Pyongyang's Mansudae monument â€" Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
BEIJING â€" "This summer, cross the world's most difficult border and visit a country with the highest index of happiness and security" reads the advertisement of the travel agency in Taiyuan, in the remote western Chinese province of Shanxi. "Experience the China we used to know!"
On offer is an organized five-day tour to North Korea.
According to a Chinese-language report from Voice of America, following a rush in recent years to South Korea, it is now North Korea's turn to be the hot destination for Chinese tourists. These tours are typically organized as charter flights on Air Koryo, the one and only North Korean airline, explains Liang Hongen, the manager of the Taiyuan travel agency.
Air Koryo was founded in 1953, but only has around a dozen aircraft â€" some of which don't even fly. Skytrax, a UK aviation consulting firm which reviews and rates airlines, has given the company the worst ranking for each of the last five years, VOA reports.
But now, Chinese tour operators are advertising "Kim Jong-un"s private jet" and boasting "the prettiest flight attendants." Curiosity is a key motivation for Chinese visitors to tour this closed-off neighbor, together with a strange sense of nostalgia. "I liked experiencing the feeling of going back in time and reliving the China of decades ago," said one visitor.
Aboard an Air Koryo aircraft â€" Photo: Kristoferb
Another Chinese visitor added, "After all, North Korea isn't all that different from China. Apart from the material differences, the two countriesâ€™ spiritual core is basically the same. Pyongyang is not the Beijing of the 1980s â€" itâ€™s the Beijing of today stripped of its neon lights," he wrote.
Chinese visitors stay in the best hotels in Pyongyang and visit places with important political connotations, under the guidance of a North Korean political supervisor. They visit the architectural grandeur of the residence of the country's first leader Kim Il-sung, and can also lay flowers at the Mansudae Grand Monument, where the two colossal statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stand tall.
There are also visits to the Tower of the Juche Idea, a monument built to celebrate Kim Il-sung's 70th birthday. And for Chinese visitors in particular, a stop at the Friendship Tower that commemorates the Sino-North Korean bond forged during the Korean War, is a must.
North Korea has recently allowed an influx of Chinese tourists, accounting for 90% of the country's mere 100,000 visitors per year, to enjoy half-day tours across the border, visiting the Sinuiju tourist complex without a passport.
Foreign visitors of the country can pay in foreign currency, including the Chinese RMB, for their local consumption. North Korea, facing ever tougher economic sanctions, is now relying even more on tourists from its neighbor and only important ally, China, to bring in a bit of foreign capital.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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