Ever since I moved to Korea a number of people have sent me emails asking me if I had visited either locale. Despite the fact that I would like to check both places out, I am confronted with an ethical dilemma.
In order to travel to either one, you have to fork over some cash.
In the case of North Korea, nearly all of that money goes to directly fund Kim’s regime.
It’s hard enough being an American taxpayer knowing that a large percent of your money goes to fund a trillion dollar military apparatus, 16 multi-billion dollar intelligence agencies and dozens of overzealous federal law enforcement agencies. Never mind the fact that these monies in return go to squash civil liberties at home and incite bloody wars in other countries, including multi-year occupation forces.
But then again, taxpayers really have no choice for where their ducats go.
On the other hand, as a potential tourist, I can vote with my pocket book.
There is absolutely nothing to laud Kim’s regime for, so why reward him monetarily? There are no civil liberties, there is no private enterprise, there is no private property — there is no private life. His military consumes a full quarter of all economic activity each year, despite the fact that millions live in 18th century destitution. Any type of dissent is immediately squashed and provocateurs are sent to one of a dozen known labor camps.
For a good description of the life and times at one of these gulags, be sure to read The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan (he is kind of like the modern day equivalent of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn).
So, when someone asks me if I will fork over a few hundred dollars to pay for the visa and tour package knowing that the money will not lift anyone out of subsistence but rather prop up a socialistic dictatorship, my answer is a big no.
Besides, this is not a backpacking adventure across scenic Europe. In fact, you really aren’t a real adult touring the land, you’re a baby. You cannot freely travel throughout the countryside. You are always accompanied by state-managed guides that have no qualms with confiscating any electronic devices. Cell phones are verboten entirely. Oh, and you are only allowed to take government-approved pictures, otherwise you have to delete them.
On top of that, the sites you do see are fake, entirely scripted affairs. The quaint little towns you pass through are no different than the fabled Potemkin villages of 18th century Russia.
So from a tourist perspective, why waste money on a staged 3-night stand that doesn’t even leave a mint on the pillow?
Similarly, a visit to the DMZ is if nothing else, a tacit approval for its current existence.
While the South no longer operates gulags (its own military dictators used to; see Unbroken Spirits: Nineteen Years in South Korea’s Gulag by Suh Sung), it would be no different than paying to see the Inner German border while it was still being judiciously guarded.
Most people forget, the DMZ is not the Berlin Wall. It has not come down. People can and still do get shot crossing over. It is filled with mines, booby traps, machine-gun nests and surrounded by over a million troops on both sides (it’s so barren of human-life that it has unintentionally become a nature reserve). Plus, it’s not like the money you pay to visit the DMZ is going to North Korean peasants, to pull them out of destitution or help them escape.
So, for the same reason that you don’t go up to a local in Hiroshima or Nagasaki and ask them joyously where ground zero is, I do not think I will visit the other half of the peninsula or even the DMZ until reunification years from now.
- Recent scenes from North Korea
- Gulags on both sides of the DMZ
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