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Tourism

North Korea tourism 'finances nuclear program'

While critics say traveling to North Korea puts money in the pockets of its repressive regime, those in favor say they are opening up the world's most isolated state to new ideas and opportunities.

Human rights activist Ken Kato has called on foreign travel firms that are offering vacations in North Korea to withdraw from the country to assist the people of the repressive state, to safeguard regional security and for their own sakes.

"I am completely against these companies selling holidays in North Korea and they should be aware of exactly what is happening in the country," Kato, director of Tokyo-based Human Rights in Asia, told DW.

"If people in Europe had known what had been happening in Nazi Germany in 1938 or 1939, they would not have gone there on their holidays," he said. "It's just unimaginable.

"These companies, and the people who go on these tours, have to understand that the hard currency that North Korea earns from these holidays is spent on developing nuclear weapons, on its missile programs and on its military," he said.

"They should also withdraw to protect themselves," Kato added. "When the regime in North Korea collapses - as it will - then they will be in trouble in the same way as those who collaborated with the Nazis were in Europe in 1945. It's for their own safety."

UN sanctions on the North

GettyImages 169547930
This undated recent photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 27, 2013 shows the construction site of the Masik Pass Skiing Ground. THIS PICTURE WAS MADE AVAILABLE BY A THIRD PARTY. AFP CAN NOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, LOCATION, DATE, AND CONTENT OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PHOTO IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY AFP. AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT ' AFP PHOTO / KCNA via KNS ' - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS (Photo credit should read KCNA VIA KNS/AFP/Getty Images)

Switzerland said it would not sell ski lifts to North Korea for its Masik Pass ski resort - shown here and above

The United Nations has imposed stringent sanctions against North Korea, designed to stop it acquiring weapons of mass destruction or the technology to develop similar systems domestically, as well as devices or knowhow that will permit it to further its nuclear research.

Companies that defy the resolutions adopted by the Security Council face punishment, and Kato believes travel firms sending tourists to North Korea should be covered under the same sanctions.

But operators of tours to North Korea strongly disagree with suggestions that they are legitimizing the existence of the regime or supporting it through the money their clients pay to go on the tours.

"For a country that imposes isolation on itself, I think it would be odd for us to contribute to isolating North Korea," said Nick Bonner, a British national who set up Koryo Tours in Beijing in 1993 and has since taken thousands of visitors to North Korea.

"We have 20 years of engagement there now and I firmly believe that if tourism is done well it can have a hugely positive impact," he said. "We are involved in orphanages, we have taken sports teams in there, we have been given great access to make three documentaries and a feature film, so I see what we're doing as a form of diplomacy."

Bonner points out that even if Western tour operators did choose to withdraw from North Korea, the regime has already instituted a policy of opening up - gradually - to tourists and if Westerners cannot go there, then there are plenty of Chinese who will fill their places.

Chinese tourists step in

An estimated 15,000 Chinese visited Pyongyang and the main tourist sites in North Korea last year, while a further 15,000 Chinese crossed the border with the North and visited towns and cities along the Tumen River.

"Another good reason for people to go there is that all we see in the West is the threat that the North poses, the nuclear weapons, the missiles, but that's not the whole picture," Bonner said. "They may not be able to see everything in North Korea when they are there, but surely it's better to see something than nothing."

Soldiers patrol border area in Panmunjom, Südkorea

Scores of people die each year trying to cross the heavily-guarded border into the south

That assessment is shared by Stuart Leighton, owner of Taedong Travel, who has recently been granted permission to take the first group of foreign tourists to Pyongyang for Christmas.

"My belief is that more tourists should go to North Korea," said Leighton, who is also based in Beijing. "It gives the people there the chance to meet outsiders and to see that we are not evil, that we are in fact very similar.

"And that works both ways; visitors will see that it's not the most dangerous place in the world," he added. "We need to break down the barriers over time, not build new ones."

Defending the decision to go

Catherine Cellier-Smart visited Pyongyang in August 2010 out of a desire to see if all that she had heard and read about the country while living in South Korea was accurate.

"What mainly struck me was to realize that the life in this country - a nation which is often not taken very seriously by the outside world - is a hard reality for the local population," she said. "I was only there for three days, and I could leave afterwards, but 20 million people can't leave.

"I realized that North Korea would like reunification as much as South Korea - except that the DPRK wants reunification on its own terms, of course."

But she defends her decision to go.

In this image taken from video North Korean soldiers and performers participate in a mass military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the country's founding, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (AP Photo/KRT via AP Video)

All most people know about North Korea is what its propaganda machine tells us

"Anybody who buys any Chinese- or Korean-made product can be unwittingly supporting the North Korean regime," she points out. "Some clothes are made in North Korea and then shipped across the border and labeled 'Made in China.' Some South Korean products are - partly - made at the Kaesong industrial complex by North Korean workers whose monthly $50 salaries are paid to them by the DPRK government from money paid by rich South Korean conglomerates.

"How do you decide ethically which countries to visit and not to visit?" she asks. "Where do you draw the line? You don't visit India because it has nuclear weapons? Or the USA because it has the death penalty? Or Norway because it continues whaling?"

Ken Kato is not convinced by the arguments and believes tourists are more keen on impressing their friends with tales from a country that is famously difficult to visit and that travel firms are more interested in turning a profit.

"It's just one more way for the North Korean government to get hold of hard currency to build more weapons and repress more of its people," he said. "It's wrong."

DW.DE