About the Author
View more articles by Park Ui-sung
Park Ui-sung is a North Korean defector now living in the South. He grew up in the country's coastal regions.
Every week or so, we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
Got a question? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
Today’s question: What do North Koreans think of foreigners and tourism in North Korea? How could tourism affect their daily lives?
What must be pointed out is all the surveillance and regulations on tourists while they are in North Korea.
Tourists planning to go to North Korea must agree to and sign their names on complicated regulations. Even though there are numerous restrictive clauses, if you disagree, you are not allowed to enter the DPRK.
You are not allowed to go anywhere outside without security, talk to North Korean residents while traveling, or use transport except for the specified bus. In addition, taking pictures of poorer areas and military facilities are also banned. If you take pictures without permission, you will be forced to delete them all.
If you violate the law in any way, it gives them reasons to arrest and imprison you. With these provisions, the government can control the freedom of tourists and be satisfied that they cannot threaten their regime.
How would you react if you encountered an alien visiting our planet? And how would it affect your daily life? There is only a slight difference between the way North Koreans react to foreigners and how you would to aliens.
If the “North Koreans” in this question means the majority of common people living in North Korea, well, it is almost impossible for most normal North Koreans to meet Caucasians in their lifetime.
Westerners are like aliens to them: the majority of North Koreans only know about that stuff superficially.
A few North Koreans make regular contact with foreigners, usually those in high-status jobs like party officials, diplomats, traders, translators, or tourist guides. But most will only see foreigners through films or TV.
“It is almost impossible for most normal North Koreans to meet Caucasians in their lifetime”
Though there are fortunate people who are able to go to Pyongyang and happen to see foreigners at tourist attractions, their chances of communicating with them are pretty slim.
Let’s say that there is someone visiting Pyongyang from a small province. He is aware of foreigners through various media. However, due to his limited knowledge of western culture, his understanding of them is rather narrow and superficial.
Let’s say he encountered foreigners at the Juche tower or the Pyongyang subway station: he will probably be embarrassed and curious about them.
If his curiosity outweighs his fear and he decides to take courage and talk to them, it could lead to dangerous consequences. He will be interrogated by security officials (secret officers) on the charge of talking to strangers. When you get caught in this trap, it turns out to be much crueler than many tragic movie endings.
So far, we have assumed the foreigners will be westerners. But most of the foreigners North Koreans will encounter will be Chinese. After all, we share a 1350 km border divided by the Amnok and Tumen river.
Of course, official trading is available for only a few government officials and traders. But a wide-ranging contraband trade at the border allows residents of the two nations to have unofficial relationships and a great deal of information is transmitted by word of mouth.
But even though our image of Chinese is not as unfamiliar as that of Westerners, they are still just like a star far away that does not really affect North Koreans’ life.
But what about the government’s stance on foreigners and tourism?
These days, North Korea is taking great pains to attract foreign tourists and it is necessary for them to draw more visitors: one of the crucial methods to earn foreign currency.
They had even taken some dramatic steps to improve tourism, such as approval traveling by train in October 2013, for the first time, when I was still in North Korea. Allowing this is an exceptional government decision due to the inferiority of North Korea’s rail system: some were even concerned that shameful parts of the nation might be revealed.
North Korea is taking great pains to attract foreign tourists
As we have expected, it is another type of isolating citizen policy. Due to these policies, North Koreans become more and more unfamiliar with foreigners like aliens.
How long will these circumstances last? Despite being under surveillance and regulation and the regime’s isolating policy, foreign tourists do act as a catalyst for North Koreans.
Although they neither meet directly nor communicate, accidental glimpses might trigger positive sparks in North Koreans’ perception.
Translation by Eun-ah Seol
Edited by Oliver Hotham