North Korea is a country that has held my fascination for a few years now, since watching a documentary about a visitor who filmed his experiences there. The goal of my backpacking team was to visit this rumor-laden, often misunderstood country while keeping open minds. We wanted to listen, and we wanted to learn from the people we met while inside. Of course, we had seen the news and documentaries and were well aware of North Korea’s various humanitarian violations. But we wondered if something was missing from the story we had been told. Was there a possibility that we had mistakenly created false impressions of how we saw North Korean people, creating walls that would limit our ability to see their worth as fellow humans?
AS PART OF A SMALL TEAM OF VOLUNTEER BACKPACKERS, I SPENT A WEEK IN NORTH KOREA (THE DPRK).
In early May, we boarded an Air Koryo flight in Beijing, bound for Pyongyang, eager to answer these questions for ourselves.
During our visit we saw monuments and historical sites, enjoyed extravagant restaurants and hotels, and wondered at the breathtaking natural beauty of massive mountain peaks and the clear blue, secluded waters of lakes far from the cities. Throughout the trip, we gained newfound perspectives of the complex historical and political events that have affected millions in North and South Korea, as our guides explained to us the stories of families who had been torn apart during the Korean War.
As foreigners, we were always monitored by our guides and our hotel rooms were bugged. And on some stops on the tour, it seemed that life in North Korea may have been misrepresented. Even so, one of our goals was to observe and interact with people’s normal lives wherever we went. We saw families working in fields, kids playing at playgrounds, people commuting to work, and friends conversing alongside the road. At rest stops, we talked with locals and inquired about their lives. At restaurants, we embarrassed our waitresses when we asked about their significant others as they served us multiple-course meals of seafood, rice, tofu, and kimche.
From the bus we waved to hundreds of children, and even to soldiers with machine guns at checkpoints. Our waves were often first met with a reluctant smile—which quickly grew into beaming grins and laughter and an instant sense of connection, even if only from a bus window.
My personal experiences throughout the week gave rise to a stark realization: people in North Korea aren’t as resentful of outsiders as I initially assumed they would be. I found this to be true everywhere I went, even in situations where I interacted with locals outside the “script” of the tour.
On the last night of the tour, we visited an amusement park in Pyongyang with roller coasters, thrill rides, bumper cars, and plenty of ice cream and carnival foods. The park was packed. Most visitors were families, but even some groups of military generals strolled through and embraced the joyful atmosphere, riding the most hair-raising rides, taking photos with each other, and even waving to us as we walked by.
At the amusement park, nothing was staged. This was real life in North Korea. And since I was a foreigner, I presumptuously assumed that the locals would keep a safe distance from us, since we weren’t at a normal tour stop with just a guide and a few locals. But I was wrong.
My friends and I were given the special privilege of passing straight to the front of the line of each ride. At first we were reluctant, thinking it would be rude to bypass everyone who was waiting. But guests in Korea are to be treated with honor. So even while I passed our patient hosts to the front of the line, people generously moved to let the entourage go, and loudly cheered us on while we strapped on our seat belts. They were honored to be our hosts, and my team and I were struck with the realization that the best way to receive this honor was with thankfulness and sincerity.
The air began to grow cooler and the sun began to set, but my travel buddies and I were just getting started. More and more laughs and photos were exchanged. As I rode, I noticed people starting to push and shove to sit next to one of us foreigners. A crowd formed and followed our group around; some sang traditional Korean songs with the spectators while the rest of our group rode the rides.
All assumptions and preconceptions were laid aside. We were no longer impostors or imperialists. They were no longer closed-minded, or isolated from the rest of the world. Everyone realized how much there was to like about each other and we recognized one another’s mutual dignity.
The night ended beautifully with the sun setting over the city. As we said final goodbyes to our new friends, our guides ran and bought us ice cream with their own money, rather than from the money we had paid the tour company for the trip.
Sometimes, because of the voices we believe, we mistakenly put damaging labels on other people. And these labels become walls, which block our ability to relate with these people and especially to see their worth as fellow humans.
I ask myself: how many more judgments, stereotypes and presuppositions would I lay aside if I could see beyond them? North Korea doesn’t know it, but it has begun a process of change in me—a desire to see what’s behind the walls I’ve built in order to see and understand other people more clearly. In fact, I see this country much differently now. Of course, it’s a place with a heartbreaking history and there are many social and political issues that need to be resolved. But I also now see North Korea as a place where some of my friends live—not just another place to be avoided.
When we are willing to take a first step, by traveling to see something new or even something we’re afraid of, we begin to see what lies behind our walls of presumptions, fears and judgements. The way we think about people might completely change and we can begin to tear down our walls.
And who knows, we might even make a few unlikely friends in the process.
This piece was originally published on October 23, 2014.