Pyongyang, North Korea | AFP | The Westerners lined up on Sunday before giant statues of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-Il and, on command from their guide, bowed deeply.
It is a ritual that the Trump administration intends to stop US tourists performing, with Washington due to impose a ban this week on its citizens holidaying in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is officially known.
The move comes amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions -– it launched a rocket earlier this month which specialists say could reach Alaska or Hawaii -– and after the death of US student Otto Warmbier, who had been imprisoned for more than a year by Pyongyang.
Warmbier was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour for trying to steal a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel. He was sent home in June in a mysterious coma that proved fatal soon afterwards.
Most tourists to North Korea are motivated by curiosity and the desire to experience a different destination.
The iconic 20-metre-high (66-feet) statues at Mansu hill look out over Pyongyang and groups of North Koreans in suits and ties arrive regularly to pay their respects. Passing traffic is obliged to slow down.
As the tourists reached the platform speakers played “We miss our general”, about Kim Jong-Il, the father of current leader Kim Jong-Un.
“President Kim Il-Sung liberated our country and built a people’s paradise on this land,” they were told.
Call centre manager Kyle Myers, 28, from Ireland, said he wanted “to go somewhere very different from what I’m used to” for his first trip to Asia, “to see something that not a lot of people from back home have seen”.
The mounting tensions in the year since he booked the tour had made him nervous, he said, but he added: “I don’t see the threat here for tourists as long as they behave themselves and they follow the rules of the country.”
– ‘A little disquieting’ –
Some of the visitors — who paid from 1,850 euros ($2,157) for the tour — expressed enthusiasm. Australian IT manager Pallavi Phadke, 43, was among those who placed a bouquet before the statues.
It was “a sign of respect”, she told AFP. “It’s the same as covering your head when you go to a mosque or removing your shoes when you go to a temple.
“The people seem happy, they certainly don’t appear to be oppressed or anything,” she said. “They’re very proud of their country, they’re proud of their history and it’s nice to watch them be patriotic.”
Many disagree, with the United Nations, multiple Western governments and independent groups accusing Pyongyang of widespread human rights violations.