There was something which always made me want to visit North Korea. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the way it was portrayed as such an alienated and isolated corner of the globe drew me to want to experience a country which was completely and defiantly different. And I’m so grateful I did because I learnt so much, from drinking with locals and discussing world issues and the importance of never just accepting what you are told about a place; to uphold an opinion of somewhere you need to go and investigate it properly.
Most people’s reaction to my vacation idea was that I was absolutely crazy, I had no idea of the danger of visiting the country, they all want to kill us… things along those lines anyway. So I suppose one of the major things I learnt was, as a tourist you will probably never feel safer. Petty crime is inexistent which yes, is by product of the dictatorship but nevertheless deems worries such as being mugged or attacked pointless to have. The simple truth is that tourists bring money and something happening to one of them would be the governments worst nightmare, it might lead to countries having more of an excuse to poke around in the country’s affairs for one. Wars have kicked off over less. People often expressed to me that it was wrong to visit there because the money I spend there is likely only going to benefit an elite and contribute nothing to the overall growth of the country. Although I know this is true, I also think it is important to try and prise open this country as much as we can so we can promote productive debate instead of just deeming the situation hopeless.
Another important thing which I learnt from visiting the Demilitarised Zone and the Joint Security Areas which separates the Koreas, was the extreme side of not everything is always how you would imagine it to be. When I visited from the North Korean side the guards were extremely friendly, offered us cigarettes and seemed happy just to hang out with another weird group of tourists. They spoke good English and expressed their sadness of the situation in their country, they all think that Korea should be united and completely blame the Americans for this not being the case. We were allowed a relative amount of freedom and to look around the area. Fast forward to the visit on the South side, the open, democratic South that is. For starters there was a dress code which was strictly enforced by the rather rough and extremely unfriendly American soldiers. There were numerous checkpoints where our passports were examined and we were kept on the bus for as long as possible. We were told under no circumstances must we make any eye contact with anybody on the other side and we were allowed around a couple of minutes to stand there and have a look before we were ushered back onto the bus. Two extremely different experiences which taught me to never accept anything at face value again.
The most humbling thing which I learnt from this adventure was in regards to the people of North Korea. Often people get dragged down with a country’s reputation and although inevitable, it is really sad. Most of the locals I encountered would either look away, gaze nervously or interestedly or attempt a shy smile. Obviously that goes out of the window when children are concerned, they run up excited to look at this strange creature they may have never before encountered. However the few local people who I had conversations with were keen to find out about what living in my country was like, what I thought of their country and ask if they could come and visit. One of the most powerful moments was during a conversation about the moon landing, I was asked if it had happened in the last few weeks because the North Korean was unaware of it. It reaffirmed to me the magnitude of secrecy and isolation this country operates under and it made me both sad and extremely grateful to be from my country.
Photos by Kitty Busz