Advising people to visit North Korea takes a bit of explanation, but explaining why people shouldn’t visit is far simpler. Other than the cost, there are two major reasons why people should cross scenic Pyongyang off of their vacation list. First, a substantial portion of your trip fee will go into the hands of the worst regime on Earth, a government that has engaged in terrorism, murder, kidnapping, and systematic oppression—including concentration camps. Second, you will bear witness to a nation of 25 million slaves, which will be quite difficult emotionally.
I made my peace with the first concern because I knew that, as an author and talking head, I would be giving the regime a great deal of negative exposure. I considered such bad publicity to far outweigh any marginal benefit my cash brought to the DPRK. As for the second, I confess that this is something that still permanently affects me. Every single person I ever saw in North Korea is still there. Every single one of them will be unable to have a nice apartment, for example, or to have a life of simple comfort.
Given these two very strong caveats, there are many reasons why a trip to North Korea is a great idea. It’s important to note that travel to the DPRK is completely legal for Americans. Unlike Cuba, which is possible but requires chicanery, there are no restrictions to visiting North Korea. While it’s true that your passport doesn’t get stamped on either entry or exit, you can still tell them at the airport where you’d been traveling to, and they won’t bat an eye. (I got a slightly amused grunt when I returned at LaGuardia.)
Further, travel is completely safe. Traveling to North Korea is done through Western companies such as Koryo Tours or Young Pioneers. This means that you are visiting as a guest of the North Korean regime, which is all-powerful within the country. The most terrifying entity in the country, the government, is precisely the entity that is providing for your safety. All the American detainees of recent years were only held because of their brazen defiance of the state. So don’t tear up your visa, don’t blatantly disparage the leaders, don’t bring in any contraband (i.e., Bibles, drugs, or weapons) and you’ll be fine.
At the same time, few Westerners appreciate that traveling to North Korea is safe and legal. As a consequence you’ll receive an enormous amount of respect and credibility for your apparent bravery. This respect and credibility will be entirely unearned, mind you, but it’ll still feel pretty much the same thanks to the vagaries of social media. If you’re a bore, you’ll now always have something to discuss at parties. Everyone is interested in the country, and everyone has something to say.
The trip itself will necessarily be as part of a tour group, with two government tour guides showing you around. This sounds quite ominous until you realize that pretty much every country on Earth has tours with tour guides. Far from being government puppets, the tour guides receive most of their income from tourist tips. As a result, they tend to be much more worldly than media portrayals would have you expect. When they take you to the DMZ and translate the old military officer threats to “crush the Americans utterly,” they will do so with complete deadpan delivery. They meet so many people from so many foreign countries that they realize their state narrative does not reflect reality very well.
No country has as many interesting things per square inch as North Korea does. Every aspect of the DPRK has been carefully chosen and planned in defiance of the outside world. No matter where you look, you will see something that begs to have its back story told. From the tracksuits the teenagers wear, to the militaristic billboards, to the odd smell in every establishment, every moment will be filled with things you can experience nowhere else.
Besides the fascinating environment, what is also fascinating is what the environment lacks: namely, any sense of the outside world. It is impossible to describe what it’s like to be in a place with no Internet access, no phone access, and no newspapers other than propaganda sheets. There is no other place on Earth left where you can have such an experience. Want to call your mom? You can’t. Want to check in with the team at work? Sorry! The isolation is as beautiful as it is unnerving.
Finally, it’s an obnoxious cliché that trips to foreign countries are “life-altering.” But no one can doubt for a moment that traveling to North Korea will permanently and tremendously change your perspective on many things. For me, one of the standout moments was visiting the (fake) elementary school. The classes were staffed with the children of the elite, the best of the best, and they were absolutely adorable. But I will never be able to forget the sound of them coughing due to their chest colds. And it’s impossible not to think about the fact that if these high-ranking children didn’t have access to warm clothes or medicine, what did that mean for the rest of the population? Evil people don’t grow horns. If you actually want to see the face of evil, go to the nation where the leaders deny medicine to children simply to remain in power. You’ll never complain about not having cell phone reception again.