Is visiting North Korea effective?

post by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T20:50:23.521Z · score: 0 (14 votes) · EA · GW · 13 comments

This is a question post.

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  Answers
    Denis Drescher's answer
12 comments

Epistemic status: exploring, probably a bad idea. This is definitely not a recommendation.

If you find yourself seriously considering a trip to North Korea, please reach out so I can try to talk you out of it.


Here's a paraphrased quote from South Korean journalist Choi Hak-Rae (given around minute 37:00 of the third episode of National Geographic's mini-doc on North Korea):

They offer the best of the best when foreigners visit their country, even if they are starving to death.

It's possible for (some?) Westerners to visit North Korea, though the US State Department strongly discourages it:

Given that Western tourists seem to receive "tour guides" & elaborate guided tours for the duration of their stay, it seems possible that more Western visits to North Korea would strain the resources of the Kim regime. (Though it's hard to assess what this expenditure would be fungible with – seems roughly as likely that resources would be redirected from food programs as they would be from other regime priorities.)

The visit would be relatively easy to put together, logistically (there are flights to Pyongyang from China). The intervention is definitely neglected.

Experience in North Korea would probably also build one's career capital (by boosting reputation, signaling risk tolerance, and (perhaps) establishing relationships in the DPRK & China). This seems especially salient for folks who are aiming at diplomatic & public policy careers.

A visitor who is detained in-country (not the norm but not unheard of, from my very rough understanding) could also have positive altruistic impacts, by generating international pressure on the regime. But being detained would in all likelihood be extremely unpleasant & perhaps fatal, so maybe it's better to not include possible altruistic upsides from detention in the calculus.

Answers

answer by Denis Drescher · 2019-04-06T12:48:39.522Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I’ve written a comparative article on plausible intervention for human rights in North Korea. The activists I interviewed had already considered running campaigns to discourage travel to North Korea because tourism is an important source of foreign currency for the government. (They can force their citizens to stage North Korean life for tourists while paying them in their worthless national currency, so that they make a large profit on tourism.)

To my knowledge, these activists never pursued that strategy because it may actually be an attention hazard and thus actually increase tourism, and because it might strain relationships with organizations that think that tourists may show North Koreans that other ways of life are possible. But I find that implausible because almost no one is allowed to travel within North Korea (and tourists are even more tightly controlled and restricted) so that it’s always only the same most loyal North Koreans who come into contact with tourists.

But I discuss other more promising interventions in the article. For more detailed, reliable, and up-to-date information you can get in touch with, e.g., Saram as I’m not myself active in the space.

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comment by gwern · 2019-04-04T19:51:20.211Z · score: 26 (10 votes) · EA · GW

The NK government permits and actively encourages foreign tourism for the cold hard foreign currency, external & internal propaganda benefits, and use of hostage-taking, because it calculates that the benefits of those outweigh any drawbacks of a closely-watched tourist being escorted along beaten paths from propaganda site to propaganda site. An inexperienced non-native foreign tourist visiting for non-tourist reasons presumably believes the opposite. Who is more likely to be correct?

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-04T20:41:57.915Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I love this framing.

When I think about it this way, definitely seems like DPRK government is more likely to be making the savvier bet.

comment by Gregory_Lewis · 2019-04-05T09:45:37.283Z · score: 12 (4 votes) · EA · GW

'Getting experience in North Korea' is perhaps one of the worst things you can do if you want to work as a diplomat (or in government more broadly).

Taking US diplomats in particular (although this generalises well to other government roles, and to other countries) people in these roles - ditto ~half the federal government - require a security clearance. Going on your own initiative to a hostile foreign power (circumventing state department attempts to prevent US citizens going without their express dispensation due to safety concerns whilst you are at it) concisely demonstrates you are a giant security risk.

This impression gets little better (and plausibly even worse) if the explanation you offer for your visit is a (probably misguided) attempt to conduct tacit economic warfare against the NK government.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T20:52:06.491Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

See also this Quora answer about visiting North Korea, which gives interesting context.

comment by kbog · 2019-04-02T22:39:03.924Z · score: -1 (9 votes) · EA · GW

Uh, sorry but how is this even a question? Is visiting South Korea "effective"? Is visiting Nigeria "effective"? Of course not, they're vacations. What exactly would you do in North Korea... smuggle USBs and tell them about freedom and mukbangs??

it seems possible that more Western visits to North Korea would strain the resources of the Kim regime.

1. I imagine you'll be paying them 2. Is this supposed to be a good thing?

Experience in North Korea would probably also build one's career capital (by boosting reputation, signaling risk tolerance, and (perhaps) establishing relationships in the DPRK & China). This seems especially salient for folks who are aiming at diplomatic & public policy careers.

No one is going to get hired for taking a trip to a foreign country, that's something you put on a freshman college application not a resume in the real world. You don't get a reputation for taking a vacation, except maybe a bad one if you brag about taking a sightseeing trip to a dangerous country against the advice of the actual State Department. No one needs "risk tolerant" policymakers, what risks do you think policymakers have to deal with?

What exactly does China have to do with DPRK? Is DPRK somehow crawling with Chinese officials that you are going to befriend on the street??? And what are you even going to do with a relationship, "hey man I really hope you stop your nuclear weapons program" ???

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T23:24:33.842Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW
And what are you even going to do with a relationship, "hey man I really hope you stop your nuclear weapons program" ???

In my (weakly held) model of diplomacy & international business, much progress gets mediated through personal friendships.

comment by kbog · 2019-04-05T17:50:38.661Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Personal friendships with tour guides and hotel staff?

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T23:21:16.816Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW
1. I imagine you'll be paying them

I believe that historically, the DPRK government has covered much of the costs of such trips.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T23:23:30.852Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
No one needs "risk tolerant" policymakers, what risks do you think policymakers have to deal with?

I pretty strongly disagree with this, but worry that there's too much inferential distance between us presently to engage in a useful discussion.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T23:22:38.272Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
What exactly does China have to do with DPRK? Is DPRK somehow crawling with Chinese officials that you are going to befriend on the street???

The most common route for US citizens to get into North Korea is through China. Depending on how one structures their trip, they could end up working closely with Chinese guides, etc.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T23:20:36.625Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA · GW
What exactly would you do in North Korea... smuggle USBs and tell them about freedom and mukbangs??

In this Quora answer, there's some interesting stuff about chatting with their North Korean guides & other North Koreans about what life is like in the US.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-02T23:25:32.434Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Also, smuggling anything in is probably a bad idea.