Useful Idiots: Tourism In North Korea

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Author: David Anderson / Far East / Foreign Affairs / Published by: Forbes

For many years tourism to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was almost impossible for Americans. Now it isn’t, but should one go? Stalin called western sympathizers and visitors in the 1950s “useful idiots” who believed Soviet propaganda while he killed tens of millions. A similar dynamic exists in northeast Asia today.

Travel agencies profiting from tourism there use the argument that grassroots connections and money in the economy are overall positives. This argument falls flat on both counts, however, because all funds go entirely to the government, and only interpersonal connections a foreigner can make are contrived and expertly acted. Nevertheless North Korea has become a trendy destination for “intrepid” tourists seeking an exotic passport stamp to show their friends, naïve do-gooders, Christians and eccentrics.

Firstly, all commerce a tourist can access is government-controlled, and all tourist dollars pay for the military, secret police and nuclear program. To blithely amble through a human rights hell is to be actively complicit with probably the worst regime in the last century. Life for North Koreans is unimaginably hard. Daily torments include shortages of just about everything, electricity included, and a climate of state terror where freedom of thought and speech are extinct. After 70 years, if a citizenry has never even heard of the Beatles or baseball, and they honestly believe the rest of the world worships their Kims as Gods, they are brainwashed.

Would a government tour of Germany in 1939 have been “ethical?”

Their misery goes right down to the smallest detail: Those showy shiny white apartment blocks for the elite on every tourist itinerary have elevators but, without electricity, the residents must climb up to 40 floors to their unheated apartments. Windows are hard to get, apartments don’t come with windows or floors in the Peoples’ Paradise, so many use plastic sheeting instead. Temperatures are routinely sub-zero for those 1%-ers who are probably shivering in clothes of “Vinylon,” DPRK’s homegrown contribution to textile high-tech, a kind of low-rent synthetic fiber similar to vinyl. The hardships go on and on.

If (by definition) wealthy Westerners checks their ethics at the departure point and visit, what they see there is as fake as Disneyland and hazardous. Tourists take in Potemkin Village-style sightseeing of Stalinist monstrosities, eat huge feasts in the land of the starving, and are escorted by beautiful and beautifully programmed tour guides: minders. All this for $500 a day, or several years’ salary for, say, a conscripted concentration camp guard. He’s there—in the frozen wastes tourists don’t see—to watch the electric fences in camps the size of Washington D.C., and shoot escapees whose felonies were often merely to have listened to a South Korean song.

If a Western tourist messes up, that cute tour guide could well see his or her family sent to the Kwanliso: camps. For free people, to visit DPRK is to subsidize a system where citizens are unjustly imprisoned, starved, raped, force-aborted and publicly shot. To contextualize this, knowing what we know now, would a government tour of Germany in 1939 be “ethical”? Apparently state sponsored tours of the USSR were ethical—before the world knew of Stalin’s horrors. That was then; today there is no excuse for ignorance.

Our Department of State abhors Americans visiting for good reason. The DPRK enjoys arresting Americans on a whim for phony charges, using them as pawns for diplomatic concessions, international attention and shakedowns. From the headlines in the past few years: Otto Wambier, 22, got 15 years hard labor for the drunken prank of stealing a political poster from a hotel. Pastor Kenneth Bae was released early from his 15-year sentence after intervention by the Obama Administration. Among other hapless Americans running afoul of the law in ”The People’s Paradise,” young Matthew Miller tore up his visa at Pyongyang Airport, asked for political asylum, and ended up sentenced to six years “forced labor” in the clink. A few dismantled souls even tried to swim there as North Korean tourism seems to attract eccentrics.

From the outside the DPRK is hard for anybody in the free world to wrap their minds around. We tend to think of politics in the realm of the political, which makes sense surely, but in the DPRK politics is a religion, a cult, a “Cargo Cult armed with nuclear weapons,” as Sam Harris says. The three-generation Trinity of Kims: Great Leader, Dear Leader and “Fatty 3rd,” as the Chinese call Jong Un, occupy the same head-space as Jesus, Mohammed or Bieber do to those outside Kim-land. It seems at first blush Fatty 3rd had his older brother assassinated in a Malaysian airport just last month.

Everybody a tourist encounters is complicit

One need not physically visit and thus financially support DPRK to “see” a nation which is perhaps the best-suited for armchair tourism. Dozens of tourists’ weblogs and Youtube videos are available, and they’re almost all identical; shunted around to the same sites, staying at one hotel, eating the same dishes at the same buffets in the same restaurants. Still in one’s armchair there is a google.earth cartographic overlay which provides more solid “intel” than most past U.S. presidents had access to.

As for meeting the “real” Koreans, forget it. Everybody a tourist encounters is complicit. Residence in Pyongyang is for their ideological 1%-ers only, and even they aren’t allowed to meaningfully interact with foreigners. Unless the tourist speaks Korean, they can’t interact at all. For Westerners a trip there finances human misery on a national scale, granting little more than an expensive and prestigious passport stamp for “Useful Idiots” whose arrogance outweighs their ethics.


Originally Published:  6th March, 2017

Published on:   Forbes [original post]

Photo Credit:   Calflier001 .  Oct 20, 2012:  King Long Bus in Pyongyang-Korea Intl Tour Company, DPRK   [link]

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