Is it me, or is it human nature to be curious about places that are dangerous, or we perceive as being dangerous places to visit? I want to see the whole world, and that world includes nations like Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and North Korea. For some of these places, visiting now is out of the question because of ongoing wars, partial occupations, and terrorism. But with a little extra preparation, some are possible.
One of those countries is North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as they prefer to be called. I just finished watching a travel show on North Korea by the Canadian film makers of the travel series Departures. I guesstimate this was my 10th viewing. I find it fascinating. The nation is closed to outside ideas. It’s a cultural vacuum in which only one ideology, the Juche philosophy, with the Kim family as the nations saviours. Anything else is put down without hesitation. And for years, the nation was closed entirely. But in more recent times, they have opened themselves up to tourism in limited numbers.
One travel company based in Beijing, China, offering trips to North Korea, is Koryo Tours. They have been in the business of educating curious travelers on the mysterious nation of the DPRK since 1993. It was with this company that Scott, Justin, and Andre, of Departures fame, gained access to the country accompanied by Nicholas Bonner, the founder and Director.
Upon arrival in Pyongyang airport, the group was met by two dedicated local guides who were required to accompany the guys for the duration of the trip. This is mandatory, and given the well publicized stories of foreigners being detained and arrested in the DPRK for various reasons, I would think this to be a welcome and reassuring feature of any trip to the Northern Kingdom.
Although it was obvious from the outset that the entire tour was highly choreographed, to their credit, the lads chose to embrace the experience with open minds. While watching, and again, even after 10+ viewings, I found myself struggling to get past the propaganda. But, instead of dismissing what I was seeing and hearing as propaganda being spouted by an evil empire, I tried to step out of my own shoes and make an effort to understand where they were coming from. And once I did, it became a much more rewarding viewing experience — and as they’ve stated, a richly rewarding experience for the guys as well.
Given they were thoroughly briefed on what’s considered as appropriate behavior, I wondered how the guys would approach the depiction of their experience considering they weren’t in control, as Scott stated. They had to check their creative license at the door. And to their credit, it’s clear that the boys were interested in understanding the perspective of their hosts. And not surprisingly, after a brief warming period, the Korean guides begin to loosen up, and that’s when the show really took off.
As westerners, we’ve only ever understood the Korean War from our perspective. So while it’s easy for us to pass judgment, especially for the majority that have never and will never visit the DPRK, the only difference I see is that their propaganda is presented from the outset, while western propaganda is more subtle — we marinate in it from birth. Peel back the layers and we would really see what our society is all about, who’s pulling the strings, what “democracy” really means — as in, who’s running our institutions and why. There’s no doubt who’s in charge in the DPRK. But in the west? It’s not so clear.
As travelers, we are ambassadors of our homelands, our culture. When we are able rise above our preconceived notions of evil, maybe we can begin to see that the real mission is meaningful contact on an individual level. Show the Koreans we aren’t the evil imperialists their government makes us out to be, and we in turn will hopefully realize that they aren’t all brainwashed zombies, but real people trying to make their way in a life they were born into — that they just want to support their families, that they have dreams and aspirations, as far as that is possible in a closed system. Because it’s meaningful contact that can propel us towards change and the thawing of relations and the soothing of hard feelings and misunderstandings — this will only happen on a personal level as we get to know each other and realize that we’re all human.
Photo Credit: Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Pyongyang by By Mark Scott Johnson from Sydney, Australia [CC BY 2.0] as posted via Wikimedia Commons.