A Korean American in the DPRK

May 18th, 2012
34

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.

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About the Author

Albert D. Kim



Join the discussion

  • Fred Bauder

    Sicily is nice too… Wonderful, warm people; magnificent scenery; and great food.

  • Fred Bauder

    Sicily is nice too… Wonderful, warm people; magnificent scenery; and great food.

  • Harry

    I think his point is more about being a Korean American. Therefore Sicily would not be as interesting.

  • Harry

    I think his point is more about being a Korean American. Therefore Sicily would not be as interesting.

  • Twotimes

    Did your guides allow you to share the fine cuisine with the millions of starving North Koreans or even offer to give scraps to the those in the special camps?  Glad your tourism dollars contributed to the repression of the NK citizens.  Too bad you are not African American and you are born 200 years too late.  Bet if you were  you would be excited to take a passage on a slaver going back to Ghana so you could say hey my guides were not that bad, ship was good, fill the holds!!!!

    • http://www.nknews.org NK News

      I recommend you listen to this podcast on tourism in North Korea – the presenter asks a couple of guides from different companies about this exact issue. You might be surprised by the answers. Well worth a listen.

      http://keia.podbean.com/2011/11/23/tourism-in-north-korea-a-special-feature/

      • Twotimes

        It was well worth a listen.  No mention of the concentration camps on the tour.  Heck even Sobibor has a museum to visit now.  Wonder if Camp 19 will add a carousel this year. 

        • http://www.nknews.org NK News

          Well you can’t have listened to it all, its about 35 mins long.

          There are questions about where the money goes – is it supporting the regime, or being used for legitimate purposes.

    • X

      this is a reprehensible comment–so clueless and self-righteous.  if you are so concerned about the hunger of north koreans, you should take a critical look at obama’s policy of linking food aid to military concessions.  no country in the world is food self-sufficient, and north korea–if you had done your homework instead of believing all the propaganda that gets churned out by the media–made an official appeal for food aid about a year and a half ago.  since then, four official food assessment surveys have been conducted–by the USNGOs, the UN (WFP, Unicef, FAO), the EU (ECHO), and the US gov’t.  the findings of three of those surveys were released and corroborated that  food insecurity in north korea was moving from chronic to acute.  the results from only the US gov’t survey have not been released, and in a letter to obama last year, the NGO human rights watch weighed in and stated that the US had no leg to stand on in critiquing north korea’s human rights situation if it defaulted on giving food aid when there was clear evidence that north koreans are hungry.  takeaway point: the very north korean government that you vilify so mindlessly actually asked for food aid, and the US gov’t, in the face of knowledge that obama’s policy of strategic patience means enormous suffering, has done nothing.

  • Twotimes

    Did your guides allow you to share the fine cuisine with the millions of starving North Koreans or even offer to give scraps to the those in the special camps?  Glad your tourism dollars contributed to the repression of the NK citizens.  Too bad you are not African American and you are born 200 years too late.  Bet if you were  you would be excited to take a passage on a slaver going back to Ghana so you could say hey my guides were not that bad, ship was good, fill the holds!!!!

    • http://www.nknews.org NK News

      I recommend you listen to this podcast on tourism in North Korea – the presenter asks a couple of guides from different companies about this exact issue. You might be surprised by the answers. Well worth a listen.

      http://keia.podbean.com/2011/11/23/tourism-in-north-korea-a-special-feature/

      • Twotimes

        It was well worth a listen.  No mention of the concentration camps on the tour.  Heck even Sobibor has a museum to visit now.  Wonder if Camp 19 will add a carousel this year. 

        • http://www.nknews.org NK News

          Well you can’t have listened to it all, its about 35 mins long.

          There are questions about where the money goes – is it supporting the regime, or being used for legitimate purposes.

    • X

      this is a reprehensible comment–so clueless and self-righteous.  if you are so concerned about the hunger of north koreans, you should take a critical look at obama’s policy of linking food aid to military concessions.  no country in the world is food self-sufficient, and north korea–if you had done your homework instead of believing all the propaganda that gets churned out by the media–made an official appeal for food aid about a year and a half ago.  since then, four official food assessment surveys have been conducted–by the USNGOs, the UN (WFP, Unicef, FAO), the EU (ECHO), and the US gov’t.  the findings of three of those surveys were released and corroborated that  food insecurity in north korea was moving from chronic to acute.  the results from only the US gov’t survey have not been released, and in a letter to obama last year, the NGO human rights watch weighed in and stated that the US had no leg to stand on in critiquing north korea’s human rights situation if it defaulted on giving food aid when there was clear evidence that north koreans are hungry.  takeaway point: the very north korean government that you vilify so mindlessly actually asked for food aid, and the US gov’t, in the face of knowledge that obama’s policy of strategic patience means enormous suffering, has done nothing.

    • CJR

      As if there are no starving people in the U.S. (the largest homeless population on Earth). Or that the U.S. has the largest prison population on Earth. Or that Kim Kardashian gets to eat caviar 24/7 while we get McDonald’s. If we’re not one of those starving homeless, that is…

  • Hank

    Another gullible, useful/useless idiot gushing about how wonderful North Korea was to visit…   Gee, I wonder why no side trip to Yodok or Camp 14??…   The writer should know that the money he wasted to go to North Korea will only keep the regime in power longer…  

    • James_C

      So when you go on holiday to U.S., France or Germany, are prison camps high on your itinerary?

      • Hank

        Your comment is one that makes no sense at all.  US, France, or Germany – these countries cannot be compared to North Korea.  Think before you post things that reveal how idiotic you are…

        • James_C

          The point is that your comment is irrelevant. When do you ever go to visit prisons when in a foreign country? Thats my point. 

          Yes, there are plenty of people in prison in DPRK – but why would a tourist ever goto them? your comment was inappropriate. can you imagine a guided tour in any country bringing you to a prison camp?

          • Hank

            Keep ‘em coming, your ignorance and stupidity is truly astounding…

  • Hank

    Another gullible, useful/useless idiot gushing about how wonderful North Korea was to visit…   Gee, I wonder why no side trip to Yodok or Camp 14??…   The writer should know that the money he wasted to go to North Korea will only keep the regime in power longer…  

    • James_C

      So when you go on holiday to U.S., France or Germany, are prison camps high on your itinerary?

      • Hank

        Your comment is one that makes no sense at all.  US, France, or Germany – these countries cannot be compared to North Korea.  Think before you post things that reveal how idiotic you are…

        • James_C

          The point is that your comment is irrelevant. When do you ever go to visit prisons when in a foreign country? Thats my point. 

          Yes, there are plenty of people in prison in DPRK – but why would a tourist ever goto them? your comment was inappropriate. can you imagine a guided tour in any country bringing you to a prison camp?

          • Hank

            Keep ‘em coming, your ignorance and stupidity is truly astounding…

          • Arirang

            Your both trolling each other without realizing it lol

  • Matt

    I’m curious whether the people said anything about how they envisioned unification. In my experience in S. Korea, most people if asked whether they support reunification, they say straightforwardly yes. When you get in to how it would work, what they’re willing to do to make it happen, etc., that’s when it becomes clear that they’re actually much much more concerned about their job prospects, new home, children’s education or whatever else than they are serious about reunification. The question I think would be more interesting for a North Korean would be whether they prefer a unified Korea without a Kim in charge, or a divided Korea where the Dear Leader remains the head. Did the author get any sense of how that might complicate the issue?

  • Matt

    I’m curious whether the people said anything about how they envisioned unification. In my experience in S. Korea, most people if asked whether they support reunification, they say straightforwardly yes. When you get in to how it would work, what they’re willing to do to make it happen, etc., that’s when it becomes clear that they’re actually much much more concerned about their job prospects, new home, children’s education or whatever else than they are serious about reunification. The question I think would be more interesting for a North Korean would be whether they prefer a unified Korea without a Kim in charge, or a divided Korea where the Dear Leader remains the head. Did the author get any sense of how that might complicate the issue?

  • newageman

    Thanks Albert for your story!
     
    I really appreciate the lovely picture of Mt. Baekdu.
     
    When more Americans visit NK, we may be able to
    end the lingering Korean War finally.
     

  • newageman

    Thanks Albert for your story!
     
    I really appreciate the lovely picture of Mt. Baekdu.
     
    When more Americans visit NK, we may be able to
    end the lingering Korean War finally.
     

  • Pingback: A Korean-American friend’s article about visiting North Korea » Joshua Spodek

  • http://www.facebook.com/TTebow15 Confucius Confucius

    The North Koreans are indeed hostile, as you should know from their recent sinking of the Cheonan and pirating of Chinese fishing vessels.

    You previously thought tourism to North Korea was illegal? Ever heard of Koryo Tours? Welcome to the Internet, Albert!

    Mount Baekdu, your sacred mountain, is accessible from China’s Jilin province. South Korean tourists go there all the time. If that was your top destination, then your trip to North Korea was unnecessary.

  • Peter

    I totally agree with you ,seeing is believing. I was there long back 1987 during the days of Kim Il Sung and what you are saying is exactly what I experienced. I think the media is really being unfair to the North Koreans by painting then evil.
    I am planning to visit mt Bekdu soon

  • Stacy L

    There are two sides to every repressive regime: the People and the Government. People here who are commenting about supporting the regime with their tourist dollars seem to think that every country is perfect. We are looking at North Korea through the eyes of civil freedom. Our beliefs about what is right or wrong were bred in a country with amazing rights as citizens to speak out against our Governments. What about the North Korean People? All that they know is filtered to them through rose-colored glasses. Sure, they can see some TV from China, but other than that, they are raised from childhood to believe that Juche is right. Many North Koreans would forego food if it meant someone in the military was fed.

    Actually traveling to a country to see for yourself what exists takes courage. Even moreso to overcome a lifetime of being told to hate a country. The only way that we can see the People are to go in person. Kudos for overcoming that.