On his return from a five-day trip to North Korea, which Salvini said was self-funded, the politician likened life under dictator Kim Jong-un to a bygone era in Italy.
“I saw a splendid sense of community. So many children playing in the street and not with a Playstation, a great respect for the elderly, things that by now don’t exist in Italy anymore,” he told Corriere della Sera.
The leader of Italy’s far-right Northern League (Lega Nord) party, Salvini also criticized international condemnation of the North Korean regime.
“I will not barter my freedom. But it’s a matter of another model that I won’t demonize. I’m not suggesting a system that I don’t know is hell.
“There the state does everything: school, home, work. In short, in the world there isn’t only the American way of life,” he said.
But John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said Salvini's visit was carefully crafted by the North Korean regime.
"Any trip to North Korea by a foreigner is a scripted affair in which the government goes to great pains to show you a theatrical view which doesn't resemble reality," he told The Local. People who visit under such circumstances "simply don’t know what they’re talking about", Sifton said.
"There’s very few people of any serious political influence who believe this sort of thing," he went on, describing Salvini as "standing on the wrong side of history".
"This is a totalitarian state that executes its own citizens for the slightest dissent and maintains gulags with hundreds of thousands of people," Sifton said.
A UN report published earlier this year revealed a series of “unspeakable atrocities” in North Korea, orchestrated by a state “that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”
The list of crimes against humanity documented in the report include “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence.”
Up to 120,000 political prisoners are detained in camps where starvation is used as punishment and snakes are caught to feed malnourished babies, the UN said.
Salvini, however, described international sanctions against the North Korean regime as “idiotic”.
“It’s a very different country from ours, a gigantic opportunity for our business owners. They need a lot of things and the embargo is idiotic,” he said, calling for trade barriers to be removed. Sifton instead said that sanctions should be "fine-tuned" to target financial institutions which collaborate with North Korea, such as those in China.
The Italian MEP said he visited North Korea along with people from the tourism, agriculture and construction industries, who found business opportunities in the country.