This is a question I grappled with before I decided to go, after I paid for the trip but before I left, and then the whole time I was there. On our last night in North Korea, a guy on my tour brought up this very question and we (from the US, Canada, Australia, Taiwan, and Bangladesh) had a very spirited debate about whether we doing something wrong by virtue of being in North Korea at that moment.
It’s a tough question.
The argument against visiting a place like North Korea would say that by going I am supporting the regime with the money I spend on the trip. While I can’t argue with this, I would argue that the amount of money my trip contributed to the regime is minimal. My tour cost about 1500 Euros after my student discount. That included my visa (50 Euros), the Beijing-Pyongyang round-trip flight, all meals, hotels, transportation, two North Korean guides, the bus driver, etc. And the British-owned tour company is making some profit despite having one of their British guides with us at all times as well. So I don’t see a ton of profit margin in there for the regime to be profiting off of me. No doubt they are to a minor extent, but not very much. Add to that the fact that only about 5000 non-Chinese tourists visit North Korea on an annual basis and you can see how minimal the impact tourism has on the country and its economy. Though tours vary widely and the profit margin on private tours is probably higher, even if 500 Euros from every non-Chinese tourist went into Kim Jong Un’s pocket, that only adds up to 2.5 million Euros. Hardly a fortune based on an unrealistically generous estimate.
North Korea is a known abuser of human rights. The day I write this, as a matter of fact, the US initiated sanctions against the regime and its leaders for this reason. I obviously do not condone reeducation camps or labor camps or the lack of freedom there. It’s abhorrent.
This wise Canadian I was on tour with presented us with two semi-similar examples with opposite advice. The Dalai Lama has long advocated for foreigners to visit Tibet to see what the Chinese have done (and are doing) to his homeland. On the other hand, Aung San Suu Kyi advised the outside world to boycott and not visit her homeland Myanmar while the military dictatorship was in power. Both of these leaders have Nobel Peace Prizes, yet each offered different advice. I suppose the Tibet problem is different from the Myanmar problem so they can’t be compared side-by-side, but still. This is a complicated issue.
I prefer to think that people to people connection under any context is powerful and makes the world a smaller place. People to people connection transcends government issues, increases compassion, and reduces the human impulse to categorize foes as “others” when in reality there are no others. We’re all one people.
In the end, there is no right or wrong answer here and I’m sure opinions vary widely.