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A New Kind of Party for North Korea

Asia: A huge festival to mark the birthdays of its leaders may bring unprecedented numbers of tourists to the reclusive nation.


SEOUL — North Korea is organizing two months of massive celebrations this spring to mark the birthdays of its late founder and its current leader, with events that could bring unprecedented numbers of tourists--including South Koreans--to the secretive country.

In a departure from their usual reclusive style, the North Koreans recently printed colorful tourist brochures and set up Web sites in English, Japanese and Korean to promote what it calls the Arirang Festival, after a popular Korean song.

"Such a wonderful event, which will be regarded as the greatest performance of the 21st century," boasts one pitch to tourists. "All the agents who are capable of organizing audiences worldwide, please do not hesitate to contact us as soon as possible."

"Welcome to Pyongyang," exclaims another advertisement, which shows vintage socialist-style posters of gymnasts and dancers striking heroic poses.

The invitation to visit the North Korean capital is expected to be extended as well to South Korean tour groups, which have been coming to the socialist state by cruise ships for the last three years. Those tours go only to a small enclave around Mt. Kumgang, on the east coast, and are under strict supervision. The festival would be the first time that significant numbers of South Korean tourists would be permitted in Pyongyang.

'Mass Games, Culture Performances'

Hyundai Asan, the South Korean company that runs the tours, said its chief executive was surprised last weekend when the North's tourism officials said they would soon send the company a formal invitation to bring visitors to the festival.

"There will be mass games, culture performances. I'm sure many [South] Korean tourists would be interested not only in the festival, but in seeing Pyongyang," Jang Whan Bin, a Hyundai director, said Tuesday. "But we haven't seen the details yet, so we don't know how it will work."

The festivities will honor the birthday of the late Kim Il Sung, the founder and chief ideologue of the communist regime who would have been 90 this year, and the 60th birthday of his son, Kim Jong Il, who took power after the elder Kim's death in 1994. The events run from April 29 to June 29 and will involve 100,000 performers.

Cynics suspect that the large-scale festivities are designed to steal some of the limelight from South Korea, which along with Japan will host the World Cup soccer games in May and June. The North also organized a festival in 1988, when the Summer Olympics were held in Seoul.

More practically, the opening of Pyongyang to tourists could provide the communist regime with desperately needed hard currency. The Hyundai tours to Mt. Kumgang once provided $12 million a month, but those revenues have largely dried up as the number of tourists has declined. The North's weapons sales to such countries as Iraq and Iran have suffered because of the heightened concern over terrorism since Sept. 11.

Ticket prices for the events are relatively steep. According to advertisements on a Japanese-language Web site, seats start at $50 and run up to $300.

"Their main justification is money," said Lee Sang Man, an economics professor at Chungang University in Seoul. "I don't think there is a great change of direction inside North Korea."

North and South Are in a Deadlock

In fact, the invitation comes at a time when discussions between the peninsula's two governments are deadlocked. South Korean conservatives, who oppose President Kim Dae Jung's overtures to the North, are poised to score political gains in elections this year. They probably would reverse some measures taken by Kim, who won the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to improve relations.

Diplomats have their doubts that South Korean tourists will be permitted in Pyongyang, given the strained political climate. North Korea is so wary of its people having contact with outsiders that it bans foreign aid workers from the country if they speak Korean.

"It boggles the mind to think of South Koreans touring around Pyongyang, talking to people. That would be too dangerous to the regime," said one Western diplomat, who requested anonymity. He noted that a large turnout of South Korean tourists in the northern capital could be a fiasco as well for Kim Dae Jung's government in an election year.

"If South Koreans were seen and photographed celebrating the birthday of Kim Il Sung, it would be as embarrassing to this government as it was for the Americans to find that guy [John Walker Lindh] fighting with the Taliban," the diplomat said.

North and South Korea are still technically in a state of war, despite the armistice that ended their 1950-53 hostilities. Southerners still need permission from their government to have contact with the North.

"If there is a political intention behind this festival, people should not be allowed to travel to North Korea," said Kim Jung Ro, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry. "But if it is just the entertainment business to earn money, that is different."

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