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.
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?
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.
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.
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.