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Posted : 2011-08-29 18:43
Updated : 2011-08-29 18:43

N. Korea turns to Facebook amid tourism push

By Kim Young-jin

North Korea, the secretive regime that regularly delivers bombastic threats and insults to its enemies, is tinkering with a different approach to promote its flagship airline: cordial customer service via the Internet.

In fact, the Facebook page for Air Koryo is downright user-friendly and even engages in witty repartee with visitors. This from the country that threatens to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” and dubs politicians here “swollen headed traitors.”

The page is grabbing attention around the world among intrepid travelers, airplane enthusiasts and even South Koreans, the latter of who get a rare peek _ at least for now _ at a North Korea-operated page through the popular social networking site (SNS). Over 2,000 people have “liked” it.

“Thank you for paying attention to our page and for your contributions,” it declared recently in the upbeat language typical of the site, which asks visitors to use English. “The Air Koryo Facebook fan page wishes you all the best for the remainder of the day.”

For the vast majority of foreign businesspeople, diplomats and tourists, Air Koryo is the only means to fly in and out of the isolated state.

Based at Sunan International Airport outside Pyongyang, its most popular flight operates to Beijing. It also flies to other destinations in China, Russia, Kuwait City and most recently, Kuala Lumpur. Routine travel between the two Koreas is currently prohibited.

The Facebook page regularly posts photos and news on the site. On Aug. 11, it announced it had finalized plans to increase weekly flights to China’s Shenyang from two to four, a move analysts say accommodates growing tourism and business ties between the allies.

Visitors have plenty of questions about scheduling and services, which are patiently answered. Though dialogue on politics is discouraged, discussions do veer in that direction, prompting humorous jabs from the operators.

Last month the site apologized for a recent slate of alleged “mass spamming from a number of South Korean false fans.” One perhaps confused Facebook user posted that such an act would be understandable as South Koreans might mistake Air Koryo from the government in Pyongyang.

“Were you trying to explain to us that Air Koryo is a part of the DPRK Government? If so bingo! You're the winner. But honestly what's the actual point behind saying that?” the operators said.

It is not the North’s first foray into the SNS game.

Last year, it made a splash by opening Facebook and Twitter accounts that deliver propaganda aimed at the South to followers. Earlier this month, it introduced a mobile homepage service for its official website, “Uriminzokkiri.”

Seoul quickly shut down the sites under the national security law.

Tensions have soared between the sides since two deadly attacks by the North last year that left 50 dead and caused the South to impose a travel ban to the communist country that mostly remains intact to this day.

An official of the Ministry of Unification, which oversees inter-Korean affairs, said it was carefully monitoring the page to see whether it complied with the inter-Korean exchange and cooperation law that frames interaction between the sides, still technically at war.

“It is something that needs to be discussed with police authorities and others. Simply looking at the site is less likely to violate the law. Posting comments would more than likely violate the law,” the official said.

Observers said the page falls in line with the North’s steady push to attract more tourists in a bid to earn hard currency for its faltering economy. The regime has opened more tours to Pyongyang and other cities and loosened restrictions on Chinese and American tourists among many other measures.

But the upgrades do have their limits, as the Facebook page wryly noted in response to a query about online check-in.

"You kidding right?” it wrote. "There are many things to do before even looking at 'Online check-in' such as actually creating a website."

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