SEJONG, July 31 (Yonhap) -- The number of Chinese tourists to North Korea appears to be rapidly growing this year, a report showed Wednesday, amid warming relations between the two communist neighbors.
In the report on North Korea published by the state-run Korea Development Institute, Kim Han-gyu, a deputy director at the Korea Tourism Organization, estimated that the number of Chinese tourists to North Korea hit a record high last year, and the trend is likely to persist for the time being.
"This is a probable scenario if current relations between North Korea and China, and the international political situation either persist or improve," Kim said.
In June, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited North Korea for the first time since he came to power in 2012, a trip that suggested that bilateral relations are back on track after being strained over Pyongyang's nuclear tests in recent years.
The bilateral ties -- once described as being as close as "lips and teeth" -- had been soured over the North's defiant pursuit of nuclear weapons.
North Korea has stepped up efforts to attract more tourists in an apparent bid to earn hard currency in the face of U.N. sanctions over its nuclear tests and its long-range rocket launches.
In 2002, 121,000 Chinese visited North Korea, accounting for 62.4 percent of all foreign tourists to the North that year.
The number of Chinese tourists fell sharply to 24,000 in 2009, when North Korea carried out a second nuclear test in May that year.
But Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Pyongyang in October 2009 and signed a deal with North Korea on Approved Destination Status, an arrangement that has led to a surge of Chinese tourists in North Korea.
The number of Chinese tourists reached 237,000 in 2012, up from 131,000 in 2010.
Kim said Xi's visit to North Korea is a sort of deja vu of Wen's trip in 2009.
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