Eric Lafforgue | An Air Koryo plane on the tarmac of Sunan Pyongyang International Airport, Sept. 6, 2012
“Ask a North Korean” is an NK News series featuring interviews with North Korean defectors, most of whom left the DPRK within the last few years.
Readers may submit their questions for defectors by emailing [email protected] and including their first name and city of residence.
Today’s question is from Justin in Sydney, who asks about North Korean’s views on international travel.
Hyun-seung Lee — who comes from an elite North Korean family and defected in 2014 — spoke with NK News about who in North Korea gets to travel, why elites don’t necessarily have more freedom of movement and his experience sightseeing in China while a student in Beijing.
Lee now resides in the U.S., where he works as a director for One Korea Network and a fellow of North Korean studies at the Global Peace Foundation. He also runs the Pyonghattan YouTube channel with his sister.
NK News: What do North Koreans think about outbound international tourism?
Lee: Travel abroad is the ultimate dream for ordinary North Korean citizens. Longing for overseas travel is such that when someone does get the chance to travel on an airplane, this becomes something they boast of to everyone they know.
The same could be said of North Korean elites. I know from personal experience that those elites whose work doesn’t take them abroad have a considerable yearning for overseas travel. This goes both for cadres and their children.
Those elites who get a coveted opportunity to go abroad often do not wish to return home. They tend to stay overseas as long as the North Korean authorities and their economic circumstances permit. However, for North Korean people, obtaining that chance to travel abroad is, as the Korean expression goes, as difficult as plucking stars from the sky. It’s not something that anyone can do.
Nevertheless, it is fortunate that Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, as part of his push to open the country, was able to enact an overseas business visa policy, which allowed many North Koreans to travel abroad as businesspeople, traders and laborers.
NK News: Are only elites able to travel abroad? If so, where do they go?
Lee: Just because someone is an elite doesn’t mean they can come and go as they please. The North Korean government does not countenance its citizens going abroad without its permission. The elite are no exception to this rule.
In some cases, being elite can make it harder to go abroad. Top cadres in the Workers’ Party of Korea face restrictions on overseas travel. The fear that they will defect means that it is very rare for the party to send top cadres abroad Those elites working in sectors such as the economy, diplomacy, national security and munitions are granted permission to go overseas only if their work requires them to do so.
I have a friend who is a relative of Kim Jong Un himself. However, things are so strict that even that person has yet to go abroad. The friend asked me several times how it was to live in China, while grumbling that they might never get the chance to experience life overseas firsthand. As far as I know, that friend has still not gone abroad.
Excluding trips for Kim Jong Un’s close relatives or high-ranking cadres to get medical treatment abroad, business is always the official reason why North Koreans are allowed to leave the country, and thus they are circumspect when it comes to holidaying. However, overseas North Korean officials, such as businesspeople and diplomats, are known to squeeze pleasure trips into their business itineraries.
Of course, this takes place away from the prying eyes of the North Korean government. On paper, there is absolutely no means of going abroad purely for sightseeing. I would categorically assert that it is a misconception to think that North Korean elites can engage in overseas travel as they please.
NK News: When you were studying in China, did you take some time to go traveling? Where did you go? Was it allowed?
Lee: While I was in China, I was able to join sightseeing trips that our Chinese university arranged, which were borderline cases since the university organized them. I went to Hangzhou, Suzhou and Huangshan.
Taking these trips required permission from two parties: the district public security officer (보안책임자) and district party representative (지역 당책임자). The former was a specially designated Ministry of State Security agent and the latter a party member. They were responsible for the local North Korean expatriate community in their district, in my case Beijing.
In some cases, North Korean overseas students receive permission from their district public security officer to go on “pure” sightseeing trips, and I went with some other North Korean students to Guilin, famous for its natural beauty. We arranged this in secret with our officer, who gave us unofficial permission, turning a blind eye and certainly not notifying higher-ups.
North Koreans living abroad must report their movements to their district public security officer under all circumstances. However, if they form a good relationship with their officer, they may not necessarily have to get official permission to travel on every occasion.
To get permission to travel while abroad, overseas students must file a report to the chairperson of their university’s Kim Il Sung Socialist Youth League branch. The chairperson then reports to the district public security officer and party officer, and gets permission from them. Officials working abroad, such as businesspeople and diplomats, must seek permission from their district public security officer, party officer and their company or department back home in North Korea.
NK News: Is traveling abroad of interest to ordinary North Koreans even though it’s nearly impossible for most?
Lee: In contemporary North Korea, foreign films have become more readily available, and stories of those who have been abroad spread like wildfire. So most people dream of seeing other countries with their own eyes.
For this reason, North Korean laborers pull out all stops to get a slot on overseas projects. Such jobs guarantee both handsome remuneration and the opportunity to see the outside world. However, there are also stories of the money not being as good as expected, and of workers locked in factories like slave laborers.
In 2014, for example, the Asian Games were held in Incheon, South Korea, and North Korea put together one of its famous cheer squads composed of beautiful young women, which had generated international news headlines in the past. Every young woman in North Korea wanted to get a position on this cheer squad in the hopes of going to South Korea.
Bribes went left, right and center to grease the bureaucratic wheels and increase one’s chance of getting picked. These rose to the sum of $1,000, a veritable small fortune for ordinary North Koreans.
When Kim Jong Un heard of this through the Ministry of State Security, he flew into a rage [according to a story well-known in Pyongyang], and ultimately rescinded permission for the beauty cheer squad to go overseas. The squad had selected all its members and completed rehearsals, yet in the end, it was unable to go to Incheon for the 2014 Asian Games.
Edited by Bryan Betts
Updated Lee’s biographical information at 10:53 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2021.
Alek Sigley is a PhD student at Stanford University's Modern Thought and Literature program, where he is writing a dissertation on North Korea. From 2018-2019 he studied for a master's degree in contemporary North Korean fiction at Kim Il Sung University's College of Literature. He speaks Mandarin, Korean and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter @AlekSigley.