How I Decided to Visit to North Korea
I was sitting at work one day, back in 2016, and was contemplating travel destinations. North Korea crossed my mind but I quickly ruled it out. But then I remembered some of the stories one of my co-workers had about visiting there some years before. I was fascinated with the stories but as an American I still considered it too much of a risk. Then all of a sudden I realized, with stories about North Korea frequenting the news, that North Korea could unravel at any moment. Any day we could wake up to and see North Korea collapsing into chaos from a coup. I then realized that I need to go as soon as possible to see for myself the last remaining Stalinist regime in full swing. As it turns out, I would not be disappointed.
I quickly around the internet and found a UK based company called Lupine Travel. I had no idea if they were legit or not (they wound up being great). The tour was relatively inexpensive and I dredged the internet for some amount of validation. I eventually decided the worst that would happen would be I'd be out a few hundred bucks. Sitting at my desk I put the deposit down, smiled and texted my friends about what I was about to do.
My one friend quickly texted me back with a link to news article that had just been released. That was the day it had been made public that an American student from the University of Virginia was being held in North Korea and faced a 15 year sentence of hard labor. He was accused of stealing a propaganda poster from the hotel he was staying in. I stood up and paced around in utter anguish. What was I doing? I paced back and forth in my office hallway and eventually decided I wasn't going. I figured I'd just eat the deposit and get on with my life.
After a day of still wringing my hands I stumbled across a Wikipedia page that had listed all the Americans that have been held in North Korea since the Korean war. The list was relatively short (about thirty people) and provided reasons for why each individual had been held. I was reassured by this because all of the reasons weren't accidents, they weren't something you, if you were mindful would accidentally find yourself doing. By our standards, the UofV student's actions were quite benign but stealing a propaganda poster wasn't something I was accidentally going to do. That situation also put me on my best behavior because I knew I couldn't screw around there.
I still had to rationalize a few issues. There are some moral questions worth considering before you go. First, if you are detained, are you going to place a burden on your government whom will inevitably be tasked with securing your release? Since I'm american my chances of being detained were higher. In the words of the tour company, "as an American the risks are manageable but you have a shorter leash". So again, I rationalized that my risks were manageable as long as I followed the rules. I also decided that if I were detained I wouldn't make overt gestures to my government for help. That being said, I guess I can't really promise I wouldn't beg to be released if I were really to be detained.
The second moral question is, are you helping enable a brutal totalitarian regime by spending money there? The answer is of course complicated. The money you spend there does fund the government to some degree. However, the little tourism they do receive is not what keeps the Kims in power. The Kim families' ability to retain power on the country is far more complex than that. I would argue the exposure the locals receive to the tourists is in the long-term more damaging than whatever little money you do leave behind. In fact, I read about one such defector that became disillusioned because he realized foreigners were able to visit his country but he wasn't able to visit theirs. It was then he realized that North Korea wasn't the Eden he'd been taught and eventually decided to defect. After visiting, I felt relatively confident that when the locals saw us with our expensive cameras and carefree attitudes while being chauffeured around in a big air conditioned bus that we were not in fact members of inferior governments.