Travel to North Korea seems to spark controversy, and there are some good reasons for this.
There are many moral issues within the country and it sports a long litany of Human Rights abuses.
In my previous post I covered information on how to go to North Korea, what to expect on the tours and some of what you can see.
In this post I will talk about my view of the ethical aspects of travelling to North Korea here as they seem to go hand in hand with visiting the country.
You may not agree, but like everybody I can only report my point of view formed from my own experiences – as anyone can.
As such I’ll warn you that this is a massive post and that my views may be controversial. Read at your own risk.
For the record I’d like to state that I do not support the government’s regime, or policies, or the Juche ideology. I am not trying to say that the human rights situation is not serious.
I don’t doubt the issues.
– Free speech doesn’t exist
– Over 200,000 people live in prison camps
– many people don’t receive proper food or health care
– executions have risen since leader number 3 took control including his ex-girlfriend for no real reason
There are certainly problems in this country.
However I also think that the people of North Korea should not be lumped together with their government. They are real people. Not one-dimensional robot like paper cut outs that our media often portrays them as.
As much as I agree that there are issues in North Korea, I also believe that not everything that is reported is true. North Koreans are led to believe (brainwashed) to think certain things by their media.
So are we.
Not just about North Korea, about anywhere. Fear keeps people tuned in and sensational stories sell. These are the ones that are reported and so people often get a skewed view of the world.
As an example – I remember watching a report on North Korea when I was a child. I remember the reporter saying that all the people went on underground walkways to get to the other side of the street even though there were very few cars. They were so scared/brainwashed that they did not even consider breaking the rules.
On my first day in North Korea I saw two local women take their bags straight across the road instead of going to a designated crossing.
While the issues are indisputable, the media presents a very narrow view, and with somewhere as isolated as North Korea, you can only really go there and see for your-self.
I am glad that I went and would recommend visiting to others. I don’t think visiting does damage; in fact I think that it has the potential to have a positive effect.
They may not be able to travel to us, but we can travel there. We can interact with them, show that we are not all threats like the government propaganda portrays us to be.
I think short of nuking the government and catching lots civilians in the process, slowly opening up North Korea is the best chance of achieving any change in the country. It may not work, but it I think it’s the best chance. I don’t see boycotting having a real chance of doing anything unless North Korea’s political supporters cut contact.
I think it is also good for the travellers. Several people on my tour spoke about how they had not clearly separated out the government and the people before their visit. Travelling there had ‘raised the curtain’ and humanized North Korea for them.
The main objections I have heard against going are:
“If you go there, your money will be supporting the government.”
Some money will go to the government. That is unavoidable. It takes a visa processing fee and receives tax. This however is not a largely substantial amount of money. It has been estimated to be about 0.001% of the total of North Korea’s GDP. I don’t think it is nearly enough to be useful for enhancing their weapons programme.
Most of the money you pay goes to your tour company. Most of it that does go to North Korea goes back into the tourism industry to provide more jobs for locals. If you took away tourism, I honestly don’t think that it would affect the government much if at all.
If no one went, the government would stay in power just as it did before tourism was allowed into the country.
The local people would lose out. All those with jobs in the tourist industry would lose work, their families would lose the income and support and whatever positive effect from interaction with foreigners who are not threatening and horrible despite the propaganda against the west would disappear.
The Human Rights issues would still be there.
The prisoners in the camps would still be there.
“You won’t experience anything real. It will be controlled and all put on for tourists like a play. Nothing will be authentic.”
I don’t agree with this. What you hear from the guides about factories is all propaganda –true; what you can see is certainly restricted – no chances of wandering into poor regions where food shortages are, or near the horrific prison camps. That does not mean that what you do see is not in fact North Korea.
It is only part of North Korea certainly, but it can’t reasonably be argued that it isn’t real.
As I said in my last post – I left my tour group for at least ½ an hour in the park, I danced with a guy on the beach in Nampho (well away from my tour group), I danced with women in the park on Independence day, I played with children in the fun park, I played water volleyball in Wonsan, I left my group again on the pier in Wonsan, my group talked to a group of workers in the middle of nowhere during our lunch stop between Pyongyang and Wonsan, we could approach and talk to anybody. The list goes on.
I could also see all of Pyongyang from the revolving restaurant at the top of the hotel and see the city from above when we went up the Juche tower.
I could see the half constructed buildings dotted around and the slightly worse for wear apartment buildings. After all, how do you censor the view from a tower or high-rise?
From the train and the bus I could see the countryside and towns on the way past, all the fields, the little wooden platforms that farmers used to sleep in to watch over crops, the farmers themselves carrying bags and other equipment along the side of the road – how do you censor that?
From the bus – especially on the journey to Wonsan we could see and feel the effect of the concrete slabs that formed the road instead of tarmac. Bump bump bump.
One woman I spoke to back in China said that they probably put people on the beach to talk to us.
All several hundred? Even though they didn’t speak English?
How could all or even any of what I have described above have been a show? Do you really think that the government managed to choreograph all of that? For multiple tour groups?
Please stop pushing the fantasy land conspiracy theories. The reality is problematic enough. No need to invent extras.
“Tourists are used as propaganda tools. It looks like you are coming to honour the leaders and that you support the system.”
Probably true to an extent, but as I have said earlier in this post and in my previous post about North Korea. They are real people. They are not robotic paper cut outs and do have brains of their own.
It is easy to discount them, since we never actually hear anything directly from then outside North Korea.
North Koreans are certainly fed propaganda at every corner, but foreigners hardly act in a very respectful way. They go around with cameras taking photos of everything, talking loudly and wearing casual clothing such as jandals and shorts.
One point that was made to me by a teaching expat living in China was that wearing casual clothing such as shorts was often seen as something only poor people did. He said that the North Koreans would just think that the tourists were poor.
While this is a valid cultural point, I don’t think it pans out in reality.
All the tourists go to expensive restaurants that most North Koreans could not afford and staying in really expensive hotels. Everyone sees this.
Being a tour guide is a very sought after job. Partly because of the really brilliant tips given at the end of the trip and gifts given to the guides at the start of the trip. They get so much that other people complained, and now (for my tour and other tours led by that company at any rate) the gifts are given to the tour guides outside Pyongyang to avoid making a big show of it.
One guy in my group had three cameras the size of well fed cats hanging off him at all times. He also carried a large tripod everywhere. He often wore shorts. I doubt people thought that he was poor.
I don’t think that tourists could be mistaken for being poor due to cultural differences.
And although there probably is some propaganda use in tourists visiting, I think it is relatively minimal. They certainly don’t act in a worshipful or overly respectful manner.
Notes on going to North Korea.
Accept vastly different opinions
If you go to North Korea, go in with an open mind and open eyes.
It is not the type of place that you should bother going to if you are unwilling, or unable to accept that people will think things that are very different to you.
Don’t be aggressive and put your tour guides on the spot. My foreign guide said people in the past have done this. You won’t start a revolution, you won’t achieve anything, or get anywhere – you’ll just make your guides stressed, uncomfortable and unhappy.
Accept/respect their opinion even if you don’t agree with it. Be respectful and show genuine curiosity – our guides were happy to talk to us and explain their views. You can learn a lot about what they think and how they think, just know you probably won’t agree with most of it. Don’t make a scene, or deliberately ask blunt questions.
For example, they believe that the Americans are solely responsible for the divided country and were unjustified aggressors in the war. The North Korean version of history is so drastically altered it’s almost entertaining.
Talk frankly with other travellers, if you want to vent do so in your hotel room, or in the hotel bar, talk to your foreign guides and ask them the more pointed questions in private. If you are unsure whether your question will upset your Korean guides, or somehow be inappropriate, ask your foreign guide if your question would upset them or not. They will be much more experienced in dealing with the cultural gap.
Be prepared to bite your tongue if you don’t agree with something.
Again, you won’t get anywhere and it will be like complaining to a brick wall. You will just upset the guides.
You will be fed a lot of propaganda, it is everywhere. Bronze statues are all over the place, mosaics of the late leaders are on almost every street corner.
University students sit facing portraits of the two dead ones in their lecture theatre.
At the sea dam we visited in Nampho, the video talked a lot about how they only could do it because the leader showed them how.
At the (highly sanitized) farm with a huge bronze statue we were told how the farm had had problems and the leader had come and fixed them.
The subway also was apparently personally designed by the leader.
A favourite opening line of tours was “Comrade ___ visited this place a total of __ times.”
At the Agriculture University in Wonsan there was even a little green spray painted triangle to mark where the leader had stood for a photograph.
I found it very interesting – for all its faults North Korea is a one-of-a-kind country and the other side of the fence is definitely unique and really interesting.
Sometimes I found it amusing.
By the end of the trip it was a little tiring. I never wanted to see another statue again.
It became a running joke in my tour group towards the end of the eleven day tour. He was an engineer, a soldier, a philosopher, a botanist, a horticulture expert, an architect, a diplomat etc etc “Comrade Leader to save the world” “Comrade Leader – fixing the world’s problems.”
I didn’t have much of a problem with it, but if you are more easily irritated by such things – know beforehand and don’t let it get to you.
See what is really there – good, bad, or ugly
It would also be pointless to go if you are so wrapped up in your preconceptions that you can’t see what is really there.
This is true for travelling everywhere (and I’ve written about it before). I do think it needs to be said again for a place such as North Korea where people often have such strong opinions, and where we hear almost nothing except what is newsworthy (and non of that is positive for obvious reasons).
See what is really there for all the many issues, and all the many good ordinary things that aren’t sensational enough to make it into our media.
My foreign guide said that some people on previous tours had ‘pounced’ on the fact that there were cameras in the elevators as proof that the government was watching everyone’s every move.
Cameras in the elevators are standard security. How many elevators have cameras at home? Lots.
Don’t be silly.
Furthermore, tourists are not important enough to be spied on. The government is not watching your every single step. It has better things to do.
An example of not seeing what is in front of you from my trip is when my group went to the Mausoleum. one room showed a map of the world. Blue lines snaked across the map to show where the first communist leader, Kim Il-sung, had travelled across the world by train.
Then they disappeared to be replaced with red lines to show where he had travelled by plane.
As avidly obsessed with maps and countries as I am, I watched to see where he had gone. I saw that the furthest west he seemed to have travelled was the Czech Republic. He’d never been to Africa, but he had flown to Indonesia.
There was a second room very like that one dedicated to North Korea’s second communist leader, Kim Jong-Il.
He didn’t go anywhere in Europe, or Africa. They had both travelled by train through Russia, but overall he’d travelled less. But he had travelled by train and plane to several places, including flying to Indonesia like his father.
When I was back at the hotel, I talked to people from a Dutch tour group. They had visited the same mausoleum we had. One was saying how the second leader had never been in a plane.
I immediately popped out that the map on the wall said he had, and listed some countries that he had been too.
The man, frowned, looked confused and insisted that the map had only shown train travel because he had been scared of flying and had never flown.
Did he even look at anything in the Mausoleum? The train lines were blue, the plane lines were red. It was pretty hard to miss, if you were looking.
For all I know, that map was propaganda and he never really flew in a plane. I googled it when I came back but came up with nothing.
That is not the point.
The guy had such strong ideas that he did not see what was actually on the map. He thought it had only shown train travel.
Why come all the way to see a new country if you are not going to learn anything? If you are so fond of your second-hand/third hand ninety-fifth hand previously established ideas – why come?
If you are going to visit North Korea, don’t go in with your eyes sewn shut.
North Koreans may have only one highly biased news source that produces lots of propaganda, but we are also led to believe things by our media too.
Realise that and don’t go there spewing the western version of propaganda, whatever it may be.
One last point
Why does visiting only North Korea bring forward such criticism?
When my Aunt heard that I was going to North Korea, she tried to convince me that going there was supporting the government.
But when she had heard that I was moving to China, she didn’t say anything.
Yet they have their own Human Rights issues, which according to Amnesty International include “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 point includes send North Korean escapees back to North Korea.
What about America with their executions and Guantanamo Bay detention camp which Amnesty International has described as the “Gulag of our times”?.
Aren’t you supporting the government if you visit either of these countries?
So why does North Korea draw such criticism? When others don’t?
Don’t misunderstand me, I love living in China and I’d love to visit the USA. I just don’t see why visiting North Korea seems to be the only (or almost the only) country that draws criticism. It is hardly the only country with Human Rights issues.
Maybe because is many cases it is more extreme?
Possibly an unfair comparison, but I think it drives home the point.
If a man brutally rapes two women and another brutally rapes five women – should we only focus on the more extreme case?
If you are going to be against travel to North Korea, I do understand why you could have that point of view. However with that reasoning the logical continuation would be to be against travelling to many other countries as well.
In my experience this is not the case. Everyone I have talked to who has been against travel to North Korea has never thought once about not going to China, or the USA so as to not support the government there
What are your thoughts on travel to North Korea?