Image credit: Joseph Ferris.
North Korea, one of the world’s last remaining closed societies and perennial geopolitical troll, is on many world travellers’ bucket list. Few places are as unique or just downright weird as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The DPRK’s attraction as a tourist destination aside, it ethical to visit a society completely under the control of a dictatorial regime? A regime that imprisons over 200,000 of its own citizens in a Gulag system far worse than anything Stalin could come up with, and so mismanages the country’s economy that its people are left scavenging in the dirt to stave off starvation. Can one, as a tourist to North Korea, feel right in giving money, albeit in comparatively minuscule amounts, to the megalomaniacal Kim necrocracy?
I couldn’t comfortably answer that question, so I reached out to a number of North Korea watchers and experts, who were generous enough to give me their opinions on the matter.
Tad Farrell, Founder, NKNews / NKNews Travel:
Visiting North Korea raises many dilemmas for people from an ethical perspective. No one knows exactly where the money goes, so there are always fears that one’s hard earned dollars might in some way be subsidizing North Korea’s nuclear weapons or rocket programs. While this could be true, its important to keep perspective in mind.
Last year North Korea’s GDP was (conservatively) estimated by the CIA to be approx $40 billion. When considering that about 4,000 Westerners go per year, the revenue generated by tourist visits comes to about $400,000 per year* – or 0.001% of the sum total of the DPRK GDP. These figures are so small that frankly it is absurd to think that touring North Korea will in any way impact what the North Korean government chooses to spend its money on.
Just like those tourists who think they’re important enough to be spied upon for the duration of their visits to North Korea (they’re not), I see those who object to tourism on moral grounds as people who like to think their individual actions play a much bigger role than they actually do. North Korea can take or leave this paltry tourism income: even if all westerners voted with their feet and didn’t visit, it would make no difference to the North Korean government from a financial perspective. As such, weapons programs, prisons and a one party system would continue to exist regardless.
So why should people visit? I think visiting North Korea is beneficial because it increases people to people contact (even at arguably superficial levels), creates jobs that will lead to increasing numbers of North Koreans coming into close and regular contact with foreigners, and helps spread realities about life outside the borders of the DPRK in a real and tangible way. All of these factors will slowly influence the way ordinary North Koreans think about their situation, government, and borders.
Visiting the DPRK of course has to be on North Korean terms and conditions, but they aren’t that alien when you consider the types of destinations a government approved tour guide would normally take you in any other country. Just think – when would tourists visiting the National Mall in Washington DC ever get taken by their guides across the Potomac River to Anacostia, or across to South East DC (two areas with very high homicide rates that underscore the segregation of life in the American capitol)? Quite simply, they don’t. Just as tour guides in the West want to show off their nations’ best monuments, so too do their counterparts in North Korea. The difference is of course that if you wanted you could visit those areas in DC, but in North Korea you simply can’t just sneak off and visit a gulag.
Hopefully if and when tourism increases in North Korea it will soon be accompanied by a relaxation of rules and regulations. My hope is that the experience will be similar to Cuba in a few years, where travelling the country (relatively) freely is no problem at all.
*Figures are for western tourists, there are an estimated additional 20,000 Chinese tourists to North Korea every year.
Arirang Mass Games, North Korea. Image credit: Joseph Ferris.
Melanie Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, and author of Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad:
North Korea is the world’s most repressive state. I’d urge each would-be traveler to consider what effect his visit could have in support of the brutal regime that oppresses the North Korean people.
North Korea welcomes foreign visitors for two reasons: 1) the foreign exchange they bring in and 2) for propaganda purposes. North Korea needs foreign exchange to buy technology—often illicit technology—for its missile and nuclear programs. The Kim regime also needs foreign exchange to purchase luxury goods with which to bribe its supporters. A foreigner’s dollars and euros help sustain such activities. In addition, foreign visitors are presented to the public as there to honor the Kim family, shrines to whom are on every tourist itinerary. Finally, the foreigner who argues that his visit will help “people-to-people” contacts is dreaming. Every visit is strictly controlled, every visitor has an official minder, and access to ordinary North Koreans is next-to-impossible. The foreigner who sets off on his own and speaks to ordinary North Koreans puts those to whom he speaks in great personal peril. In short, it is fair to say that foreign visitors to North Korea are complicit in the evil perpetrated by the Kim family regime. They are helping to prop up the regime, thereby prolonging the suffering of the North Korean people.
Read our interview with Ms Kirkpatrick from November 2012.
Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology & Modern Korea, Leeds University, UK:
[North Korea’s] is of course an unspeakably monstrous regime, but I can think of several reasons why that shouldn’t stop you going:
1. Everyone should take a look, if only once. It’s unique.
2. You could go, and either make a nuisance of yourself there in obvious ways – doing as you please, going where you want etc – or be a good boy but then dump all over them afterwards in what you write. Either of those could be a public service. Or a revolutionary act. Or good fun. Or all three.
3. I think I buy the Lankov argument that the more contact the better. Sure, the folks you meet are all bearers of structures; perforce they are part of the regime. But they are also thinking individuals, albeit at this point not free-speaking. You might influence some for later.
Very much like China in the early years there is only one way of visiting the country, through the National Tourism Association, and through that we use the state owned travel company Korea International Travel Company. They will pay a tax to the Government but with only around 6,000 western tourists a year it is a relatively small amount and very easy to track where the money goes – mainly in supporting their fledgling tourism industry. More importantly, tourism has been responsible for creating jobs in an industry that requires dialogue and peace with the outside world. At Koryo Tours we believe that more not less tourism should be promoted and that engagement allows North Korean citizens a chance to understand the world outside.
Travel broadens the mind and no more so than in North Korea. There are no restrictions for you to visit and the United Nations, European Union and other agencies (such as foreign embassies in Pyongyang) see tourism as a positive way of engagement. Very few journalists are allowed into North Korea so the amazing experiences you will embrace there are rarely publicised. It is not a country that many people visit, and there is virtually no information available about it. Koryo Tours has been responsible for opening up destination such as Wonsan and Hamhung to tourism but perhaps the greatest impact is that which we have on the Koreans. Any contact we have with the Korean people has to be beneficial in breaking down barriers, particularly as many people outside Pyongyang have not seen let alone interacted with foreigners. On our tours amazing things happen such as tourists joining in folk celebrations with the Koreans, impromptu football matches with workers, playing games with Korean children, being approached by Koreans who want to practice their English, and so on. In the West we portray the Koreans as a very humourless and robotic people, however this stereotype is soon broken if you travel there, they are a very proud people and although their life is a struggle their humour and warmth is unsurpassed.
People sometimes worry that their money is going direct to the government but the profit made from a tour it is very marginal, whereas you interact with so many people both directly and indirectly who are supported by your custom. For example, restaurant staff who would clearly find it more difficult without work. We believe supporting tourism is a positive way of spending money and the benefits of visiting and understanding the country and then perhaps helping with aid etc, far outweigh isolating the country. We also sponsor various charitable projects in the DPRK (working with small western organisations that ensure the money is well spent).
As I was preparing to publish this piece, I was made aware (thanks Hannah!) of a Reddit AMA going on with Sang-hyun, a recent defector from North Korea. Here is the answer he gave about travelling to the DPRK:
I think tourism in North Korea is a positive thing. It means that North Korean people can see and meet foreigners, even if they can’t have a conversation. If that happens a lot then North Korean people’s thinking can change, especially if they can see the difference in the way foreigners live. Tourism and foreigners coming to the country is also in the direction of opening the country up, so I think it is a positive thing.
Children in Mt. Myohyang, North Korea. Image credit: Joseph Ferris.
The consensus among our experts, with the notable exception of Ms Kirkpatrick, seems to come down in favour of visiting North Korea. This opinion was reflected by a number of other people I spoke to informally, who felt that the more exposure average North Koreans had to outsiders, the better. I don’t necessarily dispute this view, but it’s important to remember that, particularly in Pyongyang, tourists are not coming into contact with ‘average’ North Koreans. Residents of Pyongyang are typically chosen by the regime for their loyalty and belief in the Juche ’cause’. The sight of a foreigner is unlikely to sway such people, just as North Korean diplomats (the real hardcore believers) don’t go all dewey eyed about capitalism and democracy when they visit the west.
The best point raised in favour of going to North Korea, in my opinion, is that the amount of money that would eventually find its way into the Kim regime’s coffers is negligible. However, were the North Korean tourist industry to grow (unlikely at present, given recent developments), the amount of money generated may become more ethically problematic.
Thank you very much to all our experts for taking the time to respond to my questions. All photos used in this piece are from Joseph Ferris’s excellent Flickr portfolio.
[Editor’s note: We sometimes get asked why, as a site focused on China, we dedicate so much time and space to coverage of North Korea, this seems as good a place as any to answer that question. The feeling among our editorial team is that as the DPRK’s only ally, and potentially the only thing standing between the Kim regime and destruction, China is inherently linked to North Korea. The parallels drawn between contemporary North Korea and pre-reform and opening China also over a certain amount of voyeuristic fascination, that there but for the grace of Deng, could go China.]