As a Korean-American, I had my reservations about going on a tour to North Korea. From stories that were told to me as a child to stories that were told to me by the media, they were never these positive messages telling me this was a country I should go visit. From as early as I can remember, I was always taught by my parents to actually hate North Korea and to distance myself from it as much as possible. Non-Korean Americans would always ask me if I was from the North or South shortly after finding out I was Korean. And now even as an adult, I am still being told by the news how hostile they are and how they seeking to destroy the world. Knowing all this, why would I ever want to go to North Korea? I can know everything I ever wanted to know about the place just by reading what’s out there from the comfort of my home.
These days North Korea is getting more and more coverage in the news than ever before. It’s mostly about how belligerent and hostile they are. But if you filter out just those very words, you’ll start to see a different side to North Korea. As it turns out, there are things that were being said weren’t really consistent with what was going on. I think the biggest thing that grabbed my attentions was finding out that tourists were allowed to visit the country. If you were to ask me before, I would have told you that tourism in North Korea is illegal. In fact, researching many of the current media outlets and blogs there are still people today still saying the same thing.
So when I saw last year that Young Pioneer Tours was able to go to Mount Baekdu, as well as other major sites in North Korea, I immediately inquired. Can Americans go? If so, can Korean-Americans go? As soon as they said yes, I immediately signed up because I knew this might be an opportunity that might not last long. A few years back, I recalled a story about South Korea discontinuing tours with the North after a South Korean tourist was killed trespassing into a place where she was told specifically not to go to. I didn’t want another person to ruin this chance for me, so I went right away.
Mount Baekdu is kind of a sacred place to me. Yes, it is in North Korea. But growing up I would always heard it being mentioned in context here and there. It’s in the first line of the first verse of the South Korean national anthem. So actually for the longest time I just assumed it was in South Korea. It still boggles me today why it’s in there. Mount Baekdu is also the legendary birthplace of the Korean people. And not just for the north, but for the entire peninsula as well. Mount Baekdu, in my mind, was always this place that was in existence, but still a place that was intangible or unreachable.
So in order to get there, we had to first fly into Pyongyang from Beijing. Before going, I thought I had done a lot of research about North Korea. In actuality, it didn’t matter when I got there because I had to throw it all out the window. Our western guides from YPT were very helpful in getting us acquainted with what really goes on in the North. The media tends to sensationalize things and sell this idea of fear and war but the tour company laid that all to rest. They gave me the low down on what you really can and can’t do there, like the truth about photography and interacting with the locals. Whatever you read in the papers, you should just dismiss that and just trust your guides. It’ll just confuse you.
So we went and we toured all over that country. And we didn’t just go to Pyongyang. We went all over: from the DMZ at the border all the way to the northern ends to Mount Baekdu. We went from west coast to east coast seeing north, south, east, west. Now I have traveled all over the Korean peninsula and I would have to say that after seeing Mount Baekdu, it ranks as the most gorgeou place I’ve ever seen in Korea. I’ve climbed up all the major magnificent mountain ranges in South Korea, from Seoraksan to the crater-top of Hallasan. And by far, seeing Mount Baekdu right in front of my very own eyes tops them all.
But more than beauty of North Korea, it was the really the people and the food that swept me off my feet. By no means is this advocating the government, but I think when it comes to North Korea, we need to make careful distinction between the government and its people. It so easy to think of them as the same. As an American, I can remember a time when many of my foreigner friends hating on America because of the war in the Middle East. But they were always good about saying, “I don’t have any problems with you or the rest of the American people. In fact, I love the American people. I just can’t stand your government”. Understanding and appreciating this thinking, I think we need to apply the same rationale towards North Korea.
The people there are wonderful human beings. Rather than going there and looking at how different they were with me or criticizing how weirdly things were done, I focused on how resilient the human spirit is even when it is cut off from the rest of the world like they were. I found it to be a greater experience drawing lines on how similar we actually were rather than seeing how years of reclusive indoctrination creates separation. These are things you’ll never see reading about North Korea in the news. Another amazing thing to see was how reunification was longing in the hearts and minds of every citizen I talked to there. You just don’t see that in the youth in South Korea anymore. After saying my goodbyes to people I got a chance to talk with, many of them would end off saying, “I don’t know when I’ll see you next, but let’s meet again after the reunification.” To me, that was heart wrenching.
Another thing you can’t get from sitting behind the computer and learning vicariously is eating the food there. You can make a ton of jokes about this but what it really does is distract you from the reality that North Korea has very good cuisine that people would be interested in. They really put their best chefs up to the task to showcase their food to foreigners. It should go without saying that if you like South Korean food, then you will love North Korean food. It’s like saying if you love Italian food, then you will have a palate for Sicilian. Any self-respecting kimchi lover needs to try the food up there to at least compare. New York pizza needs to be eaten in New York. Hamheung naengmyeon needs to be eaten in Hamheung.
So by the end of my trip, I summed it all up that in the case for North Korea that seeing is believing. You really have to go there and observe everything with your own eyes rather than letting the media create the scenario for you. In fact, I probably learned just as much about the media and their tactics as I did about North Korea by going to North Korea. I discovered the vast difference between the expectations they created in my mind versus my actual experience. Seeing that difference was mind-blowing. Also going to North Korea has built a stronger connection in reaffirming my call developing that nation to par with the rest of the world. You can look at a thousand pictures of starving babies on the Internet and I don’t doubt it will break your heart. But 48 hours later, you will go back to your same old routine of doing the same things you usually do. But it wasn’t until I went to North Korea with my own 5 senses that really solidified my direction in truly wanting to help the people there.
I’ll be going back to North Korea this August to see Mount Baekdu again with YPT.