‘I Was Told There Would be Robots’

Examining the misconceptions and morality of traveling to North Korea
September 6th, 2013
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On Halloween 2011, I did as all the travel blogs suggested and arrived early at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok, an unassuming one-story building, not far from the Chao Phraya River. A few hours and 1,260 baht (roughly $40) later, a 28-day visa to Asia’s second-most oppressive regime adorned my passport.

In the eyes of some, I had already legitimized a military junta, supported human rights violations, funded an iron-fisted army and destroyed the very relics I was going to see.

Far too eager to step off the tourist trail and to discover if the Burmese really were “the friendliest people in the world,” as they are so often (rightfully) called, I shrugged off the aforementioned claims, convincing myself that history had not yet vilified the Burmese tourist.

One year later, on November 19, 2012, on the very runway my Bangkok-bound Air Asia flight had taken off from exactly one year earlier, Air Force One touched down at Yangon International Airport, making Barack Obama the first American president to visit the country officially labeled an “Outpost of Tyranny” by the Bush administration. In a brief six-hour visit, Obama toured the Shwedagon Pagoda (a blacklisted attraction among non-advocates), hugged Aung San Suu Kyi and “extended the hand of friendship” to the now military/civilian-run government.

Obama made one thing loud and clear: Myanmar was literally and figuratively open for international business.

Today, a Coca-Cola bottling plant stands just outside the Yangon city limits. The country is fresh off of hosting 2013’s World Economic Forum’s Asia Summit. Maybe most shocking of all, the Burmese Stock Exchange’s maiden IPO is projected for October 2015.

It appears we tourists are off the hook.

While any Myanmar-North Korea Venn diagram arguably weights heavier at the bookends, while planning my trip to Pyongyang, I found enough overlapping similarities to give me a familiar case of ethical travel dilemma déjà vu.

The Internet, friends and my own reason provided no shortage of thought-provoking criticism. For starters, North Korea is home to numerous concentration camps, a largely malnourished population and a paranoid, hyper-Orwellian regime that consciously deprives hospitals of electricity to ensure nationalistic monuments are bathed in ample lighting.

The further you look in, the darker and more confusing it all gets.

As decades of geopolitics have repeatedly shown, even a valiant attempt to find black or white solutions to the country’s many quandaries leaves one stranded in a gray area as wide and ambiguous as the DMZ itself.

The morality issue surrounding North Korea tourism is among these quandaries.

In an attempt to organize, or at least highlight, the ambiguity of the DPNK tourism conundrum, I’ve written, in essence, the piece I wish I had read before going. Format-wise, I outline the most common arguments one can expect to encounter while planning a trip to North Korea. Next, I neutrally underline the give and take, or sacrifices and gains, associated with each controversy. Lastly, I provide my personal insight into the subject, sharing experiences from my four-day, government-run summer tour of Pyongyang, Kaesong and Panmunjom, supporting with facts and research where appropriate.

If you’ve been before, will my experience be similar to yours? Maybe, maybe not.

Will one year’s time render the information I provide here out-of-date? Maybe, maybe not.

It’s best to acquaint yourself with these answers now.

Argument 1: You’re giving legitimacy to the regime.

The Give: During visits to sacred monuments like the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and Mansu Hill, foreigners are required to bow in respect to the Great Leader and Dear Leader. In addition, the media can use your presence for propaganda purposes, romanticizing the reason for your visit.

The Take: Debunking stereotypes through conversation aside, your mere physical presence — visibly wealthier and more colorful than any North Korean — is enough to plant a seed of curiosity and wonder, however subconscious, in every local you see.

From experience: In Pyongyang, I befriended and gained the trust of an English-speaking waitress at a restaurant we frequented. After a few shots of soju one night, when the table cleared and the night’s mingling began, she surprised me by abruptly asking if anything she had learned about the Korean War was true.

Following her lead tone of ambiguity, I told her that if she knew enough to ask the question, surely she knew the answer. Nodding in acknowledgement she added, “We’ve been serving foreigners for five years. We see their pictures. We hear their stories. We’re not stupid.” Upon asking her if she shares what she learns at the restaurant with friends, she slowly scans the room, nods and wisely suggests we continue our Korean lesson from the evening before.

While the information trade amongPyongyang’s privileged might echo preaching to the choir, the trickle-down effect only drips in one direction.

Argument 2: You’re funding the regime.

The Give: In a black or white, go-or-no scenario, the financial argument reigns supreme among non-advocates. There is no doubt that if you travel to and through North Korea, your money will end up in the cult-of-personality coffers.

The take: Neither your tourist dollars nor all the tourist dollars in North Korea are likely to have any affect on the regimes policies or longevity. Tourism accounts for only .001 percent of the Hermit Kingdom’s annual $40 billion GDP.

From Experience: At an October 2006 U.N. Security Counsel meeting in Beijing, China signed Resolution 1718, denouncing the North’s recent, reckless nuclear test and implementing tighter trade restrictions. Former NSC Director for Asian Affairs Victor Cha remembered the Chinese reaction to American pressure to take further measures: “When we pushed the Chinese to explain what else they were doing, (they) admitted that if China cut of all sustenance, the regime could only last months, but that this was not a feasible course of action,” Cha said.

In the face of China’s historic and continuous support of North Korea with tens of billions of dollars in largely oversight-free trade and aid, including, for example, 90 percent of its energy imports (not to mention the $4 billion worth of Sunshine-era “assistance” via U.S. and ROK taxpayers), scrutinizing tourists for bringing home a few 80-cent bottles of soju seems to epitomize barking up the wrong tree.

Argument 3: You’re not going to see anything real.

The give: Outside of your hotel, there’s no freedom to go anywhere without the chaperonage of your guide, and every site you visit somehow exaggeratingly glorifies the Great Leaders, the military or the hyperbolic feats of the Korean people.

The take: No amount of political theater can hide North Korea’s decrepit infrastructure, vacant roads and water-stained Soviet-era buildings. Additionally, during every bus journey (and there are many), you have a chance to see everyday life unfold around you.

From experience: While the thought of having no freedom to wander sounds imprisoning, a DPRK tour feels eerily similar to any other guided capital city tour: following your guide, visiting monuments of cultural importance and eating, drinking and bonding with your tourmates.

While taking a government-controlled tour is the catch to any visit, North Korea is an anthropological goldmine for those willing to read between the lines, and my few days in Pyongyang (with brief stops in Kaesong and Panmunjom) provided my group with a handful of both unscripted and surreal experiences — from sharing a train car with North Korea’s national wrestling team to wandering into a pickup volleyball game at Pyongyang Station; simultaneously toeing the DMZ across from ROK tourists to standing feet away from the in-state corpses of the Great Leader and Dear Leader among sobbing soldiers.

Argument 4: You’re dealing with robots.

The give: As all guides are graduates from a state-run tourism university and workers for the state-owned Korea International Travel Company (KITC), they are well-instructed in what they can and cannot say, and their nationalistic spiels are clearly scripted.

The take: Guides won’t be shy to share their personal stories, hopes and dreams with those they feel comfortable around. In addition, there are opportunities to approach and converse with locals in public places like in parks and restaurants and on the metro.

From experience: Koreans have nothing to gain and everything to lose by opening up to Western media. In late July, Pyongyang invited a dozen international TV crews to Pyongyang, including CNN’s Ivan Watson. After his five-day trip Watson said, “Sadly, I believe I failed to have a sincere, open conversation with a single North Korean during my time there.”

With much of the world relying solely on “insider,” big-media reports like Watson’s to catch a second-hand peak behind Asia’s iron curtain, it’s no surprise “robotic” and “theatrical” have become common adjectives used to describe North Koreans. Paradoxically, however, the same people we most depend on to extract valuable information from north of the DMZ are the very least likely to get it.

Tourists, however, can expect to see a less censored, more off-the-record side of the Korean people. In just a few days I fielded thought-provoking, conversation-igniting questions from, “Are you allowed to make fun of your leaders in America?” to “What’s YouTube like?” to “Do people hate us?” to “How do you do the Gangnam Style dance?”

Others in my group experienced similar bonding experiences. One Chinese woman conversed with a singer about her desire to marry a European man. Another gregarious Russian man informed bypassing university students of the moon landing — a conversation that concluded with one bewildered student asking the man to write Neil Armstrong’s name on a scrap of notebook paper.

Argument 5: You’re not going to be safe.

The give: According to Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom of the World Report, North Korea is ranked among the very least free countries in the entire world. Over the past half-decade, the country has detained a handful of foreigners, and it continues to brazenly and publicly threaten and provoke its adversaries.

The take: The political climate and flavor-of-the-month regime rhetoric has very little affect on tourism. No detainees have been first-time tourists with legal visas, and with crime toward foreigners at virtually zero, you’re statistically safer in Pyongyang than you are in Seoul.

From experience:

It took one 20-minute phone conversation with the Chinese company processing my visa for me to realize just how wildly misinformed I was about getting into North Korea. In a tone that projected “don’t worry, we get this all the time,” I was assured a) nothing I hear on the news has any affect on tourism, b) Americans, even Korean-Americans, are constantly issued visas and, partially joking, c) as long as I wasn’t secretly affiliated with CNN, I had nothing to worry about.

After this conversation, I took to Google — researching tour companies, reading traveler testimonies and stumbling across one eye-opening Reddit AMA from a tour guide who had been to the North more than 100 times. All the information I gathered left me refreshingly confused: Why was the international consensus toward traveling to North Korea so fire and brimstone? Why did so many friends at home and abroad fear for my safety? Who started this assumption-driven game of telephone?

Few questions about North Korea could be answered in one word. However, when people ask if I ever felt unsafe or nervous in the DPRK, one word does this question all its justice: Never.

Even among experts, many of the great question marks surrounding North Korea—from reunification to the second coming of the Korean War—are best answered with a shoulder-shrugging “time will tell.” In the case of the long-term affect tourism will have on the DPRK regime, I’m not so sure we have to wait.

Since the days of the Japanese occupation, Korea as a peninsula has understood its role as “a shrimp among whales,” a geopolitical pawn with little control over its own fate. In a side-by-side comparison of tourist revenue against even the most conservative aid, trade and assistance figures, the analogical mismatch is equally as lopsided.

And while the “go or no” dialogue is an important one to have, it’s time both sides see the North Korea tourist for what he or she is — a mere shrimp among the world’s most aggressive whales.

Because one day, either five or 10 or 50 years from now, the future leader of the free world will have his or her controversial, yet remarkable moment in Pyongyang — not dissimilar to Nixon’s in Beijing or Obama’s in Yangon. And on this day, any historic contributions, for better or worse, made by Kim-era tourists will be a far, long-forgotten cry from the power-political narrative of the day.

It’s a mistake to assume all tourist contributions will be forgotten, however.

I hardly doubt the boy that now knows the name of Neil Armstrong will ever again look up at the moon without an added sense of wonder.

Picture: NK News

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About the Author

Matt Alesevich

Matt Alesevich is a New York-based writer who has lived in Seoul and Shanghai and traveled extensively around South East Asia. He can be contacted via www.mattalesevich.com or on Twitter @MattAlesevich

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