Unbearable lightness of Pyongyang tourism during nuke crisis

Unbearable lightness of Pyongyang tourism during nuke crisis

When the American university student Otto Warmbier died back in June soon after coming home in a coma following a 17-month detention in North Korea, the China-based tour company that took him there announced it would no longer sell such tours to United States citizens. Then I started paying attention to the Western enthusiasm to see the world’s last remaining iron curtain. However, I was not aware that selling excursions to North Korea had become “a thing” in Turkey too until I read travel notes of my colleague Savaş Özbey in daily Hürriyet last week.  

Hats off to Özbey for his intellectual curiosity, which drove him all the way to the mysterious republic of the Kim dynasty. The timing of his articles was especially striking when considered from a global political perspective since he went there after Pyongyang had launched a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile on July 28 that experts said had the potential to reach the West Coast - maybe even the East Coast of the U.S. 

However, reading Özbey’s coverage of North Korea from Washington at a time when Americans are discussing whether they are on the brink of a world-changing nuclear war was quite disorientating to say the least! He wrote extensively about how splendid and orderly the infrastructure in Pyongyang was as well as how jolly the North Koreans he came across in the streets were. Özbey described Pyongyang’s streets as the cleanest among almost 40 countries he has seen so far. 

This is the trouble of having to report from a totalitarian country where you are allowed to stay for a short period of time when you cannot escape your custodians whose mission is to conceal the ugly realities of the regime and spin your perception by showing you a facade of honesty. 

Although Özbey wrote about the ban to bring books inside North Korea as well as the lack of communication with the outside world and pitiful limits of internet access, his articles - along with photos of him having fun in the pool with a local family- left me with an overall feeling of desperately wanting to discover this little oasis on earth. 

Thanks to President Donald Trump, it did not take too long for me to come back to how dramatically things are otherwise seen from this side of the Pacific. First, we heard his infamous “fire and fury” threat, which Kim Yong-un did not take lightly. The young dictator indeed raised the bid by declaring they are ready to ignite a plan for a missile strike near the island of Guam, which happens to be a U.S. territory in the Pacific. 

In case anybody wonders where Turkey stands vis-à-vis the recent brawl between Washington and Pyongyang, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement on July 29 condemning the ballistic missile launch of North Korea. Ankara seems to be on the same page with a general understanding in the West for pushing Pyongyang toward a diplomatic solution. Although Turkey has direct political consultations and an accredited embassy to North Korea (the one in Seoul, South Korea) since the early 2000s, the Turkish government so far has not shown any interest to depart on a different path from NATO for deepening relations with the one-party state. 

Personally, I do not see any particular danger for Turks to travel to North Korea for tourism as long as they are eager to comply with their rigid rules. After all, it was not until recently that the State Department restricted the use of U.S. passports to travel into or through North Korea, which will be effective as of Sept. 1. In the meantime, North Koreans will probably be busy chasing opportunities to go after yet again Americans more than anybody else. However, fellow Turks who have aspirations of hiking in North Korean forests need not forget that Warmbier was arrested and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor after being convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.

All in all, what really bothers me in travel journalism is the risk of losing sight of the open-air prison-like nature of regimes like the one in Pyongyang. There is no way for me to believe that a nation would even be close to jolliness without having access to their basic rights and freedoms. Any heavenly city where I cannot read the book I want, call the people I like or speak up my mind would just feel like hell after all.