Insights into North Korea

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By Diego Rimoch (Wharton/Lauder ’15 and member of the Global Program)

Over Spring Break, a group of 23 current and former Wharton students traveled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea aka North Korea. The group included a large contingent of Lauderites and the group leader, Nick Walker, was actually a second year member of the Bu (Lauder China Track).

The Wharton group in North Korea
The Wharton group in North Korea

I originally wasn’t too sure about what to expect. I thought we would spend maybe one or two days sightseeing with the rest of our time restricted to playing cards and board games at the hotel. The reality was a jam packed schedule full of activities with early morning starts and days that stretched late into the evening. In the end, traveling to North Korea was one of the most fascinating trips I have ever made.

Visiting North Korea is unusual to say the least. According to some sources, only 2,000 tourists go every year and their travel is strictly controlled and supervised. Perhaps because of this and the state of relations between the DPRK and the US (they have no official diplomatic relations), many people believe it’s either impossible, illegal or dangerous to go.

So let me dispel all three of those myths. Visiting North Korea is actually quite easy. There are a few western tour operators that have been taking tourists to North Korea for many years. Moreover, it is perfectly legal for US citizens to visit. From what I read and heard, the only people who face limitations are active US military, journalists and South Koreans (from their own government).

It is also extremely safe to visit North Korea. I want to dwell on this point. Countless people looked at me whimsically when I told them I was planning a trip there. Many others asked my wife if she was worried I would be killed or imprisoned. Leaving aside the lack of sensitivity that these people displayed, there is little evidence to substantiate those concerns. The very few tourists who have gotten into any trouble in North Korea were usually engaged in conduct that was clearly off limits.

As for petty crime, it is almost non-existent. In fact, foreigners usually get a regal and privileged treatment. For instance, one of us forgot his iPad at one of the hotels we stayed at in the countryside. Our guide received a phone call about it after we had returned to Pyongyang (the capital) and someone from the hotel made the three hour trip to return it. That being said, it is also true that there are a number of rules that you are supposed to follow. And just like a visit to any country, you want to use good judgment to make sure you do not offend your hosts.

I now want to talk about why I wanted to go. North Korea is one of the last socialist countries in the world. But it is first and foremost one of the most closed off and repressive regimes in power. In the words of a friend who had gone before I did, it’s like Orwell’s 1984. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

In some ways, the trip was almost normal: leave hotel, get on bus, visit museums, gaze at monuments, listen to guides. And although the country is certainly poor, you don’t witness the kind of misery and deprivation you can see in many developing countries. The people are well dressed and clean and you can tell they are proud of it.

Frank DeSimone (Lauder/JD '15) and Preston Thomas (Lauder/Wharton '15) sample local cuisine
Frank DeSimone (Lauder/JD ’15) and Preston Thomas (Lauder/Wharton ’15) sample local cuisine

But in many other ways, the experience was completely surreal. To understand North Korea, you have to realize that the entire nation’s narrative is anchored in the trauma of the Korean War. Almost everything we heard and saw was connected to it and the Korean people’s victorious struggle for independence under the guidance and leadership of the Kims (Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un). The state of mind is that of a besieged nation on a war footing. My personal analysis is that the purpose is to bolster support for the status quo and help the Kims hang on to power.

Chanda Wong (Lauder/Wharton '15) dances with locals
Chanda Wong (Lauder/Wharton ’15) dances with locals

One of the most eye opening experiences was a visit to an elementary school located on a model cooperative farm. The children, probably around six or seven years old, were singing and dancing what appeared to be age appropriate songs. It was only later that we learned that they were singing the praise of the leaders. But the school murals were even more disturbing. Next to the usual bunnies, small Korean children dressed up in military uniforms were depicted shooting at and killing US soldiers.

The cult of personality is also a defining trait of the country. There are oversized statues and mural pictures of the Kims everywhere. Their portraits also hang inside many buildings. We were required to bow to the statues more times that I can recount. There was one television news channel which was constantly airing news of the leader Kim Jong Un, and the Pyongyang Times, an English language newspaper, always featured him on the front page. You are not supposed to fold the paper across his image nor dispose of it (used papers are usually collected by hosts and finding out what they do with them is impossible).

The highlight of the trip was the visit to the Kamsusan Palace of the Sun, the old Presidential Palace where both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jon Il are embalmed and displayed in state. The place is monumental and ostentatious, and possibly the best kept structure in the city. The rooms are huge with grand staircases (the biggest I have ever seen indoors) to go from one level to the next. Security is strict with numerous checks, guards and security cameras. No metal objects are allowed and of course no cameras (although a few pictures ara available online). Side rooms display hundreds of Kim memorabilia including medals, uniforms, diplomas, their cars, train wagons and even a yacht.

Some of the other highlights of the trip included the visit to the DMZ and the war museum which was recently renovated and includes some top notch exhibits worthy of some of the best amusement park rides in the world. Their version of the Korean War is of course quite different from what is taught elsewhere. It should come as no surprise that they claim the war was started by the US, and they also consider the outcome a victory because they achieved official recognition as a country and were singlehandedly (the Chinese intervention is glossed over) able to resist aggression by the UN, the US and all the other allied nations that intervened in the conflict.

I could describe many other peculiarities about North Korea. I could write about the deserted major highway from Pyongyang to Kaesong. Or the factory that didn’t seem to have produced anything in six months. Or the classical concert where most of the songs were about the war, the leaders, and the Korean race. Or the many empty museums where we were the only visitors. Or the visit to the election precinct with only one candidate. Or the bookstore filled with books written by the Kims.

But instead, I’ll tell you to visit and witness it for yourself. This will be one of the most unique and memorable trips you will ever make.