North Korea is experiencing a boom in tourism. But what does a trip to this country really entail, and are there ethical problems to be considered?
The advertisement for the trip to Kŭmgangsan, the fabled Diamond Mountains, promised hiking trails graced by fairies, phoenixes and immortal hermits, as well as a lengthy list of rules for avoiding problems with soldiers of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Our bus was full of waegukin – foreigners, mostly fresh-faced English teachers like me, and Carrie, an American friend who had come along for the three-day trip. We arrived at dawn on the southern side of the demilitarised zone (referred to as the DMZ), the buffer between the two enemy states, and waited as the sun rose over the Sea of Japan. Our bus joined a dozen others full of South Koreans in hiking apparel.
The civil war started by North Korea’s surprise attack on Seoul in 1950 ended in a ceasefire; the two Koreas have yet to reach a peace treaty.
There was little inter-Korean cooperation until the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in loss of financial support for its communist ally. In 1998, the North reached a deal with Hyundai, the South Korean car manufacturer, to build a tourist resort in the Kŭmgang Mountains as a profit-making venture for both parties.
When the resort first opened, it was impossible to drive through the DMZ. Originally a boat ferried South Korean hikers north, but by 2006, when I made the trip, the popularity of the Kŭmgangsan Resort had grown so much that the practicality of building a road trumped the military stand-off.
Barbed wire enclosed the four-kilometre highway cutting through the demilitarised zone. A weathered wooden stake marked the actual border. To the east, stretches of beach turned golden in the morning sun.
Our South Korean guide came on the bus speakers to remind us of the many rules.
‘You must always wear your state-issued photo-ID cards around your necks,’ she said, ‘or you will be fined in US dollars. You must answer the immigration officers’ questions with the exact wording on the ID cards, or you will be fined in US dollars.’
Carrie and I paid close attention. I wasn’t afraid, but I wasn’t reckless, either.
Positioned every few hundred metres along the highway were rigid soldiers from the North’s million-man standing army. Rifles and bayonets hung from their shoulders. They held red flags at their sides.
‘Photographs are forbidden except in designated areas,’ the guide continued.
Beyond the soldiers, rice paddies extended under shadows cast by the surrounding mountains.
‘If a soldier sees a camera in the windows, he will raise his flags, and all the buses must stop while the soldiers search the cameras.’ The perpetrator would be fined – or arrested, depending on the soldiers’ whim.
‘Do not make any negative comments or jokes about North Korea. Assume someone is listening at all times. Rooms may have listening devices. Do not risk being arrested! There is nothing we can do to help you.’
Carrie turned to whisper to me. ‘Did you hear about that American who was arrested? He asked his guide why Kim Jong-il was so fat when everyone else was so skinny, and they put him in jail. He was in there for three months.’
The guides herded us into a white tent connecting four trailers. Inside, soldiers searched bags for mobile phones, batteries and chargers and other contraband.
[North Korea’s] decades of self-imposed isolation had given it an aura of mystery.
When my turn came to shuffle into one of the trailers, the immigration officer flipped through my passport, the bill of his flat hat shading a hard face. I mentally rehearsed precise responses to potential questions, but he remained silent. Then he stamped my entry permission onto my ID card.
Outside the trailer, a man dressed as a cartoonish half moon bear waved a paw at us, while armed soldiers watched for illicit photo-taking.
The bus convoy waited for those still in the tent. With a broad smile, our driver put on Michael Jackson Live in Bucharest. The DVD, like the driver and the guide, came from the South; though we’d stepped inside the border, North Korea remained closed to us. Behind the bus, a tank sat perched on a hill, its barrel pointed at the border.
At 23, I wanted more than anything to see the world. To that end, I’d moved from my parents’ home on the Canadian prairies to a suburb of Seoul. I had a relatively lucrative job teaching English and a desire to spend my earnings travelling to offbeat, exotic places. This, I was certain, would make me a more interesting person.
North Korea – the Hermit Kingdom – fitted my criteria nicely. Its decades of self-imposed isolation had given it an aura of mystery. It also appealed because no one I knew had been there.
I wasn’t clueless about the dictatorship. A few months before I departed, I’d attended a musical in Seoul that depicted life in North Korea’s concentration camps (with English translations projected beside the stage).
The production shared stories of other prisoners the writer/director had known, such as the woman who was tortured because, when her house caught fire, she’d chosen to save the life of her baby instead of the portrait of revolutionary leader Kim Il-sung mandated to hang in every home.
But I didn’t bother to connect this knowledge with my trip plans.
The Kŭmgang Mountains have long held a revered place in Korean culture, and as our bus approached their base, I could see why. The wooded trails and rising stone peaks exuded Hollywood beauty: perfect lighting, balanced composition. Turquoise creeks burbled, their pools like gemstones.
Our guide rattled off more rules as the group stood in the car park: we were forbidden to pick up any rocks or contaminate the water by touching it. Guards would stand watch along the trails, dressed in purple windcheaters and tracksuit pants, although they were unarmed, we were told.
South Korean hikers carrying two walking sticks apiece crowded the trail. The Northern guards, gaunt figures with jutting cheekbones, wore the pin of Kim Il-sung’s image over their hearts. Punishment for losing the pin was imprisonment in a concentration camp for three generations of the perpetrator’s family.
I thought about that for a moment – how easy it was to lose a thumbnail-sized pin – then focused on manoeuvring past slower hikers. We’d been allotted three hours to get to Sejonbong Peak and back, and Carrie and I were determined to make it.
We did say hello – annyeonghaseyo – to a few of the North Korean guards as we headed up the trail. They smiled and bobbed their heads towards us.
‘Where are you from?’ one guard asked in English, each word sounded out carefully. He kept his hands clasped behind his back.
‘Canada. Where are you from?’
He gave a half-laugh and pointed at the ground under his feet.
We had been instructed to ask before taking any photos of North Koreans. I was too shy, but Carrie gestured with her camera a couple of times. The guards’ smiles disappeared and they turned away.
Nearing the summit, we struggled up narrow metal staircases bolted to inclines so steep they were practically cliffs. Sweat-soaked and gasping, I pulled myself to the top, taking in the horizon’s surrounding peaks and the glistening pools below.
We stared over the metal railing running along a ledge, watching ant-like figures far back on the trail. From this height, we could no longer distinguish locals or tourists, soldiers or foreigners.
I liked hiking well enough, but I had really come on this trip to experience North Korea. Aside from the omnipresent soldiers, however, Kŭmgangsan Resort felt no different from the South.
The main square featured brand new multi-storey hotels, coffee shops, a sauna and smattering of restaurants, some serving fried chicken and pizza. There was even a Family Mart, the South Korean convenience-store chain.
The only unfamiliar addition was the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire that surrounded the resort. Soldiers patrolled its borders.
I took a photo of a stone monument that featured Kim Jong-il’s autograph and best wishes for the resort.
In the souvenir shop, Carrie and I frowned at the selection of Hollywood fridge magnets, shamrock key chains and Chanel perfume. There were no Democratic People’s Republic of Korea mementos, no postcards or T-shirts or snow globes. We were disappointed. We considered the slim, low quality Best Recipes of Pyongyang, but it didn’t feel right buying a cookbook as a souvenir in a country where the population was suffering ongoing starvation.
At dusk, we watched a North Korean acrobatic troupe perform in a cavernous amphitheatre. The tiny, lithe women wore skimpy, sparkly dresses – some bold red, some lime green. The men’s white pants puffed at the waist.
A performer hung from a trapeze with a knife clenched between her teeth, a sword balanced on the point of the knife, and a tray of glasses balanced on the sword. She swung back and forth, the pink liquid in each glass sloshing but not spilling. I squirmed, terrified and curious, wondering who this woman was and how she’d ended up there.
It didn’t feel right buying a cookbook as a souvenir in a country where the population was suffering ongoing starvation.
We passed on the nightclub, karaoke rooms and strip club, settling instead in the hotel lounge with bottles of light, fruity Taedonggang, a North Korean beer. A band covered Whitney Houston and Kenny Rogers.
When the band took a break, the lead singer sat with us. Like me, Amihan was 23. She and her band were from the Philippines, and six months into their two-year contract at Kŭmgangsan.
‘You’re living in this hotel for two years? What do you do on your days off?’ Carrie asked.
They had no days off. When she wasn’t performing, life in Kŭmgangsan was tedious, she said. They couldn’t leave the resort. They had no mobiles, no internet access. The TV only had four channels, all government run. ‘I don’t speak Korean, but I know those channels are awful,’ Amihan said.
They could arrange to accompany a tour group to the hiking trails.
‘But I don’t like hiking. I sleep most of the day. It’s good because there’s nowhere to spend the money we earn.’
‘What do you plan to do when you leave?’ I asked.
‘You must have a plan for all the money you’re saving,’ I said, thinking of the places I could travel with two years’ salary in the bank.
‘I send most of it home to my family,’ she said, looking at me as though I lived in a strange, fantasy world.
Across the DMZ from the South Korean military base is a government-built village of beautiful three-storey houses. It was part of an attempt to convince Southern soldiers that the standard of living in the North was high. But the Southern soldiers weren’t fooled – they never saw a single person living in the village.
I’d paid a steep visa fee to visit North Korea, but I saw only a façade, like those empty houses.
Over three days, the only North Koreans I encountered were the silent immigration officer and the guards on various hiking trails. The resort was staffed by Southerners – a policy, I supposed, that intended to limit interaction between tourists and Northerners.
Even if I had been fluent in Korean, I doubt I could have gleaned much insight into North Korean life. There was only so much I could ask (I wasn’t going to question why everyone was so skinny), and I was certain the guards would only give approved responses.
Other than the group of soldiers who came jogging two by two through the resort after dark, rifles held high, singing, perhaps the only glimpse I had of the ‘Workers’ Paradise’ was a village we passed on the way to another hiking trail.
The small, modest houses were identical, except for the paint: dirty grey for most, Barbie-pink for the newer-looking structures closer to the highway. Rusted bicycles lay at the roadside. Villagers worked in the fields by hand while armed soldiers monitored their work. Nothing modern was evident except for the air-conditioned buses cruising past.
I’d paid a steep visa fee to visit North Korea, but I saw only a façade.
Dinner on our last evening was a buffet with mounds of Korean dishes – neon-red kimchi, pieces of overcooked beef on the bone, stir-fried vegetables and beansprouts. Like most things on this trip, the food was likely brought in from the South. The meal was slimy and over-spiced and I pushed my plate away, trying not to think of the national slogan that pitched starvation as patriotic moderation: ‘Let us eat two meals a day!’
I wish I could say I regretted the trip at that point. I didn’t. The regret would come years later, in waves that crashed over me through the pages of books like Dear Leader, the harrowing escape memoir of Jan Jin-sung, in which the former North Korean poet laureate describes executions of civilians in town markets for crimes such as stealing a sack of rice; and in Escape From Camp 14, Blaine Harden’s biography of concentration-camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk.
Harden depicts the torture Shin experienced, including when he was strung up with chains by his hands and feet while guards lit fires under his back, and when he witnessed the executions of his mother and brother.
Books like these forced me to acknowledge what I had previously tolerated; what I supported with my tourist dollars.
But back then, at 23 years old, I wasn’t savvy enough to realise that the fee I paid for my North Korean entry visa went to the government and thus to fund the camps that held a hundred thousand people or more.
Or maybe I just didn’t want to think about it too much.
Tourism to North Korea is on the rise. Kim Jong-un has recently announced plans to attract as many two million tourists per year, a 1900 per cent increase from current numbers. Westerners can tour Pyongyang, attend the mass games, and squint past the soldiers in hopes of glimpsing some unchoreographed sliver of local, authentic life, all while providing a healthy cash flow to the dictatorship.
When people mention plans to travel to North Korea, I clench my hands to keep from digging my fingernails into their forearms. ‘I wouldn’t go,’ I tell them in a restrained voice. ‘It’s not worth it.’
I wouldn’t have listened to me either.