On August 1, Rex Tillerson announced that beginning in one month the U.S. government would be banning its citizens from traveling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea). A few days later, I boarded an Air Koryo plane and landed in that country for a fact-finding and peace delegation. There were a total of five of us, all traveling on U.S. passports.
Call us skeptical, but we didn’t buy that the Trump administration was acting in our best interests, let alone acting in the name of peace and justice. Indeed, as soon as we landed the hegemonic U.S. narrative about the country began to crumble.
Even though I had previously been highly critical of the presentation of the country we have been exposed to our entire lives, I couldn’t quite anticipate just how different the reality actually is. And it wasn’t only life in the country that was radically different, but also my experience as U.S. citizen traveling there.
I have to begin with this latter aspect, because the propaganda against the DPRK is so total, so all-encompassing, that it can make one’s actual experience be dismissed in advance. If one’s on-the-ground observations differ in any way from the dominant narrative, then it is because one only observed a highly orchestrated and carefully curated propaganda show.
Tourism in the DPRK is a regulated industry, and there are two very good reasons for this.
For one, the U.S. has for decades tried to send spies and agitators into the country to organize destabilization campaigns. The National Endowment for Democracy has a public policy of trying to push propaganda into the country and foster a dissident movement.
For two, given the destruction wrought by Western tourists throughout the world, there is a good argument to be had that Westerners should be carefully policed and monitored on their visits. As a sovereign and indigenous nation, the DPRK has a right to control who enters its country and on what conditions, and this should be respected.
This, however, wasn’t my experience at all. Not once did I ever feel restricted or policed. During my time there I was free to speak with anyone and to go anywhere. I engaged in numerous spontaneous conversations with people while eating in restaurants, hiking in the wilderness, and walking on the streets.
Even passing through immigration and customs was a breeze-much easier than the U.S. They didn’t search our phones or laptops. (Upon return, however, one member of our delegation was detained by U.S. customs agents for three hours, and had his phone and computer searched).
Nor was I only shown the best and brightest spots of the country. I spent about as much time in Pyongyang as I did in the countryside, and over the trip we spent hours driving around the country. My Korean friends were very proud of everything in their country, from the new high rises in cities to the old housing structures in the countryside.
Our main hotel, the Raknang Guesthouse, had all the amenities of a five-star hotel in any U.S. city, but at another hotel we only had a few hours of hot water each day, and the air conditioning cut in and out.
It’s true that there is a marked difference between the city and countryside, but that isn’t unique to the DPRK. That’s true for everywhere, including here in the U.S. I live in rural Indiana, and there is a huge contrast between the infrastructure in my town and that of Indianapolis.
At no point in our trip did we feel unsafe or threatened. As it turns out, if you don’t maliciously break any laws, the DPRK is a nice place to visit.
“Just try to understand where we are coming from, and make up your own mind”
We were hosted by Dawn Media, a new media group in the country that is separate from both the state and the ruling party. They aren’t a tour company, so the only official tour guides we interacted with were at museums, special events, and the demilitarized zone.
If the official tours in the country are intended to be propaganda shows, then the tour industry is doing a terrible job. And here I have to admit my own prejudices as I embarked on my trip, for I was surprised at how objective and reasonable the tour guides were.
When we approached the final checkpoint before the demilitarized zone we met a soldier who would escort us to the border. Before we left, he told us: “What I am going to show you and tell you is what happened to us. I am going to tell you our perspective. Just try to understand where we are coming from, and make up your own mind.”
It was the same at the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities. There, our guide said, “We ask that you try to put yourself in our shoes.”
Having arrived in the country just days after the travel ban was announced, many people were surprised to learn we were from the U.S. And when one young woman who had recently graduated from the foreign language university found out where we were from, she told us why she was upset about the ban. “It is important for people to see so that they know,” she said. “They can make up their own minds about our country.”
Not once on our trip did anyone-a tour guide, our hosts, our friends-tell us that we had to agree with what we were told.
And not once were we treated with any disrespect or hostility. And this was truly remarkable. Even when we met Jong Gun-Song, a 72-year-old survivor of the Sinchon massacre. He was just three when U.S. soldiers threw him and about 400 other children into a warehouse, where they were left in the cold without food or water for one week before the soldiers poured gasoline through the vents and started a fire. Jong was tucked away in a corner, and although he fell into a coma from the smoke, he awoke days later. It would have been quite understandable if this man refused to speak with us or spoke to us with bitterness and anger. Instead, he approached us with humility and respect.
The media and educational systems in the country make a clear distinction between the people of the U.S. and our government. And they make a radically sharper distinction between the people of the U.S. who want peace and our government.
The DPRK: Another Country
U.S. scholar Bruce Cumings titled his popular 2004 book, North Korea: Another Country. The subtitle works on two different levels. For one, North Korea truly is another country in that it is a very different kind of country, especially when compared to the U.S. There are no corporate billboards or advertisements, no McDonald’s restaurants or Starbucks coffee shops. Women and children walk the streets alone and confidently at any hour of the day. In the countryside hitch hikers are everywhere. There are few police on the streets. The military is present, but you see them doings things like picking up trash or working on construction projects, and you don’t see them carrying assault rifles, or any weapons for that matter (we even saw a citizen playfully hitting a soldier). You also don’t see many surveillance cameras. Most people are atheists (although we met some Buddhists).
Yet North Korea is also another country in the sense that it is just another country. People go to work, date, get married, have children, play sports and exercise, go shopping, talk on cell phones, ride bikes, read books in parks (sometimes on benches, but oftentimes in a squatting position), play music, and sing and dance (and they sing and dance a lot-and they will make you do it, too). They have agreements and disagreements, smile and cry. They go to plays and concerts, take vacations, swim in rivers. They get frustrated with and yell at each other, and they joke and laugh with each other. They are human beings. It’s just another country.
This was my first trip, but I know people who have made other trips, and many trips. One of my friends who accompanied me there had been literally hundreds of times over the past 30 or so years. He had been there during the 1990s, during the worst years in the country’s history. The overthrow and dissolution of the Soviet Union brought economic crisis, which was exacerbated by severe floods and droughts. Rather than send aid, the U.S. tightened sanctions against the country (just like it did to Cuba). Life was intensely difficult.
The sanctions against the country are criminal and must come to an end. But they have had the adverse effect of diversifying and strengthening the DPRK’s economy. Unable to trade openly on the global market, the DPRK has become self-sufficient in many areas, including in food production.
Since 2006, they have invested heavily in light industry. All over, you see all kinds of goods made in the DPRK: silverware, chips and snacks, bottled water, purses and backpacks, clothes and shoes, medicines, solar panels (which are everywhere), and fishing nets. They are building new streets with new high-rise apartments, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues every year. They have their own internet and cell phone network (and 4.5 million cell phones). Everywhere you go, you see construction. In many buildings you can see evidence of recent renovations. While the DPRK doesn’t release its economic data, the Hyundai Research Group estimated that the GDP grew by an astronomic 9 percent in 2015.
To be sure, if we are comparing it to the richest parts of the U.S. or Europe it won’t hold up much. But the DPRK didn’t benefit from centuries of colonizing and enslaving the world. On the contrary, they were the victims of colonialism, and were enslaved by the Japanese.
The hard truth is that the DPRK isn’t crumbling from sanctions. And the people there aren’t cowering at Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.
The 1950-1953 U.S. war against Korea, which they call the Fatherland Liberation War, was absolutely devastating. Three consecutive years of U.S. carpet bombing had totally levelled the country. But even without an air force, the Korean People’s Army emerged victorious. They dealt U.S. imperialism its first blow, and forced an armistice on July 27, 1953.
They then completely rebuilt their country. They did it largely on their own, and they did it while navigating constant U.S. aggression. That’s part of the reason they were so proud to show us everything, even that which didn’t hold up to Western standards.
And that’s the reason they aren’t backing down. Since their founding in 1948, the DPRK has maintained its independence. It has never been occupied by another country. It has never become a junior partner of any country-not even the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China. Of this independence they are fiercely proud.
The U.S. has always maintained that the country is on the verge of collapse. This may have been an understandable position in the mid 1990s, when the aforementioned economic and natural tragedies struck, and when their founding leader Kim Il Sung died. But they persevered even then.
The DPRK doesn’t want to be locked in an eternal struggle with the U.S. What they want is to be able to determine their destiny and to be able to develop in peace. But this isn’t want we are told here in the U.S. We are told they want nothing but our destruction. And in order to uphold this false narrative, our government is preventing us from traveling to the country to see it for ourselves.
Everyone I spoke with in the DPRK wanted me to make up my own mind about their country. Meanwhile, the U.S. government wants to make up my mind for me.
Dr. Prof. Derek Ford, Hampton Institute
The 4th Media