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. Pingback: Joshua Spodek » What’s touring North Korea like?

  2. Pingback: North Korean strategy: increasing interaction | Joshua Spodek

  3. Pingback: Common questions about visiting North Korea, part 2 | Joshua Spodek

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