Thinking of going on holiday to North Korea?

If, and I know it’s a long shot, you’re considering North Korea for a vacation then think again: An undercover reporter’s film about the secretive Asian communist nation reveals hunger, poverty and other suffering on a scale that should put you off.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation‘s North Asia correspondent Mark Willacy says the footage obtained by the ABC reveals “the extent of chronic food shortages and malnutrition inside the secretive state”, showing images of filthy, homeless and orphaned children begging for food, soldiers demanding bribes, and people forced to build a railway for the dictator’s son. The video is horrifying, with children caked in mud and as young as eight, begging for scraps of food. Many children have been orphaned after their parents died of starvation or were slammed into gulags, the ABC reports.

North Korea’s network of political prison camps, which hold an estimated 200,000 people, Amnesty International says. In most of the camps, no clothing is provided and prisoners face harsh winters. Inmates are also expected to work long hours undertaking strenuous and often pointless manual labour. Food in the camps is scarce. Amnesty  says it has been told of people eating rats or picking corn kernels out of animal waste purely to survive, despite the risks – anyone caught risks solitary confinement or other torture.

The film supplied to the ABC also shows the army starving. “Everybody is weak,” says a cadet North Korean soldier. “Within my troop of 100 comrades, half of them are malnourished.”

The undercover reporter was trained by Jiro Ishimaru, founder and editor of Rimjin-gang, a magazine featuring reports and photography by North Koreans in North Korea. In 2008 Ishimaru shot his own footage inside North Korea, and subsequently reported that civilians had been ordered to supply the army with food. Ishimaru has interviewed hundreds of North Korean defectors. Rimjin-gang is the first-ever independent publication in the world written directly by people of North Korea.

“Analyzing my direct interviews with various North Koreans, their own reports and information from different sources, it appears that this year’s bori-koge (food shortage)  is serious, the worst since the late 1990s, a time which ended in mass starvation and social confusion,”  he writes. Soldiers report being given 100 grams of corn for a meal. The entire meal.

Of the latest film, he told the ABC: “This footage is important because it shows that Kim Jong-il’s regime is growing weak.”

Do you have tremors about human rights when travelling to certain destinations? I’ve always had a dilemma about travelling to countries with gross abuses, knowing I am actively contributing to state coffers. Some countries are off my list, including North Korea, and others I dither about, including India. My conscience is eased slightly by the fact I have a sponsored child in a Mumbai orphanage. However my disdain for the Indian government spending money on nuclear warfare instead of helping its most vulnerable people remains at a constant boiling temperature.

North Korea’s plump dictator Kim Jong-Il has had failing health for a while and groomed his son, the equally as porky Kim Jong-Un, aged in his late 20s, to take over the regime. There have been luxury food and goods sanctions imposed on North Korea for some time – to stop government officials scoffing caviar while the hordes in the cold outside starve. China is the impoverished nation’s biggest ally and aid provider, while the US has strict sanctions against the regime.

Amnesty reports thousands crossed the border into China in 2010, mostly in a desperate search for food. The Chinese authorities arrested and forcibly repatriated thousands of North Koreans who faced detention, interrogation and torture.

Wikitravel writes there are those who have called for a boycott on tourism to North Korea, due to human rights abuses, or how tourism may help finance the government. There is no official free enterprise activity in North Korea, and all tourist facilities are state-owned so the money goes directly to the government. The country can only be visited by an organized tour.

Prices start from around $US1000 for a five-day group tour including accommodation, meals and transport from Beijing, but can go up considerably if you want to travel around the country or “independently” (as your own one-person escorted group).




  • North Korea occupies the northern half of the Korean Peninsula that lies between Korea Bay and the East Sea, also called the Sea of Japan. Population: 24 million, the under-five mortality rate per 1000 is 63, apparently. Any tours to the country are 100 per cent controlled by the state. Where you stay, what you eat, where you go, what you see and who you talk to is controlled.
  • The climate ranges from temperate in summer to -30 deg C in winter.
  • More on the undercover footage:
  • More on Jiro Ishimaru:

The art for this story includes widely-available North Korean propaganda posters. Images of the starving are not so easily found.

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