The image presented to tourists and the outside world is far from the reality of life in North KoreaFelix Peckham

My choice to spend eight days in North Korea is unequivocally the most embarrassing and nauseatingly obnoxious thing I have ever done. Tourism in North Korea is patently wrong. Not only did my egoistic trip provide much needed foreign currency for Kim Jong Un’s regime to purchase foreign goods, but I became an accomplice to this human rights tragedy. My trip – and the subsequent photos and memorabilia – legitimised a regime that has waged a war of deception on wealthy and ignorant tourists. The only redeeming feature of this ill-conceived venture was its contribution to my world view, to the salience of humanity in politics, and to raising awareness of the plight of the North Korean people. I endeavour to continue.

The problem with having tourists going to North Korea, and experiencing what the government wants them to experience, is that reality becomes distorted. The sordid and bloody inhumanity of the events taking place on the Korean peninsula is reflective of the international system’s inability to facilitate humane outcomes. The Korean peninsula is a cesspit of social and political ineptness. Seoul, a true metropolis and capitalist super-hub, lies barely one hundred kilometres south of Pyongyang, a sad, dysfunctional show city of inequality and suffering. This is a jarring juxtaposition. This is the reality.

Sadly, this is the inevitable outcome of a world treated as if it were a geopolitical chess board. North Korea – barely a pawn – is a proxy in a game of regional and global hegemony. The United States, ‘queen’ of this chess board, is oblivious to the suffering of others. It’s simply not a currency it deals with; it computes only dollars and power. The attention that North Korea gathers in the media is only due to its nuclear program and farcical parades. If it weren’t for this, they’d receive a similar amount of attention as the ongoing famine in South Sudan.

“I became an accomplice to this human rights tragedy”

It’s actually quite shocking how tourists return from North Korea with a plethora of selfies with Korean people looking startled and awkward (it is, to say the least, frowned upon for Korean citizens to have their photo taken with tourists), and yet the only meaningful thing they have to say is that it’s “surprisingly normal.” Yes, the streets of Pyongyang have a healthy smattering of modern-looking cars from unrecognisable brands. Yes, there are tall apartment buildings that look newly constructed.

Tourist photos reflect a fabricated, "surprisingly normal" realityFelix Peckham

If you look closely, however, the illusion crumbles. Apartment blocks are windowless concrete prisons. Cars are reserved largely for elites, while an ox and cart is the egalitarian mode of transport. As I was driven through the countryside, swerving to and fro to avoid potholes the size of craters, along wide roads with no other traffic, we’d stop every half an hour or so, our journey barred by a guard station and barrier. This is the reality of North Korea: almost total prevention of free movement.

The treatment of Korea as a whole is problematic and indicative of a culture where human rights atrocities are too easily overshadowed and forgotten about. When most people think of Korea, they probably think of Gangnam Style or the BBC interviewee whose thoughts on the Korean crises were all rendered irrelevant once his children infamously interrupted.

North Korea needs to stop being treated like an arcane anomaly with a rotund dictator who has an alleged fondness for basketball and Swiss cheese. This is no different than reacting to a terror attack by claiming “we aren’t scared,” and placing a French or Belgian flag over your Facebook profile picture: it’s meaningless, petty, and non-conducive to a tangible solution. North Korea needs to be seen for what it is: a political system of crude oppression and brutality. Nuclear weapons cannot be at the heart of this dialogue – yes, they are a factor, but the priority has to be the North Korean people.

It needs to be clarified that the North Korean people are not the regime. The people are not political pawns. The people may have no voice or political agency, but it’s time we started talking about them. It is the people and their livelihoods which are at stake here.

There were moments on this grotesque odyssey through North Korea that, retrospectively, are unambiguously shocking. Unsurprisingly, this concerns the infamous reverence that North Korea furnishes its dead, psychotic totalitarian despots with.

On my first day in North Korea we were taken to a vast, single story collection of stone and marble buildings in the centre of Pyongyang. Security was intense: bristling Korean men in green tunics with lapels coated in medals bustled around us. We were searched multiple times before passing through a series of industrial sized machines that bombarded us with high-velocity air to clear away any residue of sand or dust that our clothes might be harbouring – God forbid a grain of dust come to fester on the embalmed corpses of the men who impoverished a nation.

Behind the spectacle of parades and the North Korean nuclear program, we forget the people suffering under the toxic regime.Felix Peckham

The cost of this shrine to Kim-il Sung and Kim Jong-Il is almost incomprehensible and unmistakably reprehensible – it’s like a US presidential library on steroids. The actual room where the embalmed leaders are kept is dark, enclosed by black marble that extends sixty feet into the air before meeting the ceiling. In the corners and along the walls stand Korean military guards: silent and still as statues. We were ordered to walk around the central plinth where the bodies rest. At each side we stopped and bowed once.

“My trip – and the subsequent photos and memorabilia – legitimised a regime that has waged a war of deception on wealthy and ignorant tourists.”

There is no clear-cut or easy solution to the conflict on the Korean peninsula. North Korea is geopolitically sandwiched between rising powers, declining regional revisionists, and the proxy of the global hegemon, led by an insecure narcissist with a limited grip on geopolitical quagmires (President Trump, that is). They conspires to create the perfect storm. The Demilitarised Zone – the world’s most heavily militarised border – is primed to erupt into a bloodbath, the cost of which will be borne by the North Korean people.

North Korea has little rational incentive to deploy its nuclear arsenal – which is of questionable extensiveness and integrity – for doing so would precipitate retaliation, followed by full-scale invasion which would be the end of Kim Jong Un’s ugly regime. Given that his sole motivation is to maintain his grasp on power, this is a course of action he is unlikely to pursue.

It’s a difficult truth to accept, but the most humane outcome of this conflict may well be a US-led ground-force invasion, which is ironic given the dismal track record of such operations. The more pressing question is how the United States, as well as China and South Korea, would deal with 25 million North Korean people exposed to the blinding reality of 21st century consumer capitalism. China would likely reinforce its Eastern border with North Korea, fearing a mass exodus of starving, desperate North Korean men, women and children, into one of its poorest regions.

In all likelihood, a solution will never be actively sought. Currently, there’s no cost-benefit upside of any one country choosing to pursue a strategy of unification. Sadly, this is the formula by which politics is conducted. The Korean peninsula is far too valuable in terms of rhetorical scapegoating for the United States to actively commit to trying to find a solution. More fundamentally, international politics is not structured to respond to human suffering. A cause of this is the fact that the United States spends $600 billion per annum on maintaining its military hegemony. The opportunity cost here is stark: the soft power that such money could buy is almost immeasurable

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