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The Dennis Rodman problem: Is it unethical to visit North Korea?

Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman watch North Korean and U.S. players in an exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang last February. (Jason Mojica/AP/Vice Media)

American basketball star Dennis Rodman is in North Korea yet again, this time with a group of former NBA players for a goodwill game. When he first visited, in February 2013, his trip revived a question that North Korea-watchers have debated for 20 years now: Is it ethical to go? This is an updated version of a story we ran at the time trying to answer that question.

Since then, Rodman's motives have become less ethically ambiguous; he's now advocating somewhat openly on behalf of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But it's a question that dogs his fellow basketball travelers, as well as every tourist, academic or, yes, journalist who wants to visit the hermit kingdom.

Whatever the impact of Rodman's trip, it reminds me of a debate that I've heard many times among people who work on issues relating to North Korea: What are the ethical pros and cons of visiting the world's most oppressive country? Although there is no consensus view, and a significant number of North Korea-watchers say that visiting the country helps to open it up, I often hear experts argue that tourism is unethical because it directly funds and offers free propaganda to the government.

Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations, with whom I exchanged e-mails about the ethics of visiting North Korea, wrote back that "there are plenty of ethical dilemmas and few answers when it comes to dealing with the DPRK," referencing the country's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. He explained: "Any interaction with North Korea involves an element of moral hazard. It was a central question that dominated and polarized the humanitarian aid community from the start of its interaction with North Korea in response to the famine in the mid-1990s."

“Is sending the Harlem Globetrotters and Dennis Rodman to the DPRK strange? In a word, yes,” said Vice founder Shane Smith, who visited the country in 2009 for his company, which has made a name for itself by blending journalism with adventure tourism and which sponsored Rodman's February trip. “But finding common ground on the basketball court is a beautiful thing.”

So is tourism to North Korea ethically good, actively unethical or in some neutral middle area? Here's what people smarter and more knowledgeable than myself have said about it.

The debate often turns on money. Trips to North Korea are expensive, typically paid for in cash and must go entirely through the North Korean government, which badly needs every scrap of foreign currency it can get. Handing several thousand dollars to a regime that runs a rogue nuclear weapons program and a vast network of gulags is distasteful for obvious reasons, though some point out that this is a relatively small amount of money unlikely to determine Kim Jong Un's ultimate fate. Either way, there are larger issues here.

Many scholars share the view of Andrei Lankov, who has written that, because Kim's legitimacy rests in part on his regime's argument that North Koreans are very rich and everyone else very poor, exposing North Koreans to the truth will make them doubt their government. Lankov and others also argue that meeting foreigners can help North Koreans learn that Americans are not evil imperialists and amoral beasts, chipping away at the North's internal arguments for its military-first policies. Chad O'Carroll, who runs the site NKNews and hosts tourist trips into the country, says that in addition it can help the individual North Koreans who rely on tourism for income.

I also asked B.R. Myers, a North Korea scholar who has done research inside the country, about the ethics of tourism. He was not a supporter. "Many tourists -- and all of the 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," Myers told me via e-mail. "This is nonsense."

"For one thing," Myers wrote, "all the tourists are talking to the same tiny bunch of hardened cadres, guides and spies. For another, individual interactions, however friendly they might be, neither reflect nor have the slightest effect on how people feel as members of one group, race or nation vis a vis another."

Myers, like other North Korea-watchers who have visited the country but discourage tourists from going, didn't let himself off the hook. "I don't feel my travel there is 100% ethically sound, by the way," he wrote. He, like others who generally discourage travelers, suggested that the benefits of seeing the country firsthand probably allow, ethically speaking, for maybe one trip.

Myers also argued that visiting can actually reinforce North Korean propaganda, not upend it:

What many American travelers overlook is that by respectfully visiting North Korean tourist sites in view of the locals, they are serving to reinforce the personality cult, just as those foreigners did in earlier decades who allowed themselves to be photographed while grinning down at one of Kim Il Sung's books. It is even worse when Americans succumb, as far too many do, to their guides' pressure to bow to a monument or lay plastic flowers at one. To the groups of schoolchildren standing around this is a manifestation of American tribute or penance.

I heard a variation of this concern from some (but far from all) North Korea-watchers when Google chief Eric Schmidt visited: that his presence, no matter what critical things he said, would unintentionally bestow legitimacy on the Kim regime, which would portray his trip as a public tribute. Rodman has surely been used to do the same.

Some North Korea-watchers also raise the delicate issue of race. North Korea's state ideology is deeply rooted in the idea of racial purity. Case in point: One Pyongyang man shouted, when he saw Rodman on the street, "He looks like a monster!” Seeing several very tall African-American men who are also friendly, intelligent and plainly wealthy (even on his worst day, Rodman is leagues above what North Korean propaganda tells its citizens to expect) might put a big hole in that propaganda.

Still, Muhammad Ali's 1995 visit didn't seem to have any demonstrable effect on North Koreans' willingness to absorb state propaganda, although Ali did not exactly acquit himself well as a diplomat.

So much of the conversation about whether or not it's ethical to visit North Korea is ultimately unanswerable because it's about making tiny and unmeasurable changes within a massive system. Will talking to a few North Koreans in Pyongyang, home of the most loyal citizens, change any minds? Will standing in front of a giant Kim Il Sung statue? Does handing over two or three thousand dollars help fund the weapons program, gulag fence-mending or the purchase of medicine? We can't really know, but the answers people give to these questions can sometimes tell you a great deal about how they view North Korea. In Rodman's case, he seems optimistic.