North Korea seeks foreign investors to back casino cruise

A table game stand in a casino area aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic ship on July 2, 2010.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A table game stand in a casino area aboard the Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic ship on July 2, 2010.

Fresh from provoking global outrage by launching a volley of missiles into the Sea of Japan, cash-strapped North Korea is inviting foreign investors to fund an international cruise liner in a push to boost maritime tourism.

The Mount Kumgang tourist region, a special development zone and port near the reclusive totalitarian nation's border with South Korea, is seeking overseas entities to invest up to $20 million to run a 30,000 tonne casino-equipped ship to Southeast Asia and Vladivostok, in eastern Russia.

"We are trying to diversify international tourism at the world-renowned Mount Kumgang by using cruise ship services," said a statement on the region's official website.

The tourist zone is located next to the country's Kangwon province, where Pyongyang unsuccessfully attempted to test fire a ballistic missile on Wednesday.

Outsider access to North Korea — often referred to as the "hermit kingdom" — is restricted, with a limited number of travelers only permitted on highly choreographed tours.

The country and its people are suffering under stringent international sanctions, which look likely to escalate under Donald Trump's administration in the US. A UN report on the country released this week estimated that two out of five citizens were undernourished, while 70 per cent of the population relied on food aid.

In a bid to sweeten the cruise deal, Mount Kumgang authorities are permitting the development of a casino aboard the vessel. Gambling is strictly prohibited in the country.

"The tourist passenger ships will have a variety of facilities, so 1,000 passengers can experience safe and cultural travel," the statement said, adding that "preferential business conditions will be guaranteed for the ship".

The bid to attract foreign tourists, particularly from Southeast Asia, is likely to raise eyebrows.

A group of Malaysian diplomats remains trapped inside North Korea following a diplomatic spat triggered by the killing of Kim Jong Nam, half-brother of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, in Kuala Lumpur last month.

The Mount Kumgang tourist region was the site of early co-operation between the two Koreas during a period of detente in the early 2000s.

But in 2008 a South Korean tourist was shot by soldiers while walking on a beach, prompting outcry from Seoul and the suspension of tours. Since then relations between the countries have deteriorated.

"I strongly doubt there will be foreign investors who are willing to invest money in North Korea given the current situation," said Lim Eul-chul, a professor at Kyungnam University.

"North Korea has been interested in attracting investors to the tourism sector since 2014 in order to cope with international sanctions . . . but they haven't been very active given other developments."

Additional reporting by Kang Tae-jun and Kang Buseong