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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

The North Korea Travel App

by | May 9th, 2014 | 07:00 am

Disclaimer: North Korea: Witness to Transformation does not promote or officially recommend the purchase of “North Korea Travel” .

“North Korea Travel” is a new Android and IPhone app promising to offer the most comprehensive guide yet to tourism in the DPRK (a link to the app is here for those interested). And comprehensive it certainly is: contributions from NK News’ Chad O’Carroll, Koryo Tours’ Simon Cockerell, and extensive GPS site mapping by Curtis Melvin among others have charted and logged roughly 350 monuments, hotels, restaurants, and attractions accessible to tourists throughout the country.

There are a couple interesting threads to this story. First, as advertised, tourism in North Korea has clearly expanded beyond Pyongyang. Half of the total spots cataloged are still concentrated around the capital, but dozens more dot along the coastlines, the Chinese border, and well into the interior of the country. Besides Pyongyang, the Rason Special zone has a relatively high concentration of sites open for tourists, including the Rason City Market — the only one in the country that allows entry to foreigners. Also of note is that many of these sites, especially those outside of the capital, are somewhat shabby and unappealing representations of the country, challenging the notion that one will only be taken to pretty Potemkin villages.

And then, of course, there’s the controversy. In terms of publicity, this was a clever flagship app for Uniquely.Travel, a tourism startup specializing in countries off the beaten path with further plans to release guides for Iran, Myanmar, and Libya. The always-simmering and at times explosive argument surrounding the merits of North Korean tourism never fails to generate copy, and the release of this app on Wednesday did it in spades (CS Monitor here, Guardian here, Korea Times here, WaPo here).

So, should we jump in and draw sides over North Korea Travel, a product at base designed to get more Western tourist dollars flowing into the DPRK? On that score, the reader has most likely long ago decided for him or herself. For those still on the fence, Andrei Lankov provides a lengthy piece in the app’s “Ethics” section, ultimately supporting tourism by drawing connections to his  experiences with Western tourists as a citizen in the former Soviet Union. As a counterweight, we point to a recent interview of North Korean defectors on the subject. While the article claims their views are “divided”, the actual responses skew decidedly negative, citing tacit financial support of the regime and lack of any substantive interaction with average citizens.

Regardless of one’s views on the ethics, it is hard to deny that giving prospective tourists more access to information on the country is not a good thing. Arguably, much of the motivation in traveling to North Korea is the adventure of the unknown. But with a more comprehensive view on the country such as the app provides, prospective travelers get a better sense of what to really expect. Surely, I came across a number of impressive – or just plain bizarre — spots that piqued my interest, but for every one of those there were far more dreary statues, run-down building facades, and seemingly deserted “nightlife” locales. After a few hours exploring, I was personally happy to remain an armchair tourist. Ultimately, for anyone willing to brave the ethical dilemmas and commit to the expensive tour packages, its important to make an informed decision as to whether a trip to North Korea is your cup of tea in the first place.

Comments (9)

I wish you would have given us a summary.

Joshua Stanton May 12, 2014 | 7:42 pm


Thanks for not giving another summary.

It sure seems that you are agreeing with me that our ongoing policy won’t work because there is not the international cooperation and/or will to make it happen. If that is the case then more articles (elsewhere) telling us how to tighten/improve the sanctions are just a lot of hot air, an opportunity for various “North Korea watchers” to add another publication to their resume. They know it won’t work, but they publish it anyway. Certainly we all “hope” it will work, but “hope” makes for pretty ineffective policy.

Re the NSC, I think it is wonderful that they “agree…that economic pressure will be needed to coerce NK to denuclearize,” but then DO IT. Don’t just talk about it and “agree” about it. If, on the other hand they “agree” but don’t really believe it can be implemented, then shouldn’t they come up with a new policy?

I must also say I am truly impressed that the learned gentlemen (I am not aware of any ladies in this area) at the NSC are able to predict the cause and effect of such action(s) so accurately. Oh, sorry. I guess they only AGREED it would work. They don’t KNOW it will work, just as their predecessors at the NSC confidently predicted the imminent fall of the regime multiple times over the past decades.

Is it really possible that such a ruthless regime, that uses political class triage in hard times and good, would really just roll over on its back and say “We give up?” REALLY? Isn’t it more likely that they would be happy to see their least favorite classes at the bottom of their society just suffer and die while they continue to sip Courvoisier and eat fresh sushi? Is that a price WE (the arrogant, self-righteous, “good” people living comfortably here in the US) can/should impose on these helpless people? How many would we consider to be a “fair” price for the demise of the regime? 10,000, 100,000, 1,000,000? We’ve seen in the 1990s that the regime didn’t bat an eye at human losses in the millions.

Clearly we need a new, multi-pronged strategy to try to resolve this situation as peacefully and as promptly as possible. Just standing on the ramparts and saying “no talks while you have nucs” doesn’t cut it. It may sound good from the pulpit on Sundays, but it is also a morally bankrupt policy.

You also mention “”short-term profiteering,” “exceptionalist” policies, etc. Regarding the “short-term profiteering,” I’m not sure what specific examples you are referring to. If there was and/or is any short-term profiteering, and it was/is illegal, then the appropriate authorities should take the necessary action. If the actions were not illegal, than other than moral indignation what is the problem? I am highly morally indignant, actually outraged, by the actions of the big banks, the boys on Wall Street, and their collaborators in Washington during the recent financial crisis, but I notice that none of them are in jail unless you consider Westchester, the Hamptons, and Stamford in that light. I guess someone in authority here determined they had done nothing illegal. Far be it for me to question the wisdom of officials in Washington.

(As somewhat of an aside, with regards to the term “profiteering,” I can’t help thinking of the scene in the PBS series “Mr. Selfridge” where Mr. Selfridge is put down by Lord Loxley for being engaged in “commerce,” as opposed to being part of the hereditary landed gentry who don’t need to worry about making money. They just have it and deserve to have it, and don’t have to dirty their hands making any. As it turns out Mr. Selfridge is only engaged in legal commerce while Lord Loxley gets involved in illegal and certainly immoral kickbacks while ostensibly helping the war effort, resulting in British troops going into WWII with shoddy boots.)

Regarding “exceptionalist” policies, doesn’t this confirm my observation that there is no effective international agreement on what to do about the DPRK leadership? I would again point out that as long as China is an exceptionalist, the current policy will be ineffective. And why would China change it’s mind? Do they really want a unified Korea under the ROK on their border? Do they want US troops on the Yalu River? What happened last time US troops crossed the 38th parallel? (What happened when the Soviet Union send nuclear missiles to Cuba?) Would China like to see the ROK have its own nuclear weapons/missiles inherited from the DPRK?

Regarding the DPRK being “nastier and better-armed,” and having a more “successful border crackdown that slashed smuggling, damaged markets, and stopped refugee flows,” and who bears the responsibility for this, isn’t it just as likely that there are other causes for these actions on the part of the DPRK leadership? Isn’t it possible that all the focus on refugees and its negative image for the DPRK may have caused them to tighten their borders on their own? (Does this mean we should criticize/blame the dedicated people working to help DPRK refugees for doing this publicly?) Isn’t it possible that the Chinese, who want to stop the refugee flow, and who were constructing fences along their side of the Yalu before the North Koreans did it on their side, are a more logical instigator in these border tightening? (Aren’t the Chinese deathly afraid of masses of North Koreans fleeing to China in the highly unlikely event of a collapse of the DPRK government?) Is it possible that cadre in the DPRK wanted to get the “short-term profits” from any smuggling, rather than the letting it go to the starving populace in the border areas? Isn’t it true that the DPRK government continues to limit markets, as it has done since its founding, whether in legal or smuggled goods, with only occasional modest loosenings?

With regards to coming up with a long-term, consistent, effective policy to deal with the DPRK, isn’t it possible that the DPRK is far better equipped to deal with us than we are to deal with them? If I were a diplomatic personnel Team Scout I’d have to pick the DPRK’s personnel. They are more dedicated, more consistent, more persistent, more motivated, than anyone on our “team.” Our players (no pun intended) are mostly part-timers, in positions for only 2-4 years before they move on to bigger and better things because career advancement is our number one concern, not an effective, long-term strategy. Why would we want to have real specialists in foreign policy when we can have nice, well-rounded diplomats who are a pleasure to have at a cocktail party.

You seem to have summarized your idea of what our policy should be as, “Pressure it enough to crack it or cause a realization that change is the only way, and then maybe engagement becomes plausible.” Are there really only these two options? Isn’t it possible that this situation can and will go on and on and on with no end in sight? And why? Because if we only give ourselves those two options, neither of which do we control, we can only fail, year after year after year after year…

And in conclusion, why are two white guys in America arguing about this? Isn’t this something that the South Koreans should take the leadership on? Shouldn’t we be deferring to them and what they think would be best for Korea and the Koreans? Don’t they have the most critical stake in the outcome? And exceptionalist or not, if they don’t have the answer(s), being much more intimately involved in the situation, how is it that we think we will resolve a situation that they can’t?

Walter L. Keats May 12, 2014 | 2:38 pm


It hasn’t worked because there is — as you note — no long-term strategy. Nominally, the members of the Security Council agree that economic pressure will be needed to coerce NK to denuclearize. The only policy that ever showed the potential to force real change was financial pressure.

But this broader consensus competes with the grasping for short-term profiteering and evanescent diplomatic gains that have not changed North Korea for the better, have probably helped to make it nastier and better-armed, have helped pay for a successful border crackdown that slashed smuggling, damaged markets, and stopped refugee flows, and have thereby set back the stated objectives of reform and disarmament. When it comes to North Korea, everyone’s an exceptionalist — South Korea says Kaesong is an exception, China says its mining ventures are an exception, Japan says abductee ransom is an exception, and we say all our various election-year nuke deals are exceptions. North Korea has done a terrific job of appealing to the selfish, short-term greed of diplomats, thus breaking up the enforcement of that broader strategy.

You can’t simultaneously sanction and subsidize the same regime at the same time. That’s not a policy, it’s a diagnosis. Pressure it enough to crack it or cause a realization that change is the only way, and then maybe engagement becomes plausible. Until then, it’s counterproductive, and tourism to North Korea is just a place for unethical hipsters to go slumming and gawk at another nation’s misery. So if you’re poking holes in the sanctions, don’t complain that they leak.

Joshua Stanton May 11, 2014 | 10:14 am


Thanks for the “summary,” although it is so succinct that it is not very clear. I do gather, however, that you are opposed to tourism to the DPRK.

As I stated in my initial comment I believe the discussion should not be about “fine tuning” the various switches and levers in our DPRK policy but rather how to have an effective, long-term strategy that aims for a peaceful resolution of the situation in our lifetimes. I don’t think that any one who has done any research on the DPRK would disagree that the leadership is a despicable group, is in need of change, and that in general sanctions are and have been an appropriate, whether effective or not, action.

The problem is that what the collective “we” in the international community have been doing for a half century or more HAS NOT WORKED. The North Korean leadership is just as strong or stronger today than it was at the end of the Korean War. They now are on the verge of having a useable atomic/nuclear weapon with the means to deliver it significant distances, possibly even to the continental US, not to mention South Korea and Japan.

In recent weeks/months other “notables” in the DPRK watching/commenting community have suggested further tweaks to the current sanctions regime. Most seem to be aware that this is all talk unless the Chinese, and a few other countries, make a dramatic about-face and decide to implement real sanctions against the DPRK. In the absence of China’s strong participation we will continue to see the same-old, same-old for countless decades to come, with the certainty that the DPRK will have a workable and deliverable nuclear device sooner rather than later.

How is that good for the world or for the Korean people?

On the other hand, why are we not also pursuing a strong, parallel “water-on-rock” strategy to lay the groundwork for possible change in North Korea though interactions of all kinds with as broad a range of North Koreans as possible? We, self-identified as “the good,” have wasted a half-century so far with our quasi-religious refusal to deal with “the evil” (“shunning” might be an apt term to describe our policy). Let’s get out of church, get our hands dirty, and do something to make Northeast Asia a better, safer place for the Korean people and our descendants.

And in summary/conclusion, tourism, inbound and outbound, is and should be a part of that new policy. (Why did we refuse to allow the Pyongyang Symphony to visit the US? There were at least 150 elite North Koreans who would have “seen the elephant.” Think of them walking down 5th Avenue, or in Central Park, or seeing the Statue of Liberty. That would have been worth a lot more than some empty speeches at the UN.)

Walter L. Keats May 11, 2014 | 9:12 am


I’ll summarize: The road to nowhere begins with one small step. Someone show me any evidence that tourism has made any significant positive impact on North Korea — if you can — and I’ll show you far stronger evidence of positive impact from illegal interaction that the regime is trying to stamp out.

With money it earns from tourism.

Joshua Stanton May 9, 2014 | 6:01 pm


I have been meaning to address the issue of tourism to the DPRK and ethics for some time but haven’t found the right forum yet. In the interim, I would point out that tourism is only one form of interaction with local people in the DPRK. Other forms of interaction would include diplomats, business people, educators, NGOs, cultural exchanges, military exchanges, etc.

It seems to me that the issue shouldn’t be to single out DRPK tourism, trying to determine whether it is more or less moral/ethical than other forms of interaction, or just plain immoral/unethical period. Rather we should be to question the wisdom/morality/ethics of decades of a failed policy of Swiss-cheese sanctions (the Chinese being the holes) and our efusal to talk to the North Korean leadership until they give up their nuclear ambitions (a non-starter if there ever was one).

How is it more moral/ethical to have arrived at a state today where we are in more danger from a nuclear DPRK, than we were several decades ago? In my clear-sighted opinion we should have had a parallel plan “I” implemented long ago to include a broad range of interactions with North Koreans of all kinds, as many as possible, so that at the appropriate juncture (e.g. the death of Kim Jung Il?) there might have been some consensus that change was needed an appropriate, a la the Soviet Union and Gorbachev. Instead we still don’t have any “friends” in the DPRK, let alone “contacts” to facilitate such a transition.

I would agree that most tourists don’t meet “influential” people in the DPRK, but you can be sure that any North Korean who just sees a foreigner (AKA someone who sticks out like a sore thumb) has been influenced in some way, most likely positive in that the foreigner is an official guest of the country, not a soldier in uniform who fought his/her way in.

I can also assure you that the guides/minders and others involved in tourism are not just cogs in the wheels. In my experience (29 visits over 17 years) these usually younger people are the sons and daughters of more elite leaders in the DPRK, trusted to deal with foreigners. In keeping with my philosophy of long term change through sustained interactions some of these people may become more and more influential over time (which we will certainly have plenty of under our current policy). If we don’t plant the seeds we will never see the harvest.

Walter L. Keats May 9, 2014 | 4:15 pm


It sure would. Including not just defectors, but locals too!

Chad May 9, 2014 | 2:26 pm


Thanks for pointing this out, Chad. While I would still say that the responses generally lean negative, there are certainly a few that point to the potential tranformative effects of people-to-people exchange and other sentiments similar to what Lankov argues in his essay. It would be very interesting to get a larger sample of defector responses on this subject!

Kevin Stahler May 9, 2014 | 12:14 pm


Hey, thanks for taking a look at the App.

One point: the defector survey you site at Guardian is actually an NK News one! However, the un-edited survey featured 11 respondents, 6 of whom were against tourism, one on the fence, and four in favor.

You can read the full feature here:




Chad O'Carroll May 9, 2014 | 11:35 am


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