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?