Three years ago I was living in Shanghai, China with my husband, Isaac. We are travel junkies and love to visit unique places like Chernobyl, Tibet and we really hope to visit Antarctica once it gets cheaper than $10,000 per person (or when we win the lottery). When looking into potential travel destinations in Asia back in 2016, I began researching North Korea.
Despite the many dangers that face travelers, there are several tour companies that regularly bring visitors to North Korea. The company that I was considering for the trip was Young Pioneer Tours. As a European, I could travel to North Korea from Beijing, China by train. A long weekend trip would cost just $300.
Isaac, as an American, would have been able to join me via plane because at the time of my research, Americans were only allowed to enter North Korea by flying. Flying from Shanghai or Beijing for the same long weekend would have cost around $600. This was before the travel ban set up by Donald Trump in 2017.
According to their website: “Young Pioneer Tours specializes in taking you to North Korea and other worldwide ‘destinations your mother would rather you stay away from’ at budget prices. We combine the best guides in the industry with expert local knowledge and contacts to ensure your adventure is an unparalleled one. Don’t be a face in the crowd, be a Pioneer.”
They make visiting North Korea sound like a walk in the park. Their website has an entire section with an FAQ about visiting. According to Young Pioneer Tours, “for most nationalities, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit.” The disclaimer is, you need to follow the strict rules otherwise the punishment is severe.
By severe punishment, they refer to people like Otto Warmbier, who died after 17 months in North Korean captivity. Otto was an American student visiting North Korea on a five day tour with the very company with whom we were considering travelling. Otto was sentenced to 15 years in a labor camp for attempting to steal a North Korean propaganda poster.
While Otto did commit a crime that he was heavily warned against, his punishment, that included torture that put him in a year long coma, was obviously not justified. There have been other people, Americans in particular, who have been imprisoned in North Korea for various supposed crimes. You can read more about that here.
At the time we were hoping to visit back in 2016, the news was full of stories about people who had traveled to North Korea successfully. One of these people was Cassandra De Pecol. Cassandra was the youngest and fastest person to have traveled to 196 sovereign nations in 18 months and 26 days – less than half the time it took the previous Guinness World Record holder.
Her experience in North Korea was all over the news, as she described the hardest handshake she had ever felt with a North Korean soldier who told her “We’re going to destroy you, America.” Despite this unpleasant experience, she didn’t feel unsafe on her three-day trip there. She responded to the soldier that “she was there to show that ‘even if their governments couldn’t be friends, the two of them didn’t have to be enemies.'” – CNN.
My reasons for wanting to visit North Korea were far less noble. Mainly, I just wanted to experience something new and unusual. Even though any tourist visiting North Korea knows that they are shown a very specific and controlled image of the country that does not reflect reality, it is still a fascinating destination that very few people on Earth get the chance to experience.
One hiccup in this plan was that even as a small-time blogger, I technically fell under the ‘journalist’ category and there was a chance that I wouldn’t be allowed to even go. If I had gone and my phone or laptop were searched and my writing discovered, this could be a possible reason for detainment. But it wasn’t just the danger of being detained that had me reconsider going.
North Korea doesn’t just treat detained tourists despicably. It is the locals who suffer the most under the restrictive regime of Kim Jong Un. North Koreans are not allowed to leave the county and they live under extremley strict rules where they have zero freedom of speech and many live in poverty. They cannot decide what they do for a living and they have limited possibilities when it comes to haircuts, wardrobe and any form or self-expression.
Escaping North Korea is a dream for many locals who are not all brainwashed enough to love their oppressive country. However escaping is tremendously difficult and has unimaginable consequences. If someone manages to escape, it is their family that is punished in the most severe way. It doesn’t help that some countries, such as China, have an agreement with Kim Jong Un to return escapees.
I was, at first, tempted to be selfish and embark on this controversial one-of-a-kind journey away, even though it would have likely inadvertently supported a government that cannot be described as anything but evil. It was Park Yeon-mi (or Yeonmi Park) and her speech at the UN, linked below, that put an end to any desire I had to visit North Korea.
You can read more about her story here, or in her book, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom.
While I personally chose to not visit North Korea, I do not judge people who do. If you would like to share your story about visiting or deciding not to, or any links to related articles, do not hesitate to post in the comment section below!