Should we still be traveling to North Korea?

Statues of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang. Source: Shutterstock

ONE North Korean travel website states it seeks to “provide excellent services for all people who hope to visit the country with a friendly feel”.

This could easily lull you into forgetting that North Korea has one of the most oppressive regimes in the world.

Since its breakaway in 1953 from South Korea, with whom it is still technically at war, North Korea has acted almost entirely independently in secretive isolation.

What do we know about North Korea?

Despite being a nation shrouded in mystery, North Korea often winds up in the international news due to its ambitious nuclear weapons program.

Largely funded by trade deals with neighboring communist China and the forced foreign labor of North Korea citizens, the program instills fear in nations across the globe.

Combined with the playground-style “banter” regularly bounced back and forth between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world have been close to breaking point.

Due to state-controlled media, restricted radio and pre-tuned TV which only broadcast a rose-tinted version of North Korea, little is known about the state.

However, reports of widespread famine across the nation appeared in the mid-1990s, and North Korea “stubbornly used its considerable influence to block concessions”, meaning millions of citizens starved to death.

Things haven’t got a whole lot better since then. In 2015 a drought caused extremely low harvests, with refugee accounts recalling constant starvation.

The World Food Program states 70 percent of the population is “food insecure”, suffering from chronic malnutrition.

Lately, however, North Korea has been in the headlines for slightly more positive reasons.

Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong charmed the media at the Winter Olympics in South Korea and stole a piece of everyone’s heart with her humble demeanor and constant smiles.

More recently, Kim Jong-un announced a summit in South Korea with President Moon Jae-in to discuss suspending nuclear and missile tests.

While these slivers of optimism are worth grabbing onto, it is important not to forget the history North Korea has inflicted on its people.

Why does North Korea have a bad rep?

Beyond Kim Jong-un’s reclusive regime threatening global war, North Korea’s extreme control over its people is enforced via arbitrary arrests routinely resulting in torture, harsh detention centers or public executions.

“Kim Jong-un’s power is built on fear and terrible rights abuses,” said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch Deputy Director, Asia Division.

“With its gulags, forced labor, and public executions, the North Korean government presents a throwback to the worst abuses of the 20th century.”

North Korea also punishes citizens for possessing unauthorized information from the outside world such as mobile phones, Hollywood movies and Western music.

Despite these being known facts, thousands of international tourists visit the enigmatic nation every year.

Who is visiting North Korea?

According to Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based general manager of Koryo Tours, one of the largest international operators of trips to North Korea, around 95 percent of tourists to the secretive country are Chinese. Only 4,000 to 4,500 of them come from the West.

Contrary to Western media’s depiction of grey buildings and eerie streets, North Korea boasts a colorful array of tour programs.

Although they are enjoyed under the watchful eye of guides and often “cameramen”, vacation companies specializing in North Korean tours such as DPR Korea Tour, Uritours Tours and KTG all offer interesting itineraries.

From scenic rail journeys and ski resorts, to language classes and mountain climbing, it sounds like any other vacation destination.

The strict mobile restrictions have also been relaxed, but don’t go expecting to watch the latest Netflix releases.

What are the risks? 

Last year, the story of 21-year-old Otto Warmbier hit the headlines after his ill-fated vacation in North Korea.

Warmbier was arrested on his departure from the country on allegations of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.

After being sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment with hard labor, Warmbier suffered a mysterious head injury while being held in a detention center.

North Korea released him back to the US, but he never regained consciousness and died.

Warmbier’s story illustrates the significant cultural difference between North Korea and the rest of the world.

His death led to the US banning its citizens from visiting and led other nations to revise their travel advisories.

The Australian government advised people to “consider their need to travel” to North Korea, and New Zealand identifies the nation as “high risk”.

Tour guides will run through the rules with visitors and keep a watchful eye on their group.

Breaking rules not only puts the tourist’s life in danger but the guide’s, too.

These are the main tourism rules:

  • Don’t call the country North Korea, call it Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK.
  • Don’t expect to see the real North Korea – many of the “authentic village life” scenes are set up for propaganda purposes.
  • Don’t speak negatively about the county and don’t cause offense to anyone.
  • Don’t discuss politics or religion.
  • Ask your tour guide when and where you’re allowed to take photos.

Ultimately, is traveling to North Korea ethical?

Beyond physical risks, the questions of ethics should be considered when thinking of tripping to North Korea.

Intrigue and curiosity drive many travelers’ wanderlust, but is paying to support an abusive regime a step too far in the realms of travel bragging?

Unlike tourists visiting Germany in the late 1930s, who were unwittingly contributing to a fascist regime, travelers to North Korea are fully aware of the atrocities taking place all over the nation.

Concentration camps filled with innocent people litter rural North Korea; “…they certainly don’t have family and foreign governments lobbying for their freedom,” explains Alex Moore in an Independent article.

A tour of North Korea costs around US$1,000, which helps to “finance a government with an abuse record as close to that of Nazi Germany,” added Moore.

Additionally, David Anderson, an Australian-American attorney who has been following North Korean affairs for the last 25 years commented all arguments coming from tour companies claiming North Korean tourism is helpful for “grassroots connections and money in the economy” are flawed “because all funds go entirely to the government.”

Despite what tour guides may claim or what the healthy appearance of the “actors” seen on staged tours may suggest, North Korea citizens suffer from poor living conditions and prolonged malnutrition.

This has led to a stunt in growth for around a quarter of the population.

Ultimately, traveling to North Korea could be likened to burning money in front of a homeless person or flushing the only copy of the cure for cancer down the toilet. Why?

Because while people risk their lives across unforgiving terrain to escape, others are paying a lot of money to get in.

Ask yourself this: is funding an oppressive regime really worth a Facebook post?