Speaking Truth to Marketing

I haven’t updated this blog in a few months. I try to keep up with defector autobiographies, but it gets overwhelming as you might imagine. There’s more and more information coming out all the time. And I follow the news, but sometimes it seems it resolves too quickly to write about, and if anyone’s really interested in these topics, they’re already following the same RSS feeds and Twitter accounts I am… I don’t feel I have much to contribute to the discussion.

I do take it as a point of pride that Young Pioneer Tours and Michelle/Soominee have blocked me from their Instagram accounts. That only tells me they know they’re doing something wrong and are unwilling to talk about it.

Why would they do such a thing, you ask? Because occasionally I go after certain tour groups and certain accounts when I think they’re capitalizing on North Korea’s sordid reputation for bragging rights or ticket sales. The social media person at Young Pioneer Tours labeled me a “troll” for my activity, but to my mind, an Internet troll is someone who’s taking a position they don’t necessarily believe in, solely for the purpose of riling negative emotions in their target.

I know that’s not my intent, and I don’t think anyone else could honestly describe me that way.

Blood and Dementia: Rodman Blesses the Dictator
Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, wearing a medal from Dennis Rodman’s basketball tourney.
Currently, however, I’m in a back-and-forth with the social media rep for Koryo Tours on Facebook. It always surprises me when something like this happens, because my perception is that established agencies like this should be above mixing it up with “trolls” like me. They should field serious questions about tour dates and trip details. I feel that they’re skating on thin ice when they entertain moral debate with random nobodies like me.

Yet that’s what they’re doing.

I started out a little froth-mouthed, repeating my same old lines about how Pyongyang doesn’t represent the rest of the country, the same way Panem doesn’t represent the Districts. They pointed out, accurately, that they’re able to visit more and more cities throughout the DPRK all the time. The¬†North Korea Travel app says that, currently, there are 21 cities open to tourists. This is a dramatic improvement from even a year ago, when only seven or eight towns could be visited. Pyongyang recognizes that tourism dollars is a great potential source of income, they just have to balance their stranglehold on free information versus their need for money.

I was frankly surprised when the social media rep for Koryo Tours bothered to respond to me. They claimed that they’d traded frank conversations with a variety of people throughout the country; I’m sure they listened to jokes and shared a few beers, but the state controls what tourists are permitted to see (as much as they can), and everyone is highly cognizant of what happens to nationals who speak frankly. They had nothing to say to that.

They did claim that every single person who goes on their tours is well aware of the human rights “situation” in the DPRK. That may be, but the conversations between young, excitable thrill-seekers on their Instagram account don’t sound nuanced and respectful. Mostly it’s kids pointing out pictures to their friends and enthusing that they should fly out to North Korea. When I get into arguments with other users, they’re usually young, uninformed communist idealogues who are looking for any way to lash out against U.S. imperialism. I’m not favorably disposed toward imperialism, but is the answer to side with the nation cultivating ties with Assad’s Syria, testing missiles with Iranian scientists? These young Pol Pot-wannabes might see no problem with that, but I do and so I speak up.

Now, there are a lot of Instagram accounts based in North Korea, and these are useful for a number of reasons, not the least of which is to clear up the misconceptions that a willfully uninformed public gets from mainstream media.

51314-uri2btoursBut then these tour groups sensationalize certain events, and in doing so they trivialize the suffering that characterizes the DPRK’s regime. North Korea has death camps that have been operating twelve times longer than those in Nazi Germany, and Uri Tours’ greatest contribution is to promise to install two surfing instructors next year.

An estimated 200,000 men, women and children are unjustly imprisoned in re-education camps and labor camps, where they are (according to defector testimony) tortured, starved, raped, and worked to death. Yet Koryo Tours is booking tickets for the 2016 Pyongyang Marathon, which could double in foreign attendance from this year’s event. I don’t think the eager attendees to this are overly concerned with holding Pyongyang accountable for their crimes against humanity, despite this social media rep’s insistence.

Infants born into labor camps are automatically considered guilty under the DPRK’s songbun¬†system of social classification. In the face of this, I asked Koryo Tours’ social media rep whether there was a cognitive disconnect in offering tickets for their Kim Jong Il Birthday Tour.

I’ll let you know if I hear anything.

UPDATE: I heard back, and for this, Simon himself took the helm of their Facebook account.

Simon here. Christian, I really appreciate you making this so lively, but you’re off–base with much of this to be frank; I didn’t ‘try on’ a gold medal at all, its a cheap metal medal made in China for the players in that match, I haven’t schmoozed with cadres at all. I don’t know a single cadre and have never ‘chummed up’ to one therefore. Also you lazily accused me of ‘misrepresenting’ something in a panel discussion which hasnt even happpened yet! (this causes cognitive dissonance, convicted for a crime not yet committed!) Could you perhaps wait until I do in fact misrepresent something before denouncing me for it? Also stating that when you read the comments on IG photos you hear young idealogues lashing out at imperialism….come on, seriously? you are either reading way too much into these comments (most of which are pretty vanilla) or criticising the wrong people rather than those who posted such ‘anti-imperialist’ comments (not that I really remember seeing any of those, and certainly not supporting any of them). There’s no need to answer ‘potential’ questions either – I’d wait until the question is actually asked, also wait for the question to be a real question, not just an accusation, such as yours claiming that we see Western media as deceitful (I don’t. you could have asked this, but easier perhaps to just jump in and claim it), this isnt true, it’s an inaccurate claim, it’s baseless and you’re wrong about this. Just as you’re wrong that the panel in Shanghai will not be about reality – it will be about the reality that some of us can experience, which we know (hey, guess what? everybody in the world knows too!) is not the sum-total of reality in North Korea. Think this might be brought up in the panel discussion? you think right, of course it will!. As to the final point in the last comment above; no there isnt a cognitive disconnect. I know both of these situation exist, as do pretty much 100% of the tourists we take. both the super-negative situations (that once again, everyone knows about, this isnt a secret at all) and tourism and tours exist in North Korea, thus no cognitive dissonance here, but thanks for your concern anyway. It’s good to have plurality of opinions of course, and lively debate about North Korean issues. but if there is way to avoid lazily tarring people with the same tired old brush then maybe let’s seek for that. And let’s have a misrepresentation made before an accusation of a misrepresentation is made, otherwise it kind of looks like a trial and conviction based on no evidence at all. Anyway this post is way too long so I’ll sign off and leave it at that. Anyone interested in more ont hsi kind of debate though is welcome to come along to the event in Shanghai on Sunday, which should be full of sensible discussion about what some of us have experienced in North Korea and what some of us know about it. Or alternatively a wildly misrepresentative account of a paradise society where only good things happen and the rivers run with happiness and chocolate syrup. Let’s wait and see at least!

I agree that I should be more careful what I accuse people of, specifically. I can make a moral argument against a business practice, as I see it, but if I’m going to bring someone’s name into it, I’d better know exactly what I’m talking about.

At the same time, I don’t feel my points were addressed. It’s not enough to say “sure, we know about the babies in labor camps, and we know about tourism in NK, so therefore there’s no cognitive disconnect.” I was asking for a reconciliation between being aware of the human rights violations while setting up a tour on the birthday of the person who created them.

It occurs to me, belatedly, that they have to be very careful of what they say (whether in Beijing or elsewhere) because, as a trusted tour group into North Korea, they’re also going to be monitored. Journalists aren’t allowed into the DPRK, and both Koryo Tours and Pyongyang will screen for that in any register, which means that Pyongyang’s elite has access to the Internet outside of their borders to do this research, and there’s no reason they wouldn’t scrutinize the behavior of any tourism agency going into their country. I’d like to flatter myself that they’re even reading this blog, but that’s patently ridiculous.

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