North Korea welcomes Russian tourists, the first to visit the isolated country since the pandemic

The first group of tourists to visit North Korea since the start of the pandemic left Vladivostok airport in Russia’s Far East Friday, as the isolated country offers tours to Russians who have faced obstacles to travel abroad during the war in Ukraine.

The tour underscores deepening cooperation between Moscow and Pyongyang, following a meeting last September between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a cosmodrome in Russia’s Far East.

The Russian tourists will visit the capital Pyongyang and will then go skiing, Inna Mukhina, the general director of the Vostok Intur agency, which is running the tour, told The Associated Press. Vladivostok airport’s online timetable shows an Air Koryo plane took off for Pyongyang at 1.39 p.m. local time Friday.

In October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he would recommend North Korea as a vacation destination for Russian tourists, many of whom now struggle to travel to Europe and the United States because of sanctions applied to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

There are “lots” of people who wanted to come on the tour to North Korea, Mukhina, the tour operator, said, adding that the group contains travelers from places across Russia including Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, sandwiched in between Poland and Lithuania. The group also includes children who study skiing at a Russian school that aims to create Olympic champions, she said.

The Russians’ reasons for visiting North Korea vary, Mukhina said, suggesting some people are interested in the opportunity to visit a closed country, while others are more interested in skiing and snowboarding.

“We love skiing,” Galina Polevshchikova told the AP at Vladivostok airport shortly before getting on the flight to Pyongyang. “I really want to go there because it’s probably the most closed place where you have the opportunity to do this,” she said.

The group, is not a traditional tourist group, but “a test tour delegation” that could pave the way for other groups of Russian tourists, Mukhina said.

The trip, scheduled for February, was a 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 a Tass report published in January, the group of tourists will visit monuments in Pyongyang 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.

“In (Masik Pass), you will find yourself in a real paradise for winter sports lovers!” the Vostok Intur agency’s website gushes. “Here you will find incredible slopes with different levels of difficulty that will satisfy the needs of both experienced skiers and beginners.”

The package for the upcoming Russian tour costs $750 per person, according to Tass and the tour agency.

According to Vladivostok airport’s flight timetable, the group is travelling on a Tupolev Tu-154 jet, a workhorse of Soviet aviation but has been involved in a number of crashes.

Tass reported that 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.

The expanding ties between North Korea and Russia come as they are eached locked in separate confrontations with the United States and its allies — North Korea over its advancing nuclear program, and Russia over its protracted war with Ukraine.

The Kim-Putin summit deepened global suspicions that North Korea is supplying conventional arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine, in return for high-tech Russian weapons technologies and other support.

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. In August, South Korea’s spy service told lawmakers that North Korea’s economy shrank each year from 2020 to 2022, and that its gross domestic product last year was 12% less than in 2016.

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