Mao Zedong's regime, and was still suspicious of outsiders. Deng Xiaoping changed that policy in 1978 by moving towards a capitalist free market system, and promoting foreign trade and investment. A necessary consequence of that was the opening of the country to tourists. Although some tourism was allowed in modern China as early as the 1950s, it was extremely controlled and not in any way an open market. After 1978, however, that began to slowly change.

In 1983, I was living in Macau, which was still a Portuguese colony at the time before it was handed over to China in 1999. Tourists had been allowed entry into China for a few years by then, but only in group tours. As China progressed and overcame some of its fears of  'spiritual pollution' from the outside world, it began to loosen travel restrictions for individuals. I was among the first to travel solo as a tourist there during that period, but the government was still wary. When I applied for a day visit visa to test the waters, officials told me that I was required to hire a car and driver from them to cross the border, even though I could have taken a city bus or taxi and walked across. Perhaps that was a mere money grab, but I suspect it was more likely that they too were testing the waters for solo tourists. Whatever the case, I have never crossed a border so easily, not even the Canadian-U.S. one where border guards are as paranoid and suspicious as any Chinese ones I encountered. Crossing into China from Macau, my driver flashed his credentials, I showed my passport and that was it. We drove straight through without delay, passing two large groups of tourists disembarking from their buses to pass the security and customs checks.

I made another week long solo trip to China in 1984, taking the train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (Canton), and then on to Shanghai. I then returned to China in 1985, as I mentioned, but over 25 years later it is a very different place today. It is almost unrecognizable from the China I knew back then, and all that progress, initiated by Deng Xiaoping's open door policy, has greatly improved the lives of most citizens. I see things occurring in China today that were forbidden or impossible when I lived there. I had never imagined for a moment that that openness could possibly bring all those positive changes to a country that had been so closed to the outside. Similarly, looking at North Korea today, it is extremely difficult to imagine the same type of progress occurring there. When I was in that greeting room of its Beijing embassy back in 1986, I waited for about 20 minutes before anyone came out to talk with me. Actually, they didn't talk with me. A surly man entered the room without speaking a word. I said I would like to travel to his country and asked how to apply for a visa. If he spoke English, he didn't let on, and only replied in Korean, which I don't understand. It was obvious he was not going to give me any information, seemed irritated I was there and wanted me to leave, so I did. Until now, I never thought the hermit nation would ever leave its shell and open up to the world. Perhaps that is about to change with this new desire to court foreign tourists. I'm not holding my breath, but if China could change so drastically there is hope for North Korea too. For its people's sake, I hope that change comes soon.

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