Following up from yesterday’s common questions about visiting North Korea, part 1…
Is it legal to go to North Korea?
I wrote more here, “How to get to North Korea and if you can legally“, but basically, with proper paperwork Americans can legally tour North Korea, according to the State Department, but it warns you you’re taking serious risks, you just have no legal recourse from the U.S. government because the two countries have no diplomatic relations.
Aren’t you supporting a repressive regime?
I wrote at length my take on the ethics of visiting North Korea.
Briefly, I know of no popular tourist destination where tourism hasn’t strongly affected the indigenous culture. I believe touring North Korea will increase its trade with the rest of the world and open it up.
Many people have tried many solutions, including aid, sanctions, diplomacy, and military action. None have decreased the regime’s hold. Doing nothing sustains it as well. If you have a better plan, please let me know.
Did you get to meet people there?
The government-appointed guides mediate all interactions, limiting our interactions to wordless observation of people not trained by the government, with three exceptions.
First, the Ultimate Frisbee tournament led to tons of interaction, competition, and play with North Koreans transcending language and cultural barriers. Moreover the North Koreans who played with us, not just in the tournament but throwing discs with us on the sidelines, showed much more and different emotions than we saw otherwise.
Second, at a Mass Dance we danced with some girls. The language barriers remained, but dancing is dancing and there’s no such thing as dancing too much. We smiled and touched. I spun them around. Everybody smiled a lot.
Third, we went to an amusement park with roller-coasters and other rides filled with regular Pyongyang residents. We didn’t get to talk much, but interacted in close quarters. One North Korean guy hit on Ingrid, perhaps not knowing her boyfriend wrote the book on game. (Oh yeah, rides at the amusement park cost extra, but I think admission was free. On the other hand, some policy made it so that we didn’t have to wait in lines. I suspect they charged us more and wanted us satisfied. It felt weird bypassing all those lines unable to apologize).
As for the government-trained guides, in a week-long trip with many hours spent in close quarters on the bus, we had plenty of opportunity to talk to them. They are people too, not just government-trained automatons, so we learned a lot from them. I hope they learned a lot from us too.
Is it dangerous? What are the risks?
I believe Koryo began bringing tourists to North Korea nineteen years ago and has had no problems with tourists. I saw no risk of crime, like being mugged.
As far as I could tell, the North Korean government wants hard currency so they welcome people paying in dollars, euros, and rmb.
They don’t want certain information crossing their border, so you could get yourself into trouble by breaking their rules — like being a journalist without telling them, bringing in prohibited items like a cell phone, or leaving your group.
The consequences of breaking their rules are high, especially for Americans. Since the U.S. has no formal diplomatic relations with North Korea they can punish you arbitrarily.
Are people starving there? Did you see prison camps?
Our tour was restricted to small areas of the country. I saw no evidence of starvation or prison camps, but I wouldn’t expect the government would let me. I put links to many other sources of information on such things in this bibliography.
Others in my group who had researched more about North Korea before going pointed out signs in North Koreans of malnutrition — things like average height, hair growth, and so on. Not a medical doctor, I couldn’t tell.
Uncommon question: should I go?
Almost nobody asks me if they should go. I’ll answer anyway.
I highly recommend visiting, ideally when you can see an Arirang Mass Game, all the more so during an Ultimate Frisbee tournament, even though you missed the first one there ever.
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.
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