The North Korean travel industry has been running for over 20 years now. In that timescale, thousands and thousands of people have visited the country from a variety of destinations across the world. As the industry has grown, this has included in recent years, up to 6000 or so visitors from Western countries. Incidents have been few and far between; amongst European citizens, they have been non-existent. Despite this, there has been a lingering and unfortunately strengthening narrative in Western public opinion and media that the country is not safe to visit. Given the tragic events of last year, it might not be difficult to understand why. This however, clouds the bigger picture. Due the overwhelming political and ideological biases against North Korea in Western discourses, arguments and evidence to the contrary concerning safety in the country have been persistently dismissed. Similarly, those with routine experience in visiting the country itself have also been ignored. As a result, when all the evidence is considered, the reality is very different to the way Western governments and media portray it to be. We must be prepared to think critically.
In the DPRK travel industry, there are numerous people like myself who have been to North Korea multiple times, and, will yet go to North Korea numerous more times. Running tours, I have been four times, people probably consider this unusual, yet, I know people who have been 30/50 and even 100 times. During our times visiting North Korea, we have collectively led thousands of people into the country. Most of us can honestly say that nothing has ever happened to the members of our groups, or even came close to happening for that matter. Our experiences do not point towards a state is dying to gain the opportunity to arrest or detain people, but one which tries its best, despite minimal resources, to provide hospitality, good will and a good impression towards foreigners. To put it bluntly, despite its many insecurities, North Korea is welcoming. Many North Koreans are curious about foreigners and also express appreciation for choosing to visit their country.
However, respect works both ways. As North Korea respects visitors, it also rightfully expects us to respect them. For some, especially those with strong ideological ambitions, this concept is hard to grasp. The hubris of Western thinking often refuses to accept North Korea’s culture, politics, traditions and sensitivities as legitimate in deserving any respect. Western thinking demands we should forcefully change or question North Korea, this is a poor attitude to follow when visiting. Rather, instead we must develop a sense of objectivity to understand, comprehend and thus be willing to respect the country on its own terms given we are there. Respect of course, does not mean total agreement or political affiliation, but a simple human quality and a good one to have, at that.
But degree of respect is North Korea seeking? This is the point of misunderstanding. People often engage in rash stereotypes that refusing to bow, folding a newspaper in a wrong way or taking a photo of something they shouldn’t is enough to get you in “serious trouble” and therefore North Korea is “not safe”. This is untrue. Although trivial things like this are not encouraged and will be frowned upon and corrected, they will not get you in serious trouble or anywhere near an arrest. In these incidences, the danger element of North Korea is again being massively exaggerated by Western imagination. The small minority who did get in “serious trouble” did not do simple things, but massively went out of their way to do something considered much more serious and certainly not accidental. This included ripping up a visa and trying to claim asylum in an airport, planting bibles in places despite North Korea’s clear laws not to do so and other related things. Therefore, those who do treat North Korea with respect (and not in unreasonable or extreme way, don’t be baited by the stereotypes) are fine. This is perhaps why 99.9% or so of people who have visited have never ever been in any sort of trouble.
The result is that the North Korean “danger” element is at best, a mythology. It is a mythology which is rooted in political discourses which massively misunderstand and unfairly caricature a country, often with no comprehension of its history, society, culture, traditions or political circumstances. It also is a one-dimensional mode of thought, one which ignores that tourists get into trouble and get arrested all over the world. How many people in Thailand have been arrested for insulting the king? How many tourists in Indonesia have ended up executed for drug smuggling or such? How many tourists have been arrested in Malaysia for indecency or prosecuted under anti-LGBT laws? Our Western ingrained cold war mindsets often judge North Korea more harshly than it should be when tourists have got into trouble. Although of course North Korea’s politics are indeed very different from Thailand, et all, the point is that every incident, as few as they actually are, are converted into an ideological narrative to condemn the country as a whole. The empirical reality is that something is more likely to happen to you in Paris as tourist than in North Korea.
Therefore to conclude, is North Korea dangerous to visit? No, it isn’t. I speak from experience and so do many others. Western tourists who visit North Korea are not putting themselves at risk save that they overwhelmingly go out of their own way to do something seen as sinister. Again, that’s not something simple or trivial, it has to be something in clear violation of common sense. The situation is above all very different from the way the Western media portrays it to be. When confronting these accusations, we must be prepared to drop the western “cold war” glasses and recognize that North Korea is not a monster out to get us.