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Is it morally right to visit North Korea?

by Michael on September 15, 2011

Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.

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CNN just posted an article about an amateur golf tournament that was held in North Korea. One of their readers commented that due to the poor conditions imposed on its citizens by the current regime people should be boycotting the country, not going there. That reader raised an interesting question. Is it morally right to visit North Korea?

choson ot north korea women

This is something we grappled with before our recent trip to the Hermit Kingdom. We had done our research and knew that conditions for many of its citizens, particularly those in the in the countryside, are appalling. There is a lack of basic human rights, a very small part of which is even extended to visitors who must give up their cell phones, computers, GPS devices, certain books and newspapers, and any method of accessing the outside world upon entry. Again we emphasize that this is an extremely small taste of what the North Koreans experience on a daily basis.

We knew all this beforehand yet we still wanted to go. When dealing with other countries we strongly believe in engagement, not estrangement. For our entire lifetime the US has engaged in a boycott of Cuba to protest the Castro regime. It has been ineffective and has not yielded any positive results. Here we are, citizens of the freedom-loving United States, yet we are not free to visit Cuba without incurring severe fines and potential jail time. Due to the Cuba boycott we were surprised to learn that we were allowed to visit North Korea.

As a child I was fascinated with the country due to the Pueblo Incident, the 1968 taking of a U.S. naval vessel illegally by the DPRK government when they also held the crew hostage for almost a year. When I was a teenager I exchanged letters with Commander Lloyd Bucher, the captain of the Pueblo. Since the ship is still held in Pyongyang, I wanted to see it as a memorial to both him and his crew.

choson ot north korea

We knew that North Koreans are taught from an early age to hate Americans. We saw this on full display at the War Museum where North Korean school children are taught that America started the Korean War and then were forced to surrender to the victorious Kim Il Sung. In propaganda posters Americans are portrayed as bayonet wielding, hook-nosed spindly characters that are intent on wiping out the Korean race.

Westerners are still a rare enough breed in Pyongyang that we stood out where ever we went. But aside from their curiosity, the people we encountered were gracious and welcoming. When our tour bus was stuck in a crowd of National Day revelers we were greeted with cries of “Welcome” from groups passing by and many waves from children. This was true in all our interactions. The local people were not at all like the stoic automatons we had expected.

north korean children

We also hoped to counter the image of us that had been drilled into them from an early age. By being exposed to Americans the North Koreans we met could witness for themselves that we are not the evil characters that we have been portrayed. We feel that more positive than negative comes from seeing each other firsthand, that the alternative of hiding behind walls and government policies only breeds ignorance and distrust. We believe in breaking down barriers and encourage other like-minded travelers to visit North Korea. It was truly an unforgettable experience.

Click the link for more about visiting North Korea.

Link to United States government information for visiting North Korea.

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jerry September 16, 2011 at 7:04 am

If the North Koreans really knew about Americans, they certainly wouldn’t portray us as “spindly” characters.

Michael September 16, 2011 at 7:11 am

I guess that means you’ve already read the post about donuts. Actually in North Korea being a bit chunky is seen as a sign of benevolence. Think of Santa Claus and you get the idea. Hence the posters of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il do not try to hide their chubbiness.

paul mathison September 16, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Heavy stuff, and informative! Peace is not merely the absence of war–it must be pursued (for sure, this is easier said than done and can seem counterintuitive). Outstanding “mingling of cultures” photo, too, including rare, tolerable likeness of mustachioed ruffian.

Michael September 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm

The mustachioed ruffian caused quite a stir. They don’t see much of that. Thanks for checking in.

Us December 21, 2011 at 9:53 am

The people we met were very friendly to us despite all the anti-American propaganda they are fed. People are people everywhere.

John December 22, 2011 at 2:05 pm

If you Mr. Ecklein’s writing at his link, he’s clearly an apologist, if not a supporter of the current DPRK regime. While he tries to cast his comments as being about the people, he can’t resist offering comments about how bad the US is or how good the DPRK regime is. One I found particularly funny: DPRK has a all-volunteer army. True, but is you don’t join the army, you are likely to starve. Excellent choice!

Us December 22, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Cogent points John.

div7 January 11, 2013 at 12:55 pm

I urge you not to be naive. Where do you think your tourist dollars are going? This nation is cut off by sanctions for a reason. Tourism is one of their few sources of income, and funds a regime that ensures compliance through fear of death. Are you not aware that if any NK citizen does anything seemingly unapproving, they and 3 generations of their family are whisked off to labor camps.? They are then subjected to systematic torture, rape, and starvation. That’s why the people are so orderly and compliant when they greet tourists. It’s all for show. They live in CONSTANT fear. You can read about the horrors of these gulags from the very few who have managed to live to bring awareness to the atrocities. The paradox is that you will not see the real North Korea on a tourist itinerary.
Here are links to the real North Korea.

http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/04/13/inside-north-korea-concentration-camp/

http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/10/world/asia/north-korea-defector/index.html

Or read The Aquariums of Pyonyang – which tell of the author’s struggle for survival whilst spending 10 years in a North Korean gulag

Michael January 11, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Hi div7,

Thanks for your passionate response to our story. Yes, we have read the books about North Korea and the links you provided (some of which are written by people who have never been there and contain inaccuracies about visiting the country). We are well aware of the totalitarian nature of the regime and its heinous human rights record. We also stand by our belief that in the long run it is better for North Koreans to meet Westerners and have contact with the outide world. We have seen how the American boycott of Cuba has provided no results after 50 years. We believe in engagement rather than estrangement.

Thank you for your input.

Sara March 7, 2013 at 5:08 pm

But, but, it’s totally like visitng Cuba! I mean, minus the stunted children, public executions, and concentration camps!

I mean, us Westerners, we OWE it to them to show them that we’re not all bad, amirite?

Seriously, I really wanted to like this blog. But nope. Just two white privileged Westerners who failed to check said privilege when they entered one of the worst places in the world as “tourists.” You saw what the regime wanted you to see, make no mistake — no more and no less.

Tom Dolan February 28, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Are you really going there because it’s better for North Koreans to meet foreigners in the flesh? Or is it also because it’s exciting to feel like you’re doing something no one else has ever done, consequences be damned?

Search the web, there are dozens of other people trying to sell books and pictures and profit off their Indiana Jones excursions to North Korea.

You do realize that the “normal children” you met are members of elite military families and that their indoctrination about foreigners is going to put all your smiles and “nice to meet yous” into whatever context the propaganda sees fit.

Drawing comparisons to Cuba is pointless as it is not at all the same cultural landscape in the least; and this attitude of “well if you haven’t been there you don’t really know what you’re talking about so your complaints are invalid” is ludicrous, because when you go there you literally have no idea what you’re doing–only what they tell you you are doing.

Sorry if this seems like a harsh comment but I am disgusted by people trying to profit off travels to North Korea, be it money, fame, or thrills that they seek.

Michael March 1, 2013 at 10:02 am

Hi Tom,

I can understand how you might feel that way. In my case I also wanted to visit the USS Pueblo, the only commissioned US Navy vessel still held in foreign hands. As a teenager I engaged in a correspondance with Lloyd Bucher, the commander of the ship when it was hijacked by North Korea, and felt an obligation to see it.

The people we met on the tour do not sound like what you describe and I stand behind what I wrote in the story. But thank you for your thought provoking comments. Visiting North Korea is certainly not without some controversy.

Van February 25, 2014 at 6:38 pm

I agree with Josh and others [until recently, Aug San Suu Kyi recommended boycotting Burma…], but I was impressed with Michael’s well-thought-out arguments. If everyone expressed disagreement as respectfully and rationally as Michael, the world would be a far better place!

Thanks, Michael (and others who contributed meaningfully to this interesting debate).

Michael March 7, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Hi Sara,

I didn’t realize our race had anything to do with our decision but hope you feel better now. Thanks for reading.

Ano April 3, 2013 at 6:04 am

>check your privilege
Michael, Sara is probably a troll.

Also going to North Korea does not mean you support their politics.

Sara March 7, 2013 at 5:19 pm

But that’s just it, Michael — you don’t even realize your privilege. And you say to someone else, another commentator, that some of the reports are from people who’ve never been to NoKo? What about the reports from people who have? Is Jimmy Carter lying, Michael? The NGOs, do they lie?

You and your wife seem like nice people and I commend you for your adventurous spirit. But I draw the line at visiting NoKo as tourists, and then painting a rather halcyon picture. What you saw is in no way representative of how the majority are forced to live.

Josh Strike March 16, 2013 at 12:27 pm

I agree with Sara’s comments here. What benefit there might be in giving a better impression of Westerners to a small, government-approved slice of the elite population in Pyongyang is far outweighed by the fact that every dollar you spent in North Korea went directly toward maintaining their system of brutal concentration camps.
This is not even a difficult moral question. Would you have visited Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge? Assuming they’d organized tours of the killing fields and not shot you on sight? Would you have gone to Oktoberfest in Nazi Germany down the road from Dachau? Would you have blogged that you expected to smell burning flesh but actually the air was crisp and clean?
Let me ask you one real question: If you could have toured one of the concentration camps in North Korea, and bought handicrafts made by the prisoners, would you have done that?
Because by visiting that country and buying anything in a North Korean hotel, that’s exactly what you did.

Michael March 16, 2013 at 2:08 pm

Hi Sara,

Please read our North Korea stories before putting words in our mouth; such as what we may think about Jimmy Carter, a topic we don’t even address. A good place to start would be the Op-Ed piece we wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer about the effect on the North Korean people of Kim Il Jong’s death. We republish it here on our blog. By further reading you’ll see that we do not portray North Korea as a “halycon” place. Best wishes.

Michael March 16, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Hi Josh,

Thanks for your thoughful comments. However, we tend to disagree with the comparisons you have cited. For several generations the North Korean people have had virtually no contact with the outside world, other than what their oppressive regime decides to share with them. Even then it is twisted to suit their propoganda purposes. After interacting with North Koreans, we feel even more strongly that exposure to people from the outside world is significantly more important than the marginal revenue increase they derive from tourism. If they meet people, say Americans who are portrayed as devils intent on killing them, and then find out we are not, perhaps it will cause them to question other lies they are being told on a daily basis. It’s not much but it’s a start.

Take care.

Michael April 3, 2013 at 8:32 am

Hi Ano,

There are no easy answers to this one. Of course we don’t support North Korea’s totalitarian government but feel strongly that more good comes out of interacting with the North Korean people.

Thanks for reading.

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