Every year, thousands of tourists book trips to North Korea. But can tour organizers guarantee the safety of foreign tourists in a country notorious for grave human rights abuses? And are these trips even ethical?
US student Otto Warmbier, who died in June 2017 after having been released from a North Korean prison, had visited the Asian state as part of a New Year tour organized by Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based travel agency. He was arrested when the group was set to return to Beijing on January 2, 2016 for having stolen a propaganda poster from a hotel.
He was one of a growing number of western tourists taking a guided tour to North Korea.
Markos Kern took part in a group tour of North Korea for the first time in June 2015. He said he had always wanted to visit the isolated communist state and see with his own eyes the country he had heard and read so many negative things about. Traveling is the passion of the 33-year-old German national.
Kern says he didn't ignore the human rights situation in North Korea before embarking on the journey, arguing he could not overlook that aspect. "But don't we also trade with countries with poor human rights records such as China?" Kern said.
Kern told DW he went to North Korea solely for tourism purposes, but added he had promised himself that if he came across grave rights abuses, he would leave the country.
Limited interaction with North Koreans
The organization of the trip was easy. Kern got his visa just a few days after applying, as he runs his own tourism company in Munich.
"My experience of North Korea was very pleasant. It is very different from anything we had read about it," Kern underlined.
North Korea's landscape and people fascinated Kern, even though he only saw a small part of the country. Tourism in North Korea is different from other countries; here tourists are always accompanied by a guide, and are not allowed to move around in the country by themselves.
Also, Kern had very limited interaction with the North Korean people. "As a tourist, one mostly speaks with the guide, and perhaps engages in short conversations with an operator or receptionist. Only rarely did we talk to the real people," Kern said.
Surfing and skiing in a closed land
Kern said he didn't feel insecure in North Korea. "You just have to know the rules and stick to them," he said, adding that one could have lots of fun in the Northeast Asian country.
His consulting company is now working with a US firm to build two new company branches and promote North Korea trips offering surfing on the east coast and skiing in the North Korean luxury resort of Masik Pass.
Uri Tours have planned several trips to North Korean beaches and hill resorts this year. And on these tours, says Kern, the tourists will have the possibility of interacting with the local people.
"Even if there is a language barrier, there will be nonetheless some kind of personal contact," Kern promised.
A matter of conscience?
But is it ethical to offer tours to the isolated kingdom of the dictator Kim Jong Un, known for its massive rights violations?
Uri Tour's Andrea Lee has an answer: "We firmly believe that tourism can help North Korea and the international community better understand each other," argued Lee.
Rubio Chan, founder of the Hong Kong-based Eastern Vision tourism company, believes there is a need to increase direct contact with North Korean citizens in order to reduce mutual fears and prejudices. Isolating North Korea won't resolve the issue, he said.
Following the death of Otto Warmbier the "Young Pioneer Tours" travel agency announced it would stop taking Americans to the reclusive state, claiming "the assessment of risk" had become too high.