This has been my most difficult blog to write so far. I really want to get my points across eloquently but I fear I will end up rambling like my usual self when I get overly passionate about a subject.
Since the incredibly sad and tragic death of Otto Warmbier– who was arrested in North Korea on the same day that I was leaving the country (I was not in his tour group and did not meet him)- I have re-evaluated my decision to travel to the country. I do not regret my visit but would not go again until things change (which sadly looks a long way off).
My intentions for going were always good and I have never meant to cause any offence or harm. I also want to add that this trip was not sponsored and I recieved no pay cheque to go and write my blog about it after. Nor was it about gaining loads of hits and page views- I had no blog when I went! The idea was to start one upon my return to share with friends and family and anything more was a bonus.
I have been accused of going for selfish reasons and I think every trip has some element of selfishness behind it. One reason I went was because North Korea had facinated me for a long time but my main reason was to try and gain a better understanding of this secretive country and spread word to those that knew little to nothing about it.
So in 2015 I decided to go (with my boyfriend who also had an interest in North Korea) and not just go for a day tour of Pyongyang- I wanted to see as much of the country as possible (that they would allow me to see) in the time frame and budget I had.
I never treated the trip as a relaxing vacation- and when I say that I mean it wasn’t to just go to the skii resort and then come straight home and have the novelty factor of saying I went skiing in North Korea. I went to learn what I could and gain a different perspective.
I am very aware that I am highly privileged to even have the opportunity to travel in the first place let alone travel to a country like North Korea.
I think it is important not to judge the local people of North Korea and tar them with the same brush as the government. They cannot help that they were born under this regime. They are not crazy to believe that Kim Jong Un is the perfect leader- they just do not know otherwise and have been fed lies, propaganda and fear to make them think this way- or in some cases, pretend to think this way.
By the end of our trip, our guides became more than just guides- they were our friends (sounds cheesy but it’s true). During a trip to North Korea you are always with a guide except when you’re at the hotels. Due to this rule we spent a hell of a lot of time with our two guides and although we couldn’t have a deep and truly honest political conversation, we did speak about lots of other things. Despite living very different lives we realised we did have some things in common. I spoke to Mrs Ha about her daughter and some stories reminded me of my own mother and I.
”You only see what the government wants you to see!” – Of course I was aware beforehand that the itineraries are restricted and they would not take me anywhere they think would make the country look bad. It is very true that you only see what the governments wants you to but that doesn’t mean that everything you see is totally fake. The people on the metro trains are genuinely on their way to work, the people walking around the cities and towns are not actors placed there and the girls rollerskating in the square are not a Truman Show style set up. But they are still a skewed version of what North Korean life is like. These are the ‘elite’ few and there is some extreme poverty and suffering being hidden from us.
”You can’t interact with any locals!”- Not entirely true. Contact with local people is possible and it is not illegal to approach someone in the street. What is true is that these interactions are limited- a) because of a language barrier and b) because these people will not be able to share their real struggles or fears with you in case they are punished. We interacted with a handful of locals that were not working within the tourist industry (I got the guide to translate for me a couple of times). We played catch with a bunch of youths in the square on new years eve, I asked some young girls for a photograph of them rollerskating in Pyongyang and in the supermarket we tried our best to communicate in a friendly way with a mother and her young daughter who were waving and smiling at us. Yes, in other countries you get far more interaction with the locals but at least this was something. Some of those who have not been seem to think I did not talk to a single soul apart from my guides- this was not the case. We had a lot of interaction with anyone that worked in the tourist industry (hotel staff, museum guides etc.) but all of these people are government approved and will not tell you anything they are not allowed to say. We were always aware of this and kept it in mind as we had conversations with them. I would like to think that when we were talking about subjects other than their home country, they were being open and honest, but of course I cannot say for sure.
Is it right to travel to North Korea?
Currently, I don’t think travel to North Korea is a good idea. In the 2 years since I went tensions between the US and North Korea seem to have gotten worse. The ‘bartering’ of Americans who have been detained (most of these are not tourists but working in the country) is a serious issue and a worrying game that is being played between the US and North Korea.
Travel to North Korea by US citizens is now banned and I think the situation with Otto Warmbier is what sparked this change. It may sound ridiculous to some, but I do think tourists are generally safe in the country if you follow the rules but for now it is best if Americans cannot go. Another case like Otto’s would be awful.
That said, I do not regret my visit 2 years ago. I know there are many who would disagree with me and I think it’s perfectly okay to not want to visit yourself. I am not trying to convince you to go.
Here are some of my reasons for visiting:
When I was researching my trip, I saw it as a step in the right direction that the country does open its doors to visitors. In many ways I do still see this as a positive. But, I don’t think it is good for the tourism industry there to grow too big at this time. (I personally think it will remain a very niche market). Opening the doors to some foreigners is the one thing that bursts the bubble on this secretive country and tourists give the local people a link to the outside world and I think it’s important to maintain that. I understand that most of the Koreans we speak to will be the elite few but surely it’s still important to form good impressions with them.
I am not denying that there are some horrendous things happening within the country and even those living in the ‘elite’ city of Pyongyang have no real freedom. I did not go because I support the regime. But by writing about my trip – people can read this and learn a bit about the country (it is incredible how many people I spoke to who couldn’t even tell you the difference between North and South Korea).
The money North Korea earns from tourism is rather small and not enough to prop up the regime. In fact, Kim Jong Un shut off all tourism for many months during the ebola outbreak. He can cut off tourism again any time he wants. In this case, the money made from tourists cannot be that significant. Sadly, North Korea is not the only country in the world to have a corrupt government and human rights violations. It is possibly the worst and therefore gets the most media attention. There are other parts of the world we may not think twice about travelling to where some amount of our visa money could be getting into the wrong hands.
This what Koryo, one of the first tour companies to take westerners to North Korea, says about whether or not tourism is supporting the government:
”We don’t believe this to be true. The amount of money the DPRK government receives through tourism is very minimal and certainly not enough to fund a nuclear programme or the like. Travel broadens the mind and nowhere is that truer than in North Korea. We believe that there is a benefit to be gained by both those who visit and those who are visited from increased human-level contact between both sides. Just as most North Koreans have hardly any experience of interacting face to face with foreigners almost nobody outside of the DPRK has ever met a North Korean. We would like to see that ratio change over time and believe that non-governmental tourism is the best way to go about this. There are very few restrictions on who can visit and the United Nations, European Union and other agencies see tourism as a positive way of engagement.”
I also think tourism helps the Korean people form a more positive outlook on other cultures. They are taught to believe that the west is the enemy- yet we come and show friendship, positivity and a willingness to learn about their culture. The North Korean people I met were incredibly friendly, polite and curious to know more about our lives outside of the DPRK. They are innocent people trapped under a harsh dictatorship.
I have also read arguments for and against travel to North Korea written by those who have defected. Here is one opinion from Sung-ha Joo, who was a reservist artillery officer in the North Korean military before he left in 2001. Now he lives in South Korea:
”North Koreans pick up a lot from tourists – their freewheeling nature, foreign fashions, and their attitude. I therefore believe tourism will help them realise how, under Kim Jong-un, they are behind the rest of the world from both political and economic perspectives. I value personal exchange. While the people that tourists often meet in North Korea are elites, don’t forget that these are the people who are leading the country. I believe you will earn more from North Korean tourism by affecting these people than the financial benefit they will earn. I believe tourism is a positive idea considering my experience in the North, imagining the outside world by observing foreign tourists.”
I beleive that tourism in these low numbers (currently around 5,000 western tourists a year) is not causing any harm. I have re-evaluated this trip to North Korea many times now and it may well be true that I made no positive impact either! I would like to think otherwise but obviously any positive impact on my part would be very small – two young British tourists cannot bring down the regime after all!
I was recently quoted in this article from Foreign Policy and I think some interesting points are made here.
I can understand the arguments against travel to North Korea too but I don’t think the answer to this issue is simply black and white. People will always be divided on this subject but I would like you to understand why I chose to go back in 2015 even if you disagree with me. I also think it is a good thing to have a conversation about this and be somewhat political in my blog.
I live in hope that in my lifetime I will see things improve in North Korea but this is not something that can happen overnight.