In recent years, as its regime has been increasingly hemmed in by sanctions, North Korea has encouraged foreign tourists to visit the country. Unfortunately, it’s been working—nearly 10,000 Westerners now travel to the North Korea each year. One of them, 85-year-old Merrill Newman of Palo Alto, California, has been detained there for the last several weeks.
The problem is, visiting North Korea is an inherently morally suspect act. The regime uses the hard currency gained from foreign tourists to keep its gulag running and nuclear program humming. Sad to say, but those jolly, well-fed tourists taking junkets to Pyongyang (and writing breathless travelogues on their return) are morally complicit in the human rights horror show that is North Korea. Moreover, as the Mr. Newman situation shows, foreigners are also willfully putting themselves in grave danger merely by entering the totalitarian country.
And it’s not as though visitors to the country gain any special insight that justifies the moral compromise or the risk. The tours they embark on are utterly stage-managed, following the same turgid itinerary every time. What’s more, the tourists are accompanied by minders, who ensure that no genuine interactions with everyday North Koreans occur, the whole time they are there. One gains much more insight into actual life in North Korea by talking to defectors in Seoul or the United States – or simply by reading this brilliant book.
By my count, there are four kinds of Westerners who go to North Korea: 1) Stalinist true believers; 2) avowedly apolitical “extreme travelers,” checking another oddball destination off of their list; 3) people raised on a diet of Team America who think that the nightmare that is North Korea is somehow “funny” or “novel”; and 4) former New Mexico governors with penchants for failed diplomatic gambits.
Mr. Newman, for what it’s worth, appears to have fallen into category two; he’s been described by friends as an “avid traveler.” (Better than being a “fellow traveler.”)
Mr. Newman is obviously in a terrible situation and one can only hope that he is released very soon. The charges he is being held on (war crimes committed during the Korean War, evidently) are an obvious sham. But his experience does serve as a useful reminder of some very important advice that all Americans should heed: stay out of North Korea.
When it comes to North Korea, it’s helpful to keep a simple rule of thumb in mind: don’t trust anybody who refers to the country as the “DPRK.” (That would be the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the country’s official – and yes, bleakly ironic – name.) Calling North Korea the “DPRK” is not only woefully misleading – there’s nothing democratic, republican, or people-oriented about the brutal dictatorship – but it also lends legitimacy to the ruling regime.
The press, for whatever reason, has been strangely Panglossian on North Korea ever since Kim Jong-un took over as supreme leader back in December 2011. No Stalinist tyrant is he, we’ve been told time and again. In fact, he may just be a bona fide reformer!
Even after a year of North Korean nuclear and missile tests, this year's State Department “Country Reports on Terrorism” makes the risible claim that North Korea is "not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987."
Roh (pronounced “No”) Moo-hyun, the startlingly left-wing president of South Korea from 2003 to 2008, offered a remarkable concession to the late North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il at a summit in Pyongyang in 2007.
The small Southeast Asian country of Laos outraged civilized people everywhere last month by repatriating nine escaped North Koreans orphans. The escapees, who had travelled through China and into Laos, are now likely to suffer harsh punishment. Repatriated North Koreans are known to face internment in brutal labor camps upon their return. They're occasionally even executed.
It's become an all too familiar tale: A naïve, amoral Westerner travels to Stalinist North Korea and returns with breathless tales of what a wacky, weird, and wild time he had there! (Somehow, the country’s extensive gulag never makes it onto the visitor’s itinerary.)
Over the past fifteen years, Pakistan has demonstrated how nuclear weapons can allow a country to engage in limited hostilities without triggering all out war. It has also shown that once a nuclear-armed state initiates hostilities, the international response will focus on restoring stability, with denuclearization reduced to a secondary goal.
Disappointing Western hopes that he would put North Korea on a more rational and humane path, Kim Jong-un relishes showing his regime as one of the most odious and dangerous on the planet. Following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, the young new leader is acting the part of a real-life Dr. Evil, recklessly threatening atomic attacks on South Korea, Japan, and the United States. His conventional weapons alone could wreak nuclear-like mass destruction on Seoul.
In February, North Korea conducted its third nuclear weapons test since 2006. The test, performed in defiance of scores of United Nations sanctions, outraged the international community. Within weeks, the U.N. had leveled more sanctions on the rogue regime, beefing up inspections of North Korean cargo, banning luxury exports to the impoverished nation’s appallingly self-indulgent ruling coterie, requiring countries to freeze all financial transactions that might somehow aid the North Korean nuclear program, and barring the transport of bulk cash into the country.