A nuclear test and the resulting international outcry, the detention (and subsequent release) of two U.S. journalists for illegal entry, a spat with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (described by a Pyongyang official as looking like "a pensioner going shopping"), serious food shortages. On the face of it, 2009 appears an unlikely year for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.) to woo more visitors. But according to British-run, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, a company that has been escorting groups of visitors to North Korea for 16 years, such a push is under way.
"In spite of negative media attention, the [North Korean] tourism market shows annual, if slow, growth," says Koryo's general manager Simon Cockerell, who points out that while thousands of tourists visit Beijing daily, a mere handful pay a trip to Pyongyang, just 90 minutes by air from the Chinese capital.
The five-day schedule for a recent tour to the D.P.R.K. (my second, the first being in 2007) was packed tight with sightseeing. On arrival in Pyongyang, our coach whisked us from the airport to the Arch of Triumph, an imposing stone monument commemorating domestic resistance to Japanese colonial rule in the first half of the 20th century. At 200 ft. (60 m) high, it is willfully more immense than the Parisian Arc de Triomphe on which it has been modeled. Around its base, the scene was almost as it was two years ago. The 10-lane boulevard cutting through and swooping around the monument was all but devoid of cars, as usual. But the shiny Toyota Land Cruisers that occasionally raced by: When did they arrive?
Over the following days, most of the sights on the tour were familiar, like the impressive, 66-ft. (20 m) bronze statue of late President Kim Il Sung, and the iconic Juche Tower with its excellent city views. But softer handling from our state-mandated Korean chaperones, and the minor but noticeable improvements in the lives of some of Pyongyang's citizens, were unexpected.
In 2007, my group's immediate guide had been affable 20-something Ms. Kim. She had insisted that photographs "must not, cannot" be taken from the tour bus. In 2009, equally personable 20-something Ms. Han, who had studied in Poland, exclaimed "Sure!" via her front-of-coach microphone. We snapped away.
Ms. Han touted a cell phone (a gift, she beamed with an endearing mix of shyness and pride, from her North Korean boyfriend). Cockerell says that up to 50,000 personal cells are rumored to be in use in Pyongyang. There are three models all Chinese brands available in local shops and priced roughly between $210 to $280. Locals can use them to arrange meetings at Pyongyang's new and popular fried-chicken restaurant (the colloquial term for fried chicken there is kentucky, and a mixed platter is about $12.50 or the equivalent in euros, which is the preferred foreign currency). At the capital's first dedicated Italian eatery the Korean chefs were sent by the state to Naples and Rome to train an authentic, fantastic capricciosa pizza will cost just under $12.
Cell phones? Pizza? "Kentucky" fried chicken? They even have a busy bowling alley or two, and we benefited from rolling BBC News in our hotel rooms. This was not the Pyongyang we'd come to expect. And yet such developments should not come as a shock, argued Cockerell over a microbrewed ale (70 cents) in Pyongyang's downtown Paradise Bar. "Foreign reporting on the D.P.R.K. is macro in scale it's always, 'But aren't they testing nuclear weapons up there?' Subtle changes in the lives of Koreans don't fit the reporting paradigm; those changes are considered too trivial." Not by everyone, surely. To me, the availability of pizza in Pyongyang is news.