Why Westerners Avoid Visiting North Korea

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
nk-tourists-2011.jpg Chinese tourists visit a giant portrait of Kim Il Sung at at a square in Rason, Aug. 29, 2011.

The North Korean government has a lot of interest these days in promoting foreign tourism and vehicles full of foreign tourists can occasionally be seen driving around Pyongyang. North Koreans often say that they have seen many foreigners in Pyongyang, but this is because they are unaware of the tourist business in other countries. The number of foreign tourists in North Korea reaches about 250,000 annually. The vast majority (95 percent) of tourists are Chinese citizens, with only about 10,000 tourists from various countries, including Russia.  The number of Western tourists visiting the country is very small compared to other countries.

So, why do tourists head to North Korea? There are major differences here between Chinese and Westerners. Most Chinese are from the three Chinese provinces in the northeast (sometimes referred to as Manchuria). The Chinese economy has been improving greatly over the past decade or so, and many Chinese have more money to spare for travel. Most wealthy Chinese take trips to Southeast Asia or Europe.

Less well-off Chinese living in the northeast provinces, however, believe that heading to North Korea is a good, inexpensive option. To them, North Korea is a place they have wanted to go for a long time but have been unable to.

Difficult place to travel

In contrast, Westerners view North Korea as a very difficult place to travel. It costs between 1,000 to 1,400 Euros for a four-day, five-night stay in the country. Appearances aside, this is not a small sum of money to people in wealthy Western countries.

Some Western visitors to North Korea go there because they are interested in the country’s political system. An even smaller number are curious of or even have sympathy for the North Korean government. The large majority of Western visitors, however, are very critical of North Korea’s political and social systems. They believe that North Korea is the last remaining Stalinist communist dictatorship in the world and that its people live under the world’s harshest conditions. They tend to believe whatever the international media says about North Korea.

Of course, Western visitors visiting North Korea confirm that such outside criticism of North Korea is in fact true. North Korea’s leaders have put in place various measures to watch over and control foreign visitors; measures which would be unthinkable in other countries. Tourists are not allowed to leave their hotels freely, take whatever pictures they want, or visit jangmadang (North Korean markets) and other poorer areas of the country. They are constantly watched over by “guides.”

Political sightseeing

The places they visit are also highly political in nature. They constantly hear about the greatness of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il while visiting numerous famous sites. These sites include massive statues of the two leaders, the Juche (self-reliance) Ideological Tower that glorifies the Juche Ideology, and the "triumphal arch” erected to glamorize Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla days. Foreigners are not surprised by such outwardly politicized tourist attractions; they think that such ideological education and strict surveillance are simply characteristic of a dictatorship like North Korea.

Alas, there will always be a shortage of people who pay premium price to be chaperoned around a dictatorship while listening to ridiculous political propaganda. This has given North Korea the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most avoided countries among tourists.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.

Translated by Robert Lauler.

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