On Visiting North Korea, Briefly

I went to North Korea for 8 days in 2012 with Koryo Tours.

The #1 thing I got from that trip is: a country is more than its political leadership. Every non-Trumpist here would agree with that right now. I arrived skeptical of everything I saw, as I felt it my responsibility to “see through” the regime and the facade it presented to tourists. I left with a feeling of warmth, admiration, and pity for the people I saw there. At the same time, I left completely in the dark as to what was going on there politically, or what daily life for a North Korean was like, which is no different from how I felt after visiting Hong Kong, Nairobi, Hanoi, Addis Ababa, Antananarivo, Ubud, or Dar Es Salaam. A tourist is an visitor and anyway a full understanding of a foreign society is ridiculous. That’s not the point of travel (leaving aside the lame “I’m not a tourist I’m a traveler” distinction). Traveling does not make one an expert. If anything, I always feel more ignorant after a trip. But it does make one informed.

Seeing the “real” North Korea was the wrong assumption to take into a place like that, and the wrong assumption to take into any place where one is an outsider. What’s true is: Everything you see there is the real North Korea. The facade is as real as the empty lot behind it. The buildings in Pyongyang are nicer than anywhere else that we saw. The ceremonial displays of devotion do look staged. The Mass Games are beyond anything you can imagine (I went twice). The tiny tube of toothpaste in the bathroom at the Ryonggang Hot Spring House was so heartbreakingly earnest, such an effort to rise to imagined standards of western hospitality, that one can get a fractional understanding of what it might mean to be an isolated country, an extremely poor country, and still a proud country.

The #2 thing I got from that trip was: we in the west view North Korea today the way we viewed the USSR in the 80s of my childhood. That is, they are the bogeyman, the Ivan Dragos, the axis of evil. The American media is just as complicit in this stereotype now as they were with the Soviets, and you don’t have to listen very hard to hear how we keep the Kim regime’s facade propped up in our own national imagination. What’s changing this, for better and for worse, is the path that tourism has opened into that unknown place. More exposure is better than less, for everyone.

My trip was weird. There was a massive amount of drinking among the people in my group, so much that it had to mean something though I have no idea what. There was a normalcy to the routine of our days that somehow set in quickly, and I wondered whether this was true in a long-term way for our North Korean guides from group to group. Of course we saw what the government chose to show us and of course my understanding is limited to my experience, but one goes in with the understanding of government control as the context for everything. What happens within that control is what’s interesting, and no less real or human or meaningful for it.

But now, because I went, I know how weird it feels to ride the Pyongyang subway and be ignored by the Koreans, as if oh yeah foreigners ride this train all the time. Because I went, I know how silent it is in the morning in Samjiyon because there aren’t any birds chirping. Draw your own conclusions and consider whether a people “deserve” famine just because their leadership is corrupt and immoral. Because I went, I saw the astounding, undeniable talent of the musicians, dancers, singers, and acrobatic bears. Because I went, I don’t think staying away is the answer.

That said, I do think the Kim regime is should be toppled and this is in no way a defense of the status quo. And certainly this is prompted by the terribly sad news that Otto Warmbier has died after returning home from imprisonment in North Korea. I did question whether it was right to spend my dollars in a country such as North Korea. In the end, I decided first-hand experience is always better than stereotypes. I was curious.

Photos here: http://hopefulenterprise.org

The most heartwrenching moment: http://hopefulenterprise.org/dprk/cp.html

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