Is it Ethical to Travel to North Korea?
Travel to North Korea is something I believe in.
Just as well since I do the marketing for it!
But, even I have my moments.
Is this really OK? Am I marketing good or evil? What on Earth am I doing…?!
But I’m sitting here writing this on a tropical paradise island in Fiji with thoughts flying away…
Is any tourism ethical?
I look back at my Instagram posts and wonder how people who don’t know me must see me. Wow, this girl really loves North Korea. If you read further into my personal stuff (sometimes between the lines) then you’ll see I have a lot of time and indeed love for the people I work with in North Korea and have known over almost 3 years - just the same as the majority of people I have come into contact with all over the world.
The Koreans I have worked with and met on my journeys in the country have always been supportive, fun and genuine. They want more interaction, look forward to seeing me and to working on projects in the country to develop tourism.
And this always helps me to come back to my true feelings.
I always come back to the fact that I believe what I am doing is good, and is ethical.
I will continue to try to promote tourism in North Korea, and I stick with the belief that if you refuse to travel to North Korea purely for ethical reasons, then you are doing more harm to the country than good.
This is how I see it, and maybe it will help you to see why I believe so strongly in tourism to North Korea.
I’ll start with a bit of everyone’s favourite North Korea myth-busting.
It is often said that tourism fuels the North Korean economy and plays an active part in helping the North Korean government to produce and develop its nuclear weapons.
North Korea remains one of the least visited countries in the world.
They’d have to be pretty cheap rockets for them to be built from the tourism industry alone.
North Korea does not run on tourism.
In fact, North Korea has shut down for tourism for long periods of time in the past. And indeed is currently closed off to tourists and all foreigners due to the Novel Corona Virus - with it looking unlikely that borders with re-open anytime soon.
Everything in North Korea is officially owned by the state as part of the socialist system on which the country is officially run on. However, in this system companies have to operate and are responsible for employing people, providing benefits, wages etc.
Just like any company in the world.
Most of the money for your North Korea trip goes to the various North Korean partner companies who provide highly educated, trained, and skilled guides for your tour (surprisingly, not government “minders!”). It is used to pay for hotel rooms, meals, transportation, entry fees, etc. Money circulates the company just like it would any other. Salaries, office space, office equipment, questionable paper that rips if you write too hard with a pencil… and coffee machines.
These companies are not ministries and are in fact profit-motivated (like all companies) and they build a profit for themselves into the fees they charge. They also pay tax to the DPRK state; in what amount and how compliant they are with local tax codes is a matter of some debate, but as with anywhere else the state then basically chucks the tax cash in a big pot, stirs it, then uses it to fund all the good and bad things that states fund (schools, roads, armies, hospitals, the penal system, etc).
I’m no economist but this is broadly how it works, and with money being fungible it isn’t really possible to say this $1 from this person went into this nuclear weapon/kindergarten specifically.
Would the state itself stand or fall if the tax revenue from tourism dried up? It would manifestly stand; as the money a. isn’t enough to prop up a whole country, and b. has been cut off before due to the pandemics mentioned above.
It is demonstrably untrue to claim that tourism revenue is a materially significant factor in the economics of the North Korean state.
Well, yeah! (But also no)
If you go on any tour anywhere in the world, you will only see what is planned on that tour…
And no country in the world is going to plan a tour that shows you the bad things about the country!
Most people - especially those working as tour guides (!) - are proud of their country and want to show it off to guests.
North Koreans especially are especially so, and therefore will be happy to show you all of the new construction projects, as well as the precious bits of historical sites that remain, the beautiful mountains, exciting Pyongyang city, and the beautiful beaches.
It’s hardly a secret that tourism is tightly controlled in North Korea. Literally nobody goes to the country believing anything other than this.
The local travel companies, guides, etc are instructed to do their best to portray their country in the most positive light, to put forward official versions of events, the Party line as it were, and to generally paint a rosier picture than everyone knows to be true.
It’s true that this happens everywhere in the world to some extent. People almost always accentuate the positives and play down the negatives, but the extent to which this is done in North Korea is both greater than anywhere else, but less than most visitors expect.
So you can have a genuine experience and a taste of real life.
You just need to understand that you can see many things, but not all things.
You can experience parts of local life, but not all of local life.
And you really should get away from the mindset that it is “all for show” or somehow staged just for you. Common sense will cure most people of this assumption, but it is a common one anyway - especially among people who haven’t been there!
Suddenly, trying to find the things you’re not allowed to, take pictures of the things you’re not supposed to, walk somewhere you shouldn’t go becomes top priority.
Taking a picture of something as mundane as an ox and cart becomes an exciting act of defiance to any rebel (something that can be seen casually in many countries around the world), and you find yourself turned into self-proclaimed paparazzi as you attempt to take sneaky shots of unknowing local North Koreans going about their daily lives - revealing not much more in the end than the obvious fact that local people do indeed have daily lives!
If you manage to get a picture of a construction site without the guides noticing - kudos to you, Sir. But what’s even MORE impressive is getting a shot of the military - something that is not allowed in many countries - but in North Korea seems so much more secretive and suspicious.
(Was there ever another time when you took a picture of a construction site, really?)
North Korea has got itself into an awful vicious circle.
It knows the media says bad things, so tries to hide the bad things. In turn, this creates more mystery about these things and creates more media on them.
What to do…
Yes, you only see what they want you to see in terms of you being on a group guided tour and therefore they are going to take you to lovely places of historical importance and interest, and go to see beautiful and interesting landscapes because that’s what people like to do.
But they, North Koreans, the Party, the government, in reality, have much more important things to do than make sure that the country runs a constant show put on only for tourists.
Use your eyes and ears, and you can see much more of North Korea, too.
Back to my crisis of being sat on a paradise island whilst writing about North Korea… Let’s think about tourism in general and the ethics behind tourism.
Why is it that people believe it is unethical to visit North Korea?
The main argument is that people do not want to support the government of the DPRK.
Fair, but in what country is the act of visiting there seen as support for the government of the country itself?
People who visit China, US, UK, Iran, anywhere at all are never accused of being political supporters of the place they chose to take an interest in enough to visit; why not?
Because that would be absurd.
The same is true of North Korea.
Going there to find out about it, for a visit, because you’re interested, is not innately an act of support whatsoever.
There are groups who visit the country to offer explicit political support. These are left-wing groups, ‘Friendship’ societies, etc.
This is not what Koryo Tours offers, and we’ve heard even local Koreans question quite how a hardline nationalist state needs the support of foreigners anyway. But if you choose to go and explicitly support the government then you have done so, if you don’t then you have not.
Simple as that.
What’s more, by going there you’re not just getting to know the North Koreans, but they get to know you too.
The North Korean Government controls all news in the country. They present a very negative view of foreigners in newspapers and TV at all times. The image of foreigners held by the North Korean population, for the most part, is vastly more negative than most would imagine.
So going there, interacting with local people even a small amount, even for a moment, even under observation and with guides, even fleetingly, works against the national narrative of foreigners being up to no good. It can plant the seed that the world is big, there are many foreigners, and maybe just sometimes some of them might be….not so terrible after all!
If going there and interacting somehow counteracts the official position on foreigners, then it is not going there and just sniping from outside that, in fact, allows the North Korean government to just inform people of the most negative parts of the outside world then who is it who is supporting the government’s position again?
My point is to try to make you see things a bit differently, indeed question more about the places you visit and why it is that North Korea is so out of the question when it is actually below other popular travel destinations when it comes to breaching human rights.
For me, tourism is ethical only if the intentions are ethical.
Tourists visiting North Korea can generally be put loosely into 3 different categories;
Generally, if you are part of categories 1 and 2, expanding your knowledge on a topic and wanting to learn the truth is certainly an ethical way to travel.
However - category 3s, I’m not against you guys either. Even though my first visit to North Korea was largely because I wanted to see the country with my own eyes and see if what the media says really is true, I’d be lying if my sense of adventure, love for travel to interesting and exotic places, as well as an ambition to visit every country in the world didn’t fuel my desire to visit.
What a cool story I could tell. (I did end up telling my story on my about me blog if you’re interested)
It was not something any of my friends had done before - and certainly not any of my family members. My mum was upset and furious when I told her about my planned trip. This only fuelled rebellious Zoe more and soon my North Korea tour was booked.
My first visit to North Korea was eye-opening.
"The best way I describe North Korea is 'pleasantly underwhelming'"
I look back, and I know that it was more the adventure aspect and story-telling that had pulled me in initially and made me take the final step to booking the tour. But what I saw in North Korea led me to want to tell the world.
It’s kind of... normal.
I won’t go on about it now.
But the best way I describe North Korea is “pleasantly underwhelming”.
Sorry to all those expecting brainwashed people and missiles on display at military parades.
So whilst it could be said that it depends on your reason for wanting to come to North Korea as to is it ethical to travel to North Korea, I wouldn’t have said my initial reason was entirely ethical, and was sure for my own gain more than anything else.
But I was then inspired and started working in the country to promote tourism there and work as a tour guide since I do believe that tourism is good for North Korea.
(And how I am reassuring myself that my travel to Fiji is indeed ethical is the fact that apart from learning about a new culture, a new group of people, and even new bits of a language (Bula!) it has at least inspired me and given me the time enough to write this - something I’ve been meaning to for years.)
If you’ve managed to read up to here - well done!
If you skipped down to here, that’s fine too. But you might want to go back up a bit if you’re not convinced.
So why do I think travel to North Korea is ethical?
Those that don’t visit North Korea because of ethical reasons are not helping the situation at all.
Those who go with the right intentions and with open eyes are helping in the grand and just cause to humanise each side to the other.
Slowly, incrementally, and over a very long time, true. But making people feel compassion for one another is easier when you can look someone In the face rather than just rant about them remotely.
Let's not isolate a country we rightly criticised for being overly isolationist, and unthinkingly repeat the rhetoric without questioning or researching in a bit more detail.
Anyone reading this has the ability to do such a thing, whereas others in the world have no such choice or opportunity.
Let’s try to help those folks get a sprinkling of alternative experiences, contacts, and viewpoints in their diets every so often.
That is ethical behaviour.