Should You Go to North Korea While You Still Can?
Showing a human face to the world's most isolated people may be worth the cost of traveling to Pyongyang.
Each year, roughly 1,000 American tourists visit North Korea. That amounts to a fifth of the total number of Western travelers who annually head to one of the world’s most inaccessible countries — a place where Americans are regularly decried by the government as “bastards” and “wolves.” Now the flow of tourists is about to fall to zero.
Beginning this Friday, per State Department decree, U.S. passport holders will be barred from entering North Korea. Following several lengthy detentions of Americans in recent years, including college student Otto Warmbier, which resulted in his death in June, and amid ongoing tension stemming from North Korean weapons testing, the State Department stated that travel to the country presented “serious risk” and “imminent danger to the physical safety of United States nationals.” The decision is being put forth as a measure to ensure Americans’ safety amid worsening relations between Washington and Pyongyang.
But considerations of personal safety aside, tourism to North Korea has always involved complicated moral calculations — calculations that the State Department’s decision has forestalled but not solved. Supporters say exposure to foreign tourists represents one of the only opportunities for North Koreans to engage with the outside world. “Peace is achieved by building bridges between people and increasing trust,” read a recent New York Times op-ed. “With no official channels of communication, closing the door on citizen engagement shuts down prospects for diplomacy.”
Critics, however, say in addition to the risk of detention and the hard currency that tours provide to North Korea’s leaders, the interaction with North Koreans is too controlled and superficial to have any meaningful impact — and may even have harmful effects. “[Visitors] are allowed to interact only with their minders,” read one Washington Post op-ed, likening North Korean tourism to “torture porn.”
As with most moral quandaries, the truth is somewhere in between.
There are plenty of reasons for the more dour assessment. Independent travel to North Korea is not permitted, so those wanting to visit must book a tour through a travel agency that works with North Korean counterparts. Tourists are then taken only to preapproved locations in a handful of cities and accompanied at all times by North Korean guides (or, as critics describe them, “minders”).
“North Korea goes out of its way to make it hard for foreigners and locals to cross paths,” said Jean H. Lee, a global fellow at the Wilson Center who opened the Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau in 2012 and frequently reported from inside the country. “That said, there are moments when tours do intersect with ordinary North Koreans. Though very brief, those interactions are valuable.”
For most casual travelers, the deepest interactions they’ll have with North Koreans are with their guides, who are often educated abroad and can fluently speak English or other foreign languages.
Jess Harling, a 25-year-old Briton who traveled to North Korea in 2015-2016 with Young Pioneer Tours and documented the trip on her blog Jess Travels, recalled many endearing conversations with her guides in which they discussed their families, hobbies, Shakespeare, what life in Britain is like, and even what types of men they find attractive. “I would like to think that during discussions like these, they were being open and honest with me and I was getting to know at least a bit of their true personality,” Harling said, noting that she consciously avoided touching on political topics. “Of course, these people do not represent the entire nation. These are the elite few. This is something you have to always keep in mind as a tourist here.”
Lee said the charm North Korean guides display is no accident. “It’s their job to leave a good impression on the tourists,” she said. “They’re doing [public relations] for their country.”
But it would be a mistake to think minders can stage-manage the entirety of a trip. In addition to the conversations with her guides, Harling recalled several other more spontaneous interactions with ordinary North Koreans: playing catch with teenagers she happened upon in a public square, chatting through a translator and posing for photos with girls on roller skates.
“The oft-repeated view that you can only interact with who ‘they’ want you to interact with is lazy and untrue,” said Simon Cockerell, the general manager of the British-run Koryo Tours. “No matter how successful we are at [facilitating interactions with North Koreans], some people will think that everyone’s an actor — that the entire subway is fake, that if you go to a park, all 5,000 people there were hired just for you.”
Cockerell added that the Americans on his tours tend to be the boldest about approaching North Koreans, are the most memorable to them, and get the most out of the trip. “State media portrays Americans as almost literal devils — as rapacious and bloodthirsty demons who exist almost entirely to prey on Korea and its people,” he said. “Because [North Koreans] have such a low image of all foreigners, but mostly Americans, you can’t help but make a tiny net gain for your country as an American if you just go there, interact with people, and don’t murder them. Most people can manage that.”
He noted that opportunities for spontaneous interaction are best during holidays and when there’s good weather — times when the country’s small but growing middle class comes out en masse. Foreign tourists in Pyongyang are taken to several locations where there are anywhere from dozens to thousands of North Koreans out and about, including public squares, fairs, parks, and bars. Even in smaller cities, travelers have occasional opportunities to intersect with locals, and guides often give their guests substantial leeway to approach them.
Andrea Lee, the co-founder and CEO of Uri Tours, says language is the main barrier to communication. For this reason, she says Uri advocates “experimental and active” tours that allow interaction with locals in ways that don’t require words — like running in the Pyongyang Marathon, surfing, or skiing. Several tour agencies have even facilitated sports-centered trips allowing foreigners to play basketball, hockey, soccer, or Ultimate Frisbee with locals. “These activities bring people closer together using a common thread of interest,” Lee said.
But for those who can speak Korean, she says, it is possible to have more meaningful conversations. “It takes a few interactions in order to get past superficial conversations,” she said. “But once you do, North Koreans prove to be loyal, warm, and hospitable people.”
Lee recalled once being approached by a child who said hello to her. After learning that she spoke the language and was ethnically Korean but grew up in the United States, he asked, “Don’t they kill you there if you are Korean?”
“I responded and said no — that I grew up there,” Lee said. “That my entire family lives there and that we are happy. I could tell that was a lot to process, but I believe it will help to shape his worldview.”
But some critics say putting faith in these encounters sells North Koreans short. “That view basically thinks of North Koreans as being automatons and robots — that they’re accepting propaganda as 100 percent truth,” said Benjamin Young, a North Korea analyst who twice traveled to the country in 2012 on an academic program but now looks back at his “pro-engagement” attitude at the time as “naive.” “I think the average North Korean knows that Americans aren’t dirty, evil, corrupt humans and that their No. 1 goal isn’t to kill them. North Koreans are more complex than that.”
Young also questions the value of interactions with guides. He said that some are “great” and that “you can really feel that they want North Korea to change.” But others he found to be more hostile. And at the end of the day, he says, they are among the country’s most elite with little reason to challenge the status quo.
Joshua Stanton, an attorney who helped draft the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 and runs the One Free Korea blog, also scoffed at the idea that tourists’ limited interactions can serve to open North Korean minds in opposition to the propaganda they’ve been brought up with. “This must be the most patronizing form of Orientalism I’ve ever heard. I’ve never seen a shred of evidence to prove it,” he said. “Aren’t North Koreans more likely to see foreigners bowing to statutes of Kim Il Sung or being ushered through political monuments glorifying their totalitarian state?”
Foreign tourists in Pyongyang who are taken to the statues or embalmed bodies of North Korea’s leaders are expected to bow before them, often with locals looking on. Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean defector who escaped to China in 1997 and eventually settled in South Korea, has criticized travel to the country for this reason. “Tourists are used as propaganda,” she told the Guardian in 2015. “[These images are used by] propagandists to show North Koreans that foreigners come from all over the world to pay homage to the Dear Leader.”
Stanton and Young both argue that a more effective approach to countering North Korean propaganda about foreigners and the United States is to improve broadcasts and information dissemination operations into the country. For years, activists and governments have been sending in foreign media like TV shows, movies, music, and counter-propaganda through DVDs, SD cards, USB drives, radio broadcasts, and balloon drops. This is on top of a thriving black market for such foreign materials facilitated by cross-border trade (both legal and illicit) with China. One survey of North Korean defectors found that 92 percent had watched a foreign DVD at some point when they lived in North Korea.
But another facet to the debate is the influence that travel to North Korea has on the Western tourists themselves. For Briton Andray Abrahamian, his first tour to North Korea sparked an interest that would lead to a career of engaging with the country. “Tourist travel is highly controlled and restricted, but they can’t hide everything, and the control itself is instructive,” he said. “It’s one thing to read about it, but to see the caution and control that people exercise over themselves in person had a profound impact on me.”
Abrahamian went on to join Choson Exchange, a nonprofit organization that trains North Koreans within the country and in Singapore in entrepreneurship and economic policy, where he’s now a senior advisor. “[That first trip] made me think that the country was more complicated than I’d thought and that there were unexplored spaces in which positive changes could be encouraged,” he said.
Young says he’s in favor of humanitarian engagement with North Korea through such nonprofits. “But I don’t think tourism to North Korea lends itself to becoming humanitarian,” he said. “I admire the idealism [of those who travel to engage with North Koreans], but on the other hand I think what they want to do is not actually what they’re accomplishing.”
Stanton also challenges the idea that North Koreans’ thinking is brought closer in sync with the outside world through interaction with tourists. On the contrary, he says, the highly controlled tours tend to bring foreigners closer toward North Korea’s moral and ideological stances. “Engagement never seems to compromise Pyongyang but always seems to compromise those who engage with it,” he said.
Lee of the Wilson Center noted that foreign tourists do indeed get a very sanitized view of North Korea, “which is just what the North Koreans want.”
“It takes many visits, and for long stretches, before you can begin to understand what you’re seeing,” she added. “It’s like peeling the layers of an onion. Frankly, American tourists weren’t providing much insight for us [when they returned to] the outside world.”
Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea, a nonprofit that aides North Korean refugees, was cautiously positive about the approach.
“Basically, tourism is not a game-changer either way, but North Korean friends have on the whole been positive about it — it is exposure to foreigners and something of the outside world, after all, [that] can trigger some questions and new thinking.”
Joseph Kim, a North Korean who escaped to China in 2006 at age 15 and now lives in the United States, says the fact that tourism money likely helps support the government is a major drawback of travel to North Korea and that tourists should avoid it if their only goal is to say they’ve been to the isolated state. However, he does see value in travel there on the grounds that it gives outsiders a better sense of North Koreans’ humanity. “I understand they’re not going to meet homeless people in the tourist areas,” he told me in a 2015 interview. “But it will give them a much better picture than what they see in the Western media. They’ll be able to see what North Koreans do in daily life, even though it’s a small proportion of them.”
“There are pros and cons,” Kim added. “So I can’t say it’s totally wrong or totally right.”
Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images