SEATTLE — There is no country in the world about which so little is known as North Korea. The communist state is extremely withdrawn, with China as its only ally. Most of what is known about conditions in Kim Jong-un’s society comes from the first-hand accounts of escapees and defectors.
The stories of life in North Korea are inhumane and disturbing, they feature mass starvation, executions and concentration camps. It is not a place many would ever want to visit, but what if someone did want to travel to North Korea? How would they go about it?
The first thing people should know is that North Korea does allow tourists, though tourism is highly restricted. The only legal way into the country is to book a stay with one of the country’s tour groups. Americans, however, are frequently denied. People who have been a tourist in North Korea say that guests are guarded constantly, hotel rooms are bugged, the only sites to which tour groups are brought are for propaganda purposes and the country is seemingly a ghost town.
Although cell phones and cameras are allowed in, phones will not have service and pictures can only be taken of approved landmarks. Absolutely no journalists are granted access into the country and there is no chance for tourists to see how the average North Korean lives. In order to actually see how people live one would have to find an illegal way across the border.
For Shane Smith of Vice, getting into North Korea was a goal he refused to give up on. After being denied access through the press’ multiple embassies, Smith and his team were told by North Korean refugees to go to Shenyang in China and bribe the consulates there to take them across the border. After traveling to Shenyang and giving their passports and money to a consulate, they stayed in a hotel run by North Koreans and were awakened at 6am with loud knocking on the door and a voice that informed them they had to go now. Smith and the people he traveled with soon realized that not everyone who had come to Shenyang looking for a visa into North Korea got one; there were no clear reasons as to why certain people were not selected.
The members of Vice have declared that they have no desire to return to North Korea, but the same cannot be said for six South Koreans who crossed the Chinese-North Korean border between the years 2009 and 2012 searching for a “better life.” The group had fallen prey to North Korean propaganda and believed that the communist government there would take care of them. They were able to cross the border by swimming across (and when the water was frozen, walking across) the river that separates one country from the other. It is extremely rare for South Koreans, or people of any nationality, to attempt to sneak into North Korea.
From what information the world has been able to gather about the country, it is approximated that 24.7 million people live in poverty without proper nourishment. According to defectors, everyday items like ballpoint pens are considered luxurious. The concept of free time is almost unheard of and people who are caught watching smuggled DVDs of Hollywood movies are sent to labor camps. The only form of worship that is allowed in the country is the worship of the “eternal president” Kim Il-sung. Food and clothing are rationed by the government and the government tells the people that they are lucky to live in North Korea because the rest of the world is suffering through an apocalypse.
While many outsiders are intrigued by the idea of visiting the infamous isolated nation, tourism in North Korea only serves as another form of propaganda. The state-appointed tour guides make a show of proving to tourists that North Korea has plenty of food, the Western world is evil and the dear leaders have created the strongest, most prosperous nation on the planet. Additionally, while in most countries tourism serves to bolster the economy, in North Korea, the vast majority of proceeds go directly to Kim Jong-un, very little of this trickles down to his starving subjects.
– Taylor Lovett