Will you be visiting North Korea for your summer holidays?
North Korea: Holiday Resort?!
I was browsing wistfully through Wowcher holidays deals the other day, fantasizing about the sort of holidays that would almost certainly bankrupt me if I actually booked one, when I found something that made me jump out of my chair. It was a fairly reasonable £529 pp deal for a six night all inclusive escorted tour… around North Korea. The trip kicks of (obviously) with a visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace to view the preserved bodies of Kim II Sung and KIm Jong II, resting in their crystal coffins. This is followed by a tour of The Grand People’s Study House. This is followed by a tour of the captured USS spy ship “Pueblo” and a performance at the Youth Palace. Finally, there is are tours of “truce village Panmunjom to see the Armistice Hall, the Military Demarcation Line, the Koryo History Museum and the Tomb of King Wang Gwon”. The en suite hotel accommodation is described like something from a Las Vegas resort, with “a bowling alley, swimming pool, spa, casino, revolving restaurant and bars”.
This advertised tour isn’t just a weird flukey one off. For the first time this summer, Young Pioneer Tours are organising the first beach holidays to the North Korean beaches of Wonsan, Kumgang and Hamhung. Promotional photographs show golden stretches of sand and volleyball nets that wouldn’t look out of place in Costa Del Sol. Mountain hiking and football are advertised as just some of the activities that tourists can involve themselves in. The last few years has seen North Korea attempting to launch a skiing resort industry, nestled in the mountainous region of the Wonsan Kalma Peninsula. The photographs of this region show a place of intense natural beauty, but its proximity to military bases is a little disconcerting. A 2014 article in The Guardian described “The Shining” like vibe to the resort and pointed the strangeness to the strangeness of the most basic of items being sold in the ski shops for thousands of pounds, giving a sense of profound unreality. I began to wonder, would I feel comfortable, or indeed ethical, sunning myself on a beach in a country where over two million people died as a result of famine in the 1990s? A country that wields the threat of nuclear weapons like a water gun?
One of the books that has affected me most in my life in the nightmarish George Orwell novel 1984. I am fascinated by the way in which a government can construct a separate reality that you can’t see out of. North Korea is for me the closest real life example to an Orwellian nightmare on earth. Citizens can be executed for distributing western movies that they have had smuggled in. Internet is banned as are mobile phone communications. Citizens are not allowed to leave and are therefore unable to gain any sense of a balanced perspective of the world. Visiting North Korea, I imagine, would feel very much like slipping through a black hole to a parallel dystopian universe.
Ethics aside, I am the nosiest person in the world. If I didn’t have to worry about boring things like eating and paying off my phone bill this month, then I don’t think that I would have trusted myself not to book the Wowcher tour. I have a borderline obsession with North Korea and have watched pretty much every documentary about it that I can get my hands on. North Korea lets very few people in, let alone Journalists, and when they do they are led on a carefully curated tour than feels about as real as the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. All the documentaries about North Korea that I have seen follow the same pattern. The Journalist is taken to restaurants where they are the only diner, shops where they are the only person shopping. They visit universities where students are sat staring at computer screens not doing any work. What you don’t see in these documentaries fascinates me as much as what you do see.
The tourist destinations that they are led to are hyper patriotic, pretty much mirroring stop for stop the destinations alluded to in the Wowcher tour description. These destinations are built to assert the notion that North Korea is a powerful yet virtuous enemy of the United States. As well as this they construct the image of the Kim Jong dynasty as being benevolent, god like and eternal; unquestionable. This is an exercise in fantasy narrative spinning in the face of history and logic. By carefully structuring the time which Journalists spend in North Korea, the North Korean regime are hoping to structure the narrative of the articles or documentaries that the Journalist in question goes on to create. They are hoping that they can spin the journalistic research into good publicity and therefore increase their soft power potential. Of course, this often has the opposite of the desired effect with the creepy nature of their structured visit only highlighting the false and secretive nature of North Korean society.
Tourism has long been a soft power public relations tactic for many countries. However, with a shrinking world where everybody is a seasoned traveller, it has become more important than ever for a country to demonstrate its potential as a tourist destination. Nowadays, every tourist is a blogger and Tripadvisor wields the sort of power previously reserved for Broadsheet Travel Writers. The online voice of the everyman now counts a little bit more, apparently even in North Korea. It is therefore unsurprising that North Korea has begun to open its door just a crack wider.
I decided to check out some Tripadvisor reviews for some North Korean tourist destinations. I click on a hotel at random and an alert from the US State Department instantly pops up in bright red type: “The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens about travel to North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea, even accidentally, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention.” Yikes. The warning goes on but you get the idea. I guess foolishly I thought that as a Westerner I would be treated better. I selfishly thought that I would at least be safe, even as I walked on beaches stained with blood. Clearly travel companies need to take some responsibility when advertising North Korea as an alternative holiday.
I read some of the Tripadvisor reviews and some Contributors were clearly slightly freaked out by the theatrical nature of North Korean tourism. “Everything is planned for show” said one Star Contributor from Reading, of the Grand People’s Study House, one of the main tourist attractions in North Korea. A review of the Gerumsusan Memorial Palace from another Senior Contributor read: “Not bowing before the Great Leader bros’ perfectly manicured and pedicured bodies will usually attract a few laser dots on you from the rifles of the 18 soldiers guarding the room”. Visiting these attractions is clearly a pretty disconcerting experience for an outsider. Typical comments describing various monuments were simply “propaganda tour” or “propaganda central”.
Upon reflection, I am not quite sure whether my initial nosiness for seeing North Korea would be quite enough for me to make the rash decision to book straight away. Sure it would be of great interest and a unique insight, however it is evident that the very real dangers that are involved in the propaganda tours are not being adequately expressed by certain tour companies. Moreover, I am not sure as to what extent I would feel comfortable as a potential tourist being complicit within the North Korean propaganda machine, having knowledge of the horrors that are occurring every day in The Hermit Kingdom. I would like to go to North Korea one day, but it is clearly a decision that requires a certain degree of thought and a pinch of soul searching.