Because I am a huge travel nerd, I am constantly on FlyerTalk. FlyerTalk is a massive forum that covers every and all topics that are of interest to any travel enthusiast. As I was browsing flyertalk a trip report really caught my eye. Daniel W of DSWPhoto went to North Korea. This trip report was by far one of the most interesting things I have read in a long time. As the world’s most secretive government, tourism is extremely rare. However, it has been growing in recent years. Because the North Korean government significantly limits access to tourist. As a result., you rarely see much outside of the North Korean Capital of Pyongyang.
This is where this report stood out. While Daniel was limited to the places authorized by his tour guide, his tour went out Pyongyang and got a look at the country as a whole. He took some amazing pictures of areas things that are typically off limits and he wrote about it extremely well. This post, however, was extremely controversial on FlyerTalk. Most of the controversy surrounded the ethical ramifications of visiting a country like North Korea. This discussion got me thinking about whether I would visit North Korea.
Argument for Visiting North Korea
Keep in mind that this is just a hypothetical discussion. United States citizens currently cannot obtain a visa to visit North Korea.
The rare chance to see a completely different culture
By far the most alluring reason to visit North Korea is the experience. Being extremely isolated, it is like stepping back in time. From everything I have seen about North Korea It is truly a place that feels if time stands still. From the architecture to the way the locals dress it is something out of the 1970s. This is due to the lack of globalization. In the current global economy, no matter where you go you are going to see billboards everywhere and run into the same global chain restaurants and stores. Don’t get me wrong, while I have no issue with brands like McDonald’s, the GAP, and Coke, pictures from North Korea are very striking because of the lack of any sort of advertising. As someone in my early 30s I cannot recall a time where I was not constantly being sold something.
Additionally, being on the outside it is easy to forget that North Korea is more than just the government. Generally in the west, all we hear is news about the latest atrocities of the North Korean Government. But North Korea as a whole shouldn’t be judged by government. North Korea is made up of people. Most of these people are just regular people trying to get by. From everything I have read the people of North Korea are extremely friendly and curious about life in other nations. Just as the actions of Trump do not define Americans, North Koreans shouldn’t be defined by Kim Jong Un. The chance to interact and meet someone from a country that is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from ours, is extremely interesting to me. How are their lives different? where are we the same?
The Architecture and Design
While I know very little about architecture, I seeing the differences in architecture between different cultures. From everything I have seen from Pyongyang North Korean architecture is extremely socialist. From everything Tom Clancy has taught me, I know that socialism is all about portraying strength and power. Socialist Architecture is very much the same way. The buildings are tall and starks with extremely sharp angles. Essentially it is meant to look intimidating and imposing. North Korea’s most iconic building, the Ryugyong Hotel, is a great example of this angular imposing design.
Contrast this with the Pyongyang Metro. The Pyongyang Metro is extremely beautiful, which is crazy because it is a subway station. It is an Art Deco design with hints of Baroque.
Korean food is my absolute favorite food. Well americanized korean food I guess. I have never been to either North or South Korea so I cannot say if I would like authentic Korean food. That being said one reason to visit North Korea is for the food. I would be curious to see how food in the North differs from the Korean food served in the United States or the South (I figure if I ever went to the North I would also visit the South).
Because You Can
Who am I or anyone else to tell you where or where not to go. Some people’s goals in life, mine included, are to visit as many places as humanly possible. If you want to go to North Korea you shouldn’t let anyone (other than governments) stop you. Without a doubt visiting a country like north korea would be an unforgettable experience.
Arguments Against Visiting North Korea
While reading through the forum about Daniel’s visit to North Korea, most of the Arguments were ethical. The 24 million people living in North Korea, live under strict communist rule. Every aspect of the North Korean life is controlled by the government. People in North Korea have to ask permission to travel, tv’s are tuned only to government stations, and citizens face harsh punishment for watching foreign media. Most North Koreans are extremely poor and the country has issues feeding all of its citizens. There are a lot of reasons to not visit North Korea.
You are providing money to an oppressive government
One thing to keep in mind while reading these blogs is the Government will only let tourists see what they want them to see. People forget while there that the North Korean government has committed and still commits atrocities and human rights violations. Detractors to the North Korean regime are often killed or sent to prison camps without trials. Their families never get notice and never find out what happened to their loved ones. While in these camps there are multitudes of human rights violations such as forced labor, torture, and starvation.
There is also status or caste system in North Korea called songbun. This system determines everything in their lives. It determines where they can live, work they can do, how much food they get, and who they can marry. This has led to widespread discrimination and oppression of the lower classes. The lower classes and people with disabilities cannot visit Pyongyang. North Korea also uses starvation as ways to get people to do what they want. It is estimated that about 30% of North Korean citizens suffer from malnourishment. According to the UN Human Rights Commission North Korea commits gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity.
Because of this, an argument against going to North Korea is that all of the money you spend goes directly to the government. It funds widespread oppression. Instead of feeding malnourished citizens, that money goes to develops weapons. The best counter argument I can think of is that this type of tourism is an important cultural exchange. It is possible the growth of outsiders coming into the country could lead to improvements of the quality of life of the citizens.
You are taking food out of the mouths of those who need it
As mentioned above malnutrition is a significant issue for North Korea. About 1 of every five North Korean children have stunted growth due to malnutrition. In an article published by The Guardian the adoptive parent of six North Korean children discussed how the amount of food options overwhelmed her children when they arrived to the south. For the first few months they would only eat rice. Based on Daniel’s and others pictures of their trips to North Korea, it seems like tourists receive more than enough food to eat. That food could potentially go to those within the country who need it more.
You are being used for propaganda
I know I have said this before, but I will say it again, North Korea only lets you see what they want you to see. That means every single aspect of the experience avoids the harsh realities of North Korea. As a result, you leave the country telling anyone and everyone about the great time you had in North Korea and recommend it to them. This is the case with every blog post I have seen about visiting North Korea. These blog posts have more influence on the readers than the author even realizes. It significantly detracts from the negative that most people (fairly or unfairly) have about North Korea. It makes you forget the atrocities that are being committed, and essentially adds to the North Korean propaganda machine.
A great example of how these tailored tours can impact your view of a country is Daniel. On his trip Daniel went to the opening night of the Mass Games. Kim Jong Un attended and sat not too far from Daniel. About the experience he wrote “It was my first time seeing a leader of a country while visiting so it was a bit of a buzz”. Given that rare opportunity Daniel forgot that the person he was seeing is a murdering dictator who imprisons people who disagree with them and forces them into slave labor. The trip skewed his opinion of North Korea to the point he was excited to see its leader.
Would I Visit North Korea?
When I first started writing this, my answer was yes. As you know from my Trip Reports it is my goal to go to as many places as possible. The more I researched this post my opinion changed. Blog posts on the topic typically paint visiting North Korea as this incredible once in a lifetime experience, and I am sure it is. However, what they really show is how effective these tailored tours are at selling the tourist on North Korea. They are great at making you forget everything that is going on outside of what you see. They make you forget that the government restricts its citizens to the point where some live in fear. I would not think less of anyone who would want to go to visit North Korea. It is their prerogative and their personal choice, but I personally do not think I would go.
What are your opinions of visits to North Korea?