North Korea’s Charm Is Offensive

Paul Haenle and Anne Sherman take stock of the country’s shifting relations with its neighbors:

Much to Kim Jong-un’s alarm, Chinese leaders have raised their level of criticism and reduced their patience for Pyongyang’s provocations accordingly. China supported a UN Security Council resolution to expand sanctions against North Korea for its third nuclear test in March 2013. A vibrant domestic debate about China’s North Korea policy has been allowed in Chinese traditional and social media circles. Most notably, President Xi was the first Chinese leader ever to visit South Korea before the North in June 2014. This snub was compounded when China failed to acknowledge in state media or send an official to celebrate Beijing’s 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Pyongyang this October.

Pyongyang has taken notice. … Among its acts of defiance, North Korea executed Jang Song-thaek, China’s most trusted interlocutor, in December 2013 on treason charges that included underselling resources to China. More worrisome however, is North Korea’s charm offensive.

In July, Kim Jong-un agreed to cooperate on investigations into Japanese abductees. In October, the North cooperated in human rights talks with the European Union and released an imprisoned American tourist. A surprise visit by several of North Korea’s most senior leaders to Seoul in October 2014 marked the highest level summit between the two sides in years and a potential interest in improving relations.

And now the dictator is even trying to attract more tourists:

The Hermit Kingdom is, paradoxically, in the midst of an unprecedented tourism push (one that was reportedly put on hold last week out of concern about Ebola). Since Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, several prestige projects have sprung up in North Korea: a waterpark, a dolphinarium, an equestrian club, a shooting range replete with live pheasants. These cheerful and contemporary sites are on an ever-expanding list of permitted destinations for foreign visitors.

And there are more in the pipeline. Pyongyang Sunan International Airport is undergoing expansion. There are plans for an underwater hotel complex in Wonsan, a sleepy resort town by the sea. Soon, the regime hopes 1 million foreigners will visit the country annually—a number that would put North Korea roughly on par with Sri Lanka as a tourist destination. Still, that’s just a fraction of the 12 million tourists that visited South Korea last year.