[posttv url="http://www.washingtonpost.com/posttv/national/desk-to-desk-the-north-korean-travel-app/2014/05/06/c492322a-d582-11e3-8f7d-7786660fff7c_video.html" ]
A new app released today for Android and iOS is possibly the most comprehensive digital guide yet to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known as North Korea. It combines dazzling images and detailed write ups of tourist sites throughout the isolated country, along with mapping and features to help visitors build itineraries.
A built-in tour booking feature also means visitors can use a smartphone to help plan their visit to a country where the typical citizen is unable to access the global Internet at all.
Developed by British based travel technology startup Uniquely.Travel in conjunction with Russian-based software agency Magora Systems, the North Korea Travel App is undoubtedly a beautifully built product that can provide new insight into what aspects of North Korea are open to visitors. But while the press release associated with the app says it highlights "corners previously thought to be strictly offlimits to foreigners," that doesn't mean users will find forced labor camps among the hundreds of locations you can to add to an itinerary.
For all its sheen, the app is clearly aimed at making a buck by promoting tourism to the isolated nation -- which some argue is an ethically dubious proposal. After all, according to Human Rights Watch, North Korea has "no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom" and "more than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards."And a comprehensive United Nations report from earlier this year said the country is committing human rights violations “without any parallel in the contemporary world.”
But since the Pyongyang government directly profits from trips to the isolated country, every visitor is in effect providing much needed foreign currency to the regime -- although some argue that the amount of money represented by the relatively limited tourism industry is not significant enough to matter.
To its credit, the app does acknowledge that some may have ethical concerns about visiting the country. However, it does so by including an essay by Andrei Lankov, a Russian scholar on North Korea, who writes that "no sane person would doubt the highly repressive and brutal nature of the current regime in Pyongyang." Lankov ultimately argues that the cross cultural exchange facilitated by such tours outweighs other concerns -- and may even eventually result in the downfall of the North Korean government.
But not everyone agrees with that assessment. B.R. Myers, a North Korea scholar who has visited the country to do research, told the Post last year that while tourists and foreign tour operators "assuage their consciences by telling themselves they are furthering the cause of peace or reform by building trust, breaking down barriers, and so on," that interpretation is "nonsense."
Instead, Myers argues that tourists are only allowed to meet with highly vetted loyalists -- and that visitors can also be used for propaganda purposes, because their visits to cultural sites connected with the regime may appear as though they are paying homage.
Beyond the larger ethical questions, traveling to North Korea isn't necessarily the safest tourist destination for all visitors. Just last year, an 85-year-old American who was a Korean War veteran was detained for more than a month in a North Korean jail after being removed from a tour group that was about to leave the country.