About Traveling to North Korea*

By Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary

I feel especially sorry for the family of former Korean War veteran Merrill E. Newman. I am thoroughly convinced that he said something that he should not have said, and that the North Korean government is pinning every dirty label on him for his service in that war. The fact that he was an adviser to Korean anti-communist guerrillas did not help to endear him to the North Korean regime. Strangely enough, hundreds of Americans visit North Korea every year. >From my experience, most of these are Americans of Korean descent who have expressed pro-North Korea views. Then there are those Americans of Korean descent and Americans (of no Asian descent) who have an “interest” in the country. If all this sounds strange, I should explain a few things.

Unlike Cuba, which has a very strict travel embargo against it, this is not true of North Korea. It is possible for Americans to be able to go via a third country to North Korea and not worry about U.S. government punishment of such travelers. About the only major restriction is not be able to use credit cards in North Korea, but this is about it. According to Simon Cockerell, the general manager of Koryo Tours, the detention of Merrill E. Newman is a very unusual circumstance and in general people who tour North Kore are “safe.” Koryo Tours has been in operation for over 20 years, and has helped tens of thousands of people visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea’s official name. Also abbreviated the DPRK). According to Mr. Cockerell, of all those who have traveled on Koryo Tours itineraries, one quarter were American.

Mr. Cockerell stated that before western tourists ever set foot in North Korea, they are taken to Beijing, China, where they are given a seminar and a list of things they can do and cannot do in the DPRK. The list highlights the things they cannot do in North Korea. Interestingly enough, Mr. Cockerell said that a number of those who had visited the DPRK were also American veterans of the Korean War. All tour groups, according to Mr. Cockerell, are thoroughly organized tours led by guides who know what can and cannot be done. These guides also have the phone numbers and contact information of the Swedish embassy in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang since there is no American official contact in North Korea (all matters for Americans stuck in North Korea are handled by the Swedes).

While Mr. Cockerell is concerned about Merrill E. Newman, he stated that this was an unusual case and he does not have more information on what the circumstances behind this are. Well, I can add one thing. When I traveled to the former Soviet Union a long time ago, we were warned by the tour operator at the time that should we be arrested for whatever reason that the tour operator would contact the U.S. embassy, but that was all they could do. I learned from bitter experience that sometimes regimes like the one in North Korea can arbitrarily arrest, imprison, torture and try someone for their own reasons. While a visiting tourist may be “safe” in the sense that they may not be the victim of an individual crime or any conflict that may arise because of a cross-cultural misunderstanding, this does not mean they cannot be arrested for a political or religious “violation.” Since so many North Koreans are arrested and disappear for political or religious violations, in my view tourists should not consider themselves above this possibility.

Another thing to think about is whether anyone wants to give money to the North Korean regime. Keep in mind that all money spent in North Korea also helps that regime stay in power. I know many people have curiosity about visiting the DPRK, and maybe it is worth it to them. Perhaps there are those who want to simply see how and why North Korea works. However, those who go must realize that they will deal with North Korean law, and by the same token can also be brutally punished under North Korean law if the North Korean government should find something they do not like (as seems to be the case with Merrill E. Newman). Those who are considering going to North Korea for any reason should ponder this before they go. In my case, I will most certainly never go to North Korea. I have shot off my mouth about what I think about the North Korean government in writing (as well as in my second book), and the North Korean government can most certainly find out about it.

*Since I wrote this article, Merrill E. Newman has since been released from North Korea and is again with his family. Thank goodness.

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