If you want to get close to regular North Koreans, forget Pyongyang. Try the beach resort of Wonsan, where Dear Leader’s people frolic in the surf.
On the shores of the Sea of Japan, waves crash on the wide sandy beaches of Wonsan. This North Korean resort has been popular with tourists from the upper classes for many years. People sunbathe and play ball games as small sailing boats stamped with the country’s flag float in the distance. You can also rent out an air mattress or enjoy a drink or some ice cream from the restaurants on the beach.
Wonsan, North Korea’s 5th largest city, used to be a well-kept secret: even citizens of the isolated country require an official travel permit to leave their town of residency. But North Korea today is on a mission to expand its tourism industry. After the much-publicized launch of its first luxury ski resort, the country announced it would start surf tours along its coastline.
Though the country does not publish official statistics, travel agencies estimate around 6,000 Westerners visit North Korea every year. In Pyongyang, their movements are monitored at all times. In Wonsan, it’s a little different: the beach is fenced in but Westerners are allowed to walk around freely within that perimeter. It’s perhaps the closest a visitor can get to ordinary North Korean people, since any other direct contact is virtually impossible.
A group of Western tourists plays football against a North Korean team, apparently students. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know if things are really what they seem. Some claim it’s all staged, but none of the people look like actors.
Wonsan is also home to the Songdowon International Children’s Camp, which welcomes young North Koreans from across the country as well as children from countries like China, Cuba, Russia, and Nigeria. The camp boasts activities like cooking, volleyball, and boating, as well as air-conditioned accommodations.
According to the state-owned newspaper The Pyongyang Times, an underwater hotel, a flower park, exhibition spaces, meeting halls and a stadium are all set to be built on the Kalma Peninsula. “Towers and other modern-style buildings” will be constructed, is how the article put it.
For now, the mood here is quiet and relaxed, despite the scrutinizing tourist guards. And for a little while, everyone seems to have given into the laid-back summer atmosphere of Wonsan. But the metal buttons with the portraits of North Korean leaders that all adults are required to wear remain well-pinned to all the blouses and shirts that lie on the sand.