Is It Ethical to Travel to North Korea?

DPRK propaganda posterThe emails come in every week or two, and I usually delete them without bothering to read the message. I don’t even really pay much attention to the subject line, in fact; as I buzz through my inbox, once I see the sender is “Koryo Tours,” I click the box that marks the email for deletion and move on to the next line. I should really unsubscribe from their mailing list, but I’m lazy about unsubscribing from things, even though I don’t expect to go one of their tours anytime soon.

I’ve been receiving these Koryo Tours emails since 2006, when a classmate of mine at Yale traveled to North Korea with them and came back raving about the experience. It sounded fascinating and bizarre, and I was deeply immersed in a wonderful Korean history class that semester and thinking that maybe I would take Korean history as a second field of study (in the end, I didn’t, in part because I couldn’t bear the thought of starting yet another language), so I went to the Koryo Tours website and signed up for their mailing list. But now years have passed and North Korea has a new leader and I still haven’t gone, though I sometimes think about it, such as when reading Barbara Demick’s excellent 2009 book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (which I highly recommend, whether you’re interested in North Korea or not). I’ll travel pretty much anywhere else at the drop of a hat, so why have I declined to pull the trigger on signing up for a North Korean jaunt?

Some of the reason is economic: Koryo tours run about 1400 euros for a mid-length (four-night) tour, plus there’s an extra surcharge for Americans, who have to fly out of the country rather than take the train back to China as others do.1 I’d rather spend the same amount of money on a few trips in China or elsewhere in Asia than put it all toward one long weekend in North Korea.

But there’s another side to my reluctance to book a tour, which a recent blog post at Shanghaiist explored. Namely, this question: “Is it ethical to travel to North Korea?”

Most of the respondents who shared their opinions with the Shanghaiist blogger focused on whether or not it is right to send foreign tourist dollars (or euros, or renminbi) into the coffers of an authoritarian regime, and whether or not doing so makes an impact on the DPRK’s economy. As several respondents pointed out, tourism brings in so little money to North Korea that this isn’t really something to worry about. Four of the five people interviewed, including one recent defector from the DPRK, emphasized the idea that foreign visitors will help promote increased openness in North Korea; from this perspective, engagement with outsiders serves to undermine the fictions put out by the Kim regime. Even if unmediated interactions between tourists and North Koreans aren’t really possible, proponents of this point of view argue that the very presence of foreigners in the country will affect the worldviews of people who spot them.

DPRK poster

I don’t entirely disagree with these arguments, nor do I take as hard a line as the respondent who declared that “foreign visitors to North Korea are complicit in the evil perpetrated by the Kim family regime. They are helping to prop up the regime, thereby prolonging the suffering of the North Korean people.” My ambivalence about the current state of tourism in North Korea comes from an inability to shake the feeling that it treats the country as an exhibit to be gawked at—a strange, otherworldly place to be sampled and photographed before the observers retreat to their comfortable hotel and exclaim over all they’ve seen.

This resembles the debate that circulates around “slum tourism,” which questions the reputed ability of foreign tourists to bring in much-needed money and draw attention to the problems of residents in urban slums in cities like Mumbai and Rio de Janiero. In a New York Times op-ed from 2010, Kennedy Odede of Nairobi writes

I was 16 when I first saw a slum tour. I was outside my 100-square-foot house washing dishes, looking at the utensils with longing because I hadn’t eaten in two days. Suddenly a white woman was taking my picture. I felt like a tiger in a cage. Before I could say anything, she had moved on.

Although he acknowledges that slum tourism arises from a desire to understand how poverty affects lives, Odede argues that it dehumanizes those under observation. As this BBC article points out, slum tourism has been going on for almost two centuries, since upper-class Victorian Londoners ventured to the East End to see how the other half lived. That was also the era of “primitive cultures” exhibits being displayed in places like World’s Fairs. All of this is or was done in the name of increased cultural understanding, but it is, as Odede explains, a one-way street: “They get photos; we lose a piece of our dignity.”

So is it ethical to visit North Korea? I say that this is a situation where we each need to decide the answer for ourselves. I would love to travel to North Korea, and I hope that one day I’ll have the opportunity. I’ve decided, though, that I don’t want to do it if my only option is to be on a package tour that makes me uncomfortable. I’m less concerned about sending a few foreign exchange dollars Kim Jong-un’s way than I am with the prospect of treating North Koreans and their country as bizarre exhibits to observe, photograph, and talk about with people back home.

This might mean I’ll never make it across the Yalu River—after all, Kim Jong-un is either my age or a little bit younger, so he could be in power for a very long time. But my desire is for travel to be mutually beneficial and promote greater understanding among people, wherever the destination of that travel is. I’m fairly certain, though, that Kim Jong-un and his advisors are happy to allow one-sided tourism that involves little more than a series of photo ops and carefully choreographed experiences. And while North Korea has piqued my curiosity for years and a trip there would be a unique opportunity, those aren’t terms I feel prepared to accept.

  1. I’m sure there are other tour companies that bring U.S. citizens to North Korea; I’m just focusing on Koryo Tours here because it’s the company I’m most familiar with, and they claim to bring over half of the DPRK’s tourists every year. I don’t mean to be unduly harsh on them—as their website explains, the company also has several ongoing humanitarian projects in North Korea and is committed to doing as much good work as it can in the country.

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