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

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

"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.

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

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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.

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

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    '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.

    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.

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

    "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