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View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
While debate about the appropriateness of tourism in North Korea has swirled for many years, it has become increasingly prominent of late. Increasing tourist numbers have meant increasing attention on the subject, while a flurry of recent tourist arrests have underscored the diplomatic ramifications of the industry like never before.
Proponents of tourism typically argue that the people-to-people contact enabled by North Korea tourism helps improve local views of foreigners, which, following decades of isolation and propaganda about the decadence and vulgarity of Western capitalism, is a good thing. Some go even further and suggest that tourism has a potentially subversive effect – that interaction with foreigners shows North Korean citizens just how far behind they are from the developed world, subsequently influencing them to question their government’s intentions more.
On the other hand, those who see tourism in North Korea in a negative light often argue that the industry legitimizes the regime while simultaneously providing it with much needed foreign currency. Far from shining a light on the nation’s dire human rights record, they say that tourists unwittingly – wittingly in some cases – serve as propaganda tools for the regime, with their presence used to highlight foreign support for the Kim government. And it is argued that because tourism is a state industry, tourist dollars may be being used to help fund North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
As with the broader “engage or isolate” debate, it’s a circular argument that will be unlikely to ever disappear. But just what exactly do North Korean defectors think about the issue? Arguably, with so many defectors motivated to leave their country due to grievances with the way it was governed, one might expect broad opposition to an industry that can be seen to directly generate income for Pyongyang. However, the responses indicate that our panel of refugees seems to be just as divided on tourism as the foreign North Korea watcher community.
What is more important than the money that goes into Kim Jong Un’s pocket is that tourists gets to make contact with the North Korean population.
I believe that North Koreans will be affected by the presence of people from the free world; their differing perspectives will give different points of view to ordinary North Koreans. Of course there is a chance that North Korean government might one day shut down all the windows and stop letting tourists in.
“Their differing perspectives will give different points of view to ordinary North Koreans”
But above all, I honestly do not believe tourists would ever go to North Korea just for the skiing!
If tourists were to have the freedom to associate with people in North Korea and to travel about, it would be a positive thing. Tourism would also improve North Korea’s economic conditions. But what are things actually like? Tourists are not free to do such things. They go sightseeing on pre-determined routes with pre-determined guides. Therefore, there’s close to nothing in terms of interpersonal interaction with local people when it comes to tourists in North Korea.
Also, the guides are people who know all about the reality of their country, yet live under the intense surveillance of the regime. Would they dare disclose what they have really seen or heard [to the tourists]? That’s also impossible.
Furthermore, after going on these tours of pre-determined areas and pre-determined people, tourists end up coming back with false perceptions of the reality in North Korea. Why? Because they are led to feel that North Korea is not such a bad place to live in after all – that, although it may be an underdeveloped and poor country, it may not be the vicious violator of human rights that the West says it is.
The revenue from tourism all goes toward the funds of the North Korean regime, which ironically means that tourists actually contribute to the creation of nuclear weapons and missiles. Furthermore, there are very few actual interactions with the actual residents of North Korea, so tourists do not do much to change the perception of the North Korean people.
“There are very few actual interactions with the actual residents of North Korea, so tourists do not do much to change the perception of the North Korean people”
In the 80s, there were a few western journalists who visited North Korea. They went to sightsee the statue of Kim Il Sung at Mansudae. There, they met a few girls of about 12 years of age and asked them, “Do you know the weight of that statue?” I’m not sure whether they were actually curious or meant it as a joke to gauge the kid’s loyalty to the regime. But one of the girls responded, “The statue is the weight of the people’s allegiance for the Dear Leader.”
The journalists were dumbfounded. The girl later grew up to become a party official. To this day, she maintains her post for this incident from a few decades ago. In other words, she is still being used to propagandize the legitimacy of the system.
I personally believe that tourism in North Korea serves only to prolong the life of the North Korean regime. To this day, the regime strives to maintain its luxurious lifestyle from these tourism revenues. This is the context in which things like Masikryong Ski Resort or Mount Kumgang tours are operated.
Currently, the North Korean government benefits from tourism more than anyone else.
I therefore believe that tourism has little impact on the North Korean people – and this is why the North Korean government wants to attract more tourists.
On the other hand, the North Korean government’s strong restrictions are only hindering their efforts to attract more tourists.
Ironically, in order to attract more tourists, they will need to remove many of the current restrictions –– and if they do that, tourism will have a much greater impact on the people.
“Currently, the North Korean government benefits from tourism more than anyone else”
Because money that is earned through tourism flows to the North Korean regime, tourists help justify the Kim family’s political existence.
Therefore, I am especially against “barbed-wire tourism,” similar to what was seen [up to 2008] with the Mt. Kumgang tour, which unconditionally poured money into the North Korean regime.
However, tourism that enables direct contact with North Korean people and facilitates the arrival of outside news there is a positive phenomenon.
“I am especially against “barbed-wire tourism”
Indeed, this kind of tourism can provide an opportunity to increase the North Korean people’s awareness of the outside world and in contrast, the outside world can increase its understanding of the North Korean people.
North Koreans pick up a lot from tourists – their freewheeling nature, foreign fashions, and their attitude.
I therefore believe tourism will help them realize how, under Kim Jong Un, they are behind the rest of the world from both political and economic perspectives.
I value personal exchange.
While the people that tourists often meet in North Korea are elites, don’t also forget that these are the people who are leading the country. I believe you will earn more from North Korean tourism by affecting these people than the financial benefit they will earn.
“While the people that tourists often meet in North Korea are elites, don’t also forget that these are the people who are leading the country”
I believe tourism is a positive idea considering my experience in North imagining outside world by observing foreign tourists.
Not everyone in North Korea can go to the Kaesong Industrial Complex or Mt. Kumgang [places where South Korean workers and tourists have historically interacted with North Korean citizens].
Only specially selected people can enter those areas and in any case, they have to attend lectures and classes beforehand. Don’t forget, North Koreans have almost no freedom to travel can’t readily visit places like these.
“Because of the nature of tourism in the DPRK, lots of money goes straight to the central government”
Even if some of them manage to be in contact with South Koreans or foreigners, it will be very hard for outside information to be passed onto North Korean society. And because of the nature of tourism in the DPRK, lots of money goes straight to the central government.
I’d say that in North Korea the positive effects of tourism are about 1% and the negative effects 99%. You see, very few people get to be in contact with foreign tourists. And those who do get to meet foreign tourists already know enough about the outside world.
Foreign tourists have to be accompanied by tour guide at all times. They’re only allowed to visit a highly limited number of certain areas. They cannot leave the hotel when they want.
Even if a tourist could leave the hotel and get to see or meet an average North Korean – who is no allowed to be in the vicinity of foreign tourists – this person will subject to severe interrogation and serious consequences. Have you ever thought about this?
Those who travel to North Korea are therefore people who just can’t wait to give money to Kim Jong Un.
“I’d say that in North Korea the positive effects of tourism are about 1% and the negative effects 99%”
You’re only going to North Korea just so you can brag about it when you return home. The funniest thing is when I saw some people who bragged about their trip to Pyongyang. They clearly don’t know anything about North Korea.
I’d like to emphasize once again that if you’re travelling to North Korea, that means you want nothing more than giving your money to Kim Jong Un.
Please, do not travel to North Korea.
Travel itself to North Korea is not bad. But what matters more is the goal of this travel in the first place.
Furthermore, some tourists these days take pictures from North Korea, and subsequently expose them to the world to raise awareness of the realities there. This is all good, but some tourists only see the reality of North Korea and the images of the sick children for lucrative means.
That’s why, as of now, I’d say that tourism to North Korea is bad.
“Tourism in North Korea is just a scheme to make money”
Of course, tourism in North Korea is just a scheme to make money and the revenue from tourism goes to fund the luxurious lifestyle of the few in North Korea.
Tourism in North Korea isn’t that bad, because being in contact with foreigners is important.
North Koreans have been separated and isolated from the outside world for a very long time.
Therefore, I believe it is very important to give them opportunities to meet foreigners.
“Tourism in North Korea isn’t that bad, because being in contact with foreigners is important”
I’m against tourism in North Korea. The money goes straight to the central government. It is used for propaganda to make people think North Korea is superior.
Only a limited number of people come in contact with foreign tourists and most people aren’t allowed to be anywhere near foreign tourists during these tours.
All the tour guides are from the Ministry of State Security and none of them have anything to do with average North Koreans [Editors note: Many in the tourist industry dispute this].
“I’d like to beg foreign tourists not to visit North Korea, even if they’re curious about the country”
I’d like to beg foreign tourists not to visit North Korea, even if they’re curious about the country. Their presence only gives the dictator something to brag about.
Overall, I think the positives from tourism are greater (than the negatives). It’s not that going to North Korea is expensive – and I think if the price is negotiated more people would travel there. What if it was banned? I think only blocking the inflow of additional tourists won’t be effective in reducing the pressure on North Korea.
However, I do think through meeting tourists the North Korean people will get to know about the outside world and foreigners will get to know indirectly about North Korea.
“Through meeting tourists the North Korean people will get to know about the outside world”
For the North Korean government, if letting in many tourists doesn’t cause big problems to arise, there is the possibility of also inviting more and of North Koreans one day being allowed to freely travelling to China, but that is said to be several decades away.