Most people would rather spend their holidays relaxing on a beach in the Mediterranean than embarking on a highly restricted tour of one of the most tightly controlled dictatorships in the world. The North Korean government, however, wants to change all that.
Hoping to improve its international reputation, The Telegraph reported in June that the North Korean government aims to increase its intake of tourists from 10,000 a year to two million by 2020. This push to welcome tourists seems sudden and uncharacteristic of a country that has guarded its secrets from the rest of the world for decades.
Is the change born of a desire to capitalise on foreigners’ fascination with the communist country, to reap the lucrative benefits of a thus far untapped tourism industry? Or is there a real desire within the North Korean government to change the country’s bad image problems in the foreign press and politics? Should we, as westerners and potential tourists, accept the offered hand of North Korea – if only in an effort to learn more about the country? Or should we be morally opposed to giving our travel money to a country which has yet to answer for its alleged human rights violations?
The British Government’s official advice on traveling to North Korea seems to be ‘just don’t.’ Gov.uk advises potential tourists to inform the British Embassy before they travel there and warns of the dangers of exploring the country without a guide The restricted access and tightly controlled tours do not make the best advertisement for holidaying in the DPRK.
“Should we be morally opposed to giving our travel money to a country which has yet to answer for its alleged human rights violations?”
The issue, however, does not boil down to fun family holidays and good photo opportunities. Though North Korea does boast some picturesque coastlines. Ultimately, it’s about whether the advantages of breaking down the political and cultural barriers between North Korea and the rest of the world outweigh the moral implications of offering support to an oppressive political regime.
David Heather, who recently set up an art exhibition inside the North Korean Embassy in London, told The Guardian that westerners are far quicker to judge the North Korean government than take stock of their own country’s human rights violations. He values the artistic and social advantages of increasing the flow of information coming out of North Korea, suggesting that black-and-white politics is not the only lens through which to view the country.
Heather has a point. It is all too easy to hurl (mostly justified) accusations of human rights abuses at North Korea, whose political landscape and social customs seem as far removed from western culture as it is possible to be. It is far harder, however, to recognise the ways in which human rights violations and abuses of power manifest around us in our supposedly progressive, democratic society.
“Dismissing the country as a backwards dystopia is not going to improve international relations or the lives of everyday people living there”
No one is arguing that the North Korean government does not have a lot to answer for in terms of crimes against humanity (to get a rough idea, take a look at one ex-prisoners drawings of the injustices he suffered. But dismissing the country as a backwards dystopia is not going to improve international relations or the lives of everyday people living there.
Similarly, by dissociating the country and its customs so drastically from our own lives we perpetuate a narrative of good guys vs bad guys, with North Korea firmly established as the latter. Such a mind-set allows westerners to turn a blind eye to the morally questionable things we see in our own governments (for example, the lack of support and compassion we’ve seen for Syrian refugees in recent weeks) because, elsewhere, governments are so much worse. This is neither conducive to enacting change at home or abroad.
Isolationism is definitely not supported by Alessandro Ford, who became the first western exchange student to spend a semester at Kim-Il Sung University. His personal stance was best articulated in a comment he wrote below the article published about him in The Guardian; “communicating with them is the only way to help these people. Through communication and cultural exchanges, be they students, athletes or politicians, the country will slowly open up to the outside world”. The reality of political isolation is that North Koreans will have little to no access to both information and aid from the outside world.
“When considering the advantages of a relationship with North Korea, we must not confuse our desire to spread democracy with cultural exceptionalism”
The North Korean government has often justified the country’s self-imposed isolation by instilling a fear of American imperialism into its citizens. Western ideology has historically been imposed on the native people of a colonised country at the expense of their pre-existing cultural practises and traditions. When considering the advantages of a relationship with North Korea, we must not confuse our desire to spread democracy with cultural exceptionalism.
Engaging in cultural exchanges in educational, political, and professional capacities is a progressive approach to relations with the DPRK. Journeying there is not declaring support for the country, nor a desire to experience it for fun, but it can provide an invaluable educational opportunity – not only for westerners, but for the people living under Kim Jong-Un’s regime.
With one arm stretched open to greet tourists, the still other holding its own people firmly in place, North Korea is slowly emerging from its mythological status in the western imagination and, tentatively, letting outsiders peer beyond the shroud of mystery that has encased it for years. We should embrace the opportunity to tear down cultural barriers, even if it means occasionally swapping a relaxing beach holiday for a daunting yet invaluable educational experience.