DPRK Tourism & Soft Power

By Charles Park

The Rare Glimpse Propaganda is a genre of propaganda that has been effectively used by the critics of North Korea. Through photos or videos sneaked out, the intention is to marginalize North Korea as some isolated if not desolate, decrepit, and oppressive place, a strange place populated by almost brainwashed or mindless minions dominated by a ruthless dictatorship.

In the early years of DPRK tourism, tourists or journalists disguised as tourists tried to sneak out photos and stories, providing “rare glimpses” to the rest of us on the outside world who knew or saw very little about the country. We saw many photos of stoic North Koreans from a distance, passing glimpses of villages, or drabby parts of the city. We heard of minders with short leashes and temperaments and border guards who confiscate memory cards or delete unauthorized the photos. Such were used to demonstrate the brutal and oppressive weight of North Korean totalitarianism.

Thus, Rare Glimpse Propaganda has been used to reinforce our stereotypes of North Korea. By revealing negative images or stories about North Korea, it reaffirmed our prejudices about the country. “Negative” images proved the oppressiveness and poverty of the country. “Positive” aspects discovered were explained away as conspiracies, or just too weird. The effect was to paint the country in a negative light and perpetuate the negative image of the country. Intended or not, doing so might make it easy to promote and perpetuate hostile policies against the country.

In recent months, however, we see a new kind of rare glimpses. We see minders who become friends and border guards who don’t seem to care what kind of photos you take out, even if they show the country and people in aspects more comparable to South Korea in the 1970s. You even sometimes see videos, Instagrams, etc. posted instantly on the internet. And we see tourists increasingly interacting with the average North Korean – eating, singing, dancing, and talking with them. Then we also see Pyongyang with its new jangmadangs, restaurants, and prosperity. Best of all, we see tourists and North Koreans less suspicious of each other, interacting with increasing spontaneity. Etc.

Through these new kinds of rare glimpses, we learn that you don’t have to bow down to the Kim Il Sung statue, on personal (unspoken) political and religious grounds, and especially if you are an official, perhaps. We learn that you could talk back to the minders, respectfully. We learn that North Koreans are individuals and humans too, not stoic robots. We learn that DPRK totalitarianism may perhaps really be a very strong form of authoritarianism, where you might be relatively free to talk and be yourself as long as you stay away from taboo subjects. We learn that not all North Koreans are desperate and starving (note DPRK is still deeply food insecure) but many at least do o.k. and are happy. We also learn how patriotic and loyal these North Koreans are, at least where tourists are permitted to visit and film. We learn that there just might be normality despite all the internal and external restrictions. Etc.

The result of all this is that the rare glimpse genre as it relates to photos and tourism has been transformed from one of negative propaganda against DPRK to one of positive propaganda. It has been turned from a propaganda weapon used against North Korea to one of the very few sources of soft power for DPRK. This is a kind of coup, whether intended or not.

In terms of tourism, DPRK is on the right path and people should be encouraged to travel there, as part of the overall p2p (people to people) diplomacy and friendship. To maximize tourist inflows, in addition to developing tourist regions and facilities, DPRK could start with make tourism laws and regulations standardized, regularized, and transparent – with independent arbitration, judicial institutions established – to protect and promote tourists and tourism. DPRK should permit the kind of tourism that exists in Cuba, Vietnam, and China, permitting tourists to roam about freely, spend their money freely, and talk to any people they meet freely – as long as they respect the laws of their country and do not insult the national leadership or icons (as in Lèse majesté in Thailand re: the insulting of the king).

In other words, DPRK should continue to develop the tourism sector to become a normal country, at least in that respect. This then could be taken as a template and duplicated in other commercial sectors. It could also be used as a template for gradual political liberalization.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia.Org