Okay, so full disclosure: I would love to visit North Korea.
There is something enthralling about the thought of being able to walk down the streets of this mysterious country, where so few tourists have been allowed access.
As a traveller, all types of country appeal to me, for all kinds of reasons.
I’ve wanted to visit Afghanistan, for example, for years, ever since I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. After my friend Frankie also read the book last year, we both looked into whether or not it would be feasible to actually go one day.
But here’s the thing: if I were to visit Afghanistan, it wouldn’t be to take a few selfies and pat myself on the back for making it somewhere so off the beaten track. If I were to visit Afghanistan, it would be to help out in some way, such as volunteering for a women’s rights organisation.
You don’t just go on holiday to Afghanistan.
But you do, it seems, to North Korea.
Visas to North Korea are relatively easy to get hold of, so long as you are part of an organised tour group with two North Korean guides for company. Organising your own trip is not permitted, and it is also not permitted to walk around alone or take photographs in certain places. Your every meal, photo-op and bathroom break is carefully coordinated by the tour group.
Basically, you see exactly what the government wants you to see.
What you don’t see are the huge human rights injustices that take place in North Korea.
The Human Rights Watch has said that abuses in North Korea are “without parallel in the contemporary world.” They include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.” It also operates “secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor.”
Indeed, the United Nations has said that the atrocities committed by North Korea against its own people are “strikingly similar” to those perpetuated by Nazis during World War II. North Korea has no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom.
This, I’m sure, is only the tip of the iceberg.
While researching whether or not it is ethical to visit North Korea, I read a lot of articles arguing both for and against travel to North Korea, and the debate seems to go as follows:
Those who believe you should not visit North Korea argue that the thousands of dollars that you spend goes directly to an oppressive government that keeps its citizens in abstract poverty and abuses human rights on an unprecedented scale. They point out that even the money that you think goes towards local businesses actually goes straight to the government, and argue about whether it is ethical to spend your money, however small an amount, on such a regime.
Those who argue that you should visit North Korea, such as popular YouTube travel vlogger Louis Cole (or Fun for Louis), say that they want to show the positive side of North Korea and help to spread ‘love’ to the people that they meet whilst there. After receiving heavy criticism for vlogging about his trip to North Korea back in August 2016, Louis said that the “future of our relationship with North Korea is fully dependent on how well we know them,” before concluding that he “made some friends out there and [he is] really looking forward to going out to visit them again.”
Now, good as his intentions may be, one must question whether lining the pockets of the North Korean government and making positive videos that depict North Korea as a fun and worthwhile holiday destination is really worth making a few “friends” that could be thrown into concentration camps if you ever persuaded them that the North Korean government isn’t all that great.
Whatever their intention, when people like Louis (who currently has over 1.8 million followers on YouTube) visit North Korea and go on to make lighthearted videos about how great North Korea’s water parks are and how you can even go surfing over there, they are nothing more than pawns being used as propaganda machines for the likes of Kim Jong-un and his minions.
Nothing about North Korea is ‘beautiful’ or ‘positive’ and it is very dangerous to believe otherwise.
Please, for the sake of the people of North Korea, don’t visit this godforsaken country.