Traveling to North Korea

Is Traveling To North Korea Ethical?

Derek North Korea 75 Comments

Traveling to North Korea

Before I decided to travel to North Korea, I had a good, long think about whether or not such a trip was right for me. And of course, one of the main debates I had with myself involved the ethical issues associated with visiting a country that is run by one of the most repressive regimes in the world.

There are many angles to view this ethical debate but in general, those who are against traveling to North Korea make the following arguments:

  • The money travelers spend goes to the regime, in essence helping to support their repressive policies, including endless human rights violations, and keep them in power.
  • Foreigners are used as propaganda tools by the North Korean government by presenting tourists as people who have come to pay their respects to the country, regime and their leaders.
  • Travelers to North Korea are only allowed to experience a very limited, and highly controlled, slice of North Korea as dictated by the government, making it pointless to visit since you don’t experience anything ‘real’.
  • Interaction between North Koreans and foreigners is of no value because foreigners are only allowed to interact with a hand-chosen group of loyal government supporters and are not able to interact with the general public.

I can certainly understand all of those points and I can also understand why some people would never visit North Korea based on the above. But, despite those arguments, I obviously decided that visiting this country was worth it in the end, at least for me. Even with that decision though, I was completely open to changing my opinion once the trip was over. Perhaps I would travel there and discover that the experience was not worth it after all and that such a trip does far more damage, or at least no good, than I imagined, making it seem like one of the more unethical travel decisions I’ve made.

However, I did not change my opinion after my trip and as I write this post, I still believe that the benefits of traveling to North Korea do indeed outweigh the negatives.

Bus in Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang

Let me be clear though. I don’t support the North Korean regime or its policies. I am in no way trying to create the image that North Korea ‘isn’t as bad as we think’ or anything like that. I don’t doubt or dispute the repression that takes place over there, the fact that executions are on the rise since Kim Jong-un took over power, that 200,000+ people live in horrible conditions inside of prison camps, that food and health care are luxuries to too many people, that free speech is non-existent, among so many other human rights violations, and that life in general in this country is infinitely more difficult than any of us could ever know.

What I am trying to do with my posts on North Korea is to simply present my thoughts on what it was like to travel there and whether or not such a trip seemed ethical to me.

As for my responses to the arguments against visiting North Korea that I listed above, here are my thoughts:

  • While some of the money I spent for the tour (probably around 400 Euros based on estimates I’ve seen) does go to the government, that’s a very tiny amount of money, even when multiplied by the 6000 tourists that visit North Korea each year. And there is some evidence, based on conversations with people who are quite familiar with tourism in this country, that much of the money the government does receive in this manner is used to further develop tourism. New restaurants and shops are opened, thus creating additional jobs, and more staff is also needed at hotels, museums and other points of interest, more and more of which are opening up to visitors. So, the few hundred dollars that you will give to this country really isn’t a significant amount of money, surely not enough to be considered funding for the North Korean nuclear program or enhancing the regime. Of course, the more foreigners that travel here, the more income the government will receive. I do understand that. It will be a while before significant numbers of tourists do visit though and once that time comes around, another debate will certainly be needed.
  • I’m quite sure that foreigners are used as propaganda tools to an extent, with the government definitely trying to make it seem as if foreigners travel to North Korea in order to pay their respects to the regime and its leaders. With that said, North Koreans still have brains, no matter how controlled their thinking may be, and when they see these ‘respectful’ foreigners standing around their city squares or in front of the statues of the revered Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-Sung wearing shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops, snapping photos, talking loudly and basically behaving in complete opposite fashion of the locals, I’m sure they start to wonder. Speaking from my experience, as part of a tour group of thirty people, we certainly didn’t appear or act in what anyone could really consider an extremely respectful manner all the time. We weren’t running around taking rude photos in front of the statues of course but anyone, especially the North Koreans around us, could see that we often found the propaganda and constant examples of forced dedication to the regime to be difficult to listen to and accept.

Kim Il-Sung Square, Pyongyang 2

  • Yes, your experience in North Korea will be extremely limited. You will see what the government wants you to see, you will follow the itinerary set forth by the state-run tourism association and you won’t have much freedom, especially not to explore the country on your own. However, at least in my experience, the guides are not following you around all the time and keeping an eye on your every move. As I mentioned in my first post on North Korea, I was able to walk away from the group many times. Never was I chased after and told to turn around. So while it is a highly controlled experience, you are allowed a sliver of freedom, enough to allow you a small glimpse beyond whatever part of North Korea you are supposed to see. Maybe I was lucky, maybe my group’s ability to wander a little and not be constantly watched was due to the tour company I went with, Koryo Tours, who does have a long-standing (20+ years) relationship with the Korea International Travel Company. I don’t know. But I’m not lying when I say that I walked out of a restaurant where we were having lunch, went down the street alone about three hundred meters, shook some hands and took a photo of the Romanian Embassy and I’m not lying when I say that I wandered off on my own for twenty minutes in the Moranbong Park, with no guide in sight. And as I’ve mentioned before, my belongings were never searched, there were very few restrictions on photography and we were allowed to speak with absolutely anyone we wanted to throughout our stay, making it hard to believe that every single person we came into contact with was just a prop placed there for our benefit.

People's Study Hall, North Korea

  • In terms of interaction between North Koreans and foreigners having no value, once again, this leads back to my “North Koreans have brains” argument. I stand by my belief that any interaction with North Koreans is beneficial, even if every single person I came across was specifically chosen and placed in front of me every minute of the day by the regime. That’s not the case but even if it was, North Koreans are capable of thinking and their brains must process information they receive just like the brain of anyone else. Here’s an example, although, the details will be a little vague so that I don’t get anyone in trouble. While on our bus one day, traveling around Pyongyang, another foreigner on our tour started showing movies and videos to one of our government-trained and appointed guides. I won’t say what the foreigner showed him but at one point, the guide vomited on the floor of the bus, clearly disturbed by what he saw. If he was not capable of thinking for himself, he would have no reaction to such things. But he’s a human being, as are all of the guides and people in the streets and children in the metro and even soldiers at the DMZ. And as North Koreans see more foreigners, and observe them, interact with them, smile and laugh with them, they are forced to think about and process their experiences. The more foreigners that North Koreans interact with, the more they will start to wonder what life is like in the outside world. They will also start to wonder how it’s possible that they can shake hands and laugh with citizens of the “Imperialist Aggressor” (USA), their greatest enemy according to the regime, or why Americans are even allowed in their country if they are considered so evil. Likewise, they will slowly have increased access to information from the outside world considering that foreigners’ laptops, iPads and other gadgets are not checked at the airport upon arrival. And again, the more that North Koreans see and learn, the more hungry they will be for even more information from beyond North Korea and the more they will realize that their lives are not as good as they are led to believe. Who knows where all of this interaction will really lead but I still believe that such interaction is worth the few hundred dollars that the regime receives from my visit, and that the eventual result will make it worthwhile, whatever and whenever that result takes place.

Entrance to Pyongyang

Guide in Pyongyang

View of Pyongyang 5

Furthermore, what I find interesting is that a visit to North Korea can lead to quite a great deal of criticism from others while a visit to most other repressive regimes often doesn’t lead to the same criticism at all. Why is it considered wrong by some to visit North Korea but nobody comments when travelers visit China, despite their own serious human rights violations, which according to Amnesty International includes “torture, execution (in which China is world leader), excessive use of force in public order policing, repression of dissent and forced repatriation of asylum seekers without recourse to a refugee determination procedure.” That last part involves sending North Korean asylum seekers back to North Korea despite knowing that they will most likely end up in a prison camp or executed.

And what about Pakistan or Syria or Myanmar? They are all very high on almost any list of the worst human rights violators yet I don’t think anyone has ever commented negatively on my travels to any of those countries.

Is the ‘most’ repressive regime the only one we shouldn’t support? Why are other governments that allow such abuses to take place treated differently and why is it okay to visit and spend our money in these countries, money that surely supports these governments? I’m not trying to use this as a justification for visiting North Korea. I’m genuinely curious as to why North Korea brings out such strong reactions as opposed to other destinations with governments that treat their citizens quite terribly as well.

Anyway, I could go on for many more paragraphs about this topic but I’ll conclude with a quick summary of my opinion. At the end of the day, I know that the North Korean regime is not dumb. They wouldn’t let foreigners in without having thought about it carefully, so I’m sure they have their own motivations for trying to increase tourism. But at the same time, despite whatever those motivations may be, I’m going to stand by the benefits of human interaction. During my years of travel, I’ve repeatedly seen the power of a hello and a handshake between two people from completely different cultures, between people who think and believe so differently from one another and between people who were ‘supposed’ to be enemies. Human interaction is as powerful as it gets and I don’t think the interaction that takes place inside of North Korea between foreigners and locals is any less valuable.

What are your thoughts about visiting North Korea?

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Comments 75

  1. Will - monkeystealspeach

    You made some very valid points. I’ve been considering a trip to North Korea for a while, I lived in South Korea for a year so would like to see “the full picture”, but have been hesitant with recent news. The problem is it seems such a volatile country, and it feels like they are constantly on the brink of lashing out.

  2. Kailey

    Earl, thank you for this insightful and well written post. Even if one solely considers the experience as controlled and orchestrated, it is still of great value to have a glimpse of how the government wishes to portray itself and the narrative it wishes to disseminate. I agree with your perspective that the people there “have minds of their own.” Even if the expression of their thoughts is completely censored, their exposure to you and the all the nuisances about your group has planted seeds. When I studied in China, there was a small group on NK exchange students. While I never interacted with them, I don’t underestimate the impact of genuine joy and kindness through body language. As travelers, we must be ambassadors of goodwill.

  3. Rob Gibson

    The big difference between North Korea and China is that China has opened up economically and allows a great deal more freedom for it’s citizens as long as they don’t overtly oppose govt policies. There is a meritocracy in place – brilliant students and innovative people can climb the social and economic ladder.

    None of that exists in North Korea.

    In the last 25 years, North Korean govt policies have led to starvation for tens of thousands of people. The reports of the labor camps, how the prisoners are treated and the arbitrary reasons people get sent there are horrific. The govt allows zero freedom for people to leave or to express themselves, even in non-politcal ways. It’s right out of 1984. Currently, China and the lives people lead their are is nothing like North Korea. Even Saudis have more money, more freedom and better lives if they don’t oppose their govt and follow Islamic laws.

    Not saying their aren’t other bad govts out their and people should think about where their money is going when they visit them. But to go to North Korea is like going to Nazi Germany during the height of their power and think it’s cool to do so. “Nice people! They’ve done well!” Meanwhile, Jews are being gassed 10km down the road. In some ways it’s worse than Nazi Germany because at least most Germans – Jews, Gypsies and Gays aside – were living well and had basic freedoms.

  4. Larisse Mathews

    I really enjoyed your article. Just this morning when I heard about the American student being detained in North Korea I said to my friend, who in their right mind would visit North Korea?? Then I came across your post and it thew me for a loop. For starters, I had no idea that NK allowed tours and that it’s a common and fairly safe thing, by what I read here. Your points on the go versus don’t go are very valid and I actually started imagining visiting one day. But I’m not sure I would take the risk of something going bad (from what I saw I the news there’s a pattern of Kim Jong Un taking prisoners, especially after sanctions are levied, for negotiation purposes) and honestly I’m not sure I would want to deal with the criticism from my family. I mentioned it to my husband and he laughed; I would probably be ok in North Korea but he would get us thrown in a prison camp quicker than you can say beer. Which brings me to a couple of questions: 1. can you drink in NK? If so, what is the local beer called. 2. What would you say to people who are intrigued with the idea of visiting but would fear being detained for an alleged offense, but really are being used by KIm Jong Un for leverage power with the U.S.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Larisse – Yes, you can drink there. The hotel has a bar in the lobby where many tourists and guides hang out each evening, and on most trips they take you to a local brewery with a bar as well. I don’t remember what the local beer name was called though. As for the second question, I’m not too sure that it happens that way. Usually, someone is detained for breaking one of the very clearly explained rules (explained by your local guide, by the tour company before the trip starts and by the tour company representative who is with you the entire time). If you follow the rules of the tour, I don’t think there’s really a chance of being detailed. Most of the tourists who go to NK are from the US and only a few get detained, usually because of breaking a rule.

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  7. David Hart

    I went with Koryo Tours in 2011, and it was a fascinating trip to a very secret and closed society. But I had much the same experience. I was able to interact with anyone. I took pictures of a family outside the bowling alley, where I was wandering around by myself. They were very warm and friendly with me. I spoke with several of the guides at the Juche Tower and the Victorious Fatherland Liberation Museum, talking about the Juche ideas, the war, the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968. They knew I was an American, and they listened respectfully to my ideas. I took nearly 1,000 pictures, and also video at different sites: the Mass Games (an unbelievably beautiful and remarkable dance, song, and gymnastic presentation of the history of the DPRK), the Fun Fair, the birthplace of Kim Il-Sung, and all of the other monuments, restaurants, and landmarks we visited. I came away with the sense of a people who were shy, yet friendly, sometimes warm, and very proud–not that they have a lot to be proud of. But the tour made me dig into the history of the DPRK, and of Korea itself. While I am no supporter of the regime, I have been able to understand where they are coming from, and have developed a bit more compassion for their plight. I hope that anyone who has the desire to go to North Korea will do so. I would love to go again someday.

  8. shane

    Thought provoking at least. My curiousity with the country will probably leed me there one day. However it is more on the fact that we just do not really know what goes on there. All we hear is what “our news channels” choose to show us. I would like to see it for myself and make my mind up. I feel that personnel interaction is hugely powerfull tool and have seen it work wonders whilst i was in Nerchinsk Siberia. Thank you for this post.

  9. Denise

    I actually wouldn’t mind that. To me, it seems like all tourism is in the end simply benefiting a very select few in high positions, and allowing them to continue with their extravagant lifestyle while their people suffer.

    But that’s only my 2 cents, of course.

    They called the refusal of Switzerland to sell them the ski lifts a violation of human rights….how hypocritical is that.

  10. Zoe

    It’s easy to train in or fly from Beijing. I’m a budget traveller too. Try searching for Young Pioneer Tours. They seemed to be the cheapest and were great when I went with them.

  11. André

    You could raise that question to any country in the world. Is it ethical to visit the USA considering they are fighting illegal wars in the middle east, you know, thousands of questions could be raised to the ethicality of visiting nearly every country in the world. However visiting North Korea as you state in your post, means you will not have the independence of travel or really anything you’d expect to do in any other travel. The country is a dictatorial fascist’s wet dream but considering how really there isn’t much news coming from inside the country I won’t rush to believe everything I see on the internet or in newspapers.

    I’m still very interested in visiting the country and would really like to know, how you actually get about going there? I know the North and the South are not the best of friends, but do they have the same policy some Arab states have in regards to Israel, i.e having a south korean visa stamp will stop you from being granted access? And price wise, as a budget traveller, will the DPRK break the bank?

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Andre – They don’t have that policy. You can travel to North Korea with any stamps in your passport and you will be granted access, although you do need to secure the visa through a registered agency ahead of time. I went with Koryo Tours and can highly recommend them, but yes, any trip to DPRK will cost a decent amount of money.

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