North Korea and Virtual Tourism

North Korea has always been something of a curiosity to me. How can a country almost entirely cut itself off from the rest of the world and continue to function? A notion which seems almost impossible in a world which is becoming increasingly connected and thus “smaller”, a paradigm we know as globalisation.

What goes on behind the closed borders of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un? How much truth is there to the controversial 2014 film, The Interview? In particular this scene:

To explore and research this, I decided to immerse myself within a 360 degree video within North Korea during the 70th anniversary of its Worker’s Party. This is an American ABC news production, and while obviously this is not an Asian produced media piece, the video still provides an interesting insight into the cultural experiences of North Korea.

It is important to remember that video is based on an itinerary that is overlooked by government officials. The news team are not even allowed to leave their hotel room unaccompanied by government escorts, or “guides”. This “pre-approved guided tour” is the case for every tourist visiting North Korea, and it is because of this that I feel tourism would be an interesting area to delve deeper into as I experience North Korea. Like most people, I like travelling and have visited many places around the world, so it’s not a surprise that tourism is one of the main aspects that intrigued me within the video.

Furthermore, the process of viewing a 360 degree video of a foreign place can be understood as a form of virtual tourism. This supports Denzin’s (2014) description of the autoethnographer as a flâneur, the concept of the flâneur being, the casual wanderer, observer and reporter of street-life in the modern city. This is exactly how it feels to experience virtual tourism, as you are free to move the camera around in all directions in order to observe the experience at hand, these observations being the cultural nuances and oddities of, in this case, North Korea. In exploring this, I am adhering to Ellis’s (2011) description of autoethnography as I am aiming to “retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity.”

Additionally, Denzin (2014 p. 268) justifies this methodology saying “Within the context of history the autoethnography becomes the “dial of the instrument that records the effects of a particular stage of civilization upon a civilized individual”. The autoethnographer is both dial and instrument. As an ethnographer, I am both the researcher and the research.

Therefore by following this criteria surrounding authethnography, I will be experiencing a North Korean cultural celebration (a particular stage of civilization) , then looking back at my initial experiences, write about and critically analyse certain epiphanies, or effects on myself (the civilized individual), surrounding the experience.

To begin the process I wrote down my initial reactions when viewing the video. These initial experiences revolve around things that were slightly unusual to me, things that I was not aware of previously, or things I felt interested in exploring more of.

  • The notion of tourism, or tourism attractions in North Korea is interesting.
  • You cannot leave your hotel room without government official “guides”.
  • How do weddings work in North Korea? Are they planned marriages?
  • Traffic is reported as being relatively new to N.K.
  • Most people, or everyone are wearing Navy blue armbands. What are these?
  • The Supreme Leader is kind of hard to take seriously with his massive portrait on a float regardless of how many missiles and nukes he flaunts.
  • Military experts analyse the footage from the festival to try and gain an understanding of N.K’s military strength
  • How successful can North Korea really be? How much longer can they last while being isolated from the rest of the connected world?

The following blog post will delve deeper into understanding exactly why these certain things stood out to me, and in exploring these experiences, I hope to realise epiphanies and important moments. It is these epiphanies that will create interesting and important research, moving my autoethnographical process from “story-telling” to proper research


  1. The use of virtual technologies has significant potential for not only private interests, but also state interests and discussions that have resulted from globalisation. Chris Milk (Harris, B. J. 2015) states that virtual reality allows for the capacity to break down borders and localise individuals, organisations and ideologies. The localisation of entities and space has been illustrated by the UN through creating a platform for individuals to experience ‘first hand’ the migrant issue throughout Europe (Harris, B. J. 2015). In relation to North Korea’s capacity to maintain internal control, the concept of virtual tourism in North Korea may ultimately result in increased globalisation and reduction of border regulation.

    Considering that Tourism is increasingly becoming a stronger frame for North Korea’s economy with the consumption of 100,000 tourists in 2014 and with objectives for 1 million in 2017 (Alter, C. 2016), the notion of virtual tourism isn’t at all far fetched. Virtual tourism may be beneficial to the state regime, allowing for greater restriction of individual movements and ideals during consumption.


    Alter, C. (2016) What It’s Like to Be a Western Tourist in North Korea, Time Magazine, viewed 15.09.16

    Harris, B. J. (2015) How the UN is Using Virtual Reality to Tackle Real-World Problems, Fast Company, viewed 15.09.16


  2. Hey Keatsy,
    Really interesting post man. In terms of subject manner there aren’t too many students (if any) other than you that are focusing on North Korea, however, their history in terms of censorship and propaganda presents it as an extremely interesting topic. Our perception of North Korea has been fuelled through news stories depicting Kim Jong Un’s crazed dictatorship full of threats of nuclear war and crazy stories (did you know his dad invented the hamburger???). Therefore, it will be very interesting to see how the images within this video compare to your previous thoughts. I really like that you referenced The Interview as well as this is one of the only fictional depictions of North Korea in recent years. Awesome post again man, keep it up!


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