“No photos, sir,” the smiling stewardess told me, as I tried to take a picture of the main cabin on my Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK). Other than the in-flight military propaganda videos shown on the overhead screens, these three words were the only thing that distinguished my flight to Pyongyang from previous flights to Chicago, Beijing, or Paris. Taking a picture on a plane is certainly within the
realm of freedoms I have enjoyed as an American. But, this small difference was anticlimactic compared to the big brother-like restraints I had anticipated.

My trip to North Korea was short. It was just three days. But it was life-changing. Pyongyang — the reclusive country’s capital — felt like both a different planet and any other city, all at the same time.

I went to Pyongyang on the Qing Ming Holiday trip with the Beijing-based travel company, Koryo Tours. At the pre-trip briefing, held the day before we departed, we were told: “You will return with more questions than you started with.” They were right.

Why visit North Korea? I ventured to this largely unknown country earlier this month because I was curious. Before I decided to go, I had done quite a bit of reading and research to try and figure out: What is it like there? A short stay in Pyongyang demolished the preconceptions my research had constructed.

Like tourists anywhere in the world, we visited numerous monuments, restaurants, souvenir shops, and sites of entertainment. We stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel — a 5-star establishment by Korean standards that would be 3 or 4-star anywhere else. We drank locally brewed draft beer with our North Korean guides. Everything felt normal. It made me forget I was in a country nicknamed “The Hermit Kingdom” — a place that attracts fewer than 5,000 Western travelers each year. While it didn’t feel like any place I had ever been before, I also didn’t feel like I was in a sinister country known for work camps and starvation, either.

It was this sense of the ordinary that felt so exceptional and changed my opinion on how to solve the outside world’s problems with North Korea and bring help to their oppressed population. It wasn’t staring at the Grand Mansudae Monuments of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il that towered higher than I expected over people bowing, crying, and paying their respects. It wasn’t listening to authentic rationalizations of Juche Theory — a Korean belief of independence and self-reliance — and why it’s the best model for modern society. It wasn’t standing in the noticeably empty and carless streets displaying a weak economy hard hit by international trade sanctions. It wasn’t sitting in darkness for the third time, after again losing power during a mutton BBQ dinner, or the presence of uniformed soldiers — less brawny than those in the West — scattered throughout the city. It was the children.

Arriving at Kim Il-sung Square — which is famous for holding mass parades and military events — we were greeted by a hundred or so children enjoying brand new rollerblades. Some of their clothing was noticeably worn out, but their blades appeared as if they were straight from the box. As I approached them, they met my anticipation of nervous looks by skating past me without thinking twice. It was as if they had seen thousands of foreigners before.

The children recast my concept of war — particularly in this country that is known elsewhere for little else. Children are children, no matter which nationality or race. As an ESL teacher who teaches primary age students, I’m not sure why it took this long for me to see this. These rollerblading children reminded me of my students back in China and of a younger version of myself in America, just being normal kids enjoying a nice day with a new pair of rollerblades. Any sort of war or attack would injure or kill the majority of them. Sitting and watching the afternoon skating session, it was a devastating thought.

This is where people are often quick to point out that these rollerblading children are just the government’s front for foreigners. My reply is: So what? Is that their fault? The fact that many of the people I saw were likely playing roles their government cast them in is not reason to dismiss them as less than human. The possibility that they are part of a fake front does not negate the reality of their humanity. Whether they are acting or not, innocent, real people would be harmed if war were to happen.

But what about the thousands of people — including children — who are suffering in work camps, or the rest of the population who are certainly not living at the same standards of those I saw in Pyongyang? At what point does the world say, “Enough!” and take action against the DPRK? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I hope, somehow, tensions will relax and progress can be made towards peaceful reunification and development. Because, no matter who is the aggressor, if violence were to occur, the innocent children skating happily in Kim Il-sung Square would suffer the consequences.