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The Last White Spot: Is North Korea Tourism Morally Tenable?

There is nearly no place in this world that you cannot see as a tourist. If you have the right passport and a sufficient amount of money, that is. Even North Korea, one of the most secretive and isolated countries of the world is open to tourism. I can imagine you saying ‘who the hell wants to go there’ now. Well, I would like to go, kind of. Plus, more and more people use the opportunity to visit the Land of Whispers. But then again: Is it okay to travel anywhere – regardlessly?

Whoever dares to enter North Korean territory might as well enter the last white spot earth has to offer. A lot of people do not even know that it is possible to visit the land of whispers. Yet according to travel agencies, the numbers of visitors are growing constantly, even though it is at least near to impossible to get official figures. The Pyongyang government actively promotes tourism to North Korea from China and Europe. Even Americans are granted tourist visas, regardless of political animosities. The country needs forex and dollars are sincerely appreciated. Maybe it is better not to think about what that money will be used for.

To those who come, North Korea is not only a devious, dangerous, and corrupt dictatorship but also – and maybe above all – an adventurous temptation. It is a country of which we know next to nothing. Pictures and information that leave the country are meticulously filtered. We don’t know what is true, what is sugarcoated, and what is complete and utter propaganda. There is no McDonalds, no Coca Cola, no Facebook. The journey to North Korea is a journey into the past. The Chinese tourists say that the country is like China back in the 1980s.

Whoever comes to North Korea does this out of curiosity and thirst for adventure. To get to know the country nobody knows. And its people. But journeys to North Korea are well-ordered and conform to the government’s specifications. Getting in touch with the people is possible, but not off-handedly. Discussion partners are carefully selected. A spontaneous chat with a local resident can become a disaster for him, agencies warn.

If free exchange with residents of North Korea is not possible, then what does tourism mean for them? On the one hand, it offers another perspective on the west – a less biased perspective on a world that most North Koreans only know from propaganda material. Financially though, the greatest of the population does not benefit from tourism as the money brought into the country goes directly to the government. So – if tourism finances this government, does it also legitimize its demeanor?

Ultimately, the question if North Korea tourism is ethically and morally tenable, is another question: Is traveling a political statement? And if it were, North Korea would not be the only country on a list of states to which a visit would be reprehensible.

Would I travel to North Korea? Probably, yes. But as a journalist who openly reveals herself as that on the internet, I think I would hardly stand a chance to even get a tourist visa. The North Korean government does not actually like journalists in the country. They are dangerous. They might uncover and propagate what everything is really like, in the Land of Whispers.

More about North Korea tourism and the Land of Whispers:

Is tourism in North Korea a good or bad idea? Eleven defectors share their thoughts on nknews.org

Dominik Schwarz has traveled to North Korea and explains why he did so in Why I traveled to North Korea

Mandy has just booked a trip to North Korea. While her very detailed and well argued article on the moral aspects of traveling to North Korea is only available in German, she has found a Youtube video about North Korea which I also find worth sharing.

If you are looking for some fun sources, have a look at the Kim Jong-Un Looking at Things Tumblr which is hilarious. Or else, have a look at what Vice Magazine has to say about North Korea.

Credit for all photos used in this article go to Stephan who has a lot more beautiful and intriguing pictures of North Korea on his Flickr profile.

About the Author

Anna loves travel, photography, and writing. All at once, everyday. She collects entrance cards, plane tickets, and old atlases and has been searching for the perfect globe for some years. Follow Anna on Facebook or Twitter!

19 Comments

  1. While I think it would be interesting to visit. I don’t agree with the government there and would feel quite bad about contributing to an economy where I feel very, very strongly about the politics.

    • Thanks for your comment Chloe! Yes, that’s kind of holding me back from going to North Korea as well. But then again: There are so many countries in which I don’t agree with the government. For example: I disapprove of death penalty. Does that mean I cannot visit the United States?

  2. Very interesting post Anna, and you’ve chosen some great pictures to illustrate it. I would love to go to North Korea. definitely don’t agree with their politics, but as Mike said, the same can be said of my country (Italy). I think it would be interesting to get an insight into such a world. I don’t know if I would ever be able to afford it, though – I heard it can be pricey.

  3. This is so interesting! My friend just came back from a holiday in North Korea and his stories sounded absolutely fascinating… Not always in a good way, but it’s so good to get a little insight into life there. He’s a journalist and managed to get a visa, so maybe not all hope’s lost for you! 🙂

  4. Your post reminds me a little of what Myanmar used to be like. A closed off country that people knew very little about. Locals used to get into a lot of trouble if they spoke to foreigners, internet hardly exisited let alone Facebook etc…and all the money went straight into the hands of the government or the Junta.

    Would I travel to North Korea? Probably. Would I want to know where my money was being spent? Probably not. But then I had that problem in Myanmar – I tend not to give it too much thought. Like Dave, if I did it might disturb me a bit.

  5. South Korea – yes! North Korea – undecided! It is just so closed off from the rest of the world and ultimately so skeptical to me. Very interesting idea for a post. Thank you for sharing this!

  6. I would love to go to Sout Korea, but North on the other hand is a different story all together. I guess I would still like to see it. As there isnt that much information on the country I really do wonder what there is to see any way.

  7. I’d love to go too, I’ve been fascinated by such societies for as long as I can remember.

    Have you seen the film ‘Comrade Kim Goes Flying’? Great fun. There’s a review and trailer on my site. Check it out if you’re curious.

  8. Very interesting post. I feel no attraction to visit North Korea and I agree with Karen that while I have visited some countries with less that scrupulous governments this one is worse than most.

  9. Interesting post, Anna! I remember seeing the Vice episode on this a few years ago and was pretty intrigued. I would definitely go there just to see it. God knows what my tourist dollars have funded in the past, so that thought does not particularly disturb me.

  10. No, I don’t think visiting anywhere as a tourist is morally untenable. I have been to so many places where I could never agree with the regime or politics (hell, technically that could even include coming home to the UK!), but loved the country and it’s people. Tourism opens places up to international scrutiny, which can never be a bad thing.

    I would love to go to North Korea one day, and hope that eventually the staged areas for limited tourists open up further as more and more people visit, and people can start to see more and more glimpses of the real North Korea. You never know, things may start to change as a result.

  11. I wish I had the right passport to visit anywhere in the world :/ With an Indian citizenship, a lot of countries right in the neighborhood are almost out of bounds for me, even though they are the ones that fascinate me most… Particularly Pakistan and Afghanistan.
    I’m very tempted to book a visit to North Korea, and have been for a while. There are quite a few budget options I find. I think it’ll be fascinating. Maybe I’m wrong, but it is probably similar to the life led by people living in the communist countries a few decades back.

  12. I’d love to visit North Korea, it’s such a strange, unknowable place. A travel blogger took part in my Postcard From feature with an interview about his trip there and it was so interesting. Everything you see as a tourist is basically staged especially for tourists – so surreal!

  13. There is nothing about the government and restrictions that would intrigue me to visit the country, to many other wonderful places to see around the world in my bucket list.

  14. I’ve never been tempted to go to North Korea – I know there are lots of corrupt governments around the world but this one seems worse than most. Although I must say that the absence of Coca Cola and McDonalds has to be a plus…

Your thoughts are welcome!