food / travel

North Korea Turns To Spain For Tourism Inspiration

In between nuclear tests, Pyongyang is investing massively in its tourism infrastructure. A delegation visited Spain last month to study their resorts.

Beach of Palma the Mallorca, Spain
Beach of Palma the Mallorca, Spain
Sandrine Morel

MADRID — The affair of Otto Warmbier, the young American tourist who died last month after spending a year and a half as a prisoner in North Korea, has certainly not helped the country's image.

But North Korea has not given up trying to portray itself as a prime tourism destination. On June 15, just three days after it returned Warmbier to the United States in a coma, Pyongyang organized a conference in the Spanish capital, Madrid, to highlight the country's touristic attractions.

During a presentation of slides showing amusement parks and mountainous landscapes, the secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, Taleb Rifai of Jordan, urged Spaniards and other Europeans to travel to North Korea. "The more Europeans go to North Korea, the more North Koreans will be open to the outside world," he said, adding that it would be "irresponsible" to turn down Pyongyang's offer to open up to western tourists.

In between nuclear tests, North Korea continues to inaugurate gigantic touristic infrastructures to attract local and international visitors.

The remarks struck a historical chord in Spain. The country opened up to tourism in the 1960s under Franco's rule, bringing in a whiff of freedom and opening a window onto the world for many Spaniards living under the oppressive dictatorship. Still, in the context of last month's news, Rifai's remarks sounded somewhat surrealistic.

"The United States says my country is closed, that it's hard to get in; but the Americans are the ones closing their doors," said the North Korean ambassador, Kim Hyok-chol. He insisted that his country imposed official guides on travelers not not to supervise them, but because "it is safer and more practical."

A million visitors within five to ten years

In between nuclear tests, North Korea continues to inaugurate gigantic touristic infrastructures to attract local and international visitors. Almost 120,000 tourists visited North Korea in 2014, according to the UNWTO. The country wants to reach one million "within five to ten years' and "is impatient to learn from the Spanish experience," the ambassador said.

Spain is the world's third tourism destination after France and the U.S., with over 76 million visitors in 2016. On June 22, the news website El Confidencial reported on the visit of the delegation of a dozen senior officials and architects from North Korea.

In Barcelona, the visitors were mainly interested in the beaches and the Montjuïc Exhibition Center. Then they continued, like average tourists, to the Marina d'Or holiday resort in Oropesa del Mar, a bit further south on the Valencia coast.

On the small local train, the visitors inquired about the sewage system, leisure activities and guest management, according to amused employees of the huge 6,500-room holiday resort who spoke to the Spanish press.

North Korean want to know how a city that revolves around tourism is managed.

For the Spaniards, the choice was surprising: With its five hotels, two residential buildings, eight amusement parks and seaside resort, Marina d'Or has been accused by ecologists of destroying the landscape. And the company almost went bankrupt, with many unsold apartments lying empty or seized by banks trying to sell them at 70% below market price.

North Korea wants to open a similar resort in 2018, only "slightly bigger," in the Wonsan region, according to its embassy in Madrid.

Inspired by Spain's most built-up coasts

On their way southward, the delegation visited Benidorm, where it met the mayor. "They wanted to know how a city that revolves around tourism was managed," Leire Bilbao, manager of the VisitBenidorm foundation told El País. With 26 skyscrapers along the coast, this city of 700,000 inhabitants became a symbol of mass tourism and a popular destination in the 1960s for the lower and middle class.

The North Koreans visited the tallest hotel in Europe, the 186-meter-hight Bali hotel, but were also interested in camping sites. They were intrigued to know whether the parcels had water and electricity, hot showers and toilets.

The North Korean delegation was also impressed by the Benidorm Terra Mitica, an amusement park that recreates great Mediterranean civilizations, which almost went bankrupt during the 2008 crisis.

Every year, Spain, the Mecca of European mass tourism, has to concern itself with misbehaving visitors. On June 10, some 20 British tourists ran naked through the streets of Calvia, near Palma de Mallorca, blocking traffic, And on July 6, an Irish tourist ended up quadriplegic after jumping from his first-floor hotel room into a children's pool.

But for the Spaniards, nothing was more intriguing at the beginning of tourism season than the delegation of North Koreans looking for inspiration in their most built-up coasts.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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