This past November, North Korea’s alleged attack on Sony’s computer systems ignited a firestorm of hype that transformed The Interview from just another Franco-Rogen buddy movie into the most anticipated film of the season. As a director at Uri Tours, one of the world’s oldest and largest providers of North Korea travel, I was obliged to see The Interview, even though the Internet had branded it a rotten tomato. True to form, the movie was replete with intercontinental shenanigans, decadent gore and obligatory rectum jokes all glimmering dimly through a narcotic haze (albeit uncharacteristically thin). Needless to say I was entertained.
For better or for worse this film will constitute many Americans’ only point of reference on North Korea outside of the occasional flare up in the news media. But unlike the film would have you believe, you don’t have to host a celebrity talk show and join a CIA assassination plot to travel to North Korea. Most people don’t realize that it’s both straightforward and legal to tour the country. In fact, over 6,000 western (non-Chinese) tourists traveled to North Korea in 2014, including almost 2,000 Americans.
Now you might be wondering why you should go to North Korea, or what you would do there anyway if you can’t go full Skylark and hobnob with Kim Jong-Un over basketball, Russian tanks and Katy Perry. But I’ve found that people go to North Korea for many different reasons. Artist Gary Simpson was able to retrieve the final specimen in his eight-year project to collect soil from all member states in the United Nations. Korean War veteran Captain Thomas Hudner returned to North Korea to find the remains of his friend and wingman Jesse Brown. Eighty-Six year old Lee Beom-Ju sought out family members he had left behind during the war. The late adventurist Eric Hill used North Korea as one of the first stops in his global odyssey. The list goes on and on. From academics to marathon enthusiasts to passengers on luxury mega-yachts, these and other North Korea travelers have one thing in common: They are all passionate about formulating a world view based primarily on personal experience rather than third-party opinion.
North Korea is one of the last places on Earth requiring all tourists to take a state sanctioned tour. If I ask you about your trip to Pyongyang, you probably won’t tell me that you met your new girlfriend at a dive bar on Changjon Street (although I have seen romances sprout up between tourists and North Korean citizens). Instead we’ll probably have shared many of the same experiences, like gazing up at the twenty-two meter statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-Il at the Mansudae Grand Monument or viewing the meticulously preserved bodies of the former leaders at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Thus, we are faced with the irony that traveling to North Korea is itself a unique act while the experience of traveling in North Korea can be quite uniform.
Despite these limitations, many tourists find their trips to North Korea transformational in one way or another. For instance, fifty year old marathoner Edward Walters cited the electrifying atmosphere of the Pyongyang Marathon as the catalyst for beating his personal best marathon time. The videos of noted traveler Stefan Krasowski became the sole documentary evidence of the latest North Korean dance trends after he serendipitously stumbled upon a slammin’ North Korean beach party. Even when nothing out of the ordinary occurs, a surprising number of tourists get misty-eyed when departing the country.
Critics of North Korea tourism, however, often point to the tightly controlled tour experience as a smokescreen that obfuscates our view of a “real” North Korea rife with widespread poverty, hunger and other human rights issues. In fact, the idea of a “real” versus “fake” North Korea was also addressed in The Interview, when Dave Skylark enters a North Korean grocery store only to discover that the fresh fruits he saw in the window were actually just props. In an act of cathartic destruction worthy of Flannery O’Connor, Skylark shatters the fake fruits along with any illusions he held about his newfound friend Kim Jong-Un.
I would argue that North Korea tourism, while focused only on certain facets of North Korean life, is no less real or fake than any other type of travel experience. North Korean citizens travel from across the country to see the same monuments that we see. They show up at the same holiday dances and in some of the same bars, stores, concert halls and parks that we frequent as tourists. North Korean life is one where individual aspirations are subordinate to the needs of the collective (perhaps less often than we may think). Thus, tourism becomes a lens through which we as westerners can actually get closer to the North Korean experience, our movements contained, our contact with others restricted, and our speech curtailed. In other words, it is precisely because we are given this tightly controlled experience that we get to see the “real” North Korea. Oh yeah, and the supermarkets in Pyongyang have actual food.
Sometimes, seeing another side of North Korean life is just a matter of getting out of the city, or having a specific purpose for being in the country. We work with plenty of non-governmental organizations like Mercy Corps, Christian Friends of Korea and Global Resource Services that travel on delegation visas to poor and troubled areas of the country in order to help improve agriculture and health conditions. With a special invitation, Dennis Rodman got to meet Kim Jung-Un himself. And even when regular tourists have special talents or interests and a genuine desire to help, they can usually be accommodated. We’ve had doctors visit hospitals to share their knowledge with North Korean medical personnel. We’ve had businessmen who are touring the country invited to discuss potential infrastructure investments in North Korea. All of this is to say that seeing the less savory parts of the country is not strictly forbidden, but is not always possible unless you travel on a longer, customized tour or have a special reason for being in the country.
Counterarguments to the “fakeness” idea aside, I think the biggest reason people are moved by their trips to North Korea is because they discover a people that they hadn’t previously acknowledged. So much of what we hear and see about North Korea is focused on the ruling regime that we sometimes forget about the 24 million people living in the country, striving to make better lives for themselves and their families. This is a blind spot not only in The Interview but also in most of the North Korea media coverage we see. Of course, it doesn’t help that the North Korean propaganda machine is prone to blurting ridiculous, eminently quotable proclamations at the most (in)opportune times. Unfortunately, the real spirit of the North Korean people gets lost in the shuffle.
In addition, we tend to underestimate North Koreans’ understanding of their relative position in the world and the impact that outside cultures have on North Koreans’ cultural self-assessment. Most North Koreans I’ve met, while not completely open about their opinions on the government, generally acknowledge their country’s challenges. However, they are also quick to point out the hypocrisy of other countries’ criticisms, especially when such criticisms come from the United States, which dropped more bombs on Korea during the Korean War than in the entire Pacific theater during World War II. That doesn’t mean that they eschew all foreign influence. Defector Jang Se-Yul explains that illicit South Korean dramas exposed him to the quality of life enjoyed by his counterparts in the south. Korea scholar Andrei Langkov, analogizing his own experience growing up in the Soviet Union, posits that contact with western cultures might lead North Koreans to come to “conclusions that var[y] greatly from the official propaganda.”
But before we over indulge in an anthropological study of North Koreans’ otherness we must remember as travelers that we grow only by letting our experiences color us, by opening up and learning from the people we meet. Thus, even in this small sliver of North Korean society, when you hear a docent at the Korean War Museum take pains to explain to American tourists that North Koreans “hate American policy but love American people” or when you see your guides hold the arm of an elderly tourist for the duration of an extended hike or when a North Korean acquaintance illegally lets you use his phone to call a member of your staff to locate your tour group, we are exposed to North Koreans’ generous humanity. And, if you happen to return more than once, you begin to understand that your friends in North Korea are keenly aware of their country’s challenges but have a great pride in their people. You become intimately acquainted with the warm, rugged disposition of everyday North Koreans fighting to thrive despite a history marked by persistent tragedy.
So if the value of exploration is proportional to the amount by which it expands our perspective, we can see why the North Korean experience is transformational. Traveling to North Korea removes our focus from a simple caricature of the North Korean politic and steadies our gaze instead on the hearts and minds of the actual people living there. We go from knowing nearly nothing about an entire people and culture to leaving with newfound friends. That, of course, is the essence of travel.