Questioning the Question about the Ethics of Visiting North Korea

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

A couple of months ago, I got an email newsletter with the headline “You’re Invited … Adventure in North Korea”.

Adventure in WHERE?

The email did say North Korea. It’s not everyday that you open your inbox and see an invitation to travel to North Korea. It’s not the most coveted destinations in the world, and for good reasons; visits to the country by foreigners are highly controlled by the government, and from what I can tell, it’s quite expensive to make such an orchestrated visit.

The newsletter went on to describe this ‘special’ trip, with “exclusive space for 24” travelers (who will need to pay $8,995 each + airfare), as a “momentous” trip offering a “rare glimpse into another world”. Having been previously exposed to various discussions about the merits of tourism boycotts in destinations where governments abuse their powers and violate human rights, my first reaction to this email was to question the ethics of this adventure company, and their not mentioning anything about the controversial (to say the least) nature of the North Korean government’s obsessive control over their citizens’ lives – food, information, resources, access to opportunities, and even their emotions, feelings and beliefs.

Part of the reason this email invitation to North Korea (for $8,995 each + airfare) was shocking to me was its (intentional or otherwise) omission of the ‘elephant in the room’; the question about whether the act of promoting such a trip itself is ignorant at best, and possibly even contributing to the ongoing oppression and human rights violations against the people of North Korea.

I was confused. Did I miss something? Last I heard, North Korea was still the same old oppressive resume controlled by corrupt and paranoid self-appointed political and military elites. Why would anyone want to pay $8,995 each + airfare to see such a place, at the risk of aiding those corrupt and paranoid elites and feeding the power-hungry ruling class with the proof that the rest of the world looks away as they continue to abuse their power?

As any curious information-seeker would, I turned to Google and searched for “is it ethical to travel to North Korea?” And I came across these blog posts offering perspectives, which I found are very helpful, on why and why not to go.

… I have only marginally experienced the cruelty of the notoriously silent government that starves its nation in order to put on a “good” face to the outside world. My grandfather, being from the north and experiencing the Korean War firsthand, has vetoed this new opportunity to go back to the north, in order to stop profiting the government that will most likely not spend those tourist dollars in better infrastructure for the general population. But one acquaintance from university (who now lives in China) tweeted excitedly that she was planning a trip to North Korea. Having my grandfather’s pleas still echoing in my ears, I felt passionate about telling her to not go. She replied by saying that she too felt conflicted, but that she felt that in those situations it was always better to see things firsthand to know. But is it?
– from “On the ethics of travelling, and the privilege of mobility” (June 21, 2010) by Rosel Kim / What are Years?

… I completely agree with why one should not go. I also agree with those who say that some foreign presence in North Korea, however tightly controlled, is better than no foreign presence at all. After all, visitors to North Korea often bring news out of it (some of my favorite DPRK reports: undercover work by Mark MacKinnon and Sean Gallagher). But I admit my desire to visit is not “ethical” in the least. I’m being selfish. Utterly, 100%, me me me. My presence in North Korea isn’t going to help anybody.
– from “Musings on visiting North Korea, and 3 ways to get closer to the hermit state” (July 10th, 2010) by Christine Tan / Shanghai Shiok

Why Are We Letting This Happen?

What each of us individually decides to think about these questions, and what we decide to do with our knowledge (and the knowledge our our ignorance) is another issue. Having been motivated to ask these questions by that email invitation to North Korea, I’ve read more blog posts and news reports in search of more information and more perspectives (as I believe there really isn’t any way to get to ‘the right answer’).

And I started reading “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West” by Blaine Harden (which is a remarkable book I highly recommend, though I must say I’m not the biggest fan of the title – I think it’s a bit too simplistic), a story of Shin Dong-hyuk, the first and only person born in a North Korean political prison camp to have escaped.

One of the things I’ve learned through my little online investigation and from Harden’s well-researched book is that even though the existence of North Korea’s brutal labor camps is an accepted reality (indisputable proof is readily available to anyone through Google’s satellite image), many people still don’t know much about what goes on inside North Korea, how the brutal regime uses fear to control its people, and why a state like that continues (to be allowed) to exist.

While the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, offering the rare glimpse into the perspective of someone who grew up considering Camp 14 “home”, is incredibly unique, North Korea’s ongoing abuse against its own people is not at all a secret. For years, the rest of the world has had access to information, through personal accounts of those who have escaped North Korea (according to Harden, there are more than 23,000 North Koreans living in Seoul who’ve recently fled the country). The reason for our lack of awareness, it seems, is not that we don’t have access to information. It’s because we haven’t been paying attention.

No Celebrity Crusader

In 2010, The Observer reporter Carole Cadwalladr said, “…barely 1,500 people a year visit North Korea. Or, to put this in context, several thousand fewer than make it to the British Lawnmower Museum. Collectively, we know more about a strimmer once owned by Joe Pasquale than we do about the nation that last May announced it had carried out a second successful underground nuclear test.” (“Inside North Korea: the ultimate package tour“)

In “Escape from Camp 14“, Harden quotes the human rights activist Suzanne Scholte, who aptly described the hard reality of the world of human rights activism and the challenge of getting people’s attention: “Tibetans have the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, Burmese have Aung San Suu Kyi, Darfurians have Mia Farrow and George Clooney. North Koreans have no one like that.”

It’s not easy to support a cause without feeling that change is possible, especially given how hard it seems to influence political will of the international community to really deal with North Korea. But I think it’s true that the more people learn about Shin Dong-hyuk and about people like Suzanne Scholte who are working tirelessly to help raise awareness, the more likely it will be for any change to happen. Knowledge is not the only answer, but by promoting knowledge and by refusing to look away, we may eventually be able to give a glimmer of hope for a better future of the people of North Korea.

More about “Escape from Camp 14

More about Suzanne Scholte

Suzanne Scholte is chairman and founding member of the North Korea Freedom Coalition, an organization of over 65 nongovernmental organizations and individuals from around the world promoting the freedom, human rights and dignity of the North Korean people.

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