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Isolated North Korea a visitor draw, but sometimes literally a tourist trap

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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Isolated North Korea a visitor draw, but sometimes literally a tourist trap | The Thaiger

PHUKET MEDIA WATCH

– World news selected by Gazette editors for Phuket’s international community

Isolated North Korea a visitor draw, but sometimes literally a tourist trap
Reuters / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: “Taking you to places where your mother would rather you stayed away from.” That’s how one Western travel agency advertises its tours to North Korea.

The U.S. government doesn’t want you to go there either. Three of its citizens have been detained in the last eight months while on tourist trips to North Korea, including Jeffrey Fowle, a visitor from Miamisburg, Ohio, who was arrested in May.

Despite the risks, tour operators say business to North Korea is booming, albeit from a low base for one of the most isolated countries in the world. For Pyongyang, tourism is one of the few sources of the foreign currency it relies on to overcome U.S. sanctions related to its nuclear and missile programmes.

While the country does not publish tourist numbers, travel agencies estimate as many as 6,000 Westerners visit the country every year, compared to just 700 a decade ago. Most are adventure-seekers curious about life behind the last slither of the iron curtain, and ignore critics who say their dollars are propping up a repressive regime.

The vast majority of tourists to North Korea are from neighbouring China, North Korea’s main ally.

“People are people,” said Keith Ballard, an American tourist currently in North Korea. “I can take politics out of it.

“Did anyone have any ethical concerns about me travelling here? Yes they did, some people said why would you even go there to support that government,” he said by telephone. “I said, hey it’s basically just tourism.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of State said it now “strongly recommends” against all travel to North Korea, citing the risk of “arbitrary arrest.”

Joshua Stanton, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer who served with the U.S. military in South Korea and writes a blog on North Korea, says the tourist dollars prop up the government of Kim Jong Un, the third of his family to rule the country.

“The companies selling these overpriced tours need customers gullible enough to believe that they’ll be safe there, and that their visits will somehow change North Korea for the better,” he said in an e-mail. “The first claim is false, and the second claim is dubious.”

BOOKINGS RISE TENFOLD IN 10 YEARS

The warnings do not appear to be having much effect.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the biggest operators sending Westerners into North Korea, has seen a tenfold rise in business in the past decade, peaking at about 2,100 visitors in 2012, according to Simon Cockerell, its general manager.

Around a quarter of those, Cockerell said, were American.

Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours, another China-based foreign travel agency specialising in trips to North Korea, says his company is seeing business double annually, and had nearly 1,000 clients in the past year.

Travel agents and others say those who have been detained in North Korea have usually been held for a specific reason, such as attempting to proselytise or independently contacting locals – which the U.S. travel advisory specifically warns against.

“I realised that if you are going there strictly as a tourist with no other agenda, then the DPRK is a very safe place to travel,” Dusty Mapson, a recent tourist to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the official name for North Korea, said by e-mail.

“I was a little worried about my military background being an issue during my trip,” said Mapson, who served in the U.S. Navy. But he faced no problems.

“It should be reasonably assumed that should you choose to travel to DPRK you know the potential dangers and understand that you are a guest in their country and there are certain rules you are going to have to follow while you are there,” he said.

STRING OF ARRESTS

Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae has been in custody in North Korea for 18 months. Merrill Newman, an elderly U.S. citizen, was detained in Pyongyang when he told his North Korean guides he trained anti-communist guerrillas during the 1950-53 Korean War. He was released shortly afterwards.

Matthew Todd Miller, 24, was taken into custody by North Korean officials after entering the country on April 10, ripping up his tourist visa and demanding asylum, according to North Korea’s state-run KCNA news agency.

Shortly before North Korea said last week that it was holding Fowle, Japan’s Kyodo news agency cited unidentified diplomatic sources as saying an American had been detained for having allegedly left a Bible in his hotel.

Fowle’s lawyer has said he was not on a church mission, and that Fowle “loves to travel and loves the adventure of experiencing different cultures and seeing new places.” A 2010 profile of Fowle and his wife in the Dayton Daily News said he always had a “particular interest” in the former Soviet Union.

Before they visit North Korea, foreign travel agencies brief their clients about the dangers of travelling in the country. Visitors are told to respect local laws that prohibit the distribution of foreign literature, or doing anything that might defame the North Korean leadership.

Foreign travel companies also have to sign a contract with North Korean state tourism agencies stating that both sides “shall make the visitors obey and respect voluntarily the laws, regulations and public orders of DPR, Korea,” according to a copy seen by Reuters.

The contract also says all nationalities are permitted to enter the country as tourists, except for South Koreans and Israelis. Journalists are also barred.

Visitors travel from Beijing to the capital Pyongyang on one of Air Koryo’s Soviet-era passenger jets, or cross the border from China by train. Once inside North Korea, tourists are led on closely-chaperoned tours.

All expenses, including hotel and food, are paid for up front, although tourists can carry euros, dollars or Chinese yuan for out of pocket expenses.

Costs for a four-day visit range from $500 to $1,800, some of which goes to state-owned tourism companies in North Korea, travel agents said.

Despite North Korea’s fear of exposing its citizens to outside influences, it continues to invest in projects to attract more visitors.

Last year, North Korea opened a brand new ski resort near the eastern port city of Wonsan. It aims to make $43.75 million in annual profit from the resort, documents prepared for potential foreign investors and obtained by Reuters show.

“The most interesting part of this case is the growing contradiction between North Korea’s ambitions to earn revenue from tourism and the regime’s paranoia about outside influences,” said Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“The DPRK desperately needs trade and investment, but appears incapable of accepting the marginal loss of control such opening would entail,” said Haggard.

— Phuket Gazette Editors

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Entertainment

The K-pop Olympics: performers battle in the K-pop festival

The Thaiger

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The K-pop Olympics: performers battle in the K-pop festival | The Thaiger

On the streets, in parks and garages, seven Cuban youngsters spent seven months practising K-pop moves to secure a spot on their dream stage: an appearance in South Korea to imitate their idols. 13 final teams from 80 countries are competing in the 2019 event.

At the grandly titled and government-funded Changwon K-pop World Festival contestants from around the globe perform imitation dances or sing cover versions of the genre’s biggest hits, with thousands of fans cheering them on.

In terms of global heft, South Korea is overshadowed by its much larger neighbours China and Japan, but the event is a way for Seoul to derive soft power from one of the country’s biggest cultural exports. In terms of pop-power, South Korea’s K-Pop is now a recognised world-wide music phenomenon with bands like BTS and Blackpink figuring amongst the other big-hitters on the Billboard charts and outselling their western counterparts with millions of albums and downloads.

The K-pop Olympics: performers battle in the K-pop festival | News by The Thaiger

Finalists for this year

Cuba’s Communist government is one of North Korea’s few remaining allies: when President Miguel Diaz-Canel, successor to the Castro brothers Fidel and Raul, visited Pyongyang last November he was only the third foreign head of state to do so since leader Kim Jong Un inherited power in 2011.

But rather than geopolitics, Havana performer Karel Rodriguez Diaz – whose mannerisms and sleek hairstyle could easily be mistaken for those of a K-pop star – is more motivated by high-tempo beats and superslick dance moves.

“We never had a place with a mirror or a choreographer who could teach us the steps” but they kept on practising, he said.

His team-mate Elio Gonzalez added: “We are so excited to represent not just Cuba but also the whole of Latin America.”

Some 6,400 teams from more than 80 countries entered the competition, according to organisers, with 13 groups from places as diverse as Kuwait and Madagascar winning through to the final in Changwon, where they appeared on stage waving their national flags.

“This is like watching the Olympics, a K-pop Olympics,” said the event’s host Lia, a member of K-pop group ITZY.

The K-pop Olympics: performers battle in the K-pop festival | News by The Thaiger

The Korean Wave

K-pop – along with K-drama soap operas – has been one of South Korea’s most successful cultural exports to date. A key part of the “Korean Wave” which has swept Asia and beyond in the last 20 years, the K-pop industry is now estimated to be worth $5 billion, with boyband BTS its latest high-profile exponent, becoming the world’s most successful band in the past 12 months, selling out stadium concerts within minutes, around the world.

The South Korean government has financed a variety of K-pop themed events in what CedarBough Saeji, a visiting professor at Indiana University Bloomington in the US, said was a form of long-term “soft power diplomacy”.

“When you are covering you get to ‘become’ those idols for the three and a half minutes of the song,” she said, adding that performers will go so far as matching their clothing, accessories and hairstyle to their heroes and heroines.

“The cover dancers of today will be diplomats, news reporters, and business leaders in forty years,” she went on.

“And hopefully they’ll still have a soft spot in their heart for Korea. Korea can’t win the world through hard power – armies, economic bullying – but with soft power even a small country like Korea has a chance.”

The music also provides an artistic alternative for overseas fans, especially those in developing countries, Saeji added.

“The West, especially the United States, has been so dominant culturally for so long, and having a different cultural pole to look to provides hope that one’s own country can experience similar success in the future.”

The K-pop Olympics: performers battle in the K-pop festival | News by The Thaiger

Be who you want

Beneath its glitz and glamour, the K-pop industry is also known for its cutthroat competition, a lack of privacy, online bullying and relentless public pressure to maintain a wholesome image at all times and at any cost.

Sulli, a popular K-pop star and former child actress who had long been the target of abusive online comments was found dead on Monday, with her death sending shockwaves through fans around the world.

“I think a day where (people) would be ashamed of the K-show business will surely come,” a South Korean online user wrote in the wake of the star’s death.

“I think an industry that makes money by (making people) sing, dance, undergo plastic surgeries and go on a diet to please the gaze of others since they are teenagers should really go bankcrupt.”

But for Kenny Pham, a finalist from the US at last week’s contest, K-pop’s diversity – with some tunes having dark themes, while others were “cute” or sensual – is what gives him a sense of liberation.

“I like how expressive you could be,” the 19 year old told AFP last week.

“I feel like it’s a place where you could show the passion you have for music, dance or fashion. No one is bashing you for what your likes are.”

SOURCE: Agence France-Presse

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Tourism

Saudi Arabia eases visa restrictions for US and European visitors

May Taylor

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Saudi Arabia eases visa restrictions for US and European visitors | The Thaiger

PHOTO: aawsat.com

American and European passport holders, along with those from most Asian countries, can now apply for Saudi Arabian tourist visas either online or on arrival, provided they meet certain criteria.

Prior to this, the only foreigners allowed to visit Saudi Arabia were usually those travelling on business, resident workers and their family members, or Muslim pilgrims on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina.

In an attempt to boost tourism and diversify the economy’s reliance on oil, the Kingdom has expanded the availability of tourist visas beyond what was initially 49 countries. Visitors from eligible countries no longer need to apply for a visa at an overseas Saudi embassy but can do so online or on arrival.

The multiple-entry visa costs approximately US$120, is valid for a year, and permits a stay of up to 3 months on each entry.

However, authorities in the Kingdom were quick to implement a public decency code following the visa announcement.

“Immodest dress and public displays of affection are banned, but foreign men and women may rent hotel rooms together without having to prove they are married.”

A strict ban on alcohol remains in place.

Last weekend the South Korean band BTS became the first foreigners to hold a solo concert in the Kingdom, allowing teenage and older woman to attend without a male escort and allowing them to dance and sing along (in Korean of course). The band, in turn, turned down some of their ‘ab flashing’ and physicality during their record-breaking “Love Yourself” stadium concert in Riyadh.

The septet were invited to perform in Saudi Arabia as part of the Kingdom’s attempts to become more open to foreigners and diversify their income away from oil production.

SOURCE: Reuters

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Opinion

Buddhists call for boycott of Hilton & Waldorf Astoria Hotels with the opening of Siddhartha Lounge

The Thaiger

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Buddhists call for boycott of Hilton & Waldorf Astoria Hotels with the opening of Siddhartha Lounge | The Thaiger

OPINION: The Buddhist Times

Since its creation in 1996, Buddha-Bar Paris has been using the name and image of Buddha in it’s Bars and Hotels throughout the world. Typically the franchises use large statues of Buddha in their Bars and around dance floors and in restaurants similar to a Buddhist temple.

What makes the use of Buddha’s image in these bars most insulting to Buddhists around the world is that Buddhism does not support the consumption of alcohol. So to use the Buddha’s image as decoration to promote the consumption and sale of alcohol and as a prop on dance floors and in restaurants is especially disrespectful and hurtful to Buddhists.

Now comes a further insult with the Buddha-Bar franchise opening the Siddhartha Lounge at Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah. (Siddhartha Gautama being the full name of Buddha).

According to the Knowing Buddha Organisation in Thailand what the Buddha-Bar franchise is doing is not only disrespectful but it is immoral. The foundation points out that “Respect is Common Sense”.

Buddhists feel hurt by the misuse of the name and image of their father, as people of other faiths would be if the image of Christ or Mohammad were used to promote bars and nightclubs.

The Buddha–Bar, restaurant, and hotel franchise created by French-Romanian restaurateur Raymond Vișan and DJ and interior designer Claude Challe, with its original location having opened in Paris, France in 1996.

Raymond Vișan, according to Wikipedia, had the idea of establishing the chain of restaurants and bars which came from his fascination with the Orient. However at the age of 60 Visan suddenly died of terminal cancer. The franchise was continued by co-founder Claude Challe and Vișan’s wife Tarja, who took over the reins of the Buddha Bar franchise upon Vișan death.

Critics of the Vișan’s and Claude Challe say that these self described artists and creators have created nothing but bad Karma and Sin for themselves. They suggest that Buddha-Bar franchise is a form of “grotesque Plagiarism ” which has merely hi-jacked a 2500 year old religion, using the name and image of Buddha, who imparts peace, compassion and loving kindness, for the purpose of selling alcohol and making money. As any case of plagiarism it is expected that Buddha-Bar and Waldorf Astoria will soon find them selves in the courts say Buddhims advocats.

Buddhist around the world are calling the Boycotting of Waldorf Astoria Hotels Hilton Hotels, Buddha-Bars and the music of Claude Challe, demanding that they stop using the image of Buddha and instead creat their own brand.

The views expressed in this editorial do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of The Thaiger or its staff

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