American basketball star Dennis Rodman and several members of the Harlem Globetrotters are in North Korea, where they will film for a forthcoming Vice/HBO program and promote some “basketball diplomacy,” including pick-up games in Pyongyang.
Whatever the trip’s impact, 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 minority of North Korea-watchers say that visiting the country helps to open it up, I most frequently hear experts argue that tourism is unethical because it directly funds and offers free propaganda to the regime.
Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations, with whom I exchanged e-mails several months ago 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.” 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.”
Quotes from the people who set up Rodman’s visit might give you a sense of its mission, which certainly so far seems to emphasize promoting Vice and Rodman a bit more than actual track-two diplomacy. (That doesn’t mean Rodman’s trip must be necessarily bad, but I make this point to explain why I’m treating it as an act of tourism and commerce rather than research or diplomacy.)