Ethics and Realities of Visiting North Korea
by Matt Reichel
It’s no secret I’ve personally been an active participant in tourism, capacity building, education and media projects in North Korea (officially Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) over the last decade. And for the record, I’ve visited the country over 40 times (I stopped counting after that), and have close friends from North Korea. But I’ve always approached the country both critically and with a lot of empathy. I’m not unaware of the realities of life there, and this article is not meant to serve as a political opinion peace, nor is it an excuse for the abuse committed over decades by the authorities in North Korea. Rather, I want to talk about tourism, openly and honestly.
Facilitating, engaging in, or supporting tourism in North Korea is controversial; and this controversy is deserved. For one, its operations and financials are not made transparent. Secondly, it’s highly regulated and restricted. And thirdly, there are a lot of assumptions made about it, some true, others untrue, with most in a grey space. This article will address these three issues head on, as I try to use my decade of experience working in the country to shed some light on these topics.
TRANSPARENCY AND FINANCE
Let’s start with transparency. Tourism operations in North Korea are not transparent, and this deserves an article on its own. For brevity’s sake, let’s break down some basic operations. The DPRK has an State-run organization called the National Tourism Administration (NTA), and they are responsible for approving or denying permission to visit certain places, as well as crafting tourism narratives for the country’s more iconic and “holy” sites. The NTA shares the functions of a Ministry of Tourism, which North Korea does not have.
Activities outside the scope of the NTA can be organized, but they take effort and connections with other organizations, like the Ministry of Sports, Education, or Trade for example. Anyone travelling to the DPRK as a tourist, falls under the watch of the NTA, even if their sponsor is not the NTA-run Korea Inertnational Travel Company (KITC) or any of their subsidiaries (Chilbosan International Travel Company, Myohyangsan International Travel Company, or Rason International Travel Company).
“Standard” tourist programs are easy to organize, since all the activities and site visits are already pre-approved by the NTA. Exchange programs, sports trips, humanitarian visits, business visits, and other person-to-person activities are theoretically doable, even as tourists, but the approval process is convoluted, requires further connections, and must be justified. Many foreign agencies lack these connections to successfully organize these kinds of programs, and many others simply don’t have the will or marketing power to organize them. These programs increase operational risk, as tourists and North Korean citizens become more exposed to one another. However, to us anyway, this is always a risk worth taking with careful management and preparation.
While the NTA approves all tourist programs in the country, they do not have a monopoly on tourism operations in North Korea. There are a bunch of competitors, and in recent years more and more keep popping up. Each one of these competitors are run independently of one another and have different financial streams.
This being said, pricing is more or less standardized across the board, and it is dependent on the number of tourists travelling in one group, their nationality, and their desired level of accommodation. By and large, the accepted full-board price paid to North Korean tourism operators is about 80 Euros ($92 USD) per person, per night for tour groups with at least ten people. For Chinese and ASEAN citizens, pricing is a bit lower (30-40% lower). Train tickets from Dandong to Pyongyang cost about 270 RMB ($39) each way, a DPRK tourist visa costs 200-400 RMB ($29-$58) depending on where you get it, and round-trip flights from Beijing cost anywhere between 2,400-3,900 RMB ($345-$565) depending on the airline and the number of tickets you’re booking together.
Keep in mind these are the actual prices paid to North Korean partners; foreign agencies add their own mark up. Special activities, tips, and performance tickets, as well as accommodation and restaurant upgrades are all charged separately.
So where does the money go? Well that depends on who the North Korean tour operator is. Most of the funds remain with the operator to pay salaries and cover expenses. However, a significant percentage of the funds are passed along to the political organ that technically operates the travel company. In the case of KITC, its political body would be the NTA; with KIYCTC, it’s the Youth League; with KSITC its the Ministry of Sports, etc. These political groups all own many businesses, including tourism companies, as a way to finance their activities and expenses. North Korea may have a planned economy without any official private enterprises, but that does not mean everything is centrally controlled by the State. Rather the opposite is true, each one of these organizations is incredibly independent and competitive with one another.
How is the money spent? Well, just like in any other country, the tourist dollars go to hotels, restaurants, museums, and activities. Each location you visit as a tourist earns a piece of your tour fee, as the operators must pay them for each visit. You may see your guide signing into locations as you travel around the country; this is to keep track of who is visiting, how many, and how much that organization can collect from the tour operator. All of these groups employ people and need funds to operate. In this regard, revenue from tourism is quite widely spread in North Korea, and this trend is only continuing as more tourism operators keep growing domestically.
Does the money fund the “regime”? It depends on how you want to define the regime.
Do tourism dollars reach the highest levels of the North Korean political elite? No, not directly anyway. There is currently no tourism operator in North Korea run under those groups; they have their own businesses that are used for financial gain.
But does it fund the operations of some middle level political ministries? Absolutely. The National Tourism Administration, the Ministry of Sports, the Korean Taekwondo Association, the Youth League, and even several investment companies all own tourism operators and earn money from them. The reality is you cannot trace all the funds completely, but you can obtain a more nuanced idea of where it goes if you dissect the system and connections between these domestic groups.
Interested in travelling to North Korea responsibly?
Learn how on our North Korea destination page.
REGULATIONS AND ACTIVITIES
Foreign agencies design tours in partnership with their North Korean operating partners, who in turn approve the itineraries, provide guides, transport and food. Foreign agencies are responsible for marketing and sales, and many of the best ones send a representative from their company along with the group to assure safety and help guide the group alongside the North Korean guides.
Itinerary design is not very straightforward when it comes to special programs, exchanges, and activities not pre-approved by the NTA; but this does not mean it's impossible to organize. On the contrary, it takes a ton of extra effort, but it can be done, we’ve done it countless times. This push must come from the foreign agency, as they are largely responsible for suggesting new activities, pushing boundaries, and encouraging their Korean partners to try new things. Korean partners must then approach other domestic organizations within the country and balance incentives (again, largely financial) while mitigating political risk.
Many tours are designed around North Korean public holidays and events. This is because holidays offer a good chance at meeting common citizens on the street, as many open air activities are arranged for holidays, and government monitors are more relaxed during celebratory periods. Not to mention, more unique events are organized by the State. It’s not the only way to meet locals unscripted during tours, but it’s a good way for average tourists looking to speak with people authentically on the streets, in parks, and public places around the country.
Each tour group is assigned two North Korean guides— a senior guide and a junior guide. North Korean guides are not government spies; rather, many are from business and diplomatic-class families who attended the Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, Kim Il Sung University or the Pyongyang Tourism College. Most have degrees in foreign language from their respective universities. They are trained appropriate, State-approved behaviour and given official scripts, but they are real people, with their own opinions, ideas, and ways of doing things. Occasionally, managers and or representatives from the NTA are sent along with tour groups to help monitor activities as well as offer assistance throughout the tour.
Going to North Korea finances their nuclear program, military and regime.
Not really. Firstly, it’s important to remember that overseas tourism is a tiny percentage of North Korea’s GDP (about 0.3%), and secondly, the country’s tour operators who sponsor foreigners are not controlled by any military nor elite entity in North Korea. Therefore, with a total annual revenue of only around $40 million USD, tourism mostly finances the operations and functions of tourism itself (hotels, restaurants, staff, operators, transportation), and the political organizations that control travel operators (the National Tourism Administration, the Ministry of Sports, the Korean Taekwondo Association, the Youth League, and even several investment companies, etc). Indirectly, you can argue that because tourism requires the purchase of things like jet fuel, it may provide indirect funds to the airforce, but this argument is a stretch at best, and many of these things are already subsidized by other organs of the State out of necessity.
Everything is staged and it’s like visiting a potemken village.
Mostly untrue. Major tourist sites and monuments are extremely sterile and well-organized, as they honour the State Ideology and Leadership, and are pilgrimage locations for local people. There are strict scripts presented by local guides at these locations for visitors to hear the State’s version of their importance, and again, these are more targeted at local visitors than foreign tourists.
Local people are not added to any location to make it seem more full or functional to foreigners. North Korea does not have the resources to possibly do this. Local people visiting major pilgrimage sites are mostly organized into groups by their work unit, so it may seem like it’s set up, but rather, they have to be organized into groups in order to visit these sites of national importance.
Other than that, people on the streets and villages are just going about their lives and are not “placed” there to entertain foreign tourists. There are “model” communities that the government likes to promote, so many of the farms, factories, and cooperatives visited by tour groups are not representative of the average, rather, they are representative of the ideal.
You can only visit the capital.
Untrue. It is very much possible to visit other cities in North Korea, and every province except for Chagang may be included on itineraries. Locations considered open for tourism include: Pyongyang, Sinuiju, Uiju, Dongnim, Nampo, Sariwon, Anak, Kaesong, DMZ, Wonsan, Mount Kumgang, Mount Myohyang, Hamhung, Hungnam, Majon, Pujon, Mount Chilbo, Kyongsong, Chongjin, Hoeryong, Onsong, Mount Paektu, Samjiyon, Pochonbo, and the Rason Special Economic Zone. Tourist operators in Pyongyang are unable to operate touristic services in North Pyong’an, North Hamgyong and Ryanggang Provinces and the Rason SEZ, rather local subsidiaries and travel operators must be contracted to operate in these regions. Other cities and regions may be considered for touristic, humanitarian, and exchange activities on a case by case basis through application.
You will not have access to anyone or anything that is not part of your authorized tour.
Mostly untrue. While the majority of tours are preplanned and activities determined well in advance of your arrival, there is always room for sporadic and natural interactions with local people. Of course, if you speak Korean, these interactions would be a lot easier, since many guides, especially junior guides, are a bit hesitant to translate conversations in fear of getting into trouble or having to answer a lot of additional questions should they draw too much attention to themselves in public.
Interested in travelling to North Korea responsibly?
Learn how on our North Korea destination page.
Americans are not allowed to go to North Korea.
Mostly true. Americans were previously able to travel to North Korea as tourists, albeit with some restrictions. Before 2010, Americans were only able to visit for the summer Arirang Mass Games, but from 2010 to 2017 Americans were able to visit year-round. The restrictions in place previously restricted Americans’ ability to engage in direct exchange activities with DPRK citizens, have direct contact with North Korean individuals within the DPRK, and travel by train between Sinuiju and Pyongyang.
However, starting in September 2017, the US Government has since decided to restrict Americans’ ability to travel to the DPRK using a US passport (dual citizen Americans may still visit using a different passport), in the wake of several high-profile arrests of US citizens in North Korea. A special validation passport is needed for US citizens to travel to North Korea, and these are only issued in limited case-by-case bases, and certainly not for tourism. These passports are mostly issued for humanitarian and journalistic purposes: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/passports/requirements/passport-for-travel-to-north-korea.html.
Travelling to North Korea is extremely dangerous.
Not really. North Korea is not a particularly dangerous location, there is essentially no violent crime and even pickpocketing is extremely rare. However, you must be aware of local laws and customs. Every foreigner arrested or detained in North Korea broke their rules; their arrests, while unfortunate, were not arbitrary. Most crimes foreigners risk committing are political in nature— as the Kim family is held to the utmost respect and any poster, image, slogan, and book is treated as holy. Touching, standing on, imitating, or damaging any of these politically holy images or statues will certainly result in problems. Punishments may range from having to write a formal apology letter to arrest, extended detainment, and hard labour.
The second type of crime foreigners have been arrested for is proselytization. While the DPRK constitution officially allows for freedom of religion, in practice, this is not the case. Foreigners may not proselytize in any way in North Korea. While religious items like Bibles are allowed into the country for personal use, they may not be shown to any North Korean, or distributed locally for that matter. The same goes for politically sensitive materials, books, films and media.
This leads us to the third type of issue most foreigners run into— carrying sensitive media and materials into the country that are critical of the regime, or are from South Korea. All media, including books, laptops, electronic readers, magazines, etc must be declared upon arrival in in the country, and if these materials incriminate you as an individual, you can easily find yourself detained. It’s best to leave all media materials at home; it’s certainly not worth the risk of bringing it into North Korea.
The last issue foreigners have run into has been illegal entry or destruction of visa materials. Just don’t do it. If you are going to go, then go legally, with a visa, and do not tamper with your official entry documents.
Your conversations are bugged in North Korea.
Quite probably. While every location is certainly not bugged, it is safe to assume that areas where foreigners and North Koreans congregate may be bugged. This includes hotel restaurants and bars in particular.
Ethnic Koreans are not welcome in North Korea.
Untrue. Ethnic Koreans with non-Korean passports are very much welcomed in North Korea and are treated, on average, better than other foreign visitors. North Koreans will instantly find you to be more relatable, and in line with the State ideology, they want to welcome you back to the “fatherland” as part of the greater Korean nation. Ethnic Koreans have to fill out an additional declaration when applying for a North Korean visa that asks about their family history and place of birth. Koreans born in South Korea who carry non-ROK passports are allowed to travel to North Korea as tourists and do not face additional discrimination. Korean-speakers can and should speak Korean when in North Korea. You’ll find it much easier to connect with local people in a meaningful way.
You are forced to bow to statues of the North Korean leaders.
Not really. You are not forced to bow, rather, you are asked to stand there politely while your guides bow. Of course they will also encourage you to bow, as all North Koreans do, but it’s not an obligation, even though you may feel some pressure to do so.
Tourism does not help “normal” North Koreans.
This is a tough one. We’re first going to have to define “normal”, and then “help”. As touristic activities are very structured, most of the financial resources do not end up helping low income families directly. Rather, tourism largely benefits upper middle class, educated North Koreans who have found a job in the industry. In turn, these people spend the foreign currency they earn in local free markets, which then benefits working class people. In North Korea, foreign currency is king. Tourism’s impact on average citizens may indeed be limited, but even the presence of tourists has an effect on local people from all walks of life. The indirect effects of tourism may be larger in terms of impact than the direct ones.
ETHICS: SHOULD YOU VISIT NORTH KOREA? MY PERSONAL OPINION
Why do I support tourism efforts in North Korea? This is a deeply personal question, but not one I have a difficult time answering. I believe in the utmost potential of bringing people together. I believe in compassion and empathy for all, and that each person is entitled to dignity. Even taking into account all the limitations that exist with tourism in North Korea, I’ve seen progress over the last decade, I think it’s something worth pursuing. We’ve pushed to create new programs, engage more people, expand the potential of tourism each year beyond the highly regulated routes. We’ve added community based programs, classes, exchange activities and more.
I’ve met hundreds of North Koreans from all different walks of life. I’ve had the pleasure of working with athletes, students, doctors, professors, even bringing some of those students and faculty members overseas for months on end. I know propaganda is not necessarily as believed as one may assume. I know that North Korean people are perfectly capable of thinking for themselves, taking control of their own future, and living their lives with dignity. I believe that engagement offers young, ambitious, independently-thinking North Koreans a vehicle for personal growth. If gives them access to international networks and other ways of thinking. I’ve seen the impact tourism had in the Soviet block and China, and what it can mean for a future North Korea as well.
It is not a country of robot people, but a nation of people who live in difficult circumstances— circumstances that have been created over not just decades, but centuries of trauma, colonization, war, propaganda, mistrust, abuse, and politics. There are hardly blameless parties here. Tourism is small, only about 0.3% of their GDP, but it is a big step in building trust with North Koreans who are not oblivious to the outside world. And don’t ever assume they are.
I hope that tourists who decide to go to North Korea go into it with both an open and critical mind. Its a personal choice to go to North Korea, there is no universal ethical standard with regards to this question. You get to chose, and it’s my hope that this article provides some more context and transparency when it comes to making an informed decision.
I don’t travel to North Korea to have fun, party or relax; rather, I see it as a place where people are invested in learning new things and building their networks and capabilities. Therefore, I support tourism in North Korea that works to further this effort through exchange, community based activities, interaction, engagement, and learning. I see value in experiencing life, even if for just a week, under a system riddled with extreme propaganda. Likewise, I encourage any traveller going to North Korea to read, learn and engage before, during and after their trip, and not to take anything at face value.