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More Japanese tourists keen to visit tightly controlled North Korea

A scene from the inner city of the North Korean capital Pyongyang. (Photo courtesy of JS Tours Enterprise)

TOKYO -- Despite no official diplomatic ties, the unsolved kidnapping issue, government calls for economic sanctions and the isolation of the reclusive nation, Japanese tourists to North Korea are on the rise.

"North Korea gets discussed on the news for days at a time, so maybe interest in the country has risen?" ventured one travel company employee in charge of trips to the isolated nation.

According to JS Tours Enterprise, a travel agency specializing in North Korea based in Tokyo's Chuo Ward, it brokered the travel for around 50 people a year to North Korea in 2016 and 2017. However, as of May this year, there have already been 94 applications for tours. After the U.S.-North Korean summit on June 12, there have even been inquiries about group tours, and as of June 15, the total number of hopeful tourists is over 120 people. Roughly 70 percent of those people are between 20 and 49, the company says.

There are only a few travel agencies in Japan that specialize in trips to North Korea, and JS Tours coordinates with travel companies in the isolated country, putting together tour itineraries to meet the interests of applicants and helping in the visa issuance process.

"Since he (Kim Jong Un) said there would be no more missile launches (during his meetings with South Korea's Moon Jae-in and with U.S. President Donald Trump), the 'dangerous' image of North Korea has weakened a bit, and people who have always been interested in going are hoping to make the trip," said a JS Tours representative.

One of those people is an 18-year-old first-year university student, who traveled to North Korea through the company last December for four days and three nights because he was interested in so-called "NK-Pop," or popular music in North Korea.

"I wasn't able to freely ask questions, but I asked some junior high and high school students what their school life was like," he recalled. "I felt that they were really innocent, and if it weren't for their political views, then North Korea would be a country with a lot of wonderful sightseeing resources."

Others interested in eating Pyongyang cold noodles and other cuisine, or people who are interested in riding on the North's old railways and airplanes, also make the trip to the hermit nation, the tour company explains.

North Korea has diplomatic ties with 162 other nations, so visitors from other countries besides Japan are not rare. Still, tourists can only make trips to locations prepared by the North Korean government ahead of time, and movement is limited by a local guide who follows visitors wherever they go throughout their time within the borders.

"While the places you can visit are limited, I want to give people the opportunity to learn about North Korea even a little bit," said JS Tours President Takeyasu Kojima.

When asked for comment, a representative from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said, "As part of the economic measures placed on North Korea, we ask that people do not visit the nation. We are not in a position to comment on the merits or demerits of travel to the country."

(Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi, City News Department)

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