Skip to main content

'Living history' - North Korean border town opens to Western tourists

By Frances Cha, CNN
May 21, 2013 -- Updated 1333 GMT (2133 HKT)
No Sinuiju itinerary is complete without hitting up this statue of late North Korean founder, Kim Il Sung, and the North Pyongan Province Revolutionary Museum behind it.
No Sinuiju itinerary is complete without hitting up this statue of late North Korean founder, Kim Il Sung, and the North Pyongan Province Revolutionary Museum behind it.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Popular with Chinese tourists, Sinuiju has been closed to Western visitors
  • New opening a result of years of lobbying by tour groups
  • Those holding U.S., South Korean or Japanese passports are not allowed to visit

(CNN) -- "Warmly welcome Simon Cockerell David."

The colorful, electric sign was something of an unusual and unexpected greeting for Briton Simon Cockerell, 35, who this week embarked on a landmark visit to Sinuiju, North Korea's largest border town.

Separated by a river from China's Dandong City and easily accessible from Dandong by car or train, Sinuiju has long been a popular North Korean destination for Chinese tourists but was pretty much off-limits to Western visitors until now.

Map: Click to expand  Map: Click to expand
Map: Click to expandMap: Click to expand

The most a Westerner could experience was the view from the train and station platform during transit from China to the secretive country.

Cockerell is general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours -- one of the biggest tour companies specializing in North Korean travel.

He says his visit was a result of 10 years of lobbying "the right people" on the local tourism ladder.

"We've been putting pressure on them for years, and we believed Sinuiju in particular would be easier to gain access to because of all the tourist infrastructure already in place, and because the people there are used to seeing foreign visitors," Cockerell told CNN.

Report: North Korea launches missiles
Memories of fighting for North Korea
North Korea rattles saber again

Koryo Tours guided approximately half of the 5,000 Western tourists to North Korea last year, the company says.

Behind the veil: A rare look at life in North Korea

'Broken Bridge'

Following meetings with officials, Cockerell's sights included the local park, classic revolutionary monuments, mosaics, the railway station, a provincial revolutionary museum, a local kindergarten well known throughout the country, the riverside and a look at the "Broken Bridge" -- the old bridge to Dandong which was bombed during the Korean War.

"It's an interesting town and there's definitely a border town vibe," said Cockerell, adding that the Chinese influence from traders and businessmen who come to Sinuiju every day is very prevalent.

Most of the international commercial trade with North Korea is said to pass through Sinuiju. However, that does not make it a rich town.

"It's not a very well-off place, especially compared to Pyongyang, which is the richest place in North Korea," said Cockerell.

North Korea's 'hotel of doom' opening debacle continues

Cheaper trip

The tour company believes the different vibe of the town will make it a popular destination for Western visitors. The other draw is that it's a cheaper trip.

"Until now, you had to go in for a minimum of at least three days but Sinuiju can be a day trip as well as an add-on to other North Korea tours," said Gareth Johnson, 32, the founder of Young Pioneer Tours, a budget North Korean tour company for Westerners based in Xi'an, China.

Sinuiju is home to standard DPRK landmarks bearing giant propaganda slogans.
Sinuiju is home to standard DPRK landmarks bearing giant propaganda slogans.

Young Pioneer Tours has also been lobbying for the Sinuiju opening for the past two years, and will be taking in a test tour group to the border town this Sunday.

"My personal opinion is that this came about because China stopped all Chinese tours to North Korea due to recent tensions," Johnson told CNN.

How to travel to North Korea

Both tour companies are still waiting for pricing information from their local partner companies before they officially begin charging for Sinuiju day trips or tour add-ons.

Restrictions still apply -- those with U.S. or Japanese passports cannot visit Sinuiju (journalists can't as tourists and visitors with South Korean passports can't enter North Korea at all).

Living history

Some, including readers commenting on CNN articles, have described travel to North Korea as unethical, arguing it helps fund Pyongyang.

Cockerell says he believes establishing human contact with the outside world is important for North Korean civilians.

"We believe that there is value in taking people there and raising awareness among the North Korean people of what the outside world is like by simple human level contact, which is sadly lacking," he said.

And the appeal of North Korea to the Western tourist?

For Johnson, that's a no-brainer.

"The world is getting very similar," said Johnson. "Even in China there are so many streets where I look at the shops and I could be anywhere in the world."

"North Korea is living history. Seeing something truly different. There's not as much adventure left in the world as we would like."

Koryo Tours, 27 Beisanlitun Nan, Chaoyang District, Beijing; +86 10 6416 7544

Young Pioneer Tours, Xi'an, China; +86 029 8621 2359

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0207 GMT (1007 HKT)
Where to pay homage to the cutest local celebrities you'll ever stalk.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
For air travelers who like to gripe about being cramped in economy, here comes another warning that they've never had it so good.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Cream cakes from the Ruszwurm bakery in Budapest, Hungary
Proving they're what's really important, the world's best pastry shops have survived survived sieges, revolutions and World War II.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Lois Pryce ignored naysayers and traveled 3,000 miles via motorcycle to discover the real Iran.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0320 GMT (1120 HKT)
Built at a cost of $442.2 million, Universal Studios Japan hopes its new Potter attraction will bring in $55 billion over 10 years.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1440 GMT (2240 HKT)
A scene in Marrakech
The gateway to Morocco's Atlas Mountains is becoming a photographer's paradise -- but capturing it on camera isn't easy.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 2136 GMT (0536 HKT)
Cathay Pacific was pronounced the world's best airliner of the year at the industry's leading awards ceremony in Farnborough on Tuesday.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 2044 GMT (0444 HKT)
Britain has stolen a march in the space race with plans for the world's first spaceport outside the U.S.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
In the hunt for the world's best amusement park, the people have spoken -- and it seems the people like mixing with creatures who eat a lot of fish.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0611 GMT (1411 HKT)
An Hellenic Seaplanes aircraft
Seaplane network set to open up far-flung destinations to affordable jet-setting tours.
July 14, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
A man who took a dangerous selfie during the running of the bulls in Pamplona, with the half-ton beasts right behind him, is still on the run -- but this time from the police.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 0207 GMT (1007 HKT)
Its cramped rooms and retro lobby are dated, but its charm and devotion to customers are worth preserving.
July 14, 2014 -- Updated 0553 GMT (1353 HKT)
A young girl sits on a bench decorated with an image of Paddington Bear.
As part of a scheme to encourage reading, 50 benches designed in the style of popular novels or kids' stories have been scattered around London.
July 12, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
To all the locals who have been hoarding the following beaches, please forgive us.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
CNN iReporters from across the globe share their incredible images of the skies above us.
ADVERTISEMENT