In the words of Hong Yin Chol, Head of the Publicity Bureau for North Korea’s National Tourism Administration, “tourists from the whole world” are now welcome in North Korea. Notwithstanding Mr. Hong’s enthusiasm, North Korea remains a rather niche destination for holiday makers. Receiving just 75-80,000 tourists in 2011 (in contrast, nearly ten million tourists visited South Korea that year) nuclear weaponry, rather than sightseeing, still characterizes North Korea in the eyes of many.
So who actually goes to North Korea on holiday? Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of tourists are Chinese. Said to be lured by “the popularity of movies and songs from the DPRK in their youth,” North Korea’s appeal is more likely to be couched in its affordability and its proximity to the Chinese border. Despite accounting for just a fraction of the 70 million trips made by Chinese vacationers in 2011, the 70,000 Chinese tourists that did visit North Korea contributed a sizable $300 million to Sino-DPRK trade that year. With Chinese tourists parting with $73 billion annually, North Korea’s recent investment in its tourist infrastructure and the increasing number of Chinese tour operators offering trips to the DPRK indicates that money is to be made by both sides.
In a stark contrast to this so-called “Chinese invasion”, just 3,500 Western tourists visited North Korea in 2011. Naturally contingent on issues of time, distance, and funds, it still remains that for many in the West the DPRK is still an unknown entity — both as a holiday destination and as a country. Yet in spite of North Korea’s mysteriousness, Western tourist numbers remain steady, with over twenty tour operators now handling demand for travel to the DPRK.
Naturally, a holiday in North Korea is unlike any other. From the ever-present tour guides to the obligatory visits to monuments and propaganda-laden museums, restrictions are part-and-parcel of any itinerary. This Potemkin-esque facade has led some, such as Brian Myers, to question the usefulness of tourism to North Korea for those who seek to ‘know’ the country. Others, such as the recently travelled Sophie Schmidt, have instead urged tourists to visit North Korea, if only to observe the glitches in its virtual reality.
As interest in tourism to North Korea grows, two questions seem increasingly important: Is tourism essential for those looking to understand North Korea? And, can tourism to North Korea ever be ethical? Answering these questions are Chad O’Carroll, the founder of NK News; Casey Lartigue, Jr., an international adviser to the Mulmangcho School for North Korean Adolescent Refugees in Yeoju, Gyeonggi Province; and New Focus International, a North Korea-focused media organization run by exiled North Koreans.
Expertise and Tourism
“As a member of an escorted tour,” Temple Fielding observed that “you don’t even have to know that the Matterhorn isn’t a tuba”. In this vein, can North Korea-watchers ever accumulate true knowledge when visiting the DPRK? Chad, you have commented before that, besides knowing the Korean language, time spent in North Korea is a prerequisite for claiming expertise. Is this possible through tourism?
Chad: Yes, I believe so. While Pyongyang is where most people go, don’t forget there are lots of off-the-road locations now available. It’s in these places that interesting material / perspectives can be found. So to assume you can’t acquire knowledge from a tour to North Korea seems a little off, to me at least.
Casey: What is the wisdom from people who have gone to North Korea? It seems that Dennis Rodman came back dumber than when he went there. People engaged in tourism are going there to make money or have a good time, not to help North Koreans escape. That’s okay. The more successful they are, the more likely they are to undermine the North Korean government. I look forward to the day McDonald’s opens a chain of restaurants across the country, those golden arches highlighting the sign, “24 million comrades served daily.” Also, with every movement, there seems to be “rites of passage” used to prove that someone has knowledge or expertise. It is a good way to pull rank in a cause, but it doesn’t really help enlighten people.
New Focus Intl: Seeing Pyongyang isn’t seeing the reality of North Korea, it’s seeing one of many distorted versions of it. This should be kept in mind by anyone on a tour group!
How do North Koreans in exile view Western experts’ analyses and prescriptions for their country?
New Focus Intl: There are two North Koreas — one created by Western experts, one of reality. Western experts tend to apply their own biased theories to North Korea, instead of drawing from the North Korean mindset to look through the North Korean lens.
Academic exchanges are said to be a tool for garnering mutual understanding between North Koreans and the outside world. Business with North Korea has also been seen in a similar light by its proponents, such as Felix Abt. Regardless of outcome, are ‘boots on the ground’ helpful in terms of soft-power and as added sources of information?
New Focus Intl: North Korea is a duality — there is an exterior North Korea and an interior North Korea (cf. John Everard’s views). You must always ask yourself — are we dealing with the exterior or the interior? Any official channels often reach only the exterior, which is formed of people who wish for the status quo to remain. If we care at all about changing North Korea, we should aim to go straight to the interior. Working with the North Korean state and expecting change for the country is like fishing off an aircraft carrier, rather than off a fishing boat – it may work, but it is a hugely inefficient endeavour if relied on solely.
Casey: Whether or not such academic exchanges help, the South Korean and U.S. governments should not block them.
Chad: Certainly! How can they not be? The more testimonies from foreigners on the ground, the more we know. It’s certainly not the closed and isolated information black hole that it once was.
What are your opinions on the growing body of ‘everyman’ travelogues of North Korea? Here I’m thinking of Vice’s ‘Guide to North Korea’, the various ‘undercover’ documentaries available online, and the seemingly obligatory tourist blogs. Do they help generate interest in issues such as human rights or does their sensationalism devalue serious issues?
Chad: I think they play a useful part. They actually get some serious people interested in North Korea in the first place, so they can be useful from that perspective alone. You are right though, there is an increasing strand of North Korea blogging based on the sensationalism of being there — this stuff just goes over the old stereotypes of being behind the iron curtain etc. It goes back to the idea that a lot of people seem to visit North Korea just to facilitate fascinating dinner party conversations for months ahead…
Casey: I suspect that the people reading such sensationalist stuff aren’t going to be very helpful when it is time to do things to help North Koreans trying to escape from North Korea.
New Focus Intl: There is only one Kim family in the world — in North Korea. Only today’s North Koreans (exiled or not) are the ones who can teach us about today’s North Korea. So yes, common sense is entirely missing, sadly.
Bruce Cumings has argued that while policymakers continue to overlook North Korea’s unique historical milieu they are destined to keep prescribing the wrong policies. Others, such as David Kang, Alon Levkowitz and Suk Hi Kim, make similar points: chiefly, that North Korea is sui generis. Is knowledge of issues such as ideology or Korea’s pre-modern political culture really important for today’s policymakers or is common sense the crucial missing commodity?
Casey: North Korea is the equivalent of a burning building. People need to get out. I don’t need to know about the history of the building to want to get the people out. Would it have been helpful to understand the Nazis or Stalin to have engaged in exchanges? Evil leaders need to be eliminated, not understood.
Chad: I believe it is critical. A policy maker focusing on a country should know about the country in detail well beyond a reading of policy briefing papers on said country, think tank reports, etc.
Ethics and Tourism
It is argued that the consequences of tourism to North Korea are harmful, thus tourism is ethically wrong. But should more consideration be paid to the motives of the tourist? For example, if a tourist travels to North Korea with intentions that are inherently good — such as engaging in people-to-people contact — can we say that the ethical case for tourism is sound?
Chad: Good question. Is it ethically sound for regime sycophants to go and praise the North Korean leadership? Dubious. Is it ethically sound for tourists to go and photograph North Koreans like they’re animals on a Kenyan safari? Definitely not.
Casey: Let the tourists go there. I don’t care about their motives. They should be allowed to go or they should not; it shouldn’t depend on their feelings.
U.S. tourism to Cuba has long been subject to a government-imposed boycott. Additionally, Burma faced a tourist boycott instigated by international human rights groups, with Aung San Suu Kyi once remarking that tourism was “tantamount to condoning the regime”. North Korea’s behavior has arguably been less salubrious than that of Cuba and Burma, yet tourism has rarely faced calls to be boycotted from governments or human rights groups. In your view, why has this been the case?
Casey: There’s no need to boycott when the other side blocks people from going in. If North Korea opened the border to allow people to come in, the South Korean government would probably put up barriers to block leftist sympathizers and others from going there.
Chad: Probably because the numbers are so miniscule compared to Cuba and Myanmar.
Today, pro-democracy groups encourage tourism to Burma so that ongoing injustices can be exposed. Would a similar form of critical engagement with North Korea be of any use?
Chad: Yes. Sometimes the hosts slip up in North Korea and it’s good for tourists to be there to witness, share stories, and photographs. Especially when they take you to rural areas — things aren’t as controlled as some critics like to think.
Casey: The injustices are well known to anyone who has paid attention. Would it have made sense to engage in tourism in the American south when Africans were held in captivity? The term “of any use” is too vague — for North Korea almost anything would be of some use.
Intourist, the infamous state-run Soviet Union travel agency (comparable to the Korea International Travel Company), gave work to thousands of Soviet citizens and opened the eyes of many more to the outside world. Are comparable advantages in North Korea possible?
Chad: Yes, certainly: tourism creates jobs and develops contact between foreigners and locals. How can that not be a good thing?
Casey: Those agencies aren’t doing it to help North Koreans, like most business people they are in for themselves. Any help for North Koreans will be a delightful unintended consequence.
Thanatourism — the visiting of locations once associated with death or suffering, such as Hiroshima or Auschwitz — is said to be morally justifiable due to the historical and moral worth gained in viewing sites retrospectively. With death and suffering still ongoing in North Korea, do similar claims of knowledge accumulation from those who travel to the country, such as Rüdiger Frank or Han Park, seem morally questionable or even more pressing?
Casey: I am supportive of people engaging in trade with North Korea, but I personally won’t do it. The leaders of North Korea are, to borrow a phrase from William Lloyd Garrison, “men stealers and women whippers.” I am more interested in trying to get information into North Korea and helping people to get out, not in engaging in trade with the government.
An important caveat: this debate focuses on the choice of the individual traveler and not their means of travel. It offers no value judgment on travel agents or tour companies that cater to the growing demand for tourism to North Korea.
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