Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spring Break: North Korea, Part 2

As promised earlier, MAIS student Natalie Sammarco has sent a follow-up post to her previous entry on spring break in North Korea with her HNC classmates:

"I mentioned in my previous post that I went to North Korea (DPRK) for Spring Break. I have been asked to talk a little more about what we did and saw there as it was a pretty exciting week to be there (April 9-16). 

Six friends (including one HNC professor) and I traveled with an independent tour company in Beijing to Pyongyang and southwestern portions of North Korea. It was an eye opening experience and we were only slightly deterred by the international tensions before we left. We had chosen that time to travel because it was during the National Holiday (April 15, Kim Il Sung’s Birthday) and there would be festivities. Due to the time it takes to get a DPRK visa, tensions had not escalated by the time we had submitted our paperwork and planned the trip.

When we arrived, it was phenomenal. What made me most intrigued is that it looked like China in the late 1970s. Many people were wearing traditional coats in blue and brown and there weren’t many cars on the roads or highways. Pyongyang is developed enough to have wide, sweeping roads that cross the city, a metro system, high rise apartment buildings, and electricity (contrary to what we’d heard). We opted for a more basic tour package, so we had hot water, but had to check beforehand to make sure it was available at the times we needed to shower.

Pyonyang is a city of monuments and they are dedicated to two people: Kim Il Sung (grandfather) and Kim Jong Il (son). Statues in bronze and mosaics of colors are erected everywhere around the country to glorify the leaders’ dreams of modernity and self-reliance. We visited a library (where Madonna just happened to be playing on a boombox, circa 1994), coffee shop, bowling alley, and circus; and we danced in mass dances to get a feel for the culture. For the record, mass dance means 1000+ people dancing in traditional costume and formation in a public square.

Outside Pyongyang, one could see how much DPRK concentrated on agriculture. As I love the outdoors, I enjoyed the pristine air quality (no factories=no pollution) and vast mountain-scapes all over the countryside. Every inch of land was being cultivated for food and most of the fields were brown with mud and water. In the countryside, we visited a hot springs resort, where there was no electricity for miles at night -- very Twlight Zone-like -- and also went to a museum dedicated to what DPRK claims are war crimes committed by the US during the Korean War. I believe most of us felt conflicted seeing how the US is perceived by North Koreans, but this was precisely the reason why we went: to learn more about their culture. If disliking the US is apart of the culture, there is no reason to turn a blind eye and pretend it does not exist.

The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), near Kaesong, was my favorite part of the trip. We visited on a day when we heard it was quite possible international tensions could come to a head, but we were assured that, were anything to happen, we would quickly be ushered to safety. The DMZ is just a couple miles wide and filled with land mines. I took photos with the DPRK flag in one corner of the shot and the South Korean flag in the other; thus, indicating the 38th parallel, the demarcation line of the Korean peninsula. Our guides were military personnel and seemed happy to guide us around, stating that it was their great honor to lead tours around this area. All in all, that day was the most poignant, since there was the juxtaposition of knowing there were tensions ‘on the outside’, but it was so seemingly serene inside the country.

The take away from this trip is that the DPRK has very warm people and guides who are very eager to share their country, beliefs, and culture with tourists. We didn’t see unrest on the ground even though tensions were high but this is possibly due to the fact that outside news does not reach the DPRK interior. It is obvious that, to make progress with DPRK politically, the international sphere will have to take a lot of their ingrained ideology into mind when engaging with them. Our group had a good introduction to the culture and I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to see an area of the world that is so mysterious. The question is, once you’ve gone to North Korea during the most intense week of international tensions the country has seen in a decade, where do you go next?

I’m open to suggestions :-) but don’t tell my mother. She already thinks I’m trying to kill her with stress."