Last updated: 22 June 2020
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 forbidden and mysterious country, where so few outsiders have ever been allowed access. With only 4000 – 6000 Western tourists visiting North Korea each year, there is something enticing about being a part of this incredibly rare experience.
As someone who loves exploring off-the-beaten-path places, 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 (which is an absolutely fantastic book btw). After my friend Frankie also fell in love with 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 exotic. If I were to visit Afghanistan, it would be for humanitarian reasons, 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.
Can You Visit North Korea? Yes. But That Doesn’t Mean You Should.
Can you visit North Korea?
One of the most popular Google searches about North Korea is ‘Can you visit North Korea?’ or something similar. Many people seem desperate to visit North Korea but unsure of how it is possible, or even if it is possible.
The short answer to this question is that yes, you can probably visit North Korea.
North Korea routinely denies access to South Koreans and journalists, and the American government has forbidden US citizens from travelling to North Korea following the tragic death of Otto Warmbier, but most other nations have the possibility of visiting North Korea, with travel agencies facilitating the trips.
Visas to North Korea are relatively easy to get hold of, just as 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. There is also a good chance that your phone may be confiscated and any pictures or video footage that you have taken may be examined and deleted.
Basically, you see exactly what the government wants you to see.
And for many people, that’s fine. As long as they can see something of North Korea, that is enough for them.
And I’ll agree that even if visits to North Korea are carefully curated by the DPRK government, it must still be a pretty exciting and surreal experience to take part in a tour of North Korea.
Should you visit North Korea?
While North Korea tours will show you a few monuments and landmarks, what they won’t show you 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’ and include ‘extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence.’
North Korea 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. You cannot even get a haircut unless it is in a style approved by Kim Jong-Un.
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 like me point out 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 question 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 2 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.
If you really care about the people of North Korea, please don’t visit this godforsaken country, and if you are an influencer then please don’t promote places like this.
You may also like: The Many Problems with Influencers Promoting Saudi Arabia
Books about North Korea
I love reading books by people who have first-hand experience with the regime and human rights issues in North Korea. Here are some great reads that you can get from Amazon:
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Dear Leader: North Korea’s Senior Propagandist Exposes Shocking Truths Behind the Regime by Jang Jin-Sung
The Girl With Seven Names – Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee
The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea by Bandi
These are affiliate links, meaning that if you decide to purchase any of these titles then I may make a small commission at no additional cost to you. All commissions go towards the running of this website.