North Korea says it will allow more US tourists

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BEIJING (AP) — North Korea said Wednesday it will begin to allow in more American tourists after years of heavy restrictions on visits to the reclusive regime.

The United States has never had diplomatic relations with North Korea since the Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. More recently, tensions have remained high over the North’s nuclear program.

Americans have been allowed to visit North Korea only during the country’s Mass Games, a synchronized spectacle with a cast of 100,000 that the regime uses for propaganda.

Only about 2,000 tourists from the U.S. have visited since the country opened to Western tourism in 1987, according to the founder of a China-based tour group that says it has taken most of those visitors into the isolated country.

But the Koryo Group, which specializes in North Korea tourism, said it received an e-mail from the state-run Korea International Travel Company on Wednesday afternoon saying the country will accept more American tourists this year.

The e-mail said more specifics would come later, the founder of the Koryo Group, Nicholas Bonner, told The Associated Press.

“This is a big, big change,” he said, but the e-mail gave no explanation for the move.

It comes after North Korea said this week that it would not resume negotiations aimed at ending its nuclear weapons program until its relations with the U.S. improved and international sanctions against it were lifted. Pyongyang specifically suggested a peace treaty might be signed this year — a long-held demand. The U.S. rejected the proposal.

Bonner said his Beijing-based tour group has taken in more than 90 percent of the U.S. tourists to North Korea in the past eight years, and he said it took about 280 Americans last year for the Mass Games.

North Korea remains a highly controlled society, but Bonner estimated that the number of Americans visiting North Korea likely would jump to close to 1,000 a year under the new relaxed restrictions.