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.