By Kim Young-jin
North Korea’s national carrier Air Koryo is drawing attention after it recently opened an Internet booking service, in the latest sign of Pyongyang playing catch-up with the world.
“The web site will provide you with easier, quicker, reliable booking and ticketing services,” according to the Air Koryo the website. ”We hope you enjoy a great experience with quality services provided on the site.”
It won’t, however, help citizens of South Korea, which has maintained a cross-border travel ban following the North’s two deadly provocations in 2010. But for others, it offers flights between Pyongyang and Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok. Bookings should be made seven days in advance, the website says.
According to the site, Internet bookings began on August 7, about a month after new leader Kim Jong-un conducted an unannounced inspection of the country's main Sunan International Airport and called on the nation to catch up with international standards.
"It is a global trend for an airport to serve as a satellite city," he was quoted as saying by state media.
Shortly after the visit, a source who frequently travels to the North said flight attendants appeared to speak fairly freely with passengers, initiating conversation and even mentioning the leader’s visit to the airport.
Analysts say the North is in a period of “economic testing” under Kim, whose regime has placed importance on current trends and the need for economic development.
In recent months, the capital city has been given a major facelift to appear more modern, including the construction of various leisure facilities. News broadcasts have been modified with a sleeker look and advertisements a rarity in the Stalinist state have been spotted in newspapers.
Observers say that because travel by North Koreans is tightly controlled by the regime, the website appears to be for an international audience.
Travel agents that book tours to the North say interest has spiked since the death of late despot Kim Jong-il in December, which drew massive international coverage. In addition to expanded tourism from China, the North has also made efforts to attract tourism from Southeast Asian nations in a bid to attract foreign currency to its hobbled economy.
It is estimated that over 2,000 visit North Korea from Western countries each year, mostly through travel agents that specialize in such trips. Travelers are closely monitored by minders and are mostly restricted from speaking with locals.
In recent years, the North has dropped most of its travel restrictions on U.S. citizens, previously limited to visits only during the country’s mass games. Americans are now allowed to visit at any time of year but remain barred from crossing the border by train.