North Korea has long had a guilty allure for me — it brings up some squirming contradictions. So intriguing: the ultimate foreign land, full of strangeness. We’re all fascinated by it. But then horrified: the famine, the camps, the death.
Under the rule of Kim Jong-Un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries. All basic freedoms have been severely restricted under the Kim family’s political dynasty. A 2014 UN Commission of Inquiry found that abuses in North Korea were without parallel in the contemporary world. They include extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions, and other sexual violence. North Korea operates secretive prison camps where perceived opponents of the government are sent to face torture and abuse, starvation rations, and forced labor. Fear of collective punishment is used to silence dissent. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom.
Often the global coverage of North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as it’s more properly known, tends almost towards humour. Oh look at those funny North Koreans, what will they get up to next? You could argue laughter is a weapon, and both factual coverage and fictional portrayals of the Kims have certainly made them look pretty silly. What power does a regime so mocked really have, you could say. But satire only works as a weapon from within. This isn’t the regime’s own people laughing at them, it’s outsiders, and I wonder if all it serves to do is isolate the country and its beleaguered citizens further. I’m guilty of it too, sometimes the news is so bizarre that it’s hard not to laugh, but it’s a bit odd that we find a country with such an appalling human rights record (not to mention nuclear ambitions) so amusing.
Image from Wait But Why* on facebook.
Actually, looking at pictures from inside North Korea, most of the scenes portrayed could easily be in China or Vietnam. These countries have personality cults for dead leaders too. These countries have large portions of their population living in rural poverty. They don’t have forced labour camps, but they don’t have political and religious freedom either. China has secret detention centres, and it’s likely similar horrors occur there as in North Korea. And yes China and Vietnam have internet, but it’s heavily restricted and effectively edited by the government. Plus, what you do online can get you into serious trouble in real life. Vietnam has more communist propaganda billboards than you can shake a hammer and sickle at. (We saw a good portion of them when we cycled the length of Vietnam.)
Of course North Korea is cruel to its people, but in some ways it’s not all that unusual. My point is that we let our perception of North Korea as somewhere unreal and other colour our perception of everything we learn about it. Much of life there seems to be pretty ordinary. Poor and undernourished and difficult, but ordinary in that.
So, to visit or not to visit? Some argue that visiting can only help: North Koreans will see the rest of the world is different, visitors will see what it’s really like, and the world won’t forget. Money will come into the country, helping hungry people. Others argue that visiting condones the regime, that visits are so tightly controlled that locals and visitors learn nothing of each other, and that money spent goes to prop up the regime and the wealthy. Interestingly, opinion among those who have fled North Korea is just as divided as among outsiders, though it seems to tend slightly towards ‘don’t go’.
I’m inclined towards the latter view, though by no means decided. My gut says that going in the only way currently available, government controlled tours, amounts to tacit agreement with the regime. But then you meet people who’ve been, as we did on the Trans Siberian railway, and they rave about their trip. I was a little disconcerted by how keen one guy we met was on the DPRK actually, I think he may have used the phrase ‘it’s actually really nice’. Reading the Lonely Planet North Korea (yes, that’s a thing**) made me really want to go, as reading the Lonely Planet for almost anywhere does. But it’s got a few unsettling phrases in it.
If you had any doubt that your trip to North Korea would keep you in dinner party anecdotes for decades to come, the Kumusan memorial palace will quash them.
You can’t read that and not question your own reasons for wanting to visit.
I’m ashamed to say that ultimately, in this instance, budget was the real decider. Tightly planned, heavily escorted tours, which only use private transport and tourist approved hotels, don’t come cheap.
But the place has such a draw, so what to do?
Visit the DMZ, the Korean Demilitarised Zone.
Image from Kristoferb on Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons.
The demilitarised zone is the heavily militarised (!) tightly monitored buffer of land between two countries still technically (sort of, not really) at war. A visit to the DMZ affords you the opportunity to step onto North Korean soil (carpet actually), briefly and relatively safely, and have a good gawp at North Korea from the border. And critically, visit the DMZ from the South and none of your money will go to North Korea.
So this is what we did — you can read about our very odd day out to the DMZ here.
Would you visit North Korea? It’s a tricky one — I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
*Tim Urban from Wait But Why went to North Korea, and wrote a simultaneously hilarious and thoughtful post about it here. Highly recommended reading.
**Well, actually it’s a chapter in Lonely Planet Korea. And it’s very odd reading, as it’s got no practical information whatsoever in it. Guess there’s no point when you can’t visit independently. I imagine they’d struggle to fill a whole book with just North Korea, given most of the ‘sights’ are statues or museums, and there are only about 3 restaurants listed.