It is an historic moment. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un has crossed over the border into the South. As the DPRK suspends nuclear and missile tests and joins the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, for talks of peace, an atmosphere of cautious optimism has arisen from adversaries and experts alike.
But should tourists be considering a reciprocal journey of their own into this troubled country, asks Mercedes Hutton, writer for the South China Morning Post.
Technically still at war with the South, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has existed in almost complete isolation since its inception in 1948, and remains an enigma as well as a risky tourist destination – last September, the United States announced a ban on its citizens travelling to the country following the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who died days after being released from detention in North Korea. On April 22, 32 Chinese tourists died in a coach accident while travelling on the Reunification Highway, which connects the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, with the southern city of Kaesong.
Nevertheless, an estimated 5,000 Western tourists, and considerably more Chinese, continue to make the trip each year. China's tourism authority does not publish figures for nationals visiting North Korea, although a report compiled by a South Korean think tank, the Korea Maritime Institute, found that more than 230,000 Chinese tourists made the trip in 2012, and more recent information suggests that numbers have risen dramatically. According to the state-owned China News Service, the number of Chinese visitors travelling from the border town of Dandong into the DPRK rose to 580,000 in the second half of 2016.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Independent travel is out of the question. Instead, visitors must join an authorised tour, carefully designed to showcase the DPRK in its best light. Although, according to British-owned, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which is responsible for taking 2,000 people to the hermit kingdom annually, these visits can be tweaked to suit the interests of the traveller, whether those lie in architecture, education or even fishing.
North Korea itself aims to cement its spot on the tourist trail, hoping to attract 2 million visitors by 2020. However, debate rages over the ethics involved with such an expedition, and whether travellers stepping foot in the DPRK are, in fact, giving their tacit support to a dictatorial regime.
Tour providers assert otherwise, insisting that tourism to North Korea does not prop up the government, but instead goes some way towards undoing its message that all Westerners are murderous, rapacious imperialists.
Arguments against visiting the DPRK state that there is no avoiding the fact that some of the money generated from tourism ultimately goes towards funding the regime and its endeavours, which, of course, include its nuclear programme. Many also note that the meticulously manicured glimpse offered to outsiders does little to expose what life is really like for North Koreans.
For most, the question of whether it is ethically or morally right to visit North Korea is a circular one, and is perhaps as complicated as the responses a trip evokes. Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, says tourists come away from time spent in the country having experienced a complex mix of emotions that span surprise, frustration, fun, sadness and more. The Guardian journalist Peter Walker was a little more succinct when he declared, "It's the most depressing place I've ever been."