The Ethics of Visiting North Korea

October 9, 2011 by Joshua
in Freedom, NorthKorea

Continuing writing about my North Korea trip

If you read this blog regularly you know I don’t find value in people telling others what they should consider right or wrong, which ethics discussions usually do. I try to avoid using judgmental or evaluative language except when the criteria for evaluating are clear. Talk about visiting North Korea and you’ll find people want to talk about the rightness or wrongness of going.

I can’t say what’s right or wrong for anyone else, but I can share how I worked things out for myself. If that helps you, I’m glad. If not, feel free to share your disagreement. I might learn something.

The North Korean government presents itself as the best in the world. The rest of the world, as far as I know, feels evidence overwhelmingly shows the North Korean government abuses and tortures its citizens, contributes significantly to its people starving, deprives them of freedoms the rest of the world considers basic human rights, shoots missiles without provocation into South Korea and Japan, kidnaps people from other countries, and spends fortunes to develop nuclear weapons while its people starve and its leaders feast. I have no firsthand information in any direction.

If you tour North Korea, some of your money will go to the government. Does that mean you will support the government and activities you don’t want to? What are the effects of visiting and spending money there? What can you do by going that you can’t otherwise?

First, I won’t pretend no problems exist there, though, as you might expect, they didn’t let us see any big ones. A later post will include a short bibliography for those interested to read more about human rights, famines, and the sides of North Korea North Korea doesn’t show.

Second, I don’t intend to write about politics or human rights in this blog. By no means do I mean to imply they aren’t important. Nor that I don’t want to help improve those areas. Nor do I want anyone else to ignore or remain complacent on what they consider important to them.

But you can’t do everything at once. If you feel you have to fix every problem in the world before doing anything else, you’ll never do anything. In visiting North Korea I believe you do a lot more when you visit than give money to the government. You also interact with the people, learn about them, and let them learn about you.

My primary perspective on answering these questions are the same I have on any visit: how will my presence impact the place? For example, as much as I’d love to take a safari in Africa, I don’t see how I could without contributing to ruining the place. I’ve heard of eco-tourism, but I have little faith in it preserving such places. As a result, I doubt I will ever do a safari in Africa. Meanwhile, visiting a place as popular as, say, Paris, hardly affects the place, Tourists long ago made it a tourist haven.

I can’t think of any popular tourist place that hasn’t been turned into a tourist haven. Tourism transforms places into places tourists go — as in easy to get to, easy to leave, with open communication, and so on. For all the reasons I don’t want to visit Africa’s wilderness, I believe tourism can ruin North Korea’s status quo. Unlike Africa’s wilderness, I don’t mind if tourism ruins North Korea’s status quo.

Beyond ruining the status quo, my group and I believed one-on-one meetings and communication would help increase mutual understanding and communication more than anything else — in particular, more than maintaining the status quo. Seeing Americans are regular people, we believe, will help change their perspectives of us and undermine stories to the contrary more effectively than anything else. Our seeing them certainly changed our perception of them and revealed many misconceptions.

Of course, we can’t quantify and compare the relative effects of going or not going. You have to make your assumptions and go with your beliefs. There is room for disagreement.

To those who disagree, I offer two points. One is to ask you what alternatives do you suggest? I point out that for decades people have tried diplomacy, military actions, sanctions, aid, and any other efforts to influence the North Korean power structure. None worked.

The second point is to review my later posts and see what effect we had on the place. I put to you that we did affect things, increasing trade and understanding between cultures.

You have to decide for yourself what is right for you, but I found visiting fit with what I believed was right.

Tomorrow: a bibliography and overview of what I’ll write about

EDIT: I included much of this post (edited and polished) in my ebook, Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country. I wrote the book to help increase understanding, communication, and freedom.

Joshua Spodek Understanding North Korea cover

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7 responses on “The Ethics of Visiting North Korea

  1. Ok, so saw the link from RSD and clicked it and read. Seems that you’re using some circular logic to justify visiting NK. You say that the reason you won’t safari is because it will impact Africa’s wilderness and then use that argument to justify visiting N. Korea.

    I’m not arguing one way or the other, but in order for you to make this argument, you need to at least make a case why eco-tourism can’t work. Is there no way that eco-tourism can succeed? Can providing limited access and impact to wild areas while charging heavily for that access help maintain that wild space? That perhaps the small negative impact of limited human interactions with the wild is outweighed by the monetary benefits and far better than the alternative (uncontrolled tourism).

    Otherwise, who’s to say that, like eco-tourism helps maintain the African savannah, tyranny-tourism (for lack of a better term) helps maintain the NK regime. You may have had some small benefit through interaction that was outweighed by the monetary benefit that helps support the NK regime.

    Anyway, I’m game for this argument – I’d just like to see a more thorough explanation of how eco-tourism can’t be beneficial.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for critically reading what I wrote. I wasn’t looking to argue or decide anything definitively, certainly not for anybody else, just to raise issues I considered relevant and point out you have to choose something. I used eco-tourism to illustrate how tourism changes places, not to justify going, simply stating “I don’t mind if tourism ruins North Korea’s status quo.”

      I believe you have to choose for yourself what is right for you: “Of course, we can’t quantify and compare the relative effects of going or not going. You have to make your assumptions and go with your beliefs. There is room for disagreement.”

      I believe my strongest point, if you want an argument one way or another, is to compare going with alternatives, not whether it’s right or wrong in a vacuum. Not going hasn’t weakened the regime, nor have the military, diplomacy, aid, or sanctions.

      Having gone, I believe my going improved the lives of people there and contributed more to opening communications than whatever marginal contribution my money made to maintaining the place.

  2. You have also distirted views on North Korea as many people do.
    Please take your time to search out informations why this peninsular was divided and the North should fight for its survival desperately.

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