This has been my most difficult blog to write so far. I really want to get my points across eloquently but I fear I will end up rambling like my usual self when I get overly passionate about a subject.
Since the incredibly sad and tragic death of Otto Warmbier– who was arrested in North Korea on the same day that I was leaving the country (I was not in his tour group and did not meet him)- I have re-evaluated my decision to travel to the country. However, after some thought, I realised that I still stand by my reasons for visiting North Korea.
My intentions for going were always good and I have never meant to cause any offence or harm.
I had been fascinated by North Korea since I was a young teenager. I heard about a country that was extremely cut off from the outside world and it intrigued me.
As I got older my fascination grew and I would read articles about the ‘Hermit Kingdom’ that were hard to believe! I wanted to get a glimpse into the country for myself as I think it is important to not take every word you read in the media as truth.
So in 2015 I decided to go (with my boyfriend Josh, who like me had an interest in the country)- and not just go for a day tour of Pyongyang- I wanted to see as much of the country as possible in the time frame and budget I had.
I never treated the trip as a holiday- I was going to learn and come away with an experience that few others had. I am very aware that I am highly privileged to even have the opportunity to travel in the first place let alone travel to a country like North Korea.
I think it is important not to judge the local peple of North Korea and paint them with the same brush as the government. They are regular people like you and I at the end of the day, they have families, hopes and ambitions. They cannot help that they were born under this regime. They are not crazy to believe that Kim Jong Un is the perfect leader- they just do not know otherwise and have been fed lies.
By the end of our trip, our guides became more than just guides- they were our friends (sounds cheesy but it’s true). Despite living very different lives we realised we did have some things in common. I spoke to Mrs Ha about her daughter and some stories reminded me of my own mother and I.
”But you only see what the government wants you to see!” – Of course I was aware beforehand that the itineraries are restricted and they would not take me anywhere they thought might make the country look bad. But that doesn’t mean that everything you see is totally fake. We went to a few places that were full of locals and there is no way that it was all a set up just for two British tourists! Kim Il Sung Square on new years eve for example, and the bowling alley in Pyongyang. I’m not denying that there is some terrible poverty being hidden from us but to say absolutely none of what we saw was real would be a lie.
”You can’t interact with any locals!”- Not true. We interacted with many locals and on a few occaisons I did randomly approach people in the street (I got the guide to translate for me). We played catch with a bunch of youths in the square on new years eve, I asked some young girls for a photograph of them rollerskating in Pyongyang and in the supermarket we tried our best to communicate in a friendly way with a mother and her young daughter who was waving and smiling at us. Yes, in other countries you get far more interaction with the locals but at least this was something! Some people may have never even seen a westerner before. Those who have not been seem to think I did not talk to a single soul apart from my guides. I was there- this was not the case.
Is it right to travel to North Korea?
I know there are many who would disagree with me and think it is wrong to travel to North Korea. It’s perfectly okay to not want to visit yourself. However, I think it is a great step in the right direction that the country does open its doors to visitors.
Yes, they only let you see certain areas but it is not restricted to only Pyongyang. As you can see if you read on in my blog, I went to quite a few locations – city and countryside- and whilst on the road I was able to see glimpses of poverty and the hard working life of many that live there. It is interesting that you are not allowed to take photos from the minibus and I think this is why.
We, as tourists, are the local people’s one link to the outside world and I think it’s important to maintain that. I understand that most of the Koreans we speak to will be the elite few but surely it’s still important to form good impressions with them.
I am not denying that there are some horrendous things happening within the country and like I said before, the people (rich or poor) have no freedom. I did not go because I support the regime. But by writing about my trip – many people have read this and learnt about the country (it is incredible how many people I spoke to who couldn’t even tell you the difference between North and South Korea).
The money North Korea earns from tourism is rather small and not enough to prop up the regime. In fact, Kim Jong Un shut off all tourism for many months during the ebola outbreak. He can cut off tourism again any time he wants. In this case, the money made from tourists cannot be that significant. Sadly, so many countries around the globe have corrupt governments and human rights violations so if you are unwilling to travel to countries based on this, that’s fine- but there are a LOT of countries you will no longer be able to travel to.
I also think tourism helps the Korean people form a more positive outlook on other cultures. They are taught to believe that the west is the enemy- yet we come and show friendship, positivity and a willingness to learn about their culture which they really appreciate. The North Korean people I met were incredibly friendly, polite and curious to know more about our lives outside of the DPRK. They are innocent people trapped under a harsh dictatorship.
I have read arguments for and against travel to North Korea written by those who have defected. It is a subject people will always be divided on but maybe in years to come things will improve for the people of DPRK and it will be much more accepted to visit.
I am not suggesting everyone should book a trip right now. I think you have to go with the right intentions. My intention was to give those with no clue about North Korea a brief insight into the country (making them aware that some of the stuff I saw was questionable). I am hoping you can understand my reasoning for going even if you do not totally agree with me.