One Country I Will Not Visit
If you know me in real life, you know I’m pretty unapologetically vocal about certain topics. Somewhere between my brain, conversations with friends, Facebook rants, and There She Goes Again, I filter a lot. Additionally, I try to keep a positive, calm vibe to this site because that’s what I like to read when I’m not getting worked up over news articles.
Anyhow, I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time, but I just haven’t figured out how until recently, with a lot of conversation about avoiding the US and other more concerning tensions.
While I don’t personally condone not visiting a country based on their government, there is one place I’m extremely against traveling to especially given the alternative choices. This is something I’ve been studying and watching for the last six-seven years, so trust me when I actually do know what I’m talking about. Maybe not as well as a someone who has formally studied the nuances of Korean and East Asian politics, but probably more than your average traveler.
I absolutely refuse to visit
For those who don’t know, here’s a quick history:
After World War II, Korea was essentially split into two along the 38th parallel between the USSR and the US. Naturally, the USSR implemented communist ideals and propped up Kim Il Sung as the leader while the US propped up Rhee Syngman in the democratic, capitalistic south. With both leaders wanting to reunify the peninsula under their own government, the Korean war broke out. The war caused over a million deaths and eventually led to an armistice that didn’t technically end things. Over the decades, North Korea turned from whatever communist government it pretended to be to the outright oppressive dictatorship we know it to be today.
I’m writing this post for a few reasons.
- You cannot separate North Korea’s government from its culture and history because that is its culture and history.
- The sheer magnitude of North Korea’s human rights abuses is staggering, well documented, and mind-blowingly ongoing.
- I’ve seen a number of bloggers and travelers tour North Korea and come back with generic tales of how nice the people are and how interesting the architecture is. Great, can’t wait to see your “20 Photos to Inspire You to Visit North Korea” post.
- This is something I know a lot about due to heavy research. While I can’t sit here and pretend to knowledgeably talk to you about the politics and governments of most countries I’ve visited, I can 100% sit here, say you’re kind of a horrible person for leisurely touring North Korea. I’ve said it in a guest collaboration before, visiting North Korea is like visiting Nazi Germany and ignoring the weird burning smell coming from those camps nearby.
Now, I’ve been told that’s an unfair comparison. And I say bullshit. You don’t think Germany had those beautiful, fairytale-like castles in the 30s? You don’t think Germany was a gorgeous European destination even as Hitler began his climb? Heck, I found an article about a tourist guide from 1939 declaring just this.
And as far as the evidence, well, it’s been recorded that North Korea has concentration camps. Initially, it started with refugee tales and once satellite imagery grew more advanced, we could actually photograph these places.
Anyhow, here’s why I will not visit North Korea, and why I think you need to really be informed on what you’re contributing to before you decide.
It’s not some mystical no man’s land for you to “discover.”
You need to be in a tour group to even get into this place. Last time I checked don’t travel bloggers and “seasoned travelers” balk at the idea of joining a tour bus and being led around by a guide?
North Korea and Pyeongyang aren’t mythical places. They only seem cool because no one really knows what’s going on inside the country due to its oppressive nature. You’re not going to have any secret conversations with locals, discover magic Korean voodoo, or even see truly stunning architecture.
From a personal photography standpoint, most images I’ve seen of North Korean architecture are less than impressive.
If you’re truly interested in Korean culture, South Korea has it and then some.
You know who’s super proud of their culture and history and traditions? South Korea. And they’re pretty damn eager to share them all with you. Your tourist dollars are better spent in a country that at least pays for its past crimes and wants to get better (see: Park Geun-Hye getting thrown in jail) despite its shortcomings.
You’ll enjoy yourself way more stumbling your way through Korea’s countryside, getting led by the hand by a smiling ahjumma, and feasting on something pungent and delicious than spending over a thousand dollars for a guided tour of Pyeongyang.
North Korea is NOT some country that didn’t bow to the capitalistic forces of the Western world.
Listen. I completely believe communism and socialism are not actually bad in theory. They literally just want people to get equal chances in life.
But you know what? People suck and leaders have consistently taken communist ideology and tainted it with corruption and power-hungry motives. Let me just say this clearly for those in the back, North Korea is communist like man-hating women are feminists. THEY AREN’T.
The mere fact that North Korea has distinct social classes goes against the very definition of communism. The fact that these class levels are decided based on loyalty to Kim himself is some next level bullshit.
This isn’t some communist country stickin’ it to the Western man. Sorry to burst whatever anti-Western bubble you’re in.
North Koreans are literally prisoners of their dictator.
I know the arguments. “Don’t listen to the media. It’s just fake news. Obviously, someone would want you to believe North Korea sucks, you’re getting your news from the Western World!”
Unless you’ve personally sat and listened to the accounts or hopes of a North Korean refugee, you can sit your ass right down. Because I have. And you know what’s scary? Some of these people can’t even risk having their photo taken because they still have family that could be punished for their escape.
If you can’t make it to a speech, there are two different TedTalks about it from refugees who can show their faces. Here’s a fun gem from Lee Hyeonseo’s speech
When I was seven years old, I saw my first public execution. But I thought my life in North Korea was normal. My family was not poor, and myself, I had never experienced hunger.
Or this one from Joseph Kim’s speech:
I had learned that many people tried to cross the border to China in the nighttime to avoid being seen. North Korean border guards often shoot and kill people trying to cross the border without permission. Chinese soldiers will catch and send back North Koreans, where they face severe punishment.
Oh, and for good measure, here’s a fun little line from the Human Rights Watch’s 2017 Report:
Kim Jong-Un continued to generate fearful obedience by using public executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labor.
There are hundreds of refugee stories out there. My personal favorite charity is Liberty in North Korea, and they also have plenty of more refugee stories on their site for you to peruse in your free time.
Wait, sorry, I’m not done yet with the abuse.
You bet I’m not done. I guess the way North Korea treats its citizens is the #1 reason why I look down on travelers to the country. You’re not just giving money to a crappy government. You’re giving money to a government that actively and openly restricts its citizens’ freedoms and routinely tortures, abuses, terrorizes, and executes them for ridiculous reasons.
Heck, North Korea is ready to do it to silly foreigners too! Remember Otto Warmbier? Yeah, no, I don’t feel particularly bad for him because
- He paid money to go on that tour, and you should know by now how I feel about this.
- He broke the laws of a foreign country and somehow thought he’d get away with it. I don’t care how stupid those laws are, it’s not your place as a visitor to break them. If anything illustrates the danger of privileged thinking, this is it.
Anyhow, he was sentenced to 15 years “hard labor.” What does that mean? Well, just have a look at the HRW’s “Inhumane Treatment in Detention” section.
Charmed future, right?
**EDIT: Updating this section given the recent news about Otto Warmbier’s return to the US and subsequent death. Apparently, the crime is still only alleged (the video proof has never actually been shown). Obviously, this is a sad ending no one wanted and goodness knows he didn’t deserve to die, but, as you’ve seen with the rest of this article, given the reports on what they do to prisoners, this really isn’t a surprise. A sad (devastating for his family and friends) confirmation of what we were basically told would happen given other reports but not a surprise.
I could go on, but I think you get the point by now.
I honestly feel as travel bloggers we owe it to you guys to be better about our research and intentions. We make mistakes, of course, but we should be able to admit them and use our platforms as a warning against future mishaps.
I don’t own you, so I can’t force you to not visit North Korea. It’s your own damn money and time, so do what you want. But I hope these reasons shed a little more light on why your tourism might be harmful.
North Korea’s human rights abuses are so well documented from all facets — firsthand accounts from refugees, third-party analysts, freaking satellite imagery…
And you still want to visit? For what? Subpar architecture and the least authentic tour of your life?
Let me know what you think. Yay or nay on North Korean travel?
** Let me be clear, I think the North Korean landscape will be well worth visiting some day when its citizens are free and the peninsula works on reuniting. But while North Koreans live in fear of saying the wrong thing, I’m obviously a strong nay.
*** Also I recently discovered this Guardian article while doing some research. If you don’t care at all what I think, then maybe you’ll care what refugees and defectors think.
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Love this post, Sam!
I so agree with you on this post! The whole contrived way you have to book on to a tour and get taken around to see things like the grocery store where people supposedly get to shop freely and buy great fresh produce. I do not need to be forced to pay for an itinerary like that when on holiday!
I think the one aspect so many people forget when they travel – if you go to a country like North Korea you basically give up ALL your rights and human rights when you enter their immigration border. If something goes wrong, like with Otto, you are bound by their rules no matter how unreasonable or archaic – the feelings of the rest of the world or your home country have no sway!
One of my most horrifying moments was a colleague sharing her engagement story. She told her boyfriend she wanted to be proposed to in front of thousands of people. They went to North Korea to run the NK Half Marathon and when they finished, the stadium was packed with local spectators clapping in well-timed unison for the half marathon finishers and so he proposed to her at the finish line!! i kept thinking the journey of (what I hope would be) your marriage as equal partners started in a dictatorship country in front of thousands of slaves being forced to cheer you on – had to seriously bite my tongue!
Right?! It drives me nuts when people act like they’re such intrepid travelers because they’re…paying for a super restrictive tour that shows you the most basic things.
I think you win on horrifying NK travels. I cannot even begin to imagine how narcissistic someone has to be to plan something like that!
Moving article. This might sounds crazy but I never really knew anything about North Korea until very recently. While at first it peaked my curiosity I agree that it would be like going to Nazi Germany and snapping photos in an oppressed country. I had watched the Human Right Watch Report and it nearly brought me to tears. Thank you for this refreshing article about why travelers should not venture to and endorse a country that kills so many of it’s own citizens.
Yeah I didn’t start recognizing the brutality until LiNK visited my university. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was THAT bad. It’s sad because most of the North Koreans are prisoners themselves, held against their will, which is why it makes taking down the regime that much more complicated.
Yea, I hope some day soon that country will be liberated. I can’t imagine what it would be like being so cut off from the world, constantly living in fear of the government, and frankly, brainwashed.
That’s the kind of articles I like. Your own opinion + a strong message + the TRUTH.
Girl, you did a good job and I totally agree with you. No way will I ever set foot in this horrific place and if anyone near me will try, I’ll convince them to not go.
This is amazing. I would love to have a convo because you seem blunt and well informed and I respect and admire that. I completely agree about N.Korea. It’s definitely not the same thing but I’m struggling (i.e. feeling guilty) with the fact that I visited Myanmar given the genocide against the Rohynga people. I tried to research ways to make sure my money went to regular people and not government but I’m pretty sure every temple admission fee goes straight to the corrupt generals. Would love to hear your thoughts.
Haha yes! I’m pretty blunt in person, so I always try to do as much research to back up my bluntness so I don’t just look like an idiot!
Oh man, that’s something I need to read more about it :(. Myanmar hasn’t really been on my radar, so I haven’t put as much energy into researching it!
Wow. This is an amazingly honest, no holds barred, thought-provoking read, and I have so much respect for you for putting it out there. You make excellent, strong points, and link through to even more great information. I agree with you deeply, and shudder at treating such an oppressive regime as a tourist destination. Thank you so much for your work on this and boldness in sharing. <3
Thank you for reading!
What a great article – thanks for pulling together your research for us
Of course. Thanks so much for reading!
The reality of North Korean people is so harsh and traumatic that I am surprised that anyone could enjoy being in the country. I haven’t read any blogs but have watched numerous documentaries depicting the life in North Korea. I have seen the video of Lee Hyeonseo’s speech and it was completely heart breaking. I am sure it’s a beautiful country to see, but like you said, it can only be truly beautiful when it’s people are free. I love the honesty in your words.
Ugh yes. The more research I do, the heavier it gets. I’ve had to stop and put down Suki Kim’s book multiple times because it just starts to weigh heavily on me!
And thank you!
I am completely with you. I would not visit given the dictatorship and human rights abuses that are rife there. In the same way I chose not to go to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (we did a trip to Botswana, which many people combine with Zimbabwe), likewise I would not have gone to apartheid era South Africa. And there are a few other places around the world I won’t go. One can argue about whether one’s money goes to the government or locals, and a host of other issues, but at the end of the day, in my opinion, my visit legitimises the current government, or at the very least sends the message that I tacitly don’t think it’s important enough to override my personal curiosity / desire to visit.
I like your perspective! I really do need to do better research into some of the more controversial countries. I think what you say at the end about the government is quite true, but also I feel like it can be more complex. For example, Trump is a total embarrassment as my president, but the majority of Americans did NOT vote for him, especially in major cities that tourists visit. I wouldn’t tell someone not to visit because, trust me, even in the states that did vote for him, the majority of us despise him to no end. The difference is that we have the freedom to completely bash him to our hearts’ content whereas more oppressive governments don’t allow for this.
I had always overlooked the horrific conditions in North Korea and thought it as a place I do want to visit eventually but after hearing all about the concentration camps and the inhumane circumstances for residents in NK, I couldn’t travel there. Until it’s resolved. My conscience wouldn’t allow it… it’s a matter of whether or not you’re choosing to be ignorant or not, selfish or not, caring or not. Anyone who listens to their soul, their human nature, their internal core will KNOW that is not right what’s going on in North Korea, it’s not right that nothing is being done about it and it’s not right that people are actually going to visit this country when there are so many enslaved trying to escape from murder, rape and so on. We are all human. We need to help those imprisoned rather than hinder them through offering tourism to the dictator there…
Wow. Thank you for all the time you spent researching and writing this post. It’s the best one I have read yet by any blogger on the topic. I am just beginning to learn about the horrors of North Korea and I can’t imagine ever thinking of traveling there…
Thank you! Yeah, the more I study it, the worse that horrible, twisted feeling in my gut gets. It’s just so OBVIOUSLY horrible. I mean, I feel like we say we would have done something during the Nazi rise, but here we are and NK is still rollin’.
Well written, I agree, there is no way I would travel as a tourist to a country where I know the money I spend will go towards supporting a government or regime that treats it’s people in an inhumane way. I might add North Korea isn’t the only place that does this.
I absolutely agree. And they’re definitely not the only one. As I said it’s the only place I feel comfortable enough writing an in-depth post about in terms of my experience. Actually, after writing another op-ed piece about it, I decided I needed to spend the next year or so learning more about the complexities of certain international affairs. I always say I can’t speak fully on Israel and Palestine simply because I don’t know enough, but I think this year it’s time to change that claim. I’ve already interviewed a college colleague who taught English in Palestine and has studied Middle Eastern politics to get started!
Girl, this is strong. I have never considered North Korea somewhere I’d want to visit, for the reasons you mention here. But I truly appreciate how much insight and research you’ve packed into this powerful little bit of brain venting. Thank you for putting it so cohesively and writing it with passion. I also really want to get my hands on “Without you, there is no us” now. Thanks for sharing
Yes! I have it on my reading list (I feel like I have to be in the right mindset to read it, and right now I’m a little too much on vacation/beach mode).
And thank you! I tried to back up my opinions with as many facts + reports as I could in one post. It’s absolutely baffling that people STILL think it’s okay to travel here.
I just read a really interesting book about NK called “without you, there is no us”. Have you read it? I didn’t know too much about the country before and really enjoyed the writer’s perspective.
Oh I think I saw you snap a picture of the cover or something! I haven’t read it, but adding it to my Amazon list!
I second that– it’s an absolutely fascinating read. I made the mistake of starting it while traveling and it was hard to put it down and pay attention to my trip!
Wow. I had no idea about the concentration camps. I visited the DMZ and JSA on a tour from Seoul last year and just seeing/hearing North Korea from the South Korea side was incredibly chilling. Thank you for writing this.
Yep! I was floored when I learned about them the first time. I knew North Korea was an oppressive regime, but I didn’t QUITE realize how bad it was until I really started researching :/
And yes, I went on a similar tour! That and a visit to the War Memorial Museum–so eye opening!
Great article. You’ve put my same thoughts and feelings into words about a country I also long refused to visit for the same reasons. I don’t understand how can people travel to such an oppressed and abused nation for holiday. Your comparison to Nazi Germany is bang on. I recently read a book called “Without You There Is No Us” by Suki Kim who spent some time there as a foreign teacher. It was very enlightening and gave a first hand look at life in North Korea, beyond the controlled tours. I could go on and on about this as it definitely strikes a cord with me.
Thank you so much! I can’t believe it either, ESPECIALLY from fellow travel bloggers :(
And, Sher just mentioned this book as well! I’ve added it to my list of books to read.
Thanks for voicing how I’ve always felt. And I completely agree with your nazi Germany comment. However harsh it might be. I’ll definitely share this <3
Thanks, Milou! I had a friend read over it, and she actually said she thought it was worse than Nazi Germany because someone in the 30s might not even know about the concentration camps when we have actual proof!
Thank you ! I am 100% with you on this !