North Korea to welcome Russian tourists, the country’s first since the pandemic, report says

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Russian tourists reportedly going on a ski trip to North Korea will be the first international travellers to visit the country since its borders closed in 2020 amid the global pandemic lockdown. The report, published Wednesday by the Russian state-run Tass news agency, underscores deepening cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang. It also follows the meeting last September between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

Tass did not specify a timeframe but the report brought some surprise to Asia observers who had expected the first post-pandemic tourists to North Korea to come from China, the North’s biggest diplomatic ally and economic pipeline. According to Tass, an unspecified number of tourists from Russia’s far eastern region of Primorye will first fly to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, where they will visit monuments such as the “Tower of Juche Idea,” named after the North’s guiding philosophy of “juche” or self-reliance.

The tourists will then travel on to the North’s Masik Pass on the east coast, where the country’s most modern ski resort is located, Tass said. It said the trip was arranged under an agreement reached between Oleg Kozhemyako, governor of the Primorye region, and North Korean authorities. Kozhemyako traveled to Pyongyang in December for talks on boosting economic ties as part of a flurry of bilateral exchanges since the Kim-Putin summit. Ahead of the trip, he told Russian media he expected to discuss tourism, agriculture and trade cooperation.

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The Kim-Putin summit deepened outside belief that North Korea is supplying conventional arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine, in return for high-tech Russian weapons technologies. The White House said last week that it has evidence Russia fired additional North Korea-provided missiles at Ukraine. The United States, South Korea, Japan and others issued a joint statement condemning the missies transfer. North Korea and Russia are locked in separate confrontations with the United States and its allies – North Korea for its advancing nuclear program and Russia for its protracted war with Ukraine.

North Korea has been slowly easing pandemic-era curbs and opening its international borders as part of its efforts to revive its economy devastated by the lockdown and persistent U.S.-led sanctions. Its reputation also suffered a blow in August 2022, when Pyongyang made a highly dubious claim that it had beaten a domestic COVID-19 outbreak. “For North Korea, tourism is the easiest way to earn foreign currency under the international sanctions regime,” said Koh Yu-hwan, former president of Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.

Koh said he expects Pyongyang to eventually also open North Korea to Chinese tourists. Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul, said “visitors from Russia are unlikely to be as financially lucrative for North Korea as the return of more numerous visitors from China.” “But the domestic political risk is relatively low while providing symbolism of revitalized relations with Moscow in line with Pyongyang’s current geopolitical narrative,” he added.