On Visiting North Korea

Words by Robert Lauler

Illustration by Rob Green


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“Stay out of North Korea!” warn some, while others welcome the idea to explore one of the most closed societies on the planet. In recent years, tourism in North Korea has experienced a boom of sorts, and has even given birth to travel agencies exclusive to the country (Koryo Tours being one of them). But travel to North Korea is controversial. The topic is hotly debated whenever the topic comes up for discussion. The argument for and against visiting North Korea, however, usually boils down to one thing: Is visiting North Korea moral?

Not being a hard-boiled moralist, it is hard to say whether visiting North Korea is an immoral act. There is little doubt, however, that North Korea is a complex country with a very questionable human rights record. The recent United Nations Commission of Inquiry on North Korea’s report has confirmed much of what North Korean human rights activists have been arguing for years: the country’s human rights situation is terrible. The report has led a former Economist editor to recant turning North Korea into a joke with his “Greetings, Earthlings” cover some 15 years ago. It has even led the Botswanan government to cut ties with North Korea.

Travel to North Korea is generally justified by the idea that continued contact with North Korea and its people will bring about perception changes in the long-term. Proponents of this view point out that the discourse on North Korea in the international media paints its leadership as “crazy” and its people as “robots” or inmates in a gigantic “gulag.” By visiting the country and showing that Americans are not horned devils, they say, perceptions can change and harmony can grow. While the media narrative on North Korea is shallow, the idea that tourism equals gradual change seems based on shaky foundations. Sure, the idea of exchanges sounds good, but do they work in a country that, to paraphrase the late Kim Jong Il, draws a mosquito net over itself and only allows in what it wants?

It seems naive to believe that the North Korean regime has a desire to open up, but just needs a little nudging from the outside world. From where this writer stands, it needs not a nudge but a sharp kick in the you-know-where. Case in point are the Iong standing hopes for the country’s “economic reform” that have risen and fallen for…how long now? (Coca Cola’s entrance into North Korea some 20 years ago brought about the same tiring frenzy of “North Korea’s moving toward reform!” before subsiding.) Kim Jong Un has now been in power two years, but has yet to make any meaningful moves in any positive direction. Rather, the regime has backtracked to a mainstay of Kim Il Sung era economic policy: a simultaneous focus on economic and military development (namely nuclear weapons).

Things are changing in North Korea, but they’re changing in spite of the regime and its policies. The famine of the 1990s and failure of the government rationing system led North Koreans to distrust their government and abandon thoughts of a free meal. They either began heading to the markets to sell things for a living or started their own private plots. Over 27,000 of them have voted with their feet and come to South Korea. The regime has proven itself to be inept in providing a basic standard of living to its people. How does tourism, money from which ultimately lands in the regime’s coffers, really advance change in the country?

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://10mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/rob-lauler-pic.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Rob Lauler has been a student, translator, NGO employee and writer during his time in Korea. [/author_info] [/author]


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://10mag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Rob-Green_BW.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Rob Green is an artist and illustrator from London. He applies a wide range of media and subject matter, from street art to classical painting & installations. His past exhibitions have been featured in London, Brighton, Sydney and Seoul. Portfolio: robob.net[/author_info] [/author]