Recently you might have seen my posts about a trip to North Korea that I took last summer. If not, then I’m sure you’ve heard about the American kid who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor there earlier this year. And if you’ve not heard about that, then I’m sure you know a few things about the world’s most secretive – and possibly the most oppressive – state.
There are then two questions you might want to ask before following in my footsteps and visiting the country. Those are:
- Is it safe?
- Is it ethical?
My answer to both questions is a resounding YES and I’ll explain why below.
Is it safe to visit North Korea?
Given the recent news about Otto Warmbier, you’d be forgiven for thinking that travel to North Korea was unsafe right now. Why risk being sentenced to hard labor in a country where no one will ever be able to come visit you, right?
But remember that what Warmbier did was incredibly risky and foolish. Don’t get me wrong – I feel for the kid and his family – however, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he took an astonishing risk in a place where the punishments are well-known. Before you go to North Korea, you are warned to be respectful. Every environment has its risk factors. If you climb a mountain and jump around next to a ledge with no safety gear, you might die. If you screw around underwater on a scuba trip, you might die. Go on safari and mess with a lion? You’re going to die.
Warmbier made a mistake and was punished. It happens every day when people walk out in front of cars and it’s very sad, but we shouldn’t let that convince us that the experience of going to North Korea is somehow unsafe.
In fact, if you are polite and respectful, it is actually phenomenally safe there. There are no criminals targeting foreigners. People go to Thailand, Mexico, and Italy every day and don’t think of them as especially dangerous places, yet crime against tourists is pretty common – from petty theft to more serious stuff. In North Korea the only danger is yourself.
Having said that, if you are injured, North Korea doesn’t exactly have an abundance of quality hospitals. In order to get into the country you need pretty comprehensive medical insurance, and if something were to go wrong, you’d be glad of it. For anything major, you’d need to be medivacked to Beijing. My guides told me that in their many, many years of operation, nobody had been arrested or put in any danger, but one man had gotten sick and needed an emergency flight to a hospital in China.
People worry about war, too. Although the situation between North Korea and South Korea (or, indeed, most of the rest of the world) seems more tense than usual, it is still not an imminent threat to security. In the South, people don’t worry – Seoul is only a few miles from the DMZ, and North Korea’s artillery could do untold damage in the event of war, yet no one blinks an eye. No one is afraid of travelling to Seoul.
Last summer I was in Pyongyang when the two countries reached a huge escalation of tensions and began shelling one another as the world thought the Korean War was back on… Yet in the streets of Pyongyang, as in Seoul, life went on as normal. I sat and watched a football game between teams from North Korea and South Korea and the players even shook hands.
Humans are notoriously bad at risk assessment, and we perceive the oddest things to be dangerous. Travel to North Korea is statistically very safe, so don’t let that put you off.
Is it Ethical to Visit North Korea?
This is perhaps the greater question, and the one with a less clear answer. The primary argument against travel to North Korea goes like this: “The North Korean government is an evil, repressive organization that is a threat to world peace and its own citizens, and all travel money goes towards funding that organization.” There is also the claim that foreigners are playing into the hands of the North Korean propaganda machine by visiting the country, and that our presence there gives de facto support to the government.
The first point seems quite convincing, and indeed is a stated reason for many people who refuse to go, or chastise those of us who do. Yet I find it wholly unconvincing. For a start, the world is full of “evil, repressive” governments. I work in China, where the government has done myriad awful things to its people over its short history. It is arguably worse than North Korea, and yet the governments and companies of the world are eager to partner up with the Chinese government in order to make money of their own. We trade with China and visit China on holiday, and a chunk of this money goes to fund their repression of Tibet and Xinjiang, their censorship of the internet, their violation of human rights, and their absurd territorial claims in the South China Sea.
I pay taxes on books sold in the United States, and have given the US government money when living there or visiting as a tourist, and that money is party used to fund vicious wars and coups around the world, or turn their police force into a minority-murdered military unit. My point is that we cannot entirely rule out travel to North Korea on the premise that it funds their government unless we restrict travel to countries with particularly open, peaceful governments – and those countries are few and far between.
Moreover, while some money does directly go to the government, much money spent by tourists in North Korea is in foreign currencies and completely off the record. We pay our tour guides, for example, in tips that are never recorded. We buy food at stalls by the roadside that are unplanned stops, and no receipts are given. This money trickles down, not up. It goes to improve the lives of the people in North Korea, and not to fill the coffers of the government.
On that same line, I’d like to point out that the policy of isolation that the world (led by the United States) has taken against North Korea nearly since the end of the Korean War is largely what has caused its horrendous modern position. It was never allowed to function freely and to succeed, whereas South Korea was propped up and supported at all stages. We are partly responsible for the plight of the North Korean people and yet we continue to use them as a political tool – keeping them locked out of the rest of the world, hoping that they will starve sufficiently that they rise up and overthrow their government, whereupon we can replace the Kim dynasty with something pro-Western.
It is a despicable policy and I’m proud to have contributed to tourism in North Korea in a small way, as it helps the people there – something in which the rest of the world seems entirely disinterested.
As to the second point, regarding the appearance of foreigners in the country, I disagree that we are merely playing into the hands of government propaganda. Foreigners are widely demonized in North Korean history books, and our appearance in the country gives us a chance to show our human side. We can interact minimally with people and show ourselves as decent. When I was there, people responded shyly but positively to a foreign presence. It was much like being in rural China. Indeed, if tourists to North Korea act in a reasonable manner, we can effectively counteract government propaganda. Think of it as the diplomacy that otherwise doesn’t occur in North Korea.
I see no good reason to avoid travelling to North Korea, if it is a place that interests you. I hesitated for a long time before going last year, but after thinking it all through I took a chance and went. It was one of the great experiences of my life, and I have no regrets. Obviously, it is not for everyone. Whilst there you do have to show respect to their leaders and listen to their perverse versions of history. If you’re not comfortable bowing at a statue of Kim Jong-il, I don’t blame you, but don’t go. However, I think it is important to be exposed to things which are outside our comfort zone. Sure, you can go to Thailand and get drunk on the beach… but some places in the world really open your eyes, and for me, North Korea was one of them.