North Korea is a strangely idyllic world. Pyongyang, looking like a 1960’s film depicting the future with it’s space-age skyscrapers peppered with neon lights, is filled with bikes, pastel colored buildings, and a focus on the collective goals rather than that of the individual. People are careful and avoid eye contact with foreigners at all costs, and the streets are clean with not a speck of litter visible anywhere. People are seemingly happy, immersed in pride and adoration for their country and leader, but it is only due to their constant busyness, complete ignorance of the rest of the world, and the intense regime of propaganda imposed on them daily. Locals are severely limited, having to gain travel permits to enter or exit any city in the country, and must provide rationale for any internal movement. However, things are somewhat less restricted than I previously assumed, with people out ice-skating, children exploring playgrounds, and locals even playing beer-pong with us. Resources are limited, with lack of power forcing people to carry around flashlights in order to make their way through the pitch-black streets and underground tunnels at night, and I am confident that food is much more scarce than my tour would lead me to believe. There is a vast oversupply of labor and a lack of genuine work to do so people are overworked with menial jobs to make up for the difference, rewarded with food rations instead of wages, only to be awarded actually money as a potential bonus.
There is a stark lack of factual knowledge in the country, but as one of my guides explained, “what locals lack in information, they make up for with life experience. While they may at times seem naïve, they have lived long and difficult lives.” North Korea is the optimal example of a dystopian society, and I am extremely interested in seeing the progress of one of the mostly unusually ran countries in the world. From hotels to museums to any old teahouse, everything seemed to open up just for us; it is bizarre how much heating and energy is used in order to keep up appearances for the tiny amount of tourists that visit in winter. While I am more than confident that my experience was a highly curated façade of the true country, I am happy to have seen it for myself, if only to know that it was the wrong thing to do.
The amount of money I spent on this tour contributing to the economy and in turn the regime is menial in comparison to the destructive impact that the tourists have on the local community and way that the society is formed. I understand that it would only hurt the locals if the tourism industry disappeared as it employs so many people, but I genuinely believe that the exploitation of DPRK residents and general havoc that foreigners have. From taking pictures as if they were in a zoo to playing music and being loud and often quite disrespectful at monuments and public buildings (even libraries) to forcing restaurants and shops to open up solely for tourists, foreigners create an incredibly destructive environment, perpetuating the government’s child labor and ability to force people to create a fake society for visitors. I admit that I am a complete hypocrite, that I took photos and bought souvenirs and supported this entire tourism industry, but I cannot express the vast amount of shame that I now feel.
My overall advice: don’t go to North Korea, at least not for a simple tour. I am considering returning for a school program, after discussing it at length with Ms. Kim, but I am met with intense hesitancy. The country is amazing, beautiful, interesting to see – but you will not answer any questions; rather, you will just perpetuate a long lasting cycle of tourism and exploitation of the local communities, and if you’re anything like me, be overcome with an intense sense of guilt.