Photo/IllutrationA travel agency posts photos of seafood dishes in North Korea at the border crossing in Hunchun, China, on Aug. 2. (Takuya Hiraga)

HUNCHUN, China--While China, North Korea's longstanding ally, is abiding by U.N. sanctions to rein in Pyongyang's weapons programs, it is quietly helping the isolated country to get a better handle on tourism and earn much-needed foreign currency to transform its economy.

Hunchun, in northeastern China's Jilin province, serves as the point of entry into North Korea for one-day trips that feature locally caught seafood at rock bottom prices, along with singing and dancing performances.

Only Chinese are permitted to join the tours that are restricted to a single facility and do not permit sightseeing. Typically, visitors spend a few hours in North Korea, and, having eaten well, cheaply and been entertained, head back loaded up with cartons of tobacco, clothing items and other souvenirs.

China has quietly worked behind the scenes to help its neighbor, led by Kim Jong Un, to revitalize the lackluster economy and acquire much-needed foreign currency, now in short supply due to U.N. sanctions imposed to protest the isolated country's nuclear and missile programs.

On Aug. 2, throngs of Chinese were returning home after a one-day trip to Rason, a special economic zone in North Korea, when this Asahi Shimbun reporter visited Hunchun on the Tumen river that serves as a natural border between the two countries.

A man from Jilin province who joined the tour with his four other family members raved about the outing.

“We ate large crabs and loads of shrimp, and paid just 300 yuan (about 5,000 yen or $45) in total, including drinks. The seafood was fresh and really tasty,” he said.

A travel agency in Hunchun promotes the tours to North Korea with photos posted at the border crossing of seafood dishes available in Rason, along with the prices.

Eating out in North Korea is far cheaper than in China. For example, a hairy crab costs 80 yuan and snow crab is priced at 50 yuan.

According to tourist industry insiders in China, the day trips started July 10.

Chinese travelers cross a bridge that takes them into North Korea by buses or other means of transport to reach the facility, where they can eat to their hearts' content and load up on souvenirs.

The basic cost of the tour that includes a performance of singing and dancing is 100 yuan a head.

The tabs for eating seafood and souvenirs are paid separately.

Visitors are not allowed to do sightseeing outside of the facility.

As many as 500 people a day join the tours.

China's President Xi Jinping seems to be abiding in spirit by sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council, but also empathizes with Kim's efforts to revitalize North Korea's economy.

At a summit between the leaders of China and North Korea in March, the two countries agreed to strengthen ways to promote tourism.

According to Chinese media, North Korea's Air Koryo airline has begun direct flights between Pyongyang and two cities in China--Chengdu in Sichuan province and Xi'an in Shaanxi province.

It appears that China views tourism as a possible way to help North Korea without incurring the wrath of the international community while sanctions remain in place.