When I tell about my experience in the DPRK, the first question I typically hear is, “wait, did you say you went to North Korea?” quickly followed by “but why?” as disbelief turns into confusion. That’s a fair question. Should my writing a blog not make it obvious that I’m pretty passionate about the DPRK, I thought I’d provide a couple answers.
Welcome, welcome! Down the road, this may be a blog about my many travel adventures around the world, but for the foreseeable future, I will be focusing on my recent experience in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly known as North Korea.
The main reason I have decided to embark on this project is probably obvious—North Korea is off the beaten path. It ranks close to last as a tourist destination. The statistics are pretty striking: it is estimated that the number of yearly visitors to the DPRK is typically in the four digits, with most visitors being Asian and many having family ties in the DPRK. Less than 1,500 Western visitors enter the “hermit kingdom” every year. In contrast, South Korea ranks #7 in Asia—according to Wikipedia, 8.80 million tourists made it to the Republic of Korea out of almost 204 million visitors to Asia and the Pacific in 2010.
Documentation, facts, and pictures can be hard to come by, as the country is largely off-limits to the press. Material is definitely available, though, mostly through personal travelogues, blogs, and specialized web sites. So as I prepared for my trip, I decided to wear my reporter’s hat, and packed multiple cameras, hundreds of gigabytes worth of memory cards, a computer, along with, shall we say… equipment to help track my whereabouts. More on this later, for those who didn’t catch my drift.
But there’s more to this blog than a simple documentation effort. Coming back to the West, I sensed that a simple desire to write about my experience quickly turned into a need—a wish to share with the world a somewhat unique experience that is not easy to comprehend, with the hope that I can help lift a curtain and possibly help build bridges between different civilizations and systems.
I find it difficult to talk about my experience to coworkers, friends and relatives. Some have a very black and white view of the world, and occasionally jump to conclusions or make derogatory statements. I’ve been asked (with a straight face) if I was a spy, a Communist hopeful, or if I was just a bit nuts. The latter is a definite possibility, but otherwise, I’m happy to report that I’m none of the above; nor were, in my opinion, the like-minded folks I got to travel with 🙂
The world isn’t black and white—it’s a shade of greys, and I believe that travel is the first way to try to comprehend the full spectrum. Most of the stories you’ll read or see in the western news media are biased, emphasizing the terrible acts of the Axis of Evil and the automatons who support them. The press is often sensationalistic. A couple of weeks ago, CNN.com published a scant three pictures of the North Korean countryside, taken from a train as reporters from around the world were shuttled to the rocket launch site. The title read, in large letters: “rare images of North Korea”—quite the overstatement for three pictures and an article that mostly recycled old news. Kuriositas.com published a couple of months ago heart breaking pictures of the “last fun fair in North Korea”, the only trouble being, as commenters pointed out—not only it’s not the “last” amusement part, but Pyongyang has a modern fun fair that could rival numerous US installations. The UK’s Sun probably tops the chart with their “exclusive” article published days ago: “Inside North Korea – Sun men trick way into secretive state where lights go out at 11pm, gum is given as change and no one knows Jacko’s dead.” The article is so full of inaccuracies and so oblivious to culture differences that it deserves, in my opinion, little attention.
Speculation and bias often fuel stories; propaganda is at work everywhere in the world. As someone who grew up outside the US and speaks two languages fluently, I am often fascinated by how news stories are colored differently in separate parts of the world. When it comes to the US vs. the DPRK, such differences in perspective often reach unhealthy extremes.
That’s not to say western propaganda is off base, of course. I am well aware of the evil sides of the DPRK, which are widely documented. There is a number of fascinating books on the topic that I highly recommend—I will publish a list at the conclusion of this blog. However, behind the system, there are people—human beings, who, despite living in a completely different world, are all men and women who at the end of the day, aspire to the same simple things that we all wish for: peace, happiness, health, friendships, and love.
My objective through this blog will be to try to cast a glimmer of color on top of a black and white perception, by recounting my trip, my emotions and perceptions, and by summarizing some facts and research that I’ve done. Respect is my goal. As we sat onboard the bus in Pyongyang, freshly off the sleeper train from China, our tour manager asked if we would please call his country by its official name—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—instead of North Korea, the more commonly used name in the West. Politics aside, I think that’s a fair request, and that’s why you’ll see me referring to the DPRK throughout this blog. It’s hopefully a first, tiny step, towards respect and mutual understanding.
Throughout this blog, I will express my opinions, I will show the good, the bad, and sometimes the ugly, but I will try to do so with respect—respect for a country who let me in despite a very closed system, respect for the people who I interacted with, and respect for the anonymous folks who genuinely seek happiness and don’t need to be labeled: Humanity beside us.