This was an interesting read and very much in line with other travelers' reports. However, I do wonder about this part:
>Go to North Korea if you can. It is very, very strange.
Is it really a good idea to go if you don't have a particular reason (such as this diplomatic trip)? I recall that most human rights groups recommended that tourists not visit Burma until recently so as not to support the regime. For someone like me who would only be going to satisfy my own curiosity, would I not simply be supporting the North Korean regime? I would be giving them money and possibly helping them in their propaganda efforts (see, look, at this American who has come to visit our great country!). I can't think of any ways in which my visit would be good or helpful.
I went to Burma for two reasons. First, the country isolated from the rest of the world can be an eye-opening experience. If you are, say, North American, and all you go is Western Europe you will never quite learn to appreciate what you have. To me the biggest surprise was how warm, cheerful and hospitable Burmese people are, in a country where poverty is rampant, infrastructure is almost non-existent and freethinking is oppressed.
And the second reason is that you can try to direct your money more to the people than government by staying and eating in small family establishments rather than pricy hotels that are almost always are controlled by the government.
You might have been able to do that in Burma. I know people who have travelled to Burma, Cuba, and other places and made similar arguments that I sympathize with. But you can't do that in North Korea: you can't go stay in small family establishments or choose where to eat. The entire trip is managed by the government and even trying to give money or talk to anyone about politics is probably risking the life of the person you talk to.
That leaves your first reason, which seems like a very self-focused reason -- I could learn the same thing from visiting other countries (or spending time reading up on the many accounts of North Korea, particularly those who have escapes).
Burma was never really clamped down like NK, heck, even Cuba isn't really clamped down. NK is probably the harshest state in the world with respect to freedom, and that alone probably makes it an interesting and unique visit. Ya, you are giving Kim Jong Un some money, but...if it would be an eye opening experience neh? If NK ever opens up, you won't have the oppurtunity every again!
I agree with your arguments about North Korea. I was specifically answering the statement about Burma. And I agree that the first reason is very self-focused, because I believe that every change to the world around you starts with a change to yourself (corny, but still true).
> And the second reason is that you can try to direct your money more to the people than government by staying and eating in small family establishments rather than pricy hotels that are almost always are controlled by the government.
When Myanmar opened up for tourism a few years ago, I was living in Thailand and considered taking a short trip. But I'm sure I read tourists were only allowed to stay in designated hotels. Am I wrong, or did those rules change?
Quite different Guatemala is chaotic and dangerous, DPRK is the exact opposite: repressive and actually very safe (as long as you know..you don't do something the gov hates). Or in D&D terms, think about the differences between Chaotic Evil and Lawful Evil.
I've been to Guatemala too :-) And it is quite different. I did not get a sense of oppression in Guatemala, but unlike Burma some places felt really unsafe (because of petty and organized crime, not national or political tensions that are present in some regions of Burma).
On the other hand, isolating an entire people in order to "let the ship sink" sooner and thereby allegedly help them (cf. half-century-old embargo on Cuba) doesn't seem morally sound either. These are tricky issues indeed.
The cost of a visa and a stay in North Korea is so low, and so few people visit each week that it wouldn't surprise me to learn that they make a loss on each visitor. It must cost them a lot to keep the hotel with 20 guests running, each visit site staffed, the 100,000 performers at the main stadium, the subway line etc. for 20-30 visitors a week. It is like a really large theme park with very few customers.
My family and I went to North Korea purely for curiosity's sake. Although we didn't like the giving-money-to-a-terrible-dictatorship aspect, the trip really changed our perceptions of the country and was by far the most interesting trip I had taken.
Sure! All our conceptions about it being a crazy, dysfunctional country were absolutely correct. But I also had the prejudice that its citizens would be cold, humorless people hostile to us Americans.
Instead, I was greeted by warm, friendly people. Waitresses would giggle as they sang karaoke, smiling as they tried to get the tourists and their guides to dance with them. Our driver, who didn't speak a word of English, would occasionally crack a joke and cackle to himself.
Sometimes I almost forgot that I was in a Communist dictatorship for a bit, only to be quickly brought back. During a visit to Pyongyang's finest maternity hospital, my father (a doctor) had a lengthy chat about various medical techniques with the doctor that was showing us around. Seemed to be a completely normal conversation until she would add in that these machines were there due to the kindness of Their Great Leader Kim Jong Un, who visited x years ago.
Kids at amusement parks wanted pictures with us. Preteen girls giggled to themselves at my sight. Our guides had fun play-swordfighting with my dad in medieval Korean costume at a movie studio. Even the local guide who showed us the USS Spy Ship Pueblo was very friendly while describing the imperialist crimes of America. Our guides seemed genuinely pleased to share their culture with us.
Now, this might all be the result of selection bias -- most of these interactions were with tourism employees--guides, waitresses (in the special for-tourists-only restaurants we visited), and flight attendants. It's possible these men and women hated our guts and pretended for our money. As I said in a previous comment, their curiosity at our opinions of the war was rather fishy. But I think it'd be exceptionally hard to fake it that well. At least I hope it was genuine, as it made me really feel for these friendly people trapped under a terrible regime.
I agree that your contribution to the government is small, although it's not zero. I assume North Korea wouldn't be allowing Western tourists to come on these trips otherwise; they clearly see an advantage to your visit (unless they are just deluded that Western tourists will be fooled by the propaganda).
But, what are the chances that your time there will really shed any more light on North Korea? Encouraging friends to read "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea", for example, or simply reading it or another similar book yourself and sharing your thoughts would arguably shed more light than a brief government managed trip and a blog post.
Edit: I'd love to hear why you disagree rather than just downvoting. I've wondered about making this trip myself in the past and this is where I've settled, but would be happy to hear further arguments.
I wasn't the one who downvoted you. Your trip to North Korea might give you the chance to expose violations of basic human rights. granted, those chances are slim and you probably will put your own safety at risk in doing this. we still know comparably little about North Koreans and personally I just find it important to keep some memories of this bizarre, inhumane regime alive - even if it's just as a warning to others.
The situation in Burma is that Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who was under long-term house arrest by the military dictatorship, specifically requested that people not visit Burma for tourism.
She has now ended this opposition to tourism in Burma.