Schuylkill County native spends spring break in North Korea
Published: April 4, 2013
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CORRECTION : Information previously printed about a North Korean tour guide assisting with the trip of NBA star Dennis Rodman was incorrect. That guide was not involved with Rodman's trip.
Author Evan Terwilliger writes:
"It has come to my attention from the organizers of the Dennis Rodman trip that the KITC guide I met had in fact not been around when the NBA star visited. The guide that I met, dubbed 'Crazy Oh' had in fact been drinking and, I suppose, wanted to embellish his larger-than-life personality. I apologize for not being more skeptical of his claim. It did seem too good to be true!"
(Editor's Note: Evan Terwilliger, of Sacramento, Schuylkill County, is a graduating senior majoring in Communication and Rhetoric from the University of Pittsburgh. This is the first of three articles in a series for The Citizen-Standard about his observations in North Korea.)
If you've tuned into any news station recently, then you have probably seen a disproportionate amount of news about North Korea, self-styled as The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). We see and hear reports about nuclear missiles, satellite launchings, and the impending provocation of another Korean war. As I have just spent a week in this communist state, I am at will to say that the truth is stranger than fiction.
The first question that arises in your minds, I presume, is as to how it was even possible for me, an American, to enter the hermit kingdom. Travel is only possible through approval of the Korean International Travel Company (KITC). A few different travel agencies provide tours under the KITC's guidance, sending along a pair of Korean guides (mine were two cute female KITC employees of 22 and 26 years of age). After talking with Albert Kim of Yangpa Tours, I arranged a trip with their partner, Young Pioneer Tours. They are an English-speaking company based in China which I could not recommend more (and encourage you to check out their fantastic website). My first misconception was that I would not even be allowed in. Once that was dispelled, I pondered what other things I may be wrong about. Hence, I was on my way to Pyongyang on March 12.
My friends and family gave me advice on what to do and watch out for in advance. I would sit through miniature lectures on how the hotel rooms are bugged, how they would find out that I had written travel columns for a newspaper, and about being captured by government agents without even being told on what charges I was being arrested. The most common (and frankly, least helpful) piece of advice was: "Don't die". However, the DPRK was full of pleasant surprises.
The Koreans pride themselves on hospitality. I, as well as my three traveling comrades, was treated as an honored guest - complete with deluxe hotel stays as well as private performances by schoolchildren. Another pleasant surprise was a reprieve from the constant bombardment of advertisements - posters plastered around cities like incessant flyers all preying upon our subconscious desires for perfection (which is only close to being achievable as long as we can open our wallets wide enough). I much preferred the morale-building slogans painted around colorful pictures of happy workers and smiling children. The Westerner in us might see this as purely communist propaganda. However, I invite you to consider something about our own advertisements.
Consider various commercials and billboards advertising the Coca-Cola soda brand. They depict images of happy (and rather beautiful) people drinking their product. We see them all of the time. How, then, does the average American like you or me view these advertisements? Well, frankly, we usually ignore them, right? We give the sign or commercial a passing glance and do not even think about it for the rest of the day. It's not a big part of our daily life. This is the same thinking of the average citizen of the DPRK when they see these paintings and signs about their government leadership. What would happen if Coca-Cola never produced another advertisement? Certainly, they would eventually lose sales to Pepsi. Advertisements in any form in any country are viewed the same way. They remind us of the product, but don't force it down our throats.
In a similar vein, a deep affection for the DPRK's leaders is apparent. They respect the authority of the current, very young leader Kim Jong Un. (The late) President Kim Il-Sung, after liberating the country from the Japanese, left a young nation with numerous schools, world-class hospitals, a film studio, and clean metro system. (The late) Kim Jong-Il, who was Kim Il-Sung's son, is the man who increased development of powerful weapons. However, he also helped the country get through the great famine of 1994. I had the opportunity to view the embalmed bodies of both of these leaders in the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Some citizens developed moist eyes, but none were sobbing or flailing uncontrollably at the sight of their deceased leaders. It was all very reverent and respectful.
Many of the popularly-held beliefs that I took into the country turned out to be completely unfounded. For one, the average DPRK citizen is extraordinarily normal. They're not robots. They get through the day one day at a time and, just like us, have pride and support for their country. The biggest fear of the average citizen is being misrepresented in the global media. I had to admit it: the very notion of content and happy communists threatens the foundation of a capitalist society like ours. A couple of times, I was asked what the average American thinks of the DPRK. I was asked about my views of the government and the ongoing tension between our countries. We met up with one tour guide in Pyongyang. He said to me: "Evan, I know I'm from the DPRK; I know you're from America. But remember this: all around the world. . .children is children, life is life, and love is love." Over a few drinks, we agreed that nobody actually wants war. Everybody wants a peaceful world. I proposed a cheer to peace. We drank through the night.
(Stay tuned for next week's article, "Of Borders and Ball Pits".)