One of the most important lessons I have learned throughout my quite long life as an explorer is this; Do not believe everything you read. Judge with your own eyes. I have seen this reality in for example in Yemen, Russia and Nicaragua. To take only three examples of countries that have been portrayed, in many ways, wrongly in Western media. It makes me sad, because too many people believe what they read without another thought. Therefore, one of my goals of my exploring life is to try to give a perspective. Give another view of a country that the Western media far too often only portray negatively for mere political gains and other obscure reasons. For this reason I have lately become very interested in North Korea. And right now I am involving myself in deep research and I have asked one of my friends, Andrea Lee, who knows this country well, to give us all a perspective to begin with!
North Korea; A Perspective
I spent four years at law school holding down a job during the day and going to classes at night. After graduation, I worked as a corporate attorney at two of New York’s biggest law firms. I had worked hard and achieved what I set my mind to do. I thought I was set. But my dad would call me every other day to ask me to help out with the North Korea tour business he had started. I had a full time job and he wanted me to book tickets, write itineraries, deal with clients and a whole host of other tasks. And to North Korea on top of that! Are you kidding? Turns out my dad had real vision.
As my law career progressed, I came to the slow (but common) realization that life behind a desk was not for me. As luck would have it, the DPRK tour business had grown to a critical point and was large enough to warrant my full-time attention. Now, after several years and over 50 trips to North Korea, I am CEO of Uri Tours, and the experience has been completely amazing. I’ve helped nearly 1,000 Americans see the DPRK for themselves, including Dennis Rodman and Eric Schmidt. Every day presents new challenges and triumphs, and I’ve gained unique insight into both myself and one of the most closed and least understood countries on Earth.
As an American, I sometimes catch flack for taking people to the DPRK. Tensions between our countries are high, and people have legitimate questions about whether it’s safe or moral to travel to the DPRK. I too carried with me all of the typical western notions when I first set foot in Pyongyang in 2003. But 10 years of travel and business in the DPRK have convinced me that cultural contact is immensely important for fostering reconciliation and understanding between the DPRK and the international community.
Many people travel to the DPRK for the novelty. It’s sensational, it’s scary, it’s hip. Sure, you’ll definitely get cool points for shooting a pheasant at the Pyongyang gun range (and having your hotel prepare it for you the next day), but no matter what your reasons for going, most people come back valuing their DPRK experience because of the sheer awesomeness of the North Korean people. Years of hardship have forged North Koreans into a warm and rugged people with uncommon kindness and concern for their fellow man. These are the people whose stories are lost behind the politics and government posturing that we read about in the news, and they are the reason that many, including myself, return to the DPRK again and again. When Mikael asked me to write a piece for his blog, he said, “Write from the heart.” So I’ll just share a couple of memories that have stayed with me over time. I hope they help give you a better picture of the DPRK than you may have had before.
I once had a young female North Korean tour guide ask me if girls in the States get plastic surgery done. When I responded, “not so much in the States, but more so in South Korea,” she said that it’s not common in her country but she really hates the arch in her nose. I was shocked. She was super-stylish with strappy dress boots, a short skirt and a sleek, fur-trimmed jacket. As far as the men on the tour were concerned, she was all glitter and cotton candy and could do no wrong. We were worlds apart, but her question showed me that all of us women might look into the mirror from time to time and see potential for a nip here or a tuck there. When you conduct research on traveling to the DPRK, you’ll often hear North Korean tour guides referred to as “minders” or “spies” or even “actors.” While these labels may reflect the restricted nature of DPRK travel, they certainly do not paint a complete picture. I’ve gotten to know our guides over the years and they’re everyday people with everyday worries. Little moments like this one in which we share a laugh or reveal our little insecurities are moments that we carry with us, and I encourage all of my clients to seek out these moments when they’re traveling in the DPRK.
Won’t They Kill You?
Most foreigners who have visited the DPRK have stayed at the Yanggakdo Hotel. It has about 47 stories with a rotating bar and restaurant at the top. One night, I was at the bar a little after closing time with a couple of friends. One of the waitresses had her kids with her and they were having a good time running around the empty bar. At some point I said hi to them in Korean. Being kids, they didn’t have any problems asking pointed questions: “You speak Korean?” “Yes.” “You’re Korean?” “Yes.” “But you are from America?” “Yes.” “But won’t they kill you?”
I translated for my friends and we all had a good laugh. I told the kids that there are plenty of Americans who are also Korean and that nobody was killing us. I know some people might read this and shake their heads saying, “This is the propaganda that they get in North Korea?” But the irony for me is that I get at least two calls every week from Americans asking the opposite question: “Isn’t it too dangerous to travel to the DPRK?”
Needless to say there is ample propaganda on both sides. We’ve never had a safety issue on any of our trips. In fact, I’ve had people tell me that they felt safer in the DPRK than they did in France! The only way to have a truly informed opinion is to go there yourself. Fear keeps us from doing many things, but we’re lucky enough to live in a country that encourages us to travel. We shouldn’t take that freedom for granted by sitting at home and taking what we hear at face value.
Respecting Our Elders
As a Korean American, I share a cultural heritage with North Koreans (though my family is from the South). We all eat kimchi and drink soju and we all speak the same language. I’m proud that Uri Tours is the only DPRK tour operator that’s run by a person of Korean descent (also the only one run by a woman). Having this cultural connection helps me give my clients a more informed experience.
On one occasion, one of our older tourists wanted to sit in the back of the bus to get a better view for taking pictures. Our Korean guide insisted she sit in the front, and I could tell our tourist was suspicious that our guides were trying to thwart her desires to take good pictures. When I asked our guide in Korean why he insisted on the woman sitting in the front, he said that it was because the front of the bus would afford a less bumpy ride. When I explained this to our tourist, she immediately understood and said that it was nice to be in a country where elders get so much respect. This, of course, was another very Korean value that I understood well. In the end, we resolved that she would sit in the back as she originally requested. Without proper cultural mediation, situations like these can often lead to misunderstandings that make the trip less enjoyable.
At this point, I’m used to getting plenty of funny looks when I tell people what I do. But then again I got funny looks when I told people I was leaving my cushy job at the law firm. I get funny looks from people when I’m cruising down the PIP in North Jersey on my 2009 Ducati Monster (a nice girl on a bad bike ;). I got funny looks from my friends when I told them about Zen Buddhism which I had studied for a summer in Seoul. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, but I realize that I do buck some trends. Honestly, I think we all should buck the trend and open our minds to new and exciting experiences. Of course, since the world’s adventurers follow this blog, I might be preaching to the choir. Either way, I hope to see you soon in the DPRK!
Andrea Lee is CEO of Uri Tours an American provider of tours and travel services to the DPRK.