Why we won’t travel to North Korea

North Korean Painting of Kim Il Sung

Several weeks ago we wondered aloud whether ethical considerations should factor into our travel decisions. That post prompted a lively debate that helped us refine our thinking on the subject. Since then, fellow travel blogger Wandering Earl has written several thought provoking articles leading up to, and including, his recent trip to North Korea.

We agree with Earl that under normal circumstances the conscientious traveler is a positive force in the world. At our best we are ambassadors, educators, volunteers and economic engines for struggling communities. And it is for those reasons that we encourage people to travel freely and widely. But we also know that while those things are often true, they are not always true.

North Korea stands out as one glaring example of a country that is particularly immune to the benefits travelers normally bring. It’s also a place where tourism has the potential to cause real harm.

In recent years the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has slowly opened its borders to western tourism. We sense it’s a destination that will grow in popularity among hard core travelers. Earl may be among the first to go, but I expect others will follow. Should you?

It’s no secret that the North Korean government is regarded as one of the most vicious and cruel regimes of modern times. According to Human Rights Watch the “government regularly arrests, abuses, tortures, and imprisons citizens for a variety of economic crimes.” Those crimes include such mundane activities as “violating travel permits, engaging in private trading activities, using mobile phones to call overseas, and possessing DVDs.”

Worse is its treatment of accused political dissidents who risk having their entire families sentenced to a lifetime of slave labor without trial or recourse. Through a policy known as Three Generations of Punishment the government even detains children born in prison camps as retribution for the alleged crimes of an ancestor.

60 Minutes Interviews an Escapee Born in a North Korean Prison

In testimony before the United Nations last week, another escapee from a different North Korean gulag described his experience this way:

My parents didn’t last even a year. They died from hunger. There were so many ways to die in Yodok. People could have their limbs chopped off while cutting wood, they could die from parasites, or from hunger; there was so much death that the streets would be lined with dead bodies.”

So how do travelers justify going to such a place? Some, unfortunately, go without question. Others, like Wandering Earl, take a more thoughtful approach.

Before heading off to Pyongyang, Earl wrote a detailed post explaining why he doesn’t let human rights concerns affect his travel decisions. When I asked him specifically about North Korea, he provided links to a handful of articles supporting tourism to the DPRK.

You can read those articles here and here.

Let’s critique their arguments.

It’s all about the Benjamins

Tad Farrell, the founder of NKNews, tells us that we shouldn’t worry about traveling to North Korea because our individual impact is trivial.

Last year North Korea’s GDP was (conservatively) estimated by the CIA to be approx $40 billion. When considering that about 4,000 Westerners go per year, the revenue generated by tourist visits comes to about $400,000 per year – or 0.001% of the sum total of the DPRK GDP. These figures are so small that frankly it is absurd to think that touring North Korea will in any way impact what the North Korean government chooses to spend its money on.”

First of all, Mr. Farrell uses the wrong comparison to judge the size and impact of tourism on the North Korean government. Total GDP, which counts all transactions in a country, is not the right denominator. A much better measure for comparison is the amount of “hard currency” available to the government.

To see why we first need to discuss how the North Korean economy is different from the ones we’re more familiar with.

Unlike more open economies North Korean leaders can’t simply convert their domestic money (the Won) into other world currencies or borrow those currencies on world markets. Nobody outside of North Korea will accept Won as payment for anything. If the government wants to buy foreign goods, it must first obtain enough foreign currency (typically dollars, Euros, or Renminbi) to make the purchases.

And the DPRK really wants to buy foreign goods. One way the government keeps its generals happy is by plying them with French wine and Russian caviar. Bestowing foreign luxuries is a critical tool the ruling elite uses to retain power. But getting enough “hard currency” to pay for such extravagances is difficult for the regime.

Tourism is one avenue for bringing hard currency into the country (selling methamphetamine internationally is another).

Doing a small amount of harm is still doing harm

In order to visit North Korea you have to book an all-inclusive tour, either directly or indirectly, from a government controlled travel agency. The tours we’ve seen offered by western tour agencies cost about €1,500 per person. The western agency will take some of that money for itself but will pass the rest along to the North Korean travel agency in the form of Euros. The government takes those Euros and then provides your hotel, meals, and transportation with state-owned resources.

It’s now easy to see why a Euro generated through tourism has far more value to North Korean rulers than an equivalent amount of Won spent locally. It’s also easy to see why Mr. Farrell’s comparison of tourism revenues to total GDP is misplaced.

A rural farmer delivering €1,000 worth of chickens to Pyongyang is recorded as €1,000 in GDP. But if Kim Jong Un wants to reward a general for crushing a local uprising with a €1,000 Cartier watch he can’t use those chickens to buy one. He can, however, purchase it with the proceeds from your €1,500 tour package.

While Mr. Farrell may still contend that an individual tourist’s ~€1,500 contribution to North Korea’s “Despot Self Preservation Fund” is small compared to the government’s total needs, size isn’t really the relevant issue. Doing a small amount of harm is still doing harm. And as travelers we should really aim to avoid doing any harm at all.

The better question to explore is whether any positive aspects of our travels more than offset the harm done by giving money to the North Korean horror factory. One argument we hear routinely is that tourism helps local economies and their struggling workers. That is often true. But once again, North Korea is a special case.

Market principles don’t apply

The North Korean economy is unlike any we’re accustomed to. Our normal understanding of the way commerce works doesn’t apply. There are no locally owned shops or guest houses where tourists can direct their spending. The restaurants where you eat and the hotels where you sleep are all government owned.

On your tightly controlled, all-inclusive, tour the government largely directs how you spend your money while inside North Korea. Tourists do have limited opportunities to spend Euros on drinks and souvenirs but it’s unreasonable to expect that the sellers actually profit from those transactions. Profits, after all, are forbidden.

It’s also unreasonable to expect that your commerce will benefit anyone but the ruling elite. The farmer who produces more food to feed tourists won’t earn any more money as a result. In fact, he may not be paid anything at all.

Many North Koreans are forced to work without pay. It’s a crime not to oblige. Instead of earning monetary wages workers survive on government rations and increasingly on black market activities. In such an environment it’s hard to see how tourist dollars have any chance of reaching the struggling masses.

For these reasons we believe that the economic case argues decisively against traveling to North Korea. Tourism provides the government with the hard currency it desperately needs to perpetuate its oppressive regime while offering few obvious benefits to ordinary citizens.

If we are to travel to this country in good conscience, we need to find a more compelling reason. Wandering Earl thinks he has one.

By traveling to countries that are home to movements or policies that you don’t agree with, you also have a chance to create some open, healthy debate. Human interaction and the exchange of ideas leads people to re-evaluate their beliefs. After all, this is exactly how I’ve grown and changed as a person over the years myself. I’ve met people all over the world who think differently than I do and I’ve listened to their stories, tried to understand their points of view and then, I’ve examined my own belief system and often made adjustments as a result.”

This is another example of a good general argument that has limited bearing on the specific case of North Korea.

It’s only a conversation when we’re both allowed to speak freely

Unfortunately for the North Korean people there is no possibility for an “open and healthy debate” because their government brooks no dissent. Its citizens are monitored continuously and ranked according to their perceived allegiance to the state, even to the point of having their homes inspected to assure their required portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are properly hung and cared for. To speak an unauthorized opinion inside North Korea is to risk slave labor for yourself, your family and possibly your posterity.

Even if you, as a tourist, meet and impress a dozen locals during your visit the “conversation” basically ends there. But not for you.

You return home and tell your friends and neighbors about the great trip you had. Maybe you even blog about it, as Earl did to his thousands of followers. And though you try your best to be balanced, your reporting comes across as favorable because, lets face it, you had a good time.

You didn’t see overt oppression or prison camps while you were in Pyongyang. Sure you witnessed propaganda billboards and a disturbing level of conformity, but your experience in the country bore little resemblance to all those reports you read before your trip.

And that, to me, seems problematic.

I have megaphone they have a muzzle

Although the places you visited were every bit as real as the places you couldn’t go, the impressions you take home and share give a distorted picture of the country. Or, more precisely, they paint the picture the North Korean government wants to project.

And while the government actively suppresses the conversation you hoped to start internally, your conversations externally help soften the image of a brutal regime in regions of the world where public opinion actually matters. 

Still, Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, sees more sunshine than darkness in North Korean tourism. According to his reasoning,

The only way to promote change, evolutionary or revolutionary, is to bring North Koreans into contact with the outside world. The North Korean dictator and his elite might see partial exchanges as an easy way to earn money, which is necessary for them to maintain their caviar and cognac lifestyle. In the short term they are probably right. But in the long term, the (cultural) exchanges will make breaches in the once monolith wall of information blockade. Sooner or later, those breaches will become decisive.”

The idea that the knowledge tourists bring to the North Korean people will eventually spur change is an appealing one. Hearing firsthand accounts from foreigners about life beyond the DMZ must encourage, as Earl puts it, “a bit of yearning for what’s on the outside.” That yearning is the very stuff from which revolutions are made. It is a hopeful thought.

The obvious retort is that Mr. Lankov is advocating trading something immediate and certain for something distant and unknowable. In the short run, Kim Jong Un will use our money to perpetuate his regime along with all of it’s oppression, torture, and death.

In the longer term? No one knows. Not even the good professor.

And while Mr. Lankov certainly knows far more about the inner workings of North Korea than I do, he knows far less about what the regime needs to stay in power than does the government itself. And the government’s actions speak loudly.

Through the tentative opening of its borders to highly controlled tourism the DPRK has signaled that it needs our money more than it fears our presence or our influence. We hesitate before second-guessing the government’s understanding of what it requires to retain power.

We shudder at the thought of giving it what it needs.

 

Update: A company specializing in North Korean tours responds to our criticisms. Click over to see if you feel better after reading their comments. 

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144 Comments on “Why we won’t travel to North Korea”

  1. Mjollnir September 3, 2013 at 8:51 am #

    A well-reasoned POV. Don’t touch DPRK with a bargepole :-D

  2. Laura Hilger September 3, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Reblogged this on Strucknwords and commented:
    This is a well written post on the debate surrounding travel to North Korea. It also brings to light the issue of supporting any regimes/governments that propagate and profit from human rights abuses.

  3. John September 3, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    No way.

  4. Erin Elaine September 3, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    I think your last paragraph says it all. I would never travel there.

    • Nomad Capitalist October 1, 2013 at 8:31 am #

      To a lot of people, the US is an oppressive regime. Ask the innocent people they’ve killed in the Middle East.

      • Brian October 1, 2013 at 9:20 am #

        I look forward to reading your article discussing the ethics of travel to the U.S. and will be more than happy to discuss that issue with you there. That topic clearly isn’t what this one is about, though.

        • Stuart M. October 1, 2013 at 9:14 pm #

          Touché!

  5. Jen September 3, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    Interesting presentation on the other side of the coin, so to speak.

  6. writecrites September 3, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    All your points are well taken. Although I’ve never considered traveling to N. Korea, I am now determined not to do so. I appreciate your thoughtful stance on this and many other issues.

  7. Mike September 4, 2013 at 5:47 am #

    Well researched and reasoned post, although ultimately I disagree with your conclusion as it’s based primarily on an economic argument. If we assume that the goal here is not only to have an interesting holiday bit also to affect positive change in a brutal regime, then you have to consider that all forms of economic sanctions have been ineffective for the last 50 years.

    The DPRK is a different animal from other totalitarian states as the Kim family are publicly accepted as living Gods and therefore beyond reproach, no matter how dire the circumstances – if the death of millions during the famine of the late 90’s wasn’t enough to see the government overthrown then denying the rulers a few million Euros can’t be expected to have any real effect.

    The only positive change seen in the country in recent years has come about through a policy of engagement and trade where, similar to 1990’s China, the people are shown something to aspire to and hence the government is moved to act to maintain social harmony. In my opinion this is a strong argument in favour of tourism to the state.

    Further, the DPRK regime likes to divert the people’s attention from hardship by focussing blame towards a common enemy (similar to Europe in the 1930’s); in this case the American “Imperialist Aggressors”. Hence the US and South Korea playing war games on its doorstep, and then complaining when the DPRK reacts badly, is arrogant and counter-productive as it plays into the hands of the DPRK rulers and their PR machine. The Western media reactions are also hypocritical – would people have expected the US Government to sit idly by during the Cuban missile crisis?

    I’m no apologist for the State – in fact I would encourage anyone interested to read the works of people such as Barbara Demick to get an even greater insight into the atrocities of the regime – however I believe that ignoring the lessons of history and turning our backs on the North Korean people is not the best way forward.

    I fully expect many others to disagree with me, however given that all the above comments were in support of a boycott stance I felt it only appropriate to echo your suggestion that people read Earl’s post and give consideration to an alternative viewpoint.

    • Brian September 4, 2013 at 11:42 am #

      Hi Mike,
      Thanks for your comment.

      I think what’s ignored in your “engagement” argument is the need for a mutual desire to engage. You cite China as an example and they’re a good one. China opened itself to the world under Deng Xiaoping because they wanted to reform their economy. Those last few words can’t be overstated – they wanted to reform. And because of those desires they took decisive action to liberalize their country.

      North Korean leadership meanwhile has shown no desire to reform. What they’ve done instead is concocted ways to get what they want without conceding anything (selling drugs, orchestrating international crises, and yes, allowing tightly controlled tourism).

      I’m all for engagement with a willing participant. And once I see North Korea making efforts to improve the lives of its people, I’ll reconsider. But there needs to be a quid pro quo. If I’m going to hand over money to someone I know will use it to cause great harm I need to get something definitive in return. Being allowed to walk around Pyongyang shadowed by a government minder with the fleeting hope that my mere presence will change hearts and minds among the populace and the dimmer hope that those changes will filter up to a ruling elite who cares not one wit about popular opinion isn’t even close to enough of a concession from the North.

      Edit to add: South Korea’s decades long experiment of unconditional aid and encouragement to the North ended in 2010 with the following declaration “Sunshine Policy failed to change North Korea” http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/11/18/us-korea-north-sunshine-idUSTRE6AH12520101118

      • thetravelcamel September 5, 2013 at 7:50 am #

        There are changes in North Korea. Restrictions on foreigners appear to be less now than when I travelled there in 2009 (mobile/cell phones were banned, photography restrictions were heavier). Just recently, a group of motorcyclists from New Zealand crossed the border from north to south after riding through North Korea – this would have been impossible even a couple of years ago.

        But more importantly, it has been reported for years that China has been encouraging the country to undertake economic reforms. Indications are that Kim Jong Eun is now implementing the earliest stages of change. Thus, there appears to some desire to reform. http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57577264/north-korea-shifts-from-nuclear-war-rhetoric-to-talk-of-economic-reform/

        It is possible to change the hearts and minds of certain people within the country. I saw a tourist at a park in Pyongyang taking photos of North Koreans with their Polaroid instant camera and hand over the photos to the very appreciative and happy subjects as a gift. It is gestures like these that lessen the opinion that western folk are merely “Imperialist Aggressors”. Thus, the correct approach and ideas will ensure that this perception change is more than a fleeting hope.

        Finally, during my 8 night visit in North Korea, the only time I heard the US referred to with any degree of warmth was regarding the New York Philharmonic concert in Pyongyang back in 2008. Gone was the usual fiery rhetoric about the US, but instead a hope of a greater understanding between the two countries. Change in North Korea is possible, but it needs to be approached the right way, and further isolating the country is not the correct path.

        • Brian September 5, 2013 at 10:30 am #

          This entire argument makes it sound as if the problem we have with North Korea is a mere difference of opinion between populations. “If only the good people of the North could meet us they’d see we we are not so bad and then real change would happen.” That’s not the problem. Public opinion in North Korea is not the problem. The fact that North Korean rulers don’t care about public opinion is both part of the problem and also refutation of the argument that tourism can solve that problem.

          With respect to budding reforms in North Korea, we’ll know it when we see it . . . it looks like Myanmar. Fiddling around the edges of agriculture policy isn’t what anyone is calling a major move. I’m hopeful, but then I was also hopeful when Kim Jong Un took power from his father only to see those hopes dashed with a ramp up of executions.

          • thetravelcamel September 5, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

            I understand your viewpoint and see that you passionately believe in it, which I do respect even though I don’t agree.

            I do agree with you that we’ll know reform when we see it, but even the reforms you have mentioned above negate any absolute statements such as “no desire to reform” which you made above. I think it is prudent to be measured in comments on North Korea or other regimes. Actions of the past are not always a predictor of the future.

            I concur that the desire for reform was absent with previous leaders of North Korea, but this may not apply to Kim Jong Eun – he appears to be very different in some ways from his father. I’m unsure what will actually change in the next 5-10 years, but to definitively say that there is “no desire to reform” is not a statement that can be made with any degree of confidence or credibility.

            I like the tone of hope you mentioned in the comment above, but this is missing throughout the entire article, You article is highly negative of North Korea, but without any measured tone. I wrote five blogs on North Korea and I could have easily spoken negatively of quite a bit of what I saw – however, I just reported what I see and let the readers decide for themselves. I don’t shove opinions down people’s throats, they are intelligent enough to figure for themselves.

            Which brings me to my final point, you mention in your article that bloggers don’t see and/or don’t mention such things as prison camp and human rights abuses. Bloggers are NOT journalists – they report on personal experiences, and usually don’t speculate on what they have not personally seen or heard. I saw some disturbing aspects of the country, especially in the indoctrination of the young in the pursuit of military goals, and I wrote about it. My guides admitted the previous famines in North Korea in the 1990s, so I mentioned that too. But I was obviously not exposed to human rights issues so why should I mention it? Seriously, do you expect bloggers who visit the US to comment on Guantanamo Bay or even be allowed to see it? Please don’t confuse bloggers with journalists – they have very different functions.

            Due to the delicate and complicated situation of North Korea and the peninsula as a whole it pays to be measured on comments, and you article fails to do this. Freedom of speech is a right, but there is also a responsibility on how it is used.

            • Brian September 5, 2013 at 4:54 pm #

              I agree that the jury is still out on how Kim Jong Un will rule, but it seems prudent to wait for him to actually produce some meaningful changes before we rush to hand him our money. I’m also aware of the history where crisis induced reforms were later reversed – sometimes brutally. Given that history it seems doubly prudent to let the new ruler demonstrate his desire for reform rather than just assume it.

              And yes, we should exercise our freedom of speech responsibly. Part of that responsibility includes not putting a rosy gloss on something that shouldn’t be polished.

      • krahun January 11, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

        I just discovered your blog yesterday. I see that you’re passionate and genuine, rather than the site being just another tool to generate revenue. There is a huge chasm in understanding between us and them. For example, we want to help the hungry in DPRK, so we send boat loads of food. Then we are perplexed and angered when the N. Koreans are angry by our generosity. No rule in history has survived for long with the populace hungry and greatly dissatisfied. Obviously, getting the country well-fed is a priority for any government, “good” or “despotic” if they want to last. What the government and the people here want isn’t a hand-out. They want to be able to work and feed themselves. Large-scale aid actually prevents the people from rising to the middle-class. Engaging the people in these areas improves the lot of the people here, including in the counties where the refugees hail from. It doesn’t help that the government is extending a hand of engagement asking us to visit them and do business with them, but is holding a sword with the other hand. But, we hold a bigger sword in our hand as we ask them to join the international political and trading body. There is a better way.

  8. Allison September 4, 2013 at 9:00 pm #

    I don’t travel to places that make women wear clothing that the men don’t have to wear; items such as burquas, hijabs, abayas – any of that. I also don’t travel to places that torture and starve the general populace. I have friends that went to Myanmar several years ago, before Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, and I really struggled with that decision. In my mind, just the act of being there is tacit approval of what is being done to the powerless. It just feels wrong to me.

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 12:09 am #

      Prior to 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi called for a tourist boycott of Myanmar. I’d sure have a hard time justifying going to a place where the leading voice for reform was saying to stay away.

  9. CurlyTraveller September 5, 2013 at 12:27 am #

    What a clear and brave standpoint you take with this post! Bravo. I find it a complicated matter and have also read Earl’s post and arguments. After reading both articles, I tend to be with you on this one.
    But whatever reasoning, arguments and visiting NKorea or not, the anger about such a regime is what I feel most. It’s just horror!!!

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

      It is indeed a horror. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Vicky September 5, 2013 at 3:19 am #

    You make it sound like North Korea has only recently opened up to tourists when it people have been travelling there for over 20 years. Personally I think shutting a place off from any contact does far, far more harm to the ordinary people living there than good.

    Also the benefits for someone who has a job in North Korea created by tourism (in a shop or bar) has very little to do with the economic revenue – it’s to do with the conversations and interactions they have with foreigners.

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      These things get said repeatedly “it’s not about the money its about the conversations and interactions with foreigners.” Someone really needs to walk through in detail how this is supposed to work. You have a conversation with a North Korean local. Now what? How does that keep the regime from torturing people?

      For my part, I laid out in the text how a $1,500 tour package can, and is, used to oppress the North Korean people. It’s obvious. What I need to see is an obvious counter example that more than offsets the known harm done with my tourism money. Simple assertions that conversations with locals will magically improve things is not enough.

      • Vicky September 5, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

        I’m certainly not trying to assert that engagement is going to change the current regime in North Korea, few people travel with that intention. The human interaction will help those people with whom you interact. That’s all. Engagement and the ethical considerations of how and where you travel is extremely complex and highly personal, personally I believe that through engagement comes slow, small changes, and sometimes only for a few people, but that those changes that are better than none – and yes, worth the very small amount of money that the country gets from tourism.

        • Brian September 6, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

          I guess where I’m coming from is that even a “very small amount of money” can buy a box of bullets to execute a dozen or so people. It’s just impossible for me to imagine a scenario where exchanging pleasantries with some guy on the street is ever going to make up for that.

    • krahun January 11, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

      Correction. People have been going there on tours for over 40 years and business for over 60 years.

  11. segmation September 5, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    I agree with you on not going to North Korea. Nice presentation of facts!

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

      Thank you.

  12. Jon Armstrong September 5, 2013 at 11:30 am #

    It is amazing how this still goes on. Even Dennis Rodman can’t make a difference.
    Tourism though as a means for diplomacy should be allowed. Opening other peoples eyes to whats going on. Although, Africa is open for tourism and still remains in turmoil.

  13. awax1217 September 5, 2013 at 11:39 am #

    It is really strange but years ago I gave up collecting foreign stamps. It was ridiculous that here I was spending money for stamps from countries that I am opposed to. Countries that trample human rights on a daily basis. Would I go to North Korea, hell no. Even a slight nod to those who oppose us is to much. I blogged a poem on how I feel about the situation just this morning. I would be proud if you took a look at it and let me know what you think. Thanks, Barry

  14. Karl Drobnic September 5, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

    When I was a young traveler, communism seemed monolithic and forever. It was almost impossible to imagine a world without the Soviet empire and its human rights abuses. After the Iron Curtain crumbled, I talked to many people who secretly listened to Voice of America and similar broadcasts (braving repercussions to do so). Willis Connover (whom most Americans have never heard of) had rock-star like status in the Soviet countries because of his long-running jazz program. When finally allowed inside the borders, he packed stadiums. While many factors led to the disintegration of the USSR, culture played an important role. Don’t underestimate the power of cultural exchange to lead to change, even if it’s Dennis Rodman instead of Willis C.

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

      Radio Free Asia exists today and broadcasts into North Korea. It’s a good program that I support. But it’s important to recognize how this is different from tourism to North Korea.

      To travel into North Korea you have to pay a mass murderer for the privilege. That’s not something we can simply wish away or ignore. Those dollars do real harm. If we really care about the ethics of our travels we have to grapple with that harm. And so far no one – not one single commenter – has even tried.

      And to be clear, it’s not enough to say that tourism and cultural exchange is helpful in the abstract. In the case of North Korea we have to demonstrate that the benefits of touring the country more than outweigh the harm done by providing the government with hard currency. I’m willing to be persuaded, but to do so someone will actually have to tackle the trade offs rather than just assert that travel is good.

      • Karl Drobnic September 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

        For many years, South Koreans have traveled into North Korea via a Chinese border city. The route is well-known to South Koreans and well-tolerated by NK’s govt. The South Koreans bring aid to family members trapped in NK. They are much closer to the situation than people in the US, and they choose to travel into that heart of darkness. I remember being thanked by Bulgarians in the Sixties during the gray repressiveness of that police state, thanked for visiting, and I remember university students in Iran during the time of the Shah pouring out their dreams for liberty and democracy (as they saw it) despite the brutal repression then being imposed in that country. Not wanting your dollars to contribute to human rights abuses is laudable, but it is not the only factor in the mix. Providing a ray of light, a seed of hope to the repressed is on the other side of the ledger. Perhaps it is how one conducts oneself as a traveler that is at issue. Does the traveler have the skills to connect, to signal that the repressed are not forgotten and abandoned? If so, consider going. If not, stay away.

        • Brian September 5, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

          If we were allowed to bring aid (and we were sure the aid wouldn’t latter be confiscated) that would certainly provide an offset. And I don’t know enough about Bulgaria in the 60s or Iran in the 70s to comment or even know if the comparisons are applicable. What I do know is that for North Korea in the 10’s many of the avenues travelers normally have for making a difference are severely curtailed. As long as that remains true, there will be better, and far surer, ways of making a difference in this world with both our time and our money than visiting North Korea.

  15. uneducated September 5, 2013 at 12:53 pm #

    A stupid and propagandized narrative of what you want to others to feel about an enemy country.

    You do not and can not do tourism in an enemy country, you are incapable of that. You need to destroy your enemy before you can do that.

    Why do you need to fetish yourself about your being unwelcome with the enemy with a logic for your aversion ?

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

      Perhaps you could try again and, this time, focus your comment on something I actually said.

  16. quiet conservative. September 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    I recently visited South Korea. In the months leading up to my travels, I seriously weighed whether or not to visit North Korea. It is a place that although sounds brutal socially, I would like to see. I ultimately decided not to visit. The trouble I would have had to go through to cross in to North Korea proved to be too much. My reluctance to go proved the best choice when as I was leaving South Korea, North Korea was discovered to be smuggling missiles from Cuba.

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

      I would like to see North Korea as well. And that desire is why we need to be especially rigorous in our deliberations of whether we should go to North Korea.

      It’s been shown over and over again that the human mind gravitates toward arguments that support what it already believes, or what it wants to believe. I think you see a lot of that in these discussions where the ephemeral is given greater weight than the empirical.

  17. flyosophy September 5, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    An excellent and well reasoned summary. Thanks for sharing this point of view.

    • Brian September 6, 2013 at 4:10 pm #

      You’re very welcome.

  18. elliotemery91 September 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

    An extremely well written and thought provoking article touching on what is a very difficult issue. There are many moral issues surrounding visiting North Korea including providing hard currency (however small in quantity) to a regime which tramples on all of its citizens’ basic rights. To a certain extent it could perhaps be argued that those who visit the country and provide these much needed funds are essentially helping the Kim regime to perpetrate these abuses. On the other hand, one of the main reasons why the Kim dynasty has managed to remain in power for so long and against all odds is largely due to its monopoly on information coming in and out of the country. If tourism can expose North Korean citizens to the outside world and help break down this information blockade (albeit in a small and gradual manner) then perhaps it should be encouraged?

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

      I think you present a summary of the arguments well.

      Given my stance here it’s probably obvious that I’m skeptical about how much the “information blockade” has really aided the North (I think the prison camps where generations of people disappear are a bigger factor.)

      Wandering Earl unwittingly supports that point of view as well. If you read the account of his trip he says the people he met in North Korea knew “who Adam Sandler is, they know who David Beckham is, they watch BBC and American movies and they know about the situation in Egypt and they know what life is like in the US and Europe.”

      That discovery seems to undermine the entire argument in favor of going. The information blockade has already fallen – at least for the people you can hope to meet on one of these tours.

      So tell me again, what good are we tourists supposed to be providing?

      • thetravelcamel September 6, 2013 at 6:15 am #

        Information control is still very strong in North Korea for the vast majority of people (especially outside of Pyongyang). The only people who are allowed to officially engage with foreigners (staff at hotels, restaurants, tourist sites etc) are small in number and need to be “approved”. These people will have a lot of access (by local standards) to information and media from foreign sources. Same with people who live near the South Korean border, they all need to be “approved” as being the most loyal so they aren’t “corrupted” by media that can be sourced from the South.

        In 2009, what tourists saw, were told, where they could go, and who they could speak with was very heavily controlled – “The Art of Isolation” as I termed it. However, when I read Earl’s article, he and his group where given much more freedom to talk to other locals than I was in 2009 – and I’d say that these are not all “approved” people. So I believe that the chance to interact with a broader range of North Koreans is greater now than before, and these Koreans are unlikely to have access to other external sources of information for this is only willingly granted to the privileged few.

      • krahun January 11, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

        South Korea, even until the 80’s had a massive network of gulags. The military rulers’ tanks and commandos even shot up the fourth largest city in S. Korea back then. All these are well documented. So, why did we engage S. Korea and even support their bid for the Seoul 88 Olympics? I am not saying that we had the right or the wrong policy. I am asking why it’s okay to support governments that repeatedly pursue genocide, but it’s not okay to support another.

  19. evsetia September 5, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    Maybe North Korea is mysterious country in this world and we don’t know.

  20. Fiona Chan September 5, 2013 at 5:17 pm #

    Hi there, I disagree with your article.

    I am a solo female traveler. I’ve been to Israel, Palestine, Iran, Myanmar (Burma) and South Korea. I have also been to North Korea with a friend.

    If there is anything I’ve learn it is this:

    1. Don’t believe everything you hear from the media/government/internet. Go find out for yourself.

    2. Places are not as dangerous and people are not as different from ourselves.

    3. A major reason to travel is not to change the world. It is to change ourselves.

    4. The government is not the same as the people. Whatever you think about the government, do not hold it against the people (or the country).

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

      Hi Fiona,
      I understand you disagree, but your 4 points don’t actually address any of my arguments. Nonetheless, I’ll respond to each:

      1) Going and seeing for your self requires freedom of movement which isn’t allowed in North Korea.
      2) Nobody here said visiting North Korea was dangerous or that it’s people were different.
      3) It’s a terrific goal to want to change yourself, but may I humbly suggest there are plenty of places you can do that that don’t require handing euros directly to tyrants. Also, as a goal, self improvement really should take a back seat to protecting others.
      4) Nothing I said maligned the North Korean people. The entire point of the article is that I want the government to stop abusing its people before I’ll give it monetary support.

      • Fiona Chan September 6, 2013 at 3:51 am #

        Hi There,
        My early statements are not to debate your opinion about North Korea. I mention them because they are some of the basic principles of traveling. From reading your blog, I am more interested in the underlying principles.

        In most countries, a prison is not there for tourism. In your city, would you visit the local prison and talk to the inmates? Would you encourage tourists to visit your local prison? Would you visit a prison in South Korea? Would you be allowed to visit a prison in South Korea (let alone North Korea)?

        The North Korean people themselves do not have freedom of movement. The same applies to tourists. Despite this, you still see people in the streets and public areas. You still see the farmlands and countryside from inside the bus. I’ve learn more from visiting North Korea, than say South Korea, which has freedom of movement.

        North Korea has been.singled out (by western media, governments, and western society) because it is seen as a threat. It is seen as dangerous. If you remember, former President Bush said Iraq, Iran and North Korea is the axis of evil This perceived danger plays heavily into why people don’t go there (it may not apply to you). An example, when I told people I was going to Israel and Palestine, people said it was dangerous. They didn’t say don’t go because of poor records of human rights and governance. They said it was dangerous. The same feeling was expressed when I went to North Korea and Myanmar.

        A country is much more than its government. It is the people, the nature, the culture, the society, the religion, the history, the music, the food. To boycott a country simply because of the government, is ignoring the richness of everything that country has to offer. There is almost no other place like North Korea.

        When I say change yourself (ourselves), I mean be open and willing to learn. Be willing to reach out. How can you solve a problem without first understanding what the problem is?

        My intention is not to change your opinion or your principle, I simply want to defend a principle of travel, which is to learn/understand as much as you can about a foreign nation without imposing or judging.

        • juliuscaesar108 September 6, 2013 at 4:26 am #

          Fiona, this is not something merely singled out by the press or North Korea’s enemy countries. There is credible documentation from numerous defectors – while many perspectives have different perspectives, they all pan out similar – it’s not a free country.

          Just because there are people moving, that does not mean they are free. With North Korea, the things you see as a tourist are what they want you to see. When you went to North Korea with a friend, could you go wherever you wanted?

          The culture to North Korea is beyond what you’ve seen. There are death camps – people starve to the point they need to eat things such as tree bark and rats just to survive.

          You cannot learn based on the limited view you are given by the enemy. It’s propaganda – Juche – the glorified and falsely exaggerated view North Korea boasts about their nation to their own people and to you. People who’ve been there and believe all there is to see what they have been shown be the minders have swallowed everything hook, line, and sinker. They are not your friend.

          If you want to be ‘willing to learn’ please read more on the North Korea crisis: Nothing to Envy, Escape from Camp 14, Escape from North Korea, and Aquariums in Pyongyang. If you have the opportunity to talk to defectors, I urge you all the same to get their feedback.

          • Fiona Chan September 6, 2013 at 6:30 am #

            Hello Julius

            I never for one moment said North Korea was free. I am aware of their political and social situation, before, during and after my visit. When I was in South Korea, I volunteered at a organization that taught English to North Korean defectors. I only met one defector there, and he was not interested in talking about North Korea. He was interested in learning English.

            This blog was about not traveling to North Korea and I responded from the point of view of a traveler. What you are stating, is not the view of a traveler, it’s the view of an academic, journalist, activist, or politician.

            Travel has enable me to learn a great deal about the world, every country I visited, North Korea being one of them. The experience, observation, knowledge, and feeling I gained cannot be matched by reading a book.

            I write this to whoever may be interested in traveling (be it North Korea or Iran or any country) don’t let the political system or status quo stop you. Go there. Meet the people. Converse as best you can. If you cannot converse (due to language or political barriers), smile. Build the bridge. Build the friendship. Change will happen.

            • juliuscaesar108 September 6, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

              To believe change will happen because foreigners travel there is unlikely based on everything I have read and heard from defectors. As Brian described, the rules you expect anywhere else when traveling do not apply.

              Here is how it works in North Korea – the people they want you to see are those who express praise towards the government. If there is any change suspected, it will be brought to the attention of the government, and they will be assigned to a concentration camp, or get executed.

              Any form of travel to North Korea will be used for propaganda as praise, especially if it’s with celebrities or high-ranking officials. It’s seen as worship to the Kims, even though it’s not intended as such.

              You want to bring change? They won’t allow Christians to bring Bibles in because that’s a threat to their system, despite they falsely advertise to tourists they are open to religion with their showcase churches and Buddhist temples. Case in point, they have one agenda only, theirs and no one else’s.

        • Brian September 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm #

          Fiona, you’re making very general arguments in favor of travel that don’t apply to the very specific case of traveling to North Korea. We make that point explicit in our 2nd and 3rd paragraphs . . . .

          “We agree with Earl that under normal circumstances the conscientious traveler is a positive force in the world. At our best we are ambassadors, educators, volunteers and economic engines for struggling communities. And it is for those reasons that we encourage people to travel freely and widely. But we also know that while those things are often true, they are not always true.

          North Korea stands out as one glaring example of a country that is particularly immune to the benefits travelers normally bring. It’s also a place where tourism has the potential to cause real harm.”

  21. carolynnescoffield September 5, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Can honestly say I won’t be going anytime soon! Stay safe fellow traveller/blogger friend! Xoxo

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

      Back at ya. ;-)

  22. Joanne Morton Joseph September 5, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    I must admit that when I first read Earl’s reports, I was curious and even did a little research into the possibility of traveling to N. Korea. I have since decided that as much as I want to see and experience as much of this amazing planet as I can, this is one country that will have to wait for now. I hope I will see a day when there is enough improvement in the life of the ordinary citizen that I can again revisit traveling there as an option.

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 7:09 pm #

      Hi Joanne,
      I’m glad you posted this comment. My first reaction to reading Earl’s article was that he had made traveling to North Korea sound cool and as if it wasn’t really a big deal. At the very least I wanted to throw up a flag with this counter-argument and give folks a reason to stop and think about it a little more deeply.

      The world is full of amazing places. So many, in fact, that we can’t possibly visit them all in one human lifetime. With so many choices why risk going somewhere that has the potential to do harm?

  23. 113yearslater September 5, 2013 at 7:18 pm #

    Agreed. Simply don’t travel there. It bugs me the way that monied “world travelers” and consumers can always manage to logick that they wanted to do anyway into some sort of world-saving political statement. “I wanted that trip to North Korea anyway, so watch me turn myself into logical knots explaining how it actually makes me better than the Dalai Lama to visit there.” Same with their third houses (put some “sustainably harvested” beach chairs in it, and hey you’re practically Rachel Carson!) and fourth SUVs (slap a Sierra Club bumpersticker on that bad boy and it turns the exhaust into fairy farts).

    I really wish I would hear from more folks in the white-collar “world traveler” demographic about how they realized that they could do more for the world by refraining from spending money.

  24. Jean September 5, 2013 at 7:42 pm #

    It would be lovely for me and other Chinese Canadians to say in the 1970’s to 1980’s not to travel to mainland China when it was less “free” (but no more corrupt than now), but travel may I point out ,is instigated by visitors for different reasons.

    Is this the argument you would tell anyone not to visit North Korea if they:
    *had family
    *friends
    *work relations
    *or is of Korean descent and wished to explore ancestral land as it exists now?

    I think this whole argument of not travelling to countries that have unsavoury govn’ts, unethical legal system (or lack of), is becoming too academic for my taste.

    After all, why should some Muslim nationals from the Middle East, visit the U.S. if enough people still virulently are negative about Muslims? American citizenry isn’t all correct, unbiased and not cruel/violent.

    I may say this: you have the PRIVILEGE and choice to choose not travel. Some people have….obligations. Particularily if they have personal relationships with some North Koreans.

    • Brian September 5, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

      Hi Jean,
      Obviously every circumstance needs to be judged on its own merits. I think if you read the article it is pretty clear we’re talking specifically about paid tours of North Korea (not the kind of thing where you can catch up with family, etc.). I also think the article makes clear why we think those tours are really very different from other forms of travel in other places.

      • Karl Drobnic September 5, 2013 at 8:33 pm #

        Your well-written essay has stimulated a good and needed debate. You have have thoughtfully restricted the scope of what you address. You are anchored in Aristotelian logic and the values of scientific inquiry. Those are not the logic and values of the NK elite. You get to a conclusion, but don’t mistake it for a fact. It is a judgement, in this case well-formed, It is an opinion, thoughtfully arrived at. But you cannot (nor can I) know the reasoning of the NK elite. I have been to the table with leadership of enough repressive regimes to know that you cannot sit down holding the assumption that you’re dealing with a bad person or system. These people are at the core focused on self-preservation, and they are very good at sizing you up. The starting point (if you want to move the needle at all) is to assume that they have validity. Those who can hand out 3-generation prison sentences are operating from a different perspective…as were the Japanese during the Tokyo real estate boom, when people took out 3-generation mortgages. For all we know, the NK elite may be offering the tours as loss leaders, and every time someone buys a package, NK may lose precious capital, but gain something they want elsewhere, perhaps talking points at nuclear negotiations. I’ve no idea what they gain, but I’m confident it’s more than foreign exchange. You’ve made a reasoned judgement to stay away, but I doubt that gaining hard currency is at the heart of the tour offerings. I suspect it is something we’d regard as more sinister.

        • CurlyTraveller September 5, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

          I appreciate very much this whole discussion that is going on here. Several commentors seem to be well informed, experienced on the subject and are able to debate respectfully and intelligent.

          I am learning a lot from it and admire everyone involved in this discussion for putting time and thoughts into this matter.

          It is also clear how priviliged we are that we, ‘free’ people, are able to do this, while many in certain countries under certain regimes are not:-(.

          I have a question though, Karl. How is it possible to NOT consider a dictator or a repressive regime as a bad or evil person or system?

          I am sure everyone always has it’s reasons, it’s history and it’s context. No one and nothing is one dimensional and totally black or white. Knowing more about a person or a matter may very well help you to understand the why. But does understanding imply that this dictator or regime is any less evil?

          Or did you mean that it is strategically not smart and helpful to address and see those people and regimes this way?

          I would like to hear more from you about this,
          kind regards,

          • Karl Drobnic September 6, 2013 at 10:55 am #

            It’s like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”. You must willfully suspend your moral and ethical framework in order to hear what the person is saying. If your moral framework is operating, you will react negatively and they will pick it up. They are where they are because they are very good at reading people. The goal is to find some starting points from which you can have meaningful exchange. You may consider what someone has done to be reprehensible, but you can also respect what they have achieved. Building a rogue nuclear bomb is reprehensible, but it is quite an achievement. You’d be unwise to overlook the abilities that underlie the achievement. There is, for example, the possibility that the person has become trapped in unintended consequences and would welcome some way to shift the equation. The question then becomes whether or not you have something to offer that can shift the equation. Idi Amin went from being the world’s most abhorrent dictator to a quiet, prayerful life in Jeddah. What he did was, and still is, horrid, but he did shift.

            • Jean September 6, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

              “There is, for example, the possibility that the person has become trapped in unintended consequences and would welcome some way to shift the equation. The question then becomes whether or not you have something to offer that can shift the equation.”

              Many people in repressive regimes fall into this trap.
              Real power to make major change into something more ethical across a repressive govn’t, exists only the hands of a few people and often, bloodshed or hurtful penalties to the well-intentioned locals occurs first as a terrible sacrificial price for a better and less oppressed society.

              It is useful for the “trapped” fearful locals, for outside/visitor/tourist to hear and listen …both sides of the story in person. But not assume we have a brilliant solution as an independent person who has no local political power or rarely an financial power to make lasting change. Unless a visitor works for several years in the country daily.

              By the way, the tourists/visitors who have family members, friends living in North Korea, may still choose to take a paid local tour anyway.

              Sure, it may be propaganda with more unpleasant agendas. But be not innocent: Canada and U.S. each have their own marketing spins/beliefs and we spend a lot of time defending sometimes our own’s govn’t decisions or value system. The biggest difference if we disagree peacefully, most of the time we’re not thrown into jail automatically.

  25. jumeirajames September 6, 2013 at 1:04 am #

    I intend to go there soon – if only to see what it looks like before it disappears, which will be sooner than people may think in my opinion.

  26. juliuscaesar108 September 6, 2013 at 3:14 am #

    I appreciate many things what you’ve had to say – while this is nothing new to my perspective, at the same time, I would like to see what Andrei Lankov has to say about this, since I listened to him at a seminar for NKNet in Seoul last year. Whether or not it will make change, it wouldn’t impact me going there.

    For one, I have other places to go, and if I had money I would visit other countries such as the UK, European countries, and Thailand for a second time. Why spend money for a place that tells me what to see?

    I also am a Chrisitan – would I be punished if I chose not to bow to the statue or laying flowers? Avoiding to be put in the place of idolatry is preferred than to wonder what would happen.

    I care very much for the civilians in North Korea and to think of my money going toward the military to harm the people is a way to put blood on my hands. Never would I want to aid the enemy, but to help free the civilians in any way.

    My prayers go out to them.

  27. Harsha MP September 6, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    great article!!

    • Brian September 6, 2013 at 4:17 pm #

      Thanks Harsha.

  28. Animalcouriers September 6, 2013 at 9:24 am #

    Congrats on yet another ‘freshly pressed’!

    • Brian September 6, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      Thanks for following us. :-)

  29. greenblade September 7, 2013 at 2:37 am #

    Hi. I just happened upon your website for the first time. First of all, it’s really well laid out and well-written!

    North Korea has always been interesting to me. I’ve read Barbara Demick’s book and I really liked the BBC documentaries that were allowed to be done over there (e.g. “Crossing the Line”). I totally respect your opinion and I can totally understand why someone wouldn’t want to visit. But my gut kinda agrees with the side of keeping the country open so they can see and interact with outside influences. Like people have mentioned, it’s so easy for political regimes to channel their countries’ anger and discontent away from the real problem and towards the United States — and its much easier to do this if we are a complete unknown to their people. I do think that foreigners need to be careful in not getting sucked up into the NK propoganda – it seems like it does happen.

    Another random consideration: When you think about the prison population in the United States, while we have less than 5% of the world population in our country, we have almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. This is a pretty appalling statistic. We dwarf all other countries in terms of numbers of prisoners. Should foreigners not visit the United States in protest of statistics like these?

    • Brian September 7, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

      I don’t think we’re arguing over whether to keep North Korea “open.” That isn’t our decision to make. The decision before us is whether we go there or not.

      And my position isn’t that we should never go to North Korea under any circumstances. My position is that we shouldn’t go until travelers are given more freedom to do good, or at least avoid doing harm. What does that mean? First I’d like the ability to go without handing Kim Jong Un a big wad of cash. Second, I’d like the opportunity to direct my spending toward locally owned establishments instead of having it all go to government entities. Third, I’d like to interact with people without being blanketed by the long shadow of a government minder. Fourth, I’d like to interact with people who aren’t generally chosen by the government (people in North Korea don’t get to live where they want. The folks you meet in Pyongyang get to live there because they are the most supportive of the regime.)

      Which brings us to the U.S. I don’t want to turn this into a debate about U.S. policies, but suffice it to say that if a traveler objects to the U.S. penal system they are free to use their time here to help incite change or ameliorate the harm they see. They’re free to protest outside the White House, hand out literature, volunteer with the Innocence Project, work in a food bank serving prison families, or do any number of other things. There are plenty of options for the “ethical traveler” to express themselves in the U.S. I fear the only way to do the same thing in North Korea is by not going.

      • Anja Van Der Vorst September 7, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

        Exactly!

        • Maxim Sense September 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

          This is quite clear. The North Koreans are not as free, in terms of what they want to do for others and for themselves, as those of us in the democratic societies. I pity them.

      • greenblade September 7, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

        That was a poor choice of words. I didn’t mean keeping North Korea open or not. I meant what you were talking about– whether someone should visit or not.

        I just did a better job at reading most of the postings and really everyone has expressed the points that I believe. Your comments are sound and it would be great if those changes you mentioned for tourism could happen. But, to me, they just don’t seem realistic.

        How are these changes going to happen– where you visit without the government minders and money goes to local establishments? Who’s going to advocate for it and do you really think the government is going to bend to this advocacy? NK is a fiercely collectivist culture steeped in the Juche “self-reliance” doctrine. Like a sick family or individual in denial, they hold firm to their beliefs — so much so that the government let their people starve during the famine.

        I just don’t think they’re going to change rapidly, and while you don’t hold a lot of merit to the interactions between foreigners and North Koreans, I do think that it aids– in baby steps– towards changing NK perspectives and taking the country to a better place.

        • Brian September 8, 2013 at 1:12 am #

          If the changes I require are unrealistic, so be it. I just won’t go.

          Under current conditions I can find plenty of things to do with my time and my money that are far more beneficial to the world than giving them to a North Korean dictator.

          I’ll have more to say on that soon. So stay tuned.

          • greenblade September 8, 2013 at 1:39 am #

            BTW, thanks for your posting and for putting the 60 Minutes clip in there. I hadn’t seen it before. Unbelievable that he was able to make it out of the camp and somehow out of the country. Unbelievable what many people must endure on this planet. : (

            • Brian September 8, 2013 at 10:35 am #

              His is a remarkable story. Truly unique in the sense that he is the only person known to have escaped from one of North Korea’s “total control prisons” and lived to tell about it.

    • amoralegria September 8, 2013 at 2:41 pm #

      I’ve also read Barbara Demick’s book and have seen one of the documentaries. I agree with you that opening up the country to the outside would be good, but that is exactly what the government will NOT do. The N Korean people have such a distorted image of the west and even South Korea, as Demick made clear in her book.

      I also agree with Shannon and Brian not to visit. The tour they give people is totally programmed and interaction with the public is minimal.

      It seems to me that the best agents of change are those who manage to escape to China and/or South Korea. The rare occasions in which they manage to communicate with their families is the North Koreans’ window to the real world. It is very difficult to escape and people who do risk repercussions to their family, but still people do it.

      Look at the embargo of Cuba – all it has done is fuel the propaganda of the Cuban government about the U.S., and has impoverished the Cuban people. However, the Cubans are not as cut off from the rest of the world as the North Koreans. Europeans and others visit Cuba without restrictions. If the embargo were lifted, I believe, it would be much better for the Cuban people.

      However, the case of North Korea is very different. The government so far has tight control over the society. But if they could get no foreign currency, if they could be “starved” in some way (the government, instead of the people), while at the same time getting humanitarian aid to the people, perhaps there would be hope.

      • greenblade September 8, 2013 at 11:39 pm #

        I agree. The best agents for change are the people who left North Korea. I also think it’s hard for outsiders to really understand the beliefs and protocol of N. Korean culture, and NK ex-patriots have the best idea of how change could actually happen over there.

        I feel like things are getting slightly better over there. This year, The Economist has had some good articles on how capitalism is opening up over there.

        I really liked Barbara Demick’s book! I wish she’d write another one about North Korea.

        http://sleep100years.wordpress.com/

  30. goodolewoody September 7, 2013 at 6:15 am #

    Reblogged this on GoodOleWoody's Blog and Website.

  31. Maxim Sense September 7, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    This is the first time that I read all comments in a blog, and to think that you have more than sixty commenters up to this point, is quite an effort. As always, there are two sides in any issue and I have read the best from both. In my limited understanding of the issue I can only surmise two things from both sides in general terms. One side believed that regardless of the situation and circumstances, any form of contact or engagement between the foreign traveller and the locals would tend to create some positive effects or at least effect change. The other side opined that anything that tends to support a repressive and oppressive regime is not good and should be discourage- one of them is travelling to NK.

    Despite my best understanding of the arguments here, I am still confused simply because everyone here seems to have good points. Let me tell you though that however I get confused I still did not see more compelling reasons to to be convinced to travel to NK other than what was offered by one whose main interest in wanting to travel to NK was “to see what it looks like before it disappears”.

    There are, of course, certain realities that are irrefutable such as: 1) the North Koreans do not enjoy as much freedom as we in democratic societies do; 2) if given the choice or chance, the North Koreans would much want to live their lives the way we do, or at least, we would wish them to do and this is why one side would encourage direct engagement with the North Korean people and the other side would discourage any form of engagement especially if they only tend to perpetuate the repressive NK regime in power; 3) only the present rulers of North Korea know exactly their own agenda on why they have to treat the North Korean people this way; 4) a short, or even a long-term visit, would not give a thorough understanding of the North Korean government and its people; 5) we learned that the best form of government is a government that the governed had wanted, and in this case, I had not heard of any thorough study or survey that tells the North Koreans are not satisfied with their government; 6) the problem in North Korea is not the type or form of its government nor its people but the attitude of its rulers; and 7) given the fact that the problem is not North Korea’s government or its people, any attempt to change the attitude of its ruler/s is/are unimaginable at this point.

    If the 7 points I had raised are acceptable, then we may see/read arguments that are fundamentally based on a common platform; otherwise, everyone would just reasoned out according to “his facts”; and anyone is entitled to his own opinion but no one is entitled to “his own facts”.

    • Brian September 7, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

      Thanks for making the slog through these complex issues and adding to the discussion. My only addition to what you’ve said is a slight correction. You say “The other side opined that anything that tends to support a repressive and oppressive regime is not good and should be discourage- one of them is travelling to NK.” I’d rephrase it to say that in order for our travels to be ethical, any harm we do (say by supporting a repressive regime with our money or even with our favorable commentary after the trip) needs to be more than offset by some other good. In the case of North Korea, the government actively suppresses the ways travelers normally do good. Largely what you’re left with, then, is harm. That suppression makes ethical travel to that country especially challenging.

  32. jaklumen September 7, 2013 at 2:22 pm #

    I know this is tangential to the discussion (but I did read through all the comments as best I could)– but, as Jon Armstrong mentioned Dennis Rodman– what are your thoughts on his travels to DPRK and his meetings with Kim Jong-un?

    • Brian September 7, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

      In truth I haven’t spent much time thinking about Dennis Rodman. I do recall him as a basketball player who was unusually drawn to theatrics intended to keep him at the center of all attention. It doesn’t seem as if much has changed, except for what’s at stake.

      • jaklumen September 7, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

        I remember that, too. But these visits don’t strike me as deliberate PR stunts– I could be wrong. The media did say he wasn’t pressing for the release of Kenneth Bae, and that he repeatedly insisted that Kim Jong-un was a “friend for life”. I really can’t tell, not knowing Rodman personally.

        But I would readily accept that his visits may be doing zilch diplomatically.

    • Maxim Sense September 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm #

      This is fair enough. Thank you.

  33. Hitchiking Colorado September 8, 2013 at 12:52 am #

    Interesting points here, especially how corrupt governments can take advantage of their citizens and make money off the abuses of human rights. By traveling to these areas, where the distributions of wealth are only put into the hands of the government and elitists, we are voting with our money to encourage this behavior, essentially.

    Personally, I don’t plan on going to North Korea any time soon. Great job.

  34. Stuart M. September 8, 2013 at 6:52 am #

    First time here too. I am pleasantly surprised that someone else feels just like I do. I wouldn’t dream of going to NK. I wholeheartedly agree with Brian’s reasons. It’s maybe off topic, but I am surprised how many people who enjoy democratic freedoms bend over backwards to give criminal regimes the benefit of the doubt and show complete callousness to the plight of the people. I am shocked by the number of voices I hear now (not here) that “Syria is not our problem.” What ever happened to make us so callous towards the plight of our fellow human beings? Getting back on topic, travelers should consider some of NK history in regards to travelers. In 1987 NK sent agents to blow up Korean Airlines flight 858 which killed 115 travelers. I kid you not, one of the agents Kim Hyon-hui was arrested after planting the bomb. Later, she admitted to the crime. Her partner was able to eat a cyanide pill when he was arrested. She said the terrorist attack was personally ordered by Kim Jong-il, the current ruler’s father. Another, tourist related incident involved a South Korean tourist who went jogging outside of her hotel and was shot dead by a NK soldier. The soldier got a medal. Is this the type of regime travelers want to give their dollars and euros to?

    • Brian September 8, 2013 at 10:32 am #

      To be fair to my critics, they do seem to believe that their individual contact with North Korean citizens is so powerful that it more than makes up for the dollars they’re giving to those citizens’ oppressors. I don’t see any callousness here. Perhaps some wishful thinking and a boat load of rationalizing, but no callousness.

    • amoralegria September 8, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

      The officials of the North Korean government are ruthless and will stop at nothing but their own ineptitude and lack of funds to punish their critics as well as terrorist acts against the West when they have the opportunity.

      There are North Koreans in South Korea; these are the people that can be contacted and talked to. I don’t see how a tourist can be in a position to converse in a significant way with the public inside North Korea.

      Someone mentioned China – as allies of NK, if they can put pressure on the NK government to make reforms to help the people, that would be the best hope for the NK people. However, the NK government is so brutal and unbending, I wonder whether they would take any measures unless their own power and economic well-being were threatened.

      • thetravelcamel September 9, 2013 at 1:15 am #

        China without a doubt is the biggest agent of change. The vast majority of tourists visiting North Korea are Chinese, and it is economic support from the Chinese that assists the country greatly. China have been trying to convince the North Koreans to shift towards a Chinese style economy – but Kim Jong Ill didn’t seem willing to do so. Supposedly, China informed him to start making economic reforms or support would be lessened. The current leader may be different as there are small changes already – but it is a delicate game.

        The last thing China wants is the North Korean government to collapse and vast numbers of refugees to flood into China, which is one of the reasons why they are continuing to negotiate with them for change, instead of isolating them. It is something that concerns South Korea as well. Remember the economic issues that faced Germany on reunification due to East Germany’s economic problems. However, East Germany was far more advanced than North Korea so the economic burden of reunification will be enormous. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions.

    • Maxim Sense September 8, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

      I also think that “callousness” is not the issue. Pres. Obama is trying everything to get the Assad regime punished but he just don’t have the numbers yet. Maybe in time this ruthless leader (Assad) will face the same fate as his friend Moamar Khadaffi. The NK issue is a little bit different. It is a more sensitive political and diplomatic issue.

  35. gdgdurden September 8, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

    There is always an “other side of the coin” but in the case of your presentation of the negatives of travel to North Korea I have to believe that the “other side” would only be even worse! There never was much likelihood that I would travel there but now there is none. Zero. Zilch!

  36. Kalli September 9, 2013 at 1:57 am #

    Do you feel the same way about the US? I do, I feel like paying taxes is supporting a regime that uses weapons to mass murder innocent civilians, and has historically, and will continue to do so. However–I still go to visit. I imagine, so do you.

    • Brian September 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

      Hi Kalli,
      In the interest of keeping the discussion on topic, I think I’ll resist being drawn in to a debate about U.S. foreign policy or the ethics of honoring my tax obligation. All I’ll say is that paying the North Korean government for a tour package is 100% optional. Moreover, it is an option we choose purely for its entertainment value. If ever there is a situation that calls for exercising the adage “first, do no harm” surely this rises to the top of the list.

  37. spotell September 9, 2013 at 5:02 am #

    Your post reminded me of this other one I read about “Basketball Diplomacy” because it also addresses the question of appeasement. And by that I mean- the West agreeing to certain things that would benefit the ruling party (such as paying for guided tours or allowing Ri Myung Hun to play in the NBA). While I think you made a very strong case for not visiting the DPRK, I am still curious about the impact of visiting foreigners in the community. It would be a very hard survey to take (to say the least) but ideas and thoughts always travel- no matter how controlling the government is. Here’s the link for the article I mentioned, I think you would be interested in it: http://natethayer.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/25-years-of-slam-dunk-diplomacy-rodman-trip-and-history-of-u-s-north-korean-basketball-diplomacy/

  38. ciaobella20 September 9, 2013 at 3:43 pm #

    I saw this clip on CNN. I remember feeling grateful for what I have. I don’t think N. Korea will be in my list of “must-visit” places.

    • Brian September 9, 2013 at 4:13 pm #

      It’s one of those stories that reminds me that I absolutely won the lottery of life by simply being born in a free country.

  39. patrick rudyar September 9, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    prefer not to go there, there’s no exciting places to go, better to go to south korea instead of north.You know what they say once it’s a communist country is always a communist country

    • sinojock September 9, 2013 at 11:55 pm #

      You’re right Patrick – Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Croatia, Hungary, Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria, Mozambique…nothing to see in these rotten Commie countries, no need to visit North Korea and prove it’s the same. I for one won’t go anywhere that doesn’t have a Starbucks and McDonalds on every corner.

      • amoralegria January 11, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

        Sinojock: Is your comment a joke?? I hope so, because the countries mentioned above – or most of them anyway – bear little or no resemblance to North Korea in their extreme arbitrary control of the populace nor allowing people to starve and have to eat grass to survive! I have been to Cuba, and while it is not a democracy, it is possible to travel about and see how real Cubans live. I also take issue with US policy in Cuba and believe the embargo has done a lot more harm than good – it certainly didn’t remove the Castros from power! I have not been to the other countries mentioned although China, Vietnam and Cambodia are on my “bucket” list. That said, I totally agree with Brian and Shannon’s perspective and reasons for NOT going to North Korea. Read Barbara Deming’s, “Nothing to Envy”.

      • amoralegria January 11, 2014 at 12:47 pm #

        Sorry, Sinojock, didn’t read Patrick’s comment above yours…perhaps HIS comment is a joke!!

  40. B September 10, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    “”the DPRK has signaled that it needs our money more than it fears our presence or our influence.”

    I think this pretty nicely sums up my biggest hesitation, too.

  41. geanieroake September 10, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    Have you ever read Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea? (By Barbara Demick) I did, and I wouldn’t travel to North Korea either. Great blog, really interesting

    • Brian September 10, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

      I have not read Nothing to Envy but it has come up several times in comments. It looks so fascinating that I’ve put it on my reading list. Thank you, and everyone else, for bringing it to my attention.

  42. lionorachandra September 12, 2013 at 6:42 am #

    Reblogged this on lionorachandra and commented:
    Eye opening blog.

  43. lindadududu September 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

    Whilst I find your analysis very interesting, it won’t put me off visiting North Korea. Having parents who grew up in communist China, I’ve heard anecdotes of total state control and atrocities against political activists and educators. China in the 60s and 70s sounds very similar to the DPRK today, and my main reason for going is to understand the nature of the society my parents grew up in, and to a greater extent, where I come from. I think North Korea is probably the only place in the world which so closely assimilates communist China, and whilst I know I won’t get to see the ‘real’ North Korea, I believe the high level of state control will be omnipresent and tangible.

  44. shortfinals September 18, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    I am in agreement……..this is one of the most appalling regimes on the planet.

    OT, please visit my beloved Peak District, at least once! (Manchester International is the ‘gateway’ airport in the UK) http://shortfinals.wordpress.com (search term ‘Peak District, for MANY posts!)

  45. Jennifer Avventura September 23, 2013 at 5:31 am #

    Really fabulous post, thank you for sharing these important points. :)

  46. Suzy September 30, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    This is a very well done post! Outside of curiosity, I wouldn’t want to go to North Korea either.

    • Brian September 30, 2013 at 11:29 am #

      Thanks, Suzy.

  47. Torsten January 6, 2014 at 4:51 am #

    Going to North Korea is on my bucket list. However there have been a
    number of disturbing news recently. Hope it continues to be an
    adventurous but safe place to visit in the future.

  48. krahun January 11, 2014 at 12:58 am #

    Vast majority of the visitors to DPRK go to the capital, where 10% of its population dwell and 90% of the economy filter through. We can safely and legally show you where the other 90% dwell. How about starting with the province where the largest concentration of these horrendous places are supposed to be? Your position has been very eloquently made, yet your opinion lacks the authority that can only be helped with personally going to these “bad” areas. We can help.

    • Stuart M. January 11, 2014 at 8:28 am #

      How about a tour of Yodok? According to the New York Times (May 4, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/world/asia/05korea.html?_r=0):

      Former inmates at the political labor camp at Yodok, North Korea, said they were frequently tortured and had been forced to watch the executions of fellow prisoners, the report said, noting that the North’s network of political prisons is estimated to hold 200,000 inmates.

      “North Korea can no longer deny the undeniable,” said Sam Zarifi, the Asia Pacific director of Amnesty International. “For decades, the authorities have refused to admit to the existence of mass political prison camps. These are places out of sight of the rest of the world.” The report says that almost all of the human rights protections that international law has tried to set up for the past 60 years “are ignored.”

      After comparing recent satellite photos of prison camps with images from 10 years ago, Mr. Zarifi said, Amnesty International became concerned that the “prison camps appear to be growing.”

      North Korea’s work farms and prison factories are the world’s most notorious, according to human rights experts. Political prisoners sentenced to hard labor initially included landlords, purged party officials and the religiously active, according to Stephan Haggard and Marcus Noland, the authors of “Witness to Transformation,” an authoritative study of North Korean refugees.

      Political prisons, they said, also now hold “anyone guilty of political or ideological crimes or even suspected of disloyalty,” adding that the system shows “little pretense of due process.”

      Son Hyang-sun, a woman who defected from North Korea 15 years ago because she was starving, said she was caught on her first escape attempt. She was convicted and jailed for four months.

      “They tortured me with an electric stick, yes, a cattle prod,” she said in an interview with The International Herald Tribune. “They stuck it everywhere.”

      A recent State Department report on human rights in North Korea said “detainees and prisoners consistently reported violence and torture” as well as virtual starvation rations. In various accounts, escaped inmates have reported eating earthworms and rats to get enough protein to survive.

      Jeong Kyoung-il, a former Yodok inmate who was interviewed last month by Amnesty, said that deaths in the prison occurred almost daily. But the deaths of fellow prisoners came to be seen in a depraved and desperate light. “Frankly, unlike in a normal society, we would like it, rather than feel sad, because if you bring a dead body and bury it, you would be given another bowl of food,” Mr. Jeong said.

      • krahun January 11, 2014 at 7:45 pm #

        Are you satisfied with intellectual onanism – reading and blogging? Can you say I’ve been there? Can you say I’ve met them? We can. Can you say what you do to address your strong concerns other than to regurgitate reports and books? Come with your other well-read buddies and we will show you what we do. Yes, we live and work inside DPRK.

        • Stuart M. January 12, 2014 at 8:32 am #

          You don’t offer any tours to Yodok, do you? If reading and informing oneself is the same as masturbation, then what do you call making propaganda for the DPRK by taking foreign tourists to Potemkin villages? I call that ass-licking.

          • krahun January 14, 2014 at 6:15 am #

            Apologies for the language that riled you. To answer your question, no, we do not offer tours to prisons. But, I’m sure you know prisons are not common places open to tourism in many places, including DPRK. Pyongyang is not so much a Potemkin (show), but a show case city. It’s where 10% of population reside, but 90% of the money is controlled from there. Yes, the DMZ is where you have soldiers who are stern in the beginning, but smile and take pictures with you by the end of your trip. Even so, those border controls and the guns are real. As I said, the place is a showcase, not a fake show. Then there are the provinces where people rarely go to. For example, Koryo Tours (outside tour agency that brings the most number of western visitors) only brings an average of one or two small groups to our province per year. There is no show (Potemkin), and there’s no showcase in these provinces. Since what they have is no Pyongyang, they make up for it letting foreigners shop where the locals shop, do manual labor alongside the common laborers, visit schools to play ball or to let the students practice English on you. Yes, the teachers are there to make sure that the visitors don’t bad mouth their leaders. But, isn’t it a good thing to prevent one’s students from being verbally abused. The point of all my rambling is that most people knowingly choose to go on a Potemkinesque trip because it’s easier and more convenient than going to the other 90% of the country where the roads are not paved, though it’s open to outsiders. Without going even once to the other non-Potemkinesque part of the country, how can one say one thing or another so authoritatively? To speak with more authority, I encourage people to visit the other 90% of the country. I am convinced that the people who write their opnions on this site will change.

            • Stuart M. January 14, 2014 at 7:20 am #

              Well, you certainly are persistent, that I will concede. Any tour whether to Pyongyang or the other 90% will be strictly controlled by the government, as you admit. I kind of doubt the teachers are there to “make sure that the visitors don’t badmouth their leaders.” They are there to make sure the students don’t tell the foreigners anything but the party line. And I consider myself verbally abused when people tell me propaganda instead of what is really in their heart. So, I’m sorry, I ‘m not interested in a guided tour of a country with 200,000 starving political prisoners in labor camps, where by the way, an American is being held right at this moment. I will happily jump on the first plane when North Korea is as free as the South, as I did when Eastern Europe threw off its communist shackles.

            • Brian January 14, 2014 at 9:47 am #

              I can say for certain that my opinion would not change by taking one of your tours. That’s because I don’t believe spending a week in DPRK on a government sanctioned tour and speaking to a handful of people who face horrendous punishment for the crime of speaking freely would actually tell me anything other than what the government wanted me know. And for the privileged of becoming part of the DPRK’s propaganda machine, I’d have to give the government the hard currency that allows it’s leaders to maintain their repressive control. That’s not an exchange I’ll ever be interested in.

            • krahun January 15, 2014 at 8:35 am #

              Brian, everybody ought to have second thoughts about giving “the government hard currency that allows its leaders to maintain repressive control”, “for the privilege of becoming part of the DPRK’s propaganda machine”, and only “speaking to handful of people who face horrendous punishment for the crime of speaking freely”. I can’t speak with authority for other tour operators, but I can say with absolute certainly that you are misinformed on all three counts. And I can see that you won’t be convinced otherwise unless you see/experience it for yourself, just like most of our first time visitors. But to go back to talking about money, tour fee doesn’t simply go into one bucket called big bad gov’t. It’s divided between the restaurants (food, staff, company overhead, tax), transportation company (vehicle maintenance & depreciation, fuel, staff, company overhead, tax), DPRK tour company (staff, company overhead, tax), sites where they perform (schools, theaters, etc.), our portion. The visa fee and the tax are the “big bad gov’t portion”. Even then it’s further divided. As you can see, nothing of value is gotten for free in DPRK, just as in the US, or anywhere else in the world. If you have questions about the tax types, rates, etc., our accountant in DPRK (American, born and raised) can bore you with details. After all, wasn’t all this talk started because of the concern over where the money was going?

            • Brian January 15, 2014 at 9:12 am #

              Yes, I’d be happy to have an honest discussion about North Korean finance but we must first start with honesty. I understand that your tour company is foreign owned and operates inside the Rason Special Economic Zone. I also understand that these economic zones are allowed to exist by the North Korean government for the primary purpose of accessing foreign currency. The idea that your tour company is exempt from that is laughable.

            • Brian January 15, 2014 at 9:25 am #

              Oh, and speaking of the Rason Special Economic Zone, there’s this little bit of sunshine:

              “Since the execution of Jang Song-thaek, the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the once-dynamic Rason Special Economic Zone has become a ghost town.

              Jang had been in charge of the development project, working closely with Beijng to attract Chinese investment.

              Sources say that several North Korean officials who worked with Jang on the special economic zone have also been purged as the North continues to remove Jang’s close aides from the ranks of the ruling elite.”

              http://www.arirang.co.kr/News/News_View.asp?nseq=156052

            • krahun January 15, 2014 at 9:37 am #

              Brian, yes, it’s hard to believe, but true. In fact, we get your reaction from visitors quite frequently. Then we have people leaving quite incredulous, not being able to accept what they’ve seen/experienced. As an example, we had a guy a year ago who came simply because he was afraid that his adventurous wife might become detained here indefinitely. He was fuming the whole time (he literally went through i don’t know how many cartons of cigarette), and he wasn’t very pleasant (he was not quite sober most of the time). It was evident that he didn’t want to be here. He also happened to be a history buff, so he was very in-your-face with the guides very often, telling them to their face to be honest and to not be a broken tape recorder. Needless to say, he was the perfect example of an ugly tourist. Even this guy left not believing what he experienced. So, he’s come back repeatedly. Yes, let’s be honest.

            • Brian January 15, 2014 at 9:49 am #

              And here I thought we were talking about finance and economics. You mention, for example, that some tour money goes to restaurants inside the DPRK. Perhaps you could walk through who owns those restaurants, how the staff is paid, in what currency, and what exactly happens to the Euros I give you.

            • krahun January 15, 2014 at 9:50 am #

              This article is a perfect example of “journalists” being able to write anything about DPRK and there is no burden to verify or fact check. The fact is, even though it’s freezing and just couple of weeks away from one of China’s largest holiday, the traffic here has actually increased, with small convoys of seafood regularly heading out to China. But, would you believe something because it’s in print or believe what someone from inside says about the inside?

            • krahun January 15, 2014 at 9:55 am #

              Of course we know such details. We have a place here ourselves, not to mention being friends with many other operators. But I doubt that there’s anything that I could say that will make you believe the truth. Gotta go. It’s almost midnight here.

            • Brian January 15, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

              Your evasion of the direct question about exactly where Euros spent on one of your tours go is the most straightforward and revealing of your now dozen comments. So thanks for that.

              Of course we both know “the truth” of the matter. But let’s fill in the blanks for our readers, shall we?

              The restaurants and hotels and everywhere else you visit inside DPRK are owned by the North Korean government. The workers at these places are compensated (to the extent they’re compensated at all) in North Korean won or perhaps just government rations. Your tour company pays foreign currency to the government for these restaurant and hotel services (either directly, or via a tax, or as dividends through a joint venture structure – the exact mechanism isn’t really important.)

              The only question remaining is how much of each tour price ends up in the government’s hands? Here’s my swag:

              The money I pay you for a tour goes to three places. 1) Salary and reinvestment in the Special Economic Zone 2) Return to your foreign investors 3) The North Korean Government as described above. So how might my tour price be allocated among these three different categories?

              Let’s start with the first two. Running a tour company requires very little physical investment. In fact, I could start running tours tomorrow almost anywhere in the world and my up-front costs might be a couple thousand dollars – probably less. If I needed staff to scale up, wages in Rason are very cheap by U.S. and European standards.

              All of that means I don’t need to allocate much from each tour package price to cover overhead. And the low up-front investment means I don’t need to pay much to my foreign investors to provide them with attractive returns (keeping in mind, too, that the North Korean Government is keen to limit the returns foreign investors can earn.)

              Meanwhile, the costliest part of any tour is meals, lodging and transportation – almost all of which is provided by the North Korean government from government owned resources. It stands to reason, then, that the lion’s share of each tour price goes to the government in the form of foreign currency to provide those services.

              My guess is that the government’s take on each one of your tours is above 70% of the quoted price.

            • krahun January 16, 2014 at 1:52 am #

              Brian, you will find it difficult to accept, but everything (no exaggeration) you’ve just written is wrong. Hence, I don’t want to venture to guess what your understanding of “the truth” is. And I wasn’t evading your question about the Euro (I assumed that you were being specific about the Euro.). I was trying to answer what I thought you may have wanted to know because you couldn’t have meant what you wrote. We’ve consulted for businesses, NGO’s, and even governments in the past 15 year, helping with negotiations, information gathering, working through legal tight spots, or starting projects/businesess. I was giving sincere answers in your blog to questions that I hear often from first time visitors. Perhaps I wasn’t being clear enough or my thoughts sufficiently organized. Either way, I hope my comments helped drive few more hits to your site. Thank you for letting me post comments.

            • Brian January 16, 2014 at 9:11 am #

              Another revealing evasion. Thanks for showing us firsthand how business is done in DPRK. You’ve done everyone here a great service.

          • krahun January 14, 2014 at 7:52 am #

            We were gung ho for Iran until our Shah was deposed by his own people. The same for Ferdinand Marcos until his people deposed him. We supported engagement with these nations. We’re still in bed with the House of Saud and several other nations that you would find more objectionable than DPRK, so why the selective disgust? Besides, your comments about visiting the other 90% of DPRK are just false. I choose not to go to many countries myself. However, I do not need to propagate false information to justify not going somewhere. It’s more intellectually honest to say I choose not to go somewhere because I simply have no interest in going there or to say I want to spend my time and money on something/somewhere else. BTW, what nation opens up their “non-existent” rendition sites to tours?

    • Brian January 11, 2014 at 8:57 am #

      Hi krahun
      I guess you missed the whole conversation about not giving this regime hard currency. How do you propose we personally go to these places without paying? Can you help with that as well?

      Seeing as how you represent a tour company specializing in travel to the DPRK I’m guessing that you neither read the article you’re commenting on nor have a way of addressing our chief criticisms of such travel. So I’ve taken the liberty of removing the link to your site (I’m assuming you have no problem with censorship) as your comments are welcome but your promotion of tours to the DPRK are definitely not.

      • krahun January 11, 2014 at 6:15 pm #

        There are zero journalists living and reporting from DPRK (except for the AP journalists who reluctantly visit once in a while to their Pyongyang office). Ms. Demick has never visited the city she wrote about (I live here). The tourism money that comes in to our region (There are cities other than Pyongyang in a country of nearly 25 million) gets divided between the hotels, restaurants, transportation company providing the vehicles, tour company with their overheads, etc. Yes, the government directly takes the visa processing fee and receives tax (or quota as it is called here for state-run entities). We are supposed to pay 14% in tax, but we have thus far paid 0% because the government considers us to be a beneficial presence to their people. Some readers talk about Mr. Bae who has been detained for over a year, saying that he deserves to be detained for handling out religious books and videos. Non-sense. He didn’t even clear border customs when he was detained. The 86-yrs-old Palo Alto man nailed it on the head (i believe because he ended up spending so much time with them) when he said that the people here are still at war. To the people here, his requests were analogous to an Al Qaeda coordinator coming back to NYC 60 years after 9/11 asking around for his American comrades who helped him make the 9/11 happen. Yes, there are many things not right here. The locals know it better than anyone. The middle class is rising here since the famine years of the 90’s, and it’s because of companies like us who worked with and gave jobs to those who made it through the famine that this phenomenon is visible… But you have to venture outside of the Pyongyang tour to witness this. Yes, this means going to DPRK.

  49. Hank Song January 20, 2014 at 2:08 pm #

    As a North Korean human rights activist, I find groups like Krahun, Koryo Tours, Young Pioneer Tours, Uri Tours, Juche Travel Services and others, to be dishonest, immoral, and utterly lacking in common sense and logic, and, quite disgusting.

    These tours into North Korea make a mockery of the human rights situation in North Korea, and is an insult to the citizens living there, as well as the North Korean defectors who have escaped from that hellhole.

    North Korea will be free, one day, and the people WILL remember groups like Krahun and individuals who made money for/off/with of/with the regime.

    The citizens of North Korea are not monkeys in a zoo for westerners to go and see and say to themselves ‘wow North Koreans are people just like us!'; many people refuse to travel to North Korea until the North Koreans themselves have the same freedom and liberty to travel as they wish, which of course means only when the regime falls.

    North Korean defectors DESPISE groups like Krahun and others, and individuals behind these tour groups, and shame on them and others for taking advantage of a terrible situation all for the sake of making money, while fooling themselves and the useful idiots who foolishly give their money to the tour companies and the regime that somehow this will bring change and alter the perception that North Koreans have of westerners/outsiders.

    I hope these tour group operators/owners etc. will have peace and sleep well at night – of course they will – and of course they will ignore and not remember the 200,000 inmates in the political prison camps throughout North Korea; the up to 100,000 North Korean refugees wandering and living in hiding in China where the refugee women are sold into human trafficking rings; the hunger and starvation that most North Koreans in the country go through, and other tragic human rights violations that are occurring in the most oppressive country in the world.

    The world, and the North Korean people, and the defectors, are keeping track of and will hold these people accountable for being regime-prolonging collaborators.

    Thank you everywhereonce.com for exposing this shameful scam.

    • Brian January 20, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

      Hi Hank, thanks for joining the conversation. I don’t know if you read through the comments of our original article ( http://everywhereonce.com/2013/09/03/why-we-wont-travel-to-north-korea/ ) but the following is an example of the typical rebuttal we got from people supporting travel to North Korea:

      “It is possible to change the hearts and minds of certain people within the country. I saw a tourist at a park in Pyongyang taking photos of North Koreans with their Polaroid instant camera and hand over the photos to the very appreciative and happy subjects as a gift. It is gestures like these that lessen the opinion that western folk are merely “Imperialist Aggressors”. Thus, the correct approach and ideas will ensure that this perception change is more than a fleeting hope.”

      And . .

      “When I was a young traveler, communism seemed monolithic and forever. It was almost impossible to imagine a world without the Soviet empire and its human rights abuses. . . . While many factors led to the disintegration of the USSR, culture played an important role. Don’t underestimate the power of cultural exchange to lead to change.”

      How would you respond to people who say that the cultural exchange that happens when tourists visit North Korea more than offsets the dollars they give to the regime?

      • Hank Song January 21, 2014 at 8:14 am #

        Oops, sorry, I’ll re-post in that other article!!

        • Brian January 21, 2014 at 9:02 am #

          My apologies to you. I thought you were commenting in a more recent post on North Korea. Sorry for the confusion.

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