Is it ethical to visit North Korea? This is a question I asked myself over and over before finally deciding to take the plunge and book a trip to this secretive country. You see, tourism in North Korea is a topic of much debate and controversy- visiting the country is arguably putting money directly into the pocket of a regime that commits some horrific human rights offences. From alleged death camps, extreme poverty, public murder and harsh slave labour as a punishment for trivial crimes, the North Korean regime is certainly not humane. Not forgetting the idea of funding Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes, high quantities of tourist money could be catastrophic.
However, by visiting North Korea, you’re also exposing the citizens of an extremely secretive state to the outside world. North Korea receives a mere 5,000 – 6,000 tourists a year. If you compare that to the 68.2 million tourists to Spain each year, and the 39.5 million to Turkey, you can see that this is a very minute figure and so the country does not reap many financial benefits from tourism. But, this tiny tourism traffic does allow North Korean citizens to catch a glimpse at the outside world and receive influence from our attitudes. If good diplomacy is ever to occur from North Korea’s side, it is important to encourage exposure to foreign tourists, as interactions from tourists help to build trust, and consequently, peace and progression.
A State Department decree was passed very recently which means that U.S passport holders are now barred from visiting North Korea, following the growing tensions between the two countries, and the multiple detentions of U.S citizens in recent years. Most infamously, a U.S student named Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for allegedly stealing a poster from his hotel, before returning home in a coma, and dying days later. The State Department clearly (and understandably) feels that the personal safety of U.S citizens visiting North Korea is at risk. But on the other hand, cutting off ties in this way segregates the two nations even more, making misunderstandings and miscommunication a lot more likely, resulting in greater conflict. Communication is essential, as without it, we close off prospects of diplomacy.
I recently got back from a trip to North Korea myself, and there were times during my visit where I felt bad for having made the decision to travel there. It is well-known that tourists to North Korea are ushered around in a very strict and tight-scheduled tour, which allows no room for free exploration. The tourist trail is perfect; everything is clean and well-kept and the locals can be seen going about their daily lives looking content. Pyongyang has been dubbed a “propaganda showcase” for this reason and it made me question just how much of what I saw was a facade. The city was beautiful, with pastel colours and impressive monuments at every turn. Perhaps it was a little too impressive.
A North Korean defector, Yeonmi Park, told the story of how she and her family were forced to live in concrete housing in the mountains, where it was bitterly cold one season and boiling the next, after her father was sentenced to hard labour for trading illegally with China. Park stated that “food was limited as everyone was hungry and people like us, who were in the bottom class, were starving.” It turns my gut that Pyonyang has so much wealth, with extremely exorbitant museums and monuments, when so many citizens outside of the capital live like Park and her family. Realising just how much money is put into the “propaganda showcase”, when it should be put into keeping citizens out of poverty, is what made me doubt my decision to travel to the country and question my moral compass.
Put simply, there is no black and white answer as to whether it is ethical to visit North Korea as a tourist. There are arguments for both sides, and it is important to consider your motives if you’re planning on visiting the country. I personally believe that a restricted amount of tourism is helping, albeit a small amount, to break down the barrier between North Korea and the outside world. A large amount of tourist traffic would be disastrous however, and finding the right balance could be difficult. But if we stop visiting altogether, we close off hope of economic and political progression within the country, and we also close off hope at peace.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Comment below your thoughts on the subject as I would love to know everyone else’s view on this. However, I understand this is a very controversial topic and so please keep any comments fair and friendly!