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?


Since 1999 I've been traveling and living around the world nonstop. Sign up below for personal stories, real advice and useful updates from my adventures. Only good stuff, no nonsense.

Are you ready to earn money and travel?

How to Work on a Cruise Ship and Travel eBooksClick above and get started!

Comments 75

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  5. Pingback: The Ethics of Visiting Dubai | Adventurous Kate

  6. Pingback: Eine Reise nach Nordkorea - verrückte Idee? // Movin'n'Groovin

  7. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  12. Well, I would say that article only proves that the sanctions are kind of working. They are angry for not getting ski lifts so they just might give up nuclear program (of course not that simple). For me it does not mean anything in regards to traveling to North Korea. If people would travel less there would the DPRK people have better lives… no. If people would travel more to DRPK would people have better lives… no.

    So I agree that it is kind of hypocritical to say that traveling there is better for the people. I just think in the grand scheme of things it is irrelevant. And like many times said the money from tourism is peanuts.

    And I have seen many articles (including CNN), where DPRK is portrayed only in positive light. This article did however give very clearly the both sides of story. So I really don’t understand the criticism against the article.

  13. While I respect your decision to visit North Korea, I don’t think you should have written this article in this form. To me, it sounds like you are saying that there is nothing wrong with visiting North Korea, just after 1 visit.

    That just makes me incredibly uncomfortable, especially when I keep reading articles like the following:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/10/07/north-korea-calls-switzerlands-refusal-to-sell-it-ski-lifts-a-serious-human-rights-abuse/

    This is where tourist money is going.

  14. “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.”
    Come on, I’m too curious. What on earth could he have seen that would make him vomit? Maybe a K-Pop video? Maybe he thought “The American imperialist aggressors have turned out pure noble race into decadent bourgeois whores!”

    What did the foreigner show him?

  15. Also I would like to add that if traveling to North Korea is unethical then surely some other countries could be added to that list as well. Some have been mentioned, but I could add Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Moroccan occupied Western Sahara…

  16. Totally agree with the post. I visited DPRK about a month ago. You are allowed to speak freely with anyone there. The only problem is of course the language unless you spoke Korean.

    Also I think that people tend to over dramatize the living conditions there. Yes ten or even five years ago those were really bad. There were really bad food shortages. During the last years things have improved a lot. Of course it is mostly good in Pyongyang and some remote regions are really poor, but nevertheless not nearly as bad as before.

    Another thing, which is not entirely true anymore is the fact that they are living in a bubble with practically zero knowledge of outside world. This was also very true in the past, but nowadays the black market is booming, Chinese and western DVDs are available (maybe not easily, but those circulate there). Also the tourist groups, albeit limited, have brought some visibility to external world.

    I think ethically difficult could be to show your wealth and gadgets to all poor North Koreans. On the other hand you might try convince them that they should not believe the propaganda and actually the rest of the world is a lot richer than you. But mostly you might only make them feel bad, because they know that they will most likely never own anything like that and they are not allowed to travel abroad. The other one of our guides was actually quite candid to us how he does not like living in DPRK, because he cannot travel abroad.

  17. I left for the DPRK (with young pioneer tours) on the day you published this article, and I feel it to be wonderfully accurate. The regime can hide places and sights from you, and can surround you with as many fervent party supporters as they want, but you cannot stop people from being people!

    Please tell me your tourmate did not show them two girls one cup.

  18. I agree that it was perfectly fine to stop and talk to any Koreans anywhere when I went there. If there were going to be any problems our western and Korean tour guides would have warned us off.

    When we went to the park in Pyongyang on Liberation day, in some parts women were dancing. We stopped to take pictures and watch. They asked me and another woman in our group to dance with them. We did – it was great fun.

    In Nampho I spoke to people on the beach, while a bunch of guys from our tour group joined in a vollyball game with the locals.

    In Wonson there were 10 metre high diving platforms. I could not get up onto the concrete base – it was too high. So I Korean girl spotted me trying to get up, pulled me into her boat and a man helped me up from there. We also played vollyball with the locals on that beach.

    I agree that there are serious human rights issues in North Korea (there are a fair few in China too, and I live there), but I don’t think that it is how you are imagining. You are not going to send someone to prison for unorthorised contct.

    Two people in our group spoke Korean. They talked with almost everyone they came across.

    If it was an issue 1. Our tour guides would have stopped it. 2. the Koreans would not have wanted to talk to us. 3. If they kept on sending every person away for speaking to tourist at the rate our group spoke to people – very quickly, there would be no one left to send away.

    You bring up good points about the differences in cultural perceptions, but as Wandering Earl says we all had expensive cameras, one guy had three big SLR ones at all times. Tour giudes also get rather large tips from groups. Not everyone would know that last bit but I think that it would be fairely well know that the tourist who come to North Korea aren’t poor.

  19. While I enjoyed reading your post and agree with you on some points, I do feel the aspect of the consequences for the local people of tourists visiting are neglected in it. You got to walk around freely, which is nice for you, you got to shake some hands, but for North Koreans contact with a foreigner is illegal and could lead to them ending up in a prison camp if anyone would report the – unauthorised- contact.

    Also I agree with someone above that the whole post is written from a western viewpoint. While Korean people have brains, it is such a different culture, we cannot begin to fathom how they would think or view situations. In many Asian cultures talking loudly and having an opinion is seen as highly inappropriate and impolite (putting a “spotlight” on yourself is just plain ridiculous and uncivilised according to many Asian cultures), and wearing shorts is only something poor people do that don’t have enough money to buy real pants. If you do have the money to buy real pants, they view it as an insult that you don’t bother to dress properly, or they will just assume that other countries really are so poor to be needing food aid from North Korea (which is what the propaganda tells them) because why else would you be wearing shorts? So it could just be that all you are doing as a tourist is reinforce the propaganda about how boorish and unenlightened westerners really are because of capitalism.

    Besides all the other ethical points, the main reason for me not to visit would be that I would be mortified of being responsible for someone being sent to a prison camp by some inadvertant signal or handshake that was meant well from my side.

    1. Hey Fiona – I’m not so sure. First, it’s not illegal for them to talk to a foreigner. In fact, we were told that anyone we saw during the trip, we could talk to and there would be no problem for anyone. That included people in the streets, in shops, at the metro stations, absolutely anywhere. We shook plenty of hands and believe me, if it was illegal, nobody would have done it. But many people came straight up to us in broad daylight, in front of soldiers and anyone else in the streets and shook our hands. It is not illegal for them to do that at all.

      Also, at least from those I came into contact with, they know that we are staying in an expensive hotel, eating in restaurants that almost no locals can afford, carrying cameras and iPads that are far beyond their reach, etc. They understood that we have access to more money than they can dream of. It is not that closed where nobody has an idea about the outside world. Enough people know exactly how things work in the outside world (or else there wouldn’t be thousands of people trying to defect each year) and while not everyone might have such an understanding, enough people do to ensure that they are capable of understanding that a tourist to their country is not poor.

  20. I don’t think I’ll be adding North Korea to my travel list any time soon, but it’s more that I enjoy independent travel and the freedom to go where I please. I love your arguments for going, especially the final paragraph. I think it’s great that the people who live there have the opportunity to interact with tourists, even if it is very limited.

  21. That film was also made by Koryo Tours who Earl travelled with – one of the positive effects of our engagement through tourism is that it allows us to instigate other engagement projects, such as films, sports exchanges and humanitarian projects, having built up a relationship with the country. Small steps for sure but we hope in the right direction.

    Vicky

  22. Hi
    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said. It’s a great article. I went to North Korea as well and would have been there at the same time you were -Liberation day, except I was on the 11 day Young Pioneer Tour. I will make my disaproving Aunt read this. You express similar ideas but in a much more coherent way.

  23. I have to agree with you in every sense.

    I remember saying I would not visit a certain country in the middle east due to an expansion program I don’t agree with. I happened to be in Egypt when I made this statement and can’t believe I was letting my mind be so cloudy. Interactions with people from the country I had stated I would not visit have always been great, I love the people I have met, the culture and it’s similarities to the culture I loved from Egypt.

    Egypt and many other countries are as bad as the one I was boycotting and a friend pointed that out to me. I’m sure you’ll be happy to hear I lifted my boycott as not to be a hypocrite (Although still have not managed to get there). Regimes and governments are almost always bad but on a whole people are more likely good than bad and travel to anywhere where you can meet and greet a person to share a tea / a small conversation and especially a laugh is always worth while.

    I love people from every corner of this planet and so far I am yet to find a country that isn’t a good country when you consider it’s inhabitants no matter of their religion, colour, cultural beliefs or odd facial hair (I’m still not sure about this strange moustache culture in Hungary!).

  24. “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.”

    If you are really “genuinely curious” about this, start studying philosophy. With your outstanding life experience I’m sure you’ll be quick to find all the answers you need. Philosophy has been around for 2500 years, so you can start by taking a look at what our greatest geniuses have said about life. No need to think it all through by yourself.

    Be warned, though, there’s no turning back once you’ve sailed these waters.

  25. I thought Kerry’s topic up the top was interesting– the book she recommended definitely sounds worth checking out. I too am undecided about North Korea, not so much because of the ethics of travelling there itself, but because 1. I wouldn’t feel like I was really getting a real picture of it and 2. As a journalist, I feel like I wouldn’t really be adding anything to the global knowledge at this stage unless I took some pretty serious risks. That said I loved The Mass Games doco that British film-makers made a while back.

  26. I think the benefits to foreigns visiting, especially in the way you want, outweighs the negatives. I went to Cuba about 10 years ago and had interactions with dozens and dozens of locals. I think if more Americans went to Cuba it would do more to end the repression there than 50 years of embargo.

    Your trip was very cheap, as was my trip to Cuba. I only spent $600 in 12 days there, so the regime wasn’t getting rich off me.

  27. If we get the chance to go I would like to. I saw one of there synchronized events and it would be amazing to see that many people in harmony displaying a spectacular show.

  28. A great article Earl. We went to Myanmar this year and had the same dilemmas. After our visit I am so happy we went. The interactions we had with locals was priceless. I have also been to China and as you say they are just as bad as North Korea in terms of human rights. If we look at our own countries (USA & UK) even here there are many things we don’t agree with. I think the more that people interact with each other the more we understand and that includes North Korea

  29. Very interesting article, Earl. I also read Brian’s article, with basically the opposite outcome, after thinking about it. A complex matter, and I tend to be more towards Brian’s standpoint. More important is though, that there comes an end to regimes like this. It’s is horror beyond words. Inhumane and criminal. But I guess this may take years and years before we will ever see a change:-(.

  30. I wouldn’t have a problem visiting North Korea. Every country has got its faults, whether that be gay discrimination in a lot of African countries, the death penalty in the US, child abuse in Cambodia or discriminating women in most Arab countries. I think visiting these places and writing about them is important , as it shows local people that foreigners are interested and care about them. It also raises awareness about issues and the more people write about their experience, the more people will be aware of the issues, which puts more pressure on the local government to change things. Look at Myanmar. How much has changed there within the last two years?

  31. I think that this is a question that every traveler needs to decide for themselves. I am very glad that you went, because if I ever have to make the decision for myself you certainly have provided wonderful insight. Not only did your travel benefit local North Koreans in some small way, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to educate the rest of the world about them. As you said, “they’re not dumb.” Thank you for sharing, and for being brave enough to address this controversial topic.

  32. I had a lot of mixed feelings when I saw your announcement on your visit to North Korea. It’s a country that I find fascinating but knowing that there are people practically living in hell over there makes my stomach uneasy.

    I saw China being mentioned as an example by a few people here. I personally feel annoyed by that. Because regardless of the Cultural Revolution and the actions of the PRC, China is much more than just that. People have a lot more tenacity than they’re given credit for. So for that reason, I think it’s worth traveling to some countries. You couldn’t be a world traveller if you scrutinized every country’s track record for crimes against humanity. Even I’m not entirely pleased with what’s going on at home in the U.S (pray for peace in Syria!)

  33. To be a little bit geeky, one philosophical definition of “ethical” is something that follows logical reasoning – a coherent argument, if you will. In this context, traveling to North Korea is ethical for you because you always follow the reasoning that a traveler does more good than harm and that every destination is worth your time and money, be it Iraq or Yemen or the DPRK. Not everyone will agree with your decisions, but you’re consistent in your ethics.

  34. Decent post yet again Earl and a very thorough and profound overview. Whether it’s ethical or not, I’m heading there in 2 days as well and pretty excited. We have been told there will be a few restrictions on the phones and cameras and laptops being checked though so will look forward to writing about that and hopefully have a similar experience to you. It seemed it was a real eye opener and you definitely sound like the trip was worthwhile for you despite your initial uncertainty and the fact you didn’t originally want to head there. Safe travels and I’ll touch base after my trip. Jonny

    1. Hey Jen – I’m just catching up on all comments but I did see the post on Everywhere Once. I read it quickly yesterday but will look more closely at it tonight. It’s always good to see both sides of any issue presented before making a decision.

  35. Boycotting does not work! It only hurts the little people! Boycotting Cuba ruined their economy. Do you think Castro or his cronies suffered? Then the repressive governments can blame Boycotting nations for their problems and not themselves. This now becomes propaganda to make their people hate you. Boycotting a nation is basically saying go to hell! Keep up the good work Earl!

  36. I couldn’t agree more! I haven’t visited North Korea yet but culturally speaking I found many Asian people in general (not meaning to be racist at all) to have a great deal of admiration towards western people, especially the ones who don’t have much access to other cultures than their own. I guess mostly because they live such strict lives controlled by values like honour and loyalty. So seeing us being so relaxed and, well different from themselves must cause a lot of intrigue. I also notice that the more globalized a country becomes the more free thinking they become, so showing the North Koreans that there is a world outside of DPRK can only be a good thing.

    I am very curious though, you say you weren’t restricted much but were you allowed to speak freely?

    1. Hey Dan – We were told at the start of the tour that we could ask any questions we wanted to anyone we saw and that there was no restriction on our speech. We were also told that it’s probably not the best idea to criticize the regime in public or to dabble in missionary stuff but that was it.

  37. The ethics of visiting any particular destination need to be judged on its own merits. With respect to North Korea, there are unique aspects of the country that make it particularly immune to the benefits travelers normally bring and make tourism dollars especially harmful. A dollar spent in North Korea is not like a dollar spent somewhere else. We just posted a lengthy discussion of why at https://everywhereonce.com/2013/09/03/why-we-wont-travel-to-north-korea/

    1. Hey Brian – In your opinion, which many do agree with, that’s how it works. I tend to feel differently as stated above since I believe that we like to treat situations as much more complicated than they often are. It’s always looks good to bring out detailed economic arguments but at the end of the day, I still stand by the fact that human interaction is powerful and that a little money spent in North Korea is far outweighed by the benefits of such interaction.

      Anyway, I’ll head over and read your post as soon as I can as also believe it’s always beneficial for anyone to read and understand both sides of any issue before making their own decision.

  38. Like Earl,I also recently traveled to North Korea, it was an eye opening experience to say the least. Coming back from there and talking with friends who constantly asked if I felt bad supporting such a regime based on tourture , imprisonment and deplorable living conditions, my response was I didn’t visit Guantanamo Bay, or any of the other 190 or so “detention centers” hidden in shady countries with laws that allow people to get tourtured, where “prisoners” are actually sent there because their western government won’t allow in that home nation. I saw people living life, although deprived of the many freedoms we are privy to, they do go on living within the regime. What we hear out of North Korea is often second hand (I understand that media is controlled) but so is western media – why we need wiki leaks! It was an experience to see a country that people are afraid of because of what is said about it, and they do let Americans in, many are just too afraid to leave the States to actually experience something their media and president has portrayed as the Axis of Evil. Open your eyes, see the world, it’s not all Disneyland.

  39. Your posts make excellent reading – thank you Earl !. I do qite a bit of travelling often to countries with ultra-repressive governments . Every time people from such different societies meet there is a golden opportunity to share experiences and learn a little more about each other. That can only be a good thing. Those N. Korean guides will have learnt a lot about our society and will undoubtedly pass that knowledge on to other N.Koreans. Conversely, there is plenty of information out there about N.Korea for people in our society Books like Nothing to Envy” and “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” will give us some insight into this unique country.

  40. Interesting post Earl. I understand the resentment felt by some towards those who choose to visit the country, however the following are a few of my own experiences of interactions with the people during a visit last year which I hope will support the case for engagement. Apologies for being deliberately vague on the details.

    Our female guide spent a week acting as a perfect DPRK citizen and looking every inch the brainwashed supporter of the regime. However towards the end of the trip we paid a visit to a manufacturing site where the local factory tour-guide made a number of increasingly unlikely statements. To my shame I then cracked and asked a question that was intended to do little more than mock the claims of factory guide. At this point our group guide (who up to then had given no hint of a crack in her façade) suddenly gave me a discrete nip on the arm, a smile and a wink. No words were exchanged, and she certainly didn’t translate the question, therefore you can interpret this how you will – however my personal opinion is that this was her way of showing that everyone knows the Emperor has no clothes, however there’s no need for foreigners to cause embarrassment to those people forced to participate in the charade.

    Our second guide had lived in DPRK all his life and once he had developed a little trust with the group he showed endless curiosity about the outside world; so long as he could ask his questions quietly on the bus or was away from the other guides. I believe all the books people had brought with them ended up with him.

    The guide I had most sympathy for was a younger guy who had grown up outside the DPRK and therefore had significant knowledge and experience of a life with which the rest of us would be familiar. He said little during the week and seemed to accept his position with the resigned indifference that there was little he could do but play along. When I asked him if he liked his job he replied quietly “no, i’d rather be a teacher and help the children”. I suspect we were all just a poignant, unwelcome reminder of a life he could no longer have.

    Just one last anecdote – lateish one evening we visited a bar where there was only one young woman serving and we were the only customers. After a little while I gave her my iPad, showed her how to access the photographs and then returned to the table. She then spent the next two hours rapt by photographs of normal life in the outside world – there was a brief flirtation with Angry Birds but it was photos of Xmas celebrations back home that seemed to generate the greatest fascination.

    Anyway apologies for the long comment – my point is simply to echo the fact that these are all normal people who live in extraordinary circumstances and who nonetheless have found a way to exist. Being exposed to the luxuries of the outside world can’t be easy for them (and I still have ethical doubts about whether it was right for us to share our toys and photos) however I choose to believe that sowing seeds of hope with the people may bit by bit play a small part in dragging the regime into the modern world. It’s not a perfect comparison, however China pre-1989 was a lot like DPRK today – then in the 90’s the will of the people began influencing the Government to bring modern luxuries to the Country by allowing more and more foreign expertise and technology to set up shop. We all know how that story looks 20 years later, I hope a similar miracle can be achieved in the Hermit Kingdom.

  41. Thank you for this post. I traveled to the DPRK in 2011, and it was one of the most amazing, heart-wrenching and emotional trips I have ever experienced. Having read of the history of Korea, from as far back as the Shilla, Baekjae and Gogoryeo dynasties, it was fascinating to see the people and culture of North Korea. I was only in Pyongyang, and went mainly to see the Mass Games, but while there, I met average people at the subway station, in restaurants, and at the bowling alley we visited. I chatted with the guide at the “Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum” and with the beautiful North Korean guide at the Juche tower, where I hummed “We Have Nothing to Envy In the World” while she sang the words. If you look at the North Koreans as people, who have brains (as you point out) and are more than simply automatons mouthing the proper platitudes, it can open up your heart to trying to understand their viewpoints. I have no love for the repressive government of the DPRK, but I can certainly understand how a country which was bombed into near oblivion by the US in the Korean war, after having lived for 40 years under Japanese colonial rule, would be wary of Americans and our seemingly superior attitudes. These are a people who have suffered greatly, and will continue to suffer until their government opens the economy and the flow of information to the outside world. I hope it will happen someday soon. As far as my adventures in the DPRK, I had a truly fascinating experience, and I would return in a heartbeat. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  42. Earl. I think its fascinating that you got to experience going to North Korea! I would love the opportunity to do so. I believe that in this life we are meant to explore and make our own decisions about the places we go and the things we see. I love your take on meeting the individual and how a handshake or a conversation can have such a lasting impression. I feel the same way and travel with a similar mindset. Kudos to you!

  43. Wonderful post Earl! I’ve been looking forward to this post of yours even more than I usually do. Living as I do in South Korea (where people are far less worried about the North than the U.S. media would have you believe), it’s particularly refreshing to hear your thoughts. One thing that has struck me while living here is how little people speak about the North, even though many (if not most) have relatives or have friends with relatives on the other side of the DMZ.

    I’m personally trying to decide whether to visit Myanmar, which is the place of origin of the Mahasi tradition of vipassana meditation, which I practice, so your thoughts are especially apposite. I deplore and despise the Kim dynasty and believe that any money that goes to them is too much (to me even if the money is spent on tourism promotion, that just makes it an investment). That being said, I think that because of both your visibility and integrity, your visit benefits the North Korean people, so even though I wouldn’t personally visit the country, I’m in agreement with your choice.

    I’m also so impressed by this post that I look forward to using it in a lesson with the students at the international school where I teach in South Korea 🙂

  44. I understand all the points you mentioned here. My only worry is when more people visit and start writing things like this. I am sure that the North Korean government has ways to know what is being written about them, and they wouldn’t be very happy about it, maybe leading to stricter tourist rules.

    Just a thought.

    1. Hey Denise – Perhaps that could happen except that if they really want those tourism dollars, then they’d have to make some reforms to improve their image in order to attract tourists. Stricter tourist rules would reduce the already limited number of tourists that make it there in the end I would think.

  45. You obviously felt compelled to rationalize your visit to one of the last remaining classical totalitarian regimes on the planet. That fact alone would prompt any genuine adventurer to go. Someday, it may not be there. But if you really owed anyone an explanation for your motives, I would’ve simply said “Because I can”. Period. End of discussion.
    It’s your money, your time, and certainly your freedom to move anywhere in the world. Granted there are many countries out there whose governments respect human rights, allow citizens the freedom to choose their leaders, tolerate diversity, and openly contribute to the greater good of the human race — perhaps you’ve visited them all and are looking for new adventures. It’s all good. However, I beg to differ on a few points you made.
    While its understandable to ascribe western values into another culture’s behavior, the level at which the locals would seem to exercise critical thinking may be radically different from what we do with our own minds at home. We may hope that they respond positively to the stimulus of seeing 30 herded tourists who resonate the ideals of freedom by being curious about our world. Or they could be simply wondering if they could have a bite of your sandwich. Overly simplistic I admit, but seriously doubt that 2-3 curious minds could muster enough courage and power to overthrow a regime.
    As far as a nationally sanctioned tourism industry creating jobs, I’m not sure if a totalitarian regime trickles-down revenue to its people as we might in the west. After all, with a reported population of nearly 200K in labor camps, an average worker might be content with earning close to nothing and doing the job of 20 people 24/7 rather than living in a gulag. It’s a freedom thing I suppose. Besides, those with paying jobs are likely friends or relatives of regime officials — it is what it is. I invite your attention to the fascinating story of Shin Dong-Hyuk’s escape from Labor Camp 14 — a March 2012 article by Blaine Harden (WaPo).
    You are absolutely correct that the regime is run smartly (if not efficiently) and with zero tolerance, I might add. They know what they’re doing. I mean why pay high profile celebrities (or NASCAR drivers) huge sums to advertise a brand at trade shows, in sports arenas, or on the side of buses — when they can get it for free through tourism? For good or bad, and ethics aside, we willingly promote the places we visit through our blogs, photography, tweets, and what not. We are journalists. We report on what we see and experience. We share. We educate. We inspire. For some it’s a business. For others it’s the pure love of travel, adventure, and creative writing. I guess if I really want to make a difference in the places I visit, I would become a missionary and stay until my cause is done. Just saying.
    I doubt if Dennis Rodman, Beyonce, or Jay-Zee pondered on the ethics of their respective visits to such regimes. But if they can do it, so can I.
    I thoroughly enjoy your posts, Earl. Stay curious and honest. Ciao.

  46. I appreciate your thoughtfulness on this subject. You obviously care and have given it real consideration. Thank you for telling the facts about the repressiveness of the regime.

  47. Deciding whether or not to go to North Korea is about as hard-core as it gets. In my many travels, including Cuba and Burma, (note that I still call it “Burma”), I also had discussions with myself along the same lines as you did. And I went.

    Now, I’m facing a similar discussion as I plan to set out next summer to see my own country, the USA. There are Red and Blue states, for those of you who are not familiar with America. As a personal project, I’m planing to work on the biases and prejudices that I’ve collected over the years, living in California. I plan on being open minded and being a good listener when I travel through the southern states. I’ve been to over half of the fifty, but not extensively through the south or other mainly “Red” states. I know it will be a challenge just to keep my big mouth shut to keep me out of trouble. I’m now gathering together the courage and patients I’ll need. Pray for me.

    And, this is my own country for goodness sake!

  48. Maybe boycotting North Korea seemed like a good idea 20 or 30 years ago. But by now, it should have become clear that a boycott doesn’t work. No matter what the economic situation is like, those in power are obviously not willing to change the system.

    The only ones to suffer from a boycott are those who would like to visit but don’t, and also those who were expecting to meet them on the other side.

    What would it do to the tour guides, bus drivers, interpreters and their families if suddenly no-one was coming to visit any more? This is not only about the money. Meeting foreigners is also their window to the world. I don’t think North Korea needs more isolation. They need dialogue, even if it’s just with average tourists.

  49. I totally agree to what you have written here, Earl. I have personally seen and experienced the positive effect that such human interaction between travellers and citizens of an oppressive state can have.

    When I travelled across Cuba I had the chance of getting really getting to know the daily life of ordinary citizens there and let’s just say that some of the interactions I’ve had, had them reconsider some of the propaganda they had been fed by the government. Not the big basic facts, they obviously know them, but subtle stuff, little things and changes here and there that did improve their quality of life within the constraints of the system.

    This wasn’t intentional on my part. It’s just what happened when we got closer and freely exchanged deeper conversations. Likewise, there were a few very interesting insights I learned from them which I couldn’t have experienced elsewhere.

  50. Excellent discussion into the different viewpoints on the ethics of traveling to a country like North Korea.

    Of course, we are all entitled to our own opinions and that’s great but you could easily respond to anyone who argues that North Korea in particular is unethical that,
    1.) Any hotel, business, restaurant you have used could unknowingly be funding a human or drug trafficking ring, particularly in developing countries
    2.) Other countries with absolutely amazing sights, such as the Great Pyramids of Egypt or the temples of Luxor, have gross and recent records of killing sprees and crashing down on dissent. Not to mention, the way that women are treated. If you visit these sights, your tourism dollars does fund the government, directly or indirectly.
    3.) Even in your own city, a restaurant you go to often, or a brand of clothing you buy may be linked with ethical concerns.

    So until you are sure that you are free of all ethical travel mistakes, in your own backyard or elsewhere, you should consider what your limit is. Should we not travel to India because of the way women are treated there? Should I not travel to Australia because of the way asylum seekers are treated once in the country? There are so many things to think about and it becomes personal for each person.

    I definitely agree with you that the benefits of your trip outweigh the negatives.

  51. Not everyone will agree with you Earl. And that’s ok.

    We all have prejudices and biases. It’s not by choice that we have these. If you turn on the TV, read an article, listen to a certain type of music, hear a lecture or political leader’s point of view, some of what you see and hear sticks with you. And some of it seeps into our unconscious. Even if you don’t agree with the point of view, even if you oppose it completely, you have been exposed to those views. If you live at all outside your personal bubble, if you go outside your home or allow anything in, you will experience outside influences. I’m guilty of this and so is everyone else.

    When I was a child (this was many years ago!), I remember an adult telling me that China and the Chinese people were bad. I questioned her views. This person didn’t know any Chinese people, except perhaps those at the local restaurant. But she was exposed to what the media wanted her to believe and what her government was telling her. And while there is still a one party system, and it’s human rights record needs improvement, it is now acceptable (to other westerners) for us to travel to China.

    I live in a very big multicultural country. I am originally from Montreal but live on the east coast, in a rural part of the country, where people are very insular. When I go to Toronto or Vancouver or anywhere else in my country, I find the people very different in each of these places. There are different likes and values. Different lifestyles and activities. Some communities are more tolerant. Others not so much. We are all very different yet we are all still Canadian.

    The fact that you are open to traveling to places in this world where other people might not, for whatever reason, to me shows that you are perhaps more tolerant than others, perhaps more inquisitive. You might be more open to new experiences. More open to different ideas.

    For me it is important to gain the views of multiple sources. If there’s something on the news that interests me, for example, I’ll try to gain the perceptions of multiple outlets from multiple sources from as many countries as I can. If I was to only read the Montreal Gazette or listen to CBC, or CNN, or Al Jazeera or the BBC, then I might not get the whole picture. I’ll be fed that outlet’s biases and viewpoints.

    Ami Vitale, a very talented and wonderful travel and humanitarian photographer, has recently been quoted as saying:

    I believe objectivity is an illusion but I also believe that there are a multitude of viewpoints and that no one “Truth” exists. I believe that unless we understand and give voice to these perspectives, reason remains veiled. Ignorance in each other’s stories leads us to assume we know them. It allows us to maintain perceptions of differences based on our own pre-conceived notions.

    This is one of the reasons I travel. This is one of the reasons I try to tell stories with my photographs. I’m curious. I question. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of what makes me tick. It has been since I was young.

    I don’t mean to be writing my own blog post here. I wanted you to know that your reports of your travels to North Korea have further opened the door for me. And I am now more open to experiencing North Korea for myself.

    For that, a big Thank You Earl.

  52. Love your post on this topic! I believe that the reason visiting North Korea attracts much criticisms is due to the attention created by the mass media, particularly in the US, which has shaped people’s perceptions. The recent events of Syria may soon also propel the country into the category which travelers should not be contributing their tourist dollars to. Pakistan hasn’t actually gotten that much kind of attention except the war on terror.

    I certainly don’t see a reason to not travel to North Korea, amidst this ethical debate on travels to oppressive regimes. Traveling to the country doesn’t at all mean that you are an advocate of its political activity. We can only hope that your tourist dollar eventually trickles down to its citizens through job creation, unless you are dead certain that every single dollar goes to its nuclear programme. A scenario to consider would be the case of sweatshop labor. Boycotting a product because the company uses sweatshop labor doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it may do more harm than good if production is forced to stop and the employees are laid off, resulting in an even lower standard of living, assuming that these employees are unable to look for a better job.

    Just my point of view here!

  53. Very well said, I couldn’t agree with you more. You’ve reported very honestly and openly about what you have experienced there, as well as your thoughts and feelings on the experience. We all know how repressive and filled with propaganda North Korea is, but it’s also important for people to see them as fellow human beings just trying to survive under circumstances.
    The barriers between enemy nations will never be resolved by threats and placing greater restrictions on interaction. Only through building genuine relationships can we resolve the hostility and resentment that exists in the world.

  54. It is very interesting to read your thoughts about visiting North Korea as I am myself about to visit the country in a few days. I’ve also thought about it a lot, especially after reading Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West” which describes life in the north korean camps. It was so horrifying to learn how bad is life inside the camps but also outside in the countryside that I really wondered wether I should go or not. But like you I believe that meeting people in North Korea will be a good thing either for them and me… Maybe I’ll have another opinion after coming back, we’ll see…

  55. You asked, so here are my thiughts…Well, you went because you wanted to, it’s as simple as that. Only time will tell what, if any, damage is done by supporting your desires over the stated negatives. It’s not for me to say.
    Personally, until the time comes when my fellow Americans and I can travel there without fear of causing harm, I won’t go. I have watched the anguish of families whose loved ones have been falsely imprisioned there and don’t wish to add to their angst by giving that regime one nickel of my money. It’s my personal choice and I consider it my duty to boycott any country that uses me or my travels as propaganda. Hopefully in my lifetime N. Korea will be part of my travels, but for now I am putting my money where my conscience is clear. If I have to debate whether I go or not, I stay clear of it.

  56. I’ve been reading Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea”, which is based on interviews with ‘normal’ defectors – people who were schoolteachers, factory workers, mathematics students and so on before they left. I agree with your point that North Korean people can think for themselves and it’s patronising to go “oh, they’re just brainwashed, nothing will change”.

    I get the impression that Pyongyang is much different than the rest of the country and is intentionally set up to be the perfect city with the most loyal and healthy/attractive/friendly people – did you get to travel outside Pyongyang at all? It would be really interesting to get to meet people who haven’t ‘made it’ to the capital.

    I don’t know whether I’d choose to go myself, but it was very interesting to read about your trip – thank you for writing about it so thoughtfully.

    1. Hey Kerry – We did venture outside of Pyongyang, visiting the town of Kaeson near the DMZ. We didn’t spend as much time there as in Pyongyang though so it was hard to get a strong impression. I managed a few short conversations there but nothing too substantial. The town certainly wasn’t as organized or full of new buildings, parks and monuments as I agree that Pyongyang is much different than the rest of the country. There is no doubt about that in my mind at all. Thank you for reading!

  57. Thanks Earl for this wonderful post of yours. Let me tell you that recently I came back from Yemen and it was really an awesome place. The food was exceptional. All I would say that, I could muster the courage of visiting Yemen at this point of time was by getting useful advice from you and definitely going through your blog at length. Having said that, North Korea is also in my list of itineraries. Like you, I am also open to travel to any new places and countries that others may consider risky and repressive. The basic idea is to give a chance to let the local people know at least something of the outside world if not more. Well, god willing, definitely North Korea is in my future plan and I got more encouraged and pumped up by reading this piece of news from you. Take care, bye.

    Subhadip Mitra
    Mumbai

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.