The Ethics of Tourism in North Korea


How ethical is it to visit North Korea? A visit will cost a minimum of around $150 a day for a mandatory guide, hotel room, and food, according to Lonely Planet. And that foreign currency is desperately needed by the cash-starved government. Thus a tour of North Korea, at least in a small way, helps the current regime to stay in power.

Since most of us oppose the current regime, it seems we ought to oppose visiting North Korea, too.

But it’s not that clear-cut. James Griffiths, writing for the Shanghaiist, collects some expert opinions on the matter, and he finds that, of the five North Korean specialists he queried, four of them advocated in favor of visiting the regime.

Perhaps there’s a selection bias going on here, but it’s worth seeing what they had to say. You can read all of their responses in full on

The most extensive response came from Tad Farrell, the founder of He notes that even if all Western tourists decided to stop visiting North Korea, the difference in cash flow for the North Korean government would only be $400,000, or about a thousandth of a percent of the country’s GDP. That figure is insignificant enough that whether we visit or not, the abuses of the regime would continue.

Although the dangers are imaginary, the benefits, Farrell says, are real. Contact with foreigners, even the superficial contact that comes as a result of carefully restricted tours, “will slowly influence the way ordinary North Koreans think about their situation, government, and borders.”

He may be right. But there’s little evidence to think the rate of that influence on the populace will be any more significant than the effects of tourism-related cash flow on the government. Still, people are harder to quantify than money; we can’t be sure.

Aidan Foster-Carter, a Senior Research Fellow at Leeds University, had a similar opinion to that of Farrell. And Hannah Barraclough, of Koryo Tours, thinks that tourism actually helps many of the people it ought to help, not the government: it gives jobs to guides, restaurant staff, and other workers in the tourism industry. From the view of the foreign visitors, tourism provokes beneficial contact with citizens and broadens their perspectives.

Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Hudson Institute takes the opposing view. She thinks that the foreign exchange value of tourist dollars is more significant than a comparison to the GDP would suggest, so the government is getting more money; more importantly, she argues that “any foreigner who argues that his visit will help ‘people-to-people’ contacts is dreaming,” because of the strict controls on that contact.

These are all good arguments. A recent defector from North Korea, alias Sang-hyun, says in an unrelated forum on Reddit:

“I think tourism in North Korea is a positive thing. It means that North Korean people can see and meet foreigners, even if they can’t have a conversation. If that happens, a lot then North Korean people’s thinking can change, especially if they can see the difference in the way foreigners live. Tourism and foreigners coming to the country is also in the direction of opening the country up, so I think it is a positive thing.”

I don’t know what the right answer is. As with most ethical questions, we can’t be sure. The balance seems to be in favor; it’s still up to each person to decide for themselves.






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