Editorials South Korea

Travel to North Korea

I’m going to say it…I think that the individuals who travel to North Korea for personal reasons are stupid (obviously diplomats, aid workers, and journalists are not included in this). I frequently see posts on travel boards inquiring about travel to North Korea and the reasons people list in wanting to visit slightly anger me.

“I have heard the country is gorgeous and certainly find it fascinating (and depressing) that any one country can be so isolated”

“I realize that it wouldn’t be a pleasant trip or a true vacation. But I’m really interested in the culture and I just think it would be a fascinating (albeit very sad) trip”


Do the people who list such fanciful reasons not understand that anything they would see in North Korea would be completely staged for their “benefit?” That anything having to do with the Korean culture would be nonexistent?

I understand the desire to visit a “forbidden land.” It has always been my dream to visit Cuba and I really want to make it there before it turns into another Punta Cana, one devoid of any true Cuba uniqueness but instead is just an all-inclusive playground for visiting tourists where the only Spanish spoken is among the workers. And yes, many human rights violations occur in Cuba each year, but can a place like Cuba ever be compared to a country like North Korea where until roughly 2007, no Americans could visit at all and even then, any tourist nationality is watched fiercely? A country where its despotic leader drives multiple luxury cars while “his people” are starving and malnourished? Where foreign aid in the form of food is denied?

Any tourist who visits North Korea is assigned a government minder, someone who is literally at your side the entire time you are on North Korean soil. In the summer of 2013, CNN journalist Paula Hanocks wrote about her trip to the isolated Northeast Asian nation, specifically the North Korea she wasn’t meant to see. The article published on CNN’s website (you can read it in its entirety by clicking here) starts by saying:

My military minder tells me to turn my camera off, and it soon becomes clear why. The poverty I see through the bus window is not the view of North Korea the regime wants to be seen.”


It was a haunting look at a country that has been on the brink of disaster for countless years and yet somehow manages to “stay alive.” Later that year there was another account from a Swedish journalist,  Johan Nylander,  who was invited to cover an international bike race from China into North Korea. As the only Western journalist there, he was “provided with a personal guide, a car with a driver, and the promise that he was free to take any photographs he wanted.” The latter turned out to be completely untrue, (no surprise there).

“At the border, before going back to China, a group of security guards confiscated my camera and erased all images they thought were inappropriate, or did not portray the country in a favorable light.” 


In the piece on CNN, he writes how after returning to Hong Kong, a computer expert helped him to get all the erased images back, thus making it possible for the CNN article. However, someone in the comments section made an extremely valid and sobering statement. What would happen to Nylander’s North Korean guide, the man who Nylander in his article had described as “surprisingly friendly and talkative.” While it was great and all that Nylander had succeeded in “beating” the North Korean authorities by publishing photos of the country officials wouldn’t want the Western public to see, most likely his guide and his family would be the ones to suffer. Yes, people like the guide are puppets of the government, reciting government propaganda as if it were Shakespeare but what choice do they have in such a country? I can only hope that the guide was okay but it’s not as if Nylander or anyone else would ever know about his fate.

I truly think that the tourists who travel to North Korea care not a fig about the suffering of the innocent North Korean people. To them, the hermit kingdom is another notch on their “bragging belt,” the chance for them to appear “oh so cool” in the traveling world. But as I have said before, a good traveler is a well-informed one, and anyone who willingly travels to North Korea is not a “good traveler.”

North Korea as seen from the DMZ-

the closest I’ve gotten and will ever want to get until the

 ruthless and despotic “government” is no more

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  • Reply
    January 16, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    I think it is a very controversial topic you bring up. I have read other travel blogger posts on touring or their opinions. I have mixed feelings about it. I am not big into politics, but I think people who choose to go, go because of the dictatorship and want to see how it is different than democracy. I agree though that I would not travel there and do not have an interest unless I can roam about freely and safely.

    • Reply
      Julie Tulba
      January 18, 2014 at 3:09 am

      To me, I just feel that any personal visit to North Korea is a sham. I think the horrifying reports that filter out of North Korea weekly are good enough to know how the “government” there is different from an actual functioning democracy.

      I just feel that the people who travel there to “experience” North Korea are naive to know that it’s nothing but a total sham.

      But all in all-yes, very controversial 🙂

  • Reply
    January 17, 2014 at 10:23 am

    I’ve been in a few countries where I wondered am I helping the locals or adding to the governments pocket. There’s been one country I don’t think we had any right to be in (and its stable for the moment) and a few I have high on my wish list that I question going to next. I find as a general rule if you can eat local and stay local money is going into the local economy, people can eat (this is what locals told me when in the country I think we shouldn’t have been), if its a multinational/international company or government owned then the local people aren’t benefiting from it that much. Some places are obvious that you should go to, others are not.

    • Reply
      Julie Tulba
      January 18, 2014 at 3:11 am

      You piqued my curiosity-which country were you referring to?

      I know exactly what you mean where you question your wanting to visit. Cuba and Burma are two countries I would love to visit before they become just another tourist playground and yet knowing that their own people are censored and their personal freedoms, limited or non-existent, I do feel bad.

      But yes, if you know your money is going to the average worker and not the pockets of the government, it does help to ameliorate the situation.

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