North Korea, among the most isolated places in the world, is known for its repressive regime, empty threats, and its dictator's unusual friendship with eccentric former NBA player Dennis Rodman. The combination of its politics and isolation, make it an appealing destination for daring travelers.
A new documentary released by VICE Media follows five New Zealanders on motorbikes as they traverse the mountainous North Korea. The film offers a glimpse into a world rarely seen by foreigners where the regime keeps its citizens in abject poverty, isolated from the rest of the world and any notion of reality.
The scope of the film is restricted as it has been sanctioned by North Korea's government. Government representatives actually escorted the travelers across the peninsula to ensure that the film featured North Korea's breathtaking landscapes without making any wrong turns along the way. VICE, known for being provocative, is no stranger to entering gray areas.
But the film raises an important ethical question: Is it ethical to visit countries with terrible human rights records for pleasure?
It's easy to laugh at Kim Jong Un. His leadership style and bizarre tendencies fit the bill for a short-fused, brutal dictator with a diva-like streak.
But in reality, his brutality is no laughing matter. Just last week, Kim had his uncle publicly executed for half-hearted clapping. Over 200,000 North Koreans are in prison camps suffering from chronic food shortages, abuse, and torture at the hands of prison guards.
Gareth Morgan, a philanthropist and businessman from New Zealand, along with the other travelers, have misconceptions neither about Kim, nor the reality of life in North Korea. Such politics are in the backdrop of the film. While moving through the Taebaek Mountains, which stretch between North and South Korea, Morgan says, "Isn't it a ridiculous tragedy that we are able to traverse the whole mountain range while others cannot."
Idyllic scenes of beach-side relay races and young girls dancing merrily in military regalia depict a North Korean version of The Truman Show, cleverly crafted for the pleasure of foreign visitors. The effect is more than a bit eerie, especially if you're familiar with the reality of inequality pervasive throughout the country, where one in four children suffer from chronic food insecurity and hunger. Images of sumptuous chicken curries and plump, English-speaking Koreans raising frothy glasses of beer in a toast to Kiwis and Kimchi appear out of place.
The film doesn't apologize for Kim's regime, and the travelers are certainly aware of the country's deplorable violations. There is no getting around the fact that the funding to make the film inevitably wound up filling state coffers.
As the country has attempted to attract tourists to invigorate the economy, visitors might find themselves accidentally perpetuating a dictatorship with their vacation money.
The country already has several state-owned bureaus that control all tourism to North Korea, and every tourist is assigned at least two government minders whose sole purpose is to watch and control what the tourist sees and does. From the landscapes, to the people with whom tourists interact, the experience is curated to showcase a very specific, government-controlled image of North Korea.
And the buzz surrounding visiting North Korea has only increased. According to the website How to Go to North Korea, over 2,500 tourists visit the country each year. The site markets the country as a hip, off-the-beaten-path travel destination for hardcore travelers. Perhaps, the exhilaration of visiting "one of the last untouched places in the world" has an allure. But even if visitors are informed, their money is helping sustain the dire conditions and fear in which most of the country's citizens live.