Why We Won’t Travel to North Korea, a Tour Company Responds

North Korea

It seems as if our earlier article outlining all the reasons we won’t travel to North Korea has caught the attention of a firm specializing in such tours. Over the past couple of days a representative of Krahun Co. has been quite active in the comments section of our original post.

In that article we made the following argument (among others) against travel to North Korea:

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”

We wanted to ask Krahun about this concern because we’ve seen other travel bloggers claim to have gotten comfortable with how their tour money is spent after discussing it with a tour operator. What follows is the transcript of our conversation with Krahun (edited only for length. The completely unedited version can be found in our comments section starting here.)

See if his answers make you comfortable paying for a tour to North Korea.

Krahun: 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. . . .

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?

EverywhereOnce: 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.

K: 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.

EO: 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.

K: 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.

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

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12 Comments on “Why We Won’t Travel to North Korea, a Tour Company Responds”

  1. Christina January 17, 2014 at 10:11 am #

    I think taking a tour of DPRK would be tempting for a lot of people, considering it’s so closed off and so “taboo.” But I have never thought about the fact that all the money from visitors goes back into the regime who has been committing numerous human rights violations (to put it lightly) for years. Good point.

    Like

    • Brian January 17, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

      North Korea really is unlike almost any other place on the planet in the sense that the money you give to a tour operator directly supports the government’s ability to retain control. That fact, undisputed in any real sense by a tour operator working in the region, makes not traveling to North Korea an incredibly easy call in our view.

      Like

    • Kellie April 1, 2016 at 2:12 am #

      All the money *does not* go back to the regime. That’s just not true. Anyone who goes there knows this. These goof-balls are ingoramaces, and need to stick to their fat-free lattes in SOHO, rather than making grandiose pronouncements about something they have never, ever experienced. In fact, tho goof balls have decided to NEVER GO THERE.

      Yeah – now that’s expertise for ya.

      Like

      • Brian April 1, 2016 at 7:53 am #

        How does paying a tour operator teach you anything about where that money goes once you pay them?

        Maybe you could start by answering the question that Krahun avoided: who owns the hotels and restaurants tourists utilize while in North Korea?

        Like

  2. Sam January 18, 2014 at 9:58 am #

    Fascinating! To be honest, since I’ve never really seriously considered the issue of whether or not I’d go to the DPRK or not (there are so many other places that are of infinite more appeal to me), I hadn’t looked into things this deeply. But thanks for enlightening me.

    Like

    • Brian January 18, 2014 at 2:05 pm #

      You’re very welcome. We’re glad to do it.

      Like

  3. Sally January 19, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

    I think the big kicker is that yes, the hotel and the restaurants all get their “cut”, but there’s no way it’s paid in Euros. So even while “supporting” the local entities, you’re not at all.

    I didn’t need much convincing in this or the previous post, but thanks for the investigation via comments. Interesting stuff!

    Like

  4. eric.rial January 20, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

    After reading the exchange I find it very difficult to believe anything Krahum says. It is difficult enough to believe someone who is profiting from someone else’s misery, but in this case it is beyond that, everyone involved in these tours inside the country of North Korea is as risk of imprisonment if they do something to offend their leaders. Your point of where the “Euro” go is spot on. No one inside of North Korea can use Euro to pay for anything. They can’t deposit the money to have it converted by their bank. They aren’t going to use it on their next vacation to Europe. If they are compensated it is in Won. Who else besides the North Korean government can do anything with Euro or Dollars?

    Like

    • Brian January 20, 2014 at 2:07 pm #

      True, he didn’t rank highly on the credibility scale.

      Like

  5. Beachbums1 January 22, 2014 at 8:47 am #

    Very interesting ~ thanks for posting.

    Like

  6. Kellie April 1, 2016 at 2:04 am #

    Krahun ranks very high on the credibiltiy scale for those of us who actually know what goes on there.

    I know, because I am familiar with many of the tour operators. Some are more credible than others. But you goof-balls on your silly blog here know absolutely nothing about the truth on the ground in that country. It’s much more complex than your Facebook-clickbait minds could grasp. For those of us who have vested interests there, indeed who have given our lives to help the north koreans in practical and unconventional ways, ignorance like yours is not so much funny as it is disturbing. You’re not helping North Korea when you make these dogmatic pronouncements about my morals when I go inside.

    Before you make such criticisms and shame these folks, you better get your ass over there and see it for yourself. Otherwise you’re just another arm-chair NK-watcher who thinks he knows everything about this country. When you don’t.

    But of course those of us who’ve been there many times know the truth.

    Like

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why we won’t travel to North Korea | Everywhere Once - January 17, 2014

    […] A company specializing in North Korean tours responds to our criticisms. Click over to see if you feel better after reading their […]

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