North Korea, Part 9: Retrospective

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series North Korea:

  1. North Korea, Part 1: Our Surprise Destination
  2. North Korea, Part 2: Leaving China, Air Kroyo, Arriving Pyongyang
  3. North Korea, Part 3: Hotel Yanggakdo
  4. North Korea, Part 4: Sights and Sounds of Pyongyang
  5. North Korea, Part 5: Airang “Mass” Games
  6. North Korea, Part 6: Paying our Respects to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il
  7. North Korea, Part 7: Sara Becomes a Propaganda Prop and Other Pyongyang Adventures
  8. North Korea, Part 8: The DMZ, and a Night Out at Kim Jung Un’s Amusement Park
  9. North Korea, Part 9: Retrospective
  10. North Korea, Part 10: Photos

It’s been almost six months since visiting North Korea, and we still get questions from other travelers about it almost daily. The first question people typically ask is, “how was it?” which is a question we’re still internalizing the answer to. Our typical response these days is, “it was really weird, but definitely worth going.”

The most difficult thing to explain is that we never knew when something was real and something was part of the Korea they were trying to portray. Most likely, everything was part of a show organized to highlight the best aspects of the country, especially how strong and prosperous and militarily superior the North Koreans are. Except, everyone on the tour knows it’s a show, and we’re pretty sure that most of the guides do, too. It gives the whole experience a weird Truman Show vibe. As our fellow traveler at WaitButWhy put it, “Are we Truman? Are we the actors? Is any of this real?”

We also felt like we left with more questions that we had coming in. To be fair, we didn’t watch any of the documentaries many other travelers have (this Vice one was pretty popular) and we tried to come in with no expectations or preconceptions about what it would be like. At the end of the day, it was exactly what we knew it would be: a carefully guided, heavily monitored tour through carefully selected, heavily monitored locations. The only real interactions we were allowed to have were with our guides, and what they could tell us was so heavily scripted it didn’t seem sincere. There were normal people out everywhere, but we think they would get in trouble if they tried to talk to us, anyway. So, any question you had never got an honest answer, and we are forced to put together our own view of what life is like based on what we were allowed to see, and what we can read from defectors and other travelers.

For all that we didn’t learn during our 5 days there, we do feel liked we gained some insight. We believe that many people there are, in fact, brainwashed and genuinely believe that North Korea is a great and prosperous country, and that the Kim family truly belongs on a pedestal. We also believe that there are many who know this isn’t true, but they have no outlet to dissent. If they wanted to dissent, even to their closest friends or family, there is such heavily monitoring and fear imposed by the regime that they wouldn’t dissent. Those same close friends and family would turn them in out of their own fear of being assumed a traitor also. As such, people stay quiet and the regime continues to thrive.

That being said, I can’t imagine this regime will remain in power for much longer. If it weren’t for their nuclear arsenal and the support of China, the South would likely have easily recaptured the North long ago. However, the leadership structure of fear is going to start slipping away as they realize the need for more openness to the west. Tourism dollars are starting to be a greater and greater percentage of their GDP, and with tourism comes exposure to the evil western ideas. It also seems like the military and senior officials don’t have the same reverence for Kim Jung Un as they did for the previous Kims. We believe that eventually rule will shift to the military, even though it is very obvious weapons and political power is being heavily withheld from the current military structure.

For those morally opposed to visiting: we agree with you; by all means, DO NOT GO! North Korea is an oppressive state, and by going, you are contributing money to their economy which will inevitably continue the oppression. However, keep in mind that by not going, you are only giving yourself one side of the story – the western media’s side. Sure, the DPRK makes big headlines when they do most anything. Some of this coverage is warranted (“North Korea Says Uncle Executed as Traitor“) and some of it is fanatical (“Yorkshire Terriers locked up in ‘woefully inadequate’ North Korean Zoo“). As travelers, we find the most valuable thing we can do is keep an open mind about a country and its people, even if we don’t agree with their politics or actions, past or present.

We would definitely recommend the tour to other travels, assuming they understand it’s both expensive and heavily scripted. Also, that they can’t be stupid. We found it to be a genuinely safe and non-threatening environment, if you follow the rules (like any country you visit, except the rules there are much more strict) Don’t vocally dissent. Don’t take pictures of what you’re not supposed to. Don’t proselytize. Don’t try and reconnect with former guerillas from the Korean War. Don’t do these things and you’ll make it through like thousands of tourists have before.

There is really no other state that has the same level of isolation between the people and the West, and no other state with such a heavy dose of propaganda and misinformation so regularly fed to the people. It’s what I would imagine a tour to East Germany would have been 40 years ago. And, once Internet and phones and tourists become more regular, and the regime eventually topples, it may very well be the last country to get an experience like this for some time. Even now, for as disingenuine as the tour was, we knew behind the scenes things are still really bad and really honestly oppressive for so many people. At least by visiting, we have at least some amount of first-hand experience interacting with one of the least-understood, most interesting cultures in the world today. And we’re excited to have been able to share it all with our readers.


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