North Korea sees influx of foreigners ahead of 70th founding anniversary

North Korea sees influx of foreigners ahead of 70th founding anniversary

North Korea is set to mark its 70th founding anniversary on Sunday (Sep 9) and its capital Pyongyang is gearing up for elaborate celebrations that are about to take place. It is also seeing an influx of foreigners - from tourists to the media - including our correspondent Olivia Siong.

PYONGYANG: Driving through the streets of the North Korean capital, it is hard to miss the colourful banners and decorations that are already in place to mark the country’s 70th founding anniversary on Sunday (Sep 9).

Pyongyang is also seeing an influx of foreigners ranging from tourists – some from Singapore – to invited guests and the media.

There has been a flurry of activity at the Beijing airport over the last few days, one of the main gateways to Pyongyang.

North Korea’s national carrier Air Koryo has reportedly added more flights to accommodate an increase in visitors - all invited to witness or take part in celebrations.

An Air Koryo plane at Pyongyang Airport. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

Only Air China and Air Koryo fly directly from Beijing to Pyongyang, a flight that takes less than two hours.

At the Pyongyang arrival hall, visitors meet their North Korean minders who accompany them throughout the trip. Among those being received are an expected 980 foreign guests who have been invited for the celebrations.

READ: Analysis – North Korea's founding anniversary a chance for Kim to raise cash, project new image

There are also an estimated 140 journalists from 70 agencies invited by North Korean authorities to cover the event. 

Many tourists have also booked tours to get a first-hand look into the reclusive state - spurred by what is seen as a cooling of tensions on the Korean Peninsula after the North's nuclear tests and missile launches sparked fears of a nuclear war the year before.

Air Koryo check-in counters at the Beijing airport. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

“Last year we almost booked a tour already but because of certain tensions we had to cancel,” said 26-year-old Singaporean Rebecca Tan.

“I’ve been wanting to visit North Korea for a while. In particular, I would like to catch the Mass Games, which look spectacular,” added her colleague Medy Chua who is also on the trip.

READ: Inside the spectacle and symbolism of North Korea's Mass Games

Other tourists say they planned the trip to coincide with the 70th-anniversary milestone.

“I don’t have any concerns at all. My family, yes they did, but just because it’s a very unknown country,” said Mr Roelof Ybema from the Netherlands. His tour group had a briefing on the “dos and don’ts” by their guide prior to arriving in Pyongyang, he added.

North Korea is set to hold a parade where it will likely showcase its military might as in previous years. An elaborate performance known as the Mass Games is also expected for the first time in five years.

Tour agency Koryo Tours says it will take about 500 people into North Korea this month – up from about 100 in July and 40 in August, after authorities stopped issuing visas ahead of the celebrations.

Tour groups dine and watch performances at a restaurant selling local traditional food in Pyongyang. (Photo: Olivia Siong)

With the influx of foreigners, the tour agency says its itinerary had to be adjusted.

“There are so many people coming, most hotels are now fully booked ... we are staying in various hotels with different groups so that has affected our itinerary somewhat,” said Koryo Tours manager Rich Beal.

He added though “nothing is for certain” and that those on the tour have been told to expect the unexpected.

“For Sunday, national day, we just have to see what events will take place and what we can go and visit. Through experience, we know where to wait and where to view certain places so we have ideas in our mind. So we work with the guide and work to get something sorted.”

The celebrations also come at a sensitive time, amid stalled talks with the United States – even as Kim Jong Un says he wants to denuclearise the Korean Peninsula in US President Donald Trump’s first term, which ends in early 2021.

Source: CNA/cy