Despite everything that’s going on the Korean peninsula, there seems to be no shortage of people who still want to visit North Korea in some way or another, whether through a general tour of the country or through one of the more specialized – sports, beer, etc – kinds on offer.
And there are plenty of groups willing to take tourists there, with plenty of their own marketing strategies for sucking customers in. Some portray themselves as offering an authentic DPRK experience and a “rare glimpse” at a secretive state, while others portray themselves as selling the ultimate in adventure and adrenaline tourism: a boozy trip to the world’s last enclave of Cold War communism.
Others are hoping to provide a more educational affair. Tongil Tours, founded in 2013, was set up to “go beyond just interesting and fun, to educational and unforgettable” and to build cultural ties between North Korean and the outside world.
NK News called up the company’s founding partner, Alek Sigley, to find out about his most recent project: a language course in Pyongyang.
NK News: Why is Tongil Tours different?
Alek Sigley: We are the only North Korea tour operator that’s run by people who have all studied Korean at quite an advanced level and also have academic backgrounds in Korean studies.
So the nature of our organization reflects that: we started in educational tourism and we not only want to kind of take people in and deliver a fun time, but also help them attain a more nuanced understanding of the country through specially themed tours.
NK News: How long have you been working?
Alek Sigley: I started doing tours in 2013, so it’s still relatively new.
I’m still actually an undergrad, I’m just finishing off, but I’m a bit older than the usual undergrad. I have always been very interested in the region. When I was living in China, I was in a dormitory because I was on a China government scholarship and you get put in a dormitory. I got put on the floor where all the North Koreans lived.
If you are an undergraduate student on the China government scholarship you get put in a twin room and everyone else gets chucked in – my roommate was from Kyrgyzstan. But the North Koreans had a special arrangement where they all lived together and they all lived on the same floor.
You would pass their doors and on each of their doors they had a little North Korean flag sticker on the front of the door. I got to know some of those guys and they were really nice: they piqued my curiosity and that’s kind of how that started.
NK News: How did the idea for the language program come about?
Alek Sigley: Well, I’ve been interested in the idea of studying Korean at North Korean universities since I was in Shanghai – since that time I was in China. Back then I looked into various places and I discovered it wasn’t possible unless you were Chinese and you had to go through an official exchange program.
In most cases these people are Chinese and the university has an exchange agreement over there and you have to be a Chinese student at a Chinese university and go through that exchange program. There were other nationalities as well, like Russians, Mongolians and maybe some Bulgarians or something like that.
But if you are from Australia, or the U.S. or even the UK, I don’t think that there was any such an opportunity. So after starting Tongil Tours I asked my business partners about this and in the beginning they really didn’t give much of a response. It was around the end of last year that they said it would be possible, so I got very excited because it fits in with the ethos of Tongil Tours, but also it’s something that personally I have wanted to do for a long time.
NK News: So how did you go about organizing it? You said it was the first time anyone organized a program for western students to study at a North Korean university. How did those arrangements work?
Alek Sigley: The Chinese or Russian students go through the university official exchange program and they go on student visas. What we did was we brought our people in on tourist visas, so I guess that’s the main difference.
So we were hosted by the tour company that Tongil Tours is partners with Korea International Youth & Children’s Travel Company, not KITC. But in terms of what they can do, it’s the same sort of visa and the same rules and restrictions apply. That’s how we were able to organize such a program where basically anyone, even Americans and Japanese could join.
NK News: And who were the sort of people who volunteered, was it a diverse crowd?
Alek Sigley: We had a pretty small group this time, and it was interesting because there was only three of us and the other two people had both been to North Korea before, so that was interesting.
I’ve never led a group like that before where everyone has been there before and they’ve all had a bit of experience, they’ve all seen all the typical sort of sights and they are more interested in things – we didn’t go to the DMZ.
We had a lot of flexibility to change the itinerary after we got there, so we didn’t see stuff like that and we asked to go to more ordinary places. I don’t want to say that every tour in the future in going to be like this – we want to run this program every year during the summer.
NK News: What do you think made it special from the other types of things that you do? Was it just that ordinariness of it?
Alek Sigley: The main kind of differentiating point would be the fact that we were actually taking classes at a North Korean university. So we received instruction from the same teachers, we used the same text books and we were in the same building, on the same floor as the other students from China. So in terms of the classes, what we were doing was the same as what those students going through the official exchange programs would experience.
I’ve never led a group like that before where everyone has been there before
NK News: Was there any kind of setbacks at any point? Was there any worry that the geopolitics might put a dampener on things?
Alek Sigley: Not really. What was going on then? I can’t even remember! We’d been there several times, so we all knew what to expect.
NK News: What’s your take on the effectiveness of these types of things? What do you think is the distinction between the sanctions approach and the engagement-oriented approach?
Alek Sigley: I think it helps to go in there and humanize the people and interact with them. Learning a language is a great way to promote a kind of more cross-cultural understanding that can help alleviate the sort of antagonism between the North Koreans people on the outside.
I think to some extent there is a cultural misunderstanding between people on the outside, and especially the West, and North Koreans, so I think in that respect, tourism in general helps, but especially this language program is a good thing.
And I say the language program especially because if you want to understand another culture, then it’s necessary to learn the language because one of the primary ways in which culture is manifested is through language. So you just get this depth if you are able to learn a language and interact with people.
We all learned a lot from interacting with our teachers, and from reading the textbooks. I should mention that because we each had a different level of skill, we each got our own teacher, it was a one-on-one.
I think each of us got along with our teachers and when we had to say goodbye, it was actually quite emotional. When we went to the beach and interacted with people, it was the same.
So I think forging those sorts of friendships and showing people that we don’t have to be enemies – to put it in simple terms – really helps.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity