(BEIJING-AFP) – North Korea will reopen to tourists on January 10, less than a month after strongman Kim Jong-Il died, a tour organiser said Friday, in a sign of a return to normality in the isolated state.

Kim died on December 17 from a heart attack at the age of 69, prompting a 13-day mourning period in the communist country that culminated Thursday in a huge memorial service for the late leader.

“We have just been informed by our Korean partners that the DPRK (North Korea) will open to tourists from January 10th,” Koryo Group, a Beijing-based travel agency that organises tours to the North, said in a statement.

North Korea closes to tourists during part of December and January every year, Simon Cockerell, Koryo’s managing director, told AFP.

But when Kim’s father Kim Il-Sung passed away in 1994, the country closed to tourists for 100 days, he said, which had prompted speculation the reclusive state would be sealed off for longer than the normal winter period this year.

At the time of the elder Kim’s death, though, tourism to North Korea was a very small industry, whereas the sector is significantly bigger now, Cockerell said.

Chinese tourists admiring the view from a bridge along a path of a scenic spot at the Mount Kumgang international tourist zone in North Korea. ©AFP PHOTO/GOH CHAI HIN

Around 3,000 Western tourists visited North Korea in 2010, he said, and many more Chinese travellers tour the country every year.

North Korea began accepting Western tourists in the late 1980s, after decades of only taking in visitors from Communist and non-aligned nations.

Koryo’s first group of 20 tourists next year will arrive too soon to celebrate the late Kim Jong-Il’s birthday on February 16, which has previously been marked with giant arrangements of red begonia, figure skating and synchronised swimming.

“This will be the first year that the North will celebrate Kim’s birthday without him. Perhaps they’ll tone down the synchronised swimming and do something more sombre,” Cockerell said.

North Korea also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il-Sung on April 15.

“It’s not clear what will happen, but there’s no way that North Korea will let this big anniversary pass without mass events of some kind, dances in the city, and a citizens’ parade and military parade, off limits to tourists.”