An American in South Korea Heads North (Part 1)


Alecia Janeiro, 29, has travelled with Young Pioneer Tours to North Korea on two occasions.  Alecia, originally from North Carolina, has been living and working in South Korea for the last 7 years. Here, she speaks about her experiences on her independent travel in the DPRK with YPT:

As part of my first trip to the DPRK, I decided to book an independent tour to Wonsan on the east coast of Gangwon-do. Gangwon-do is the only province divided by the DMZ, and it is my favorite province on the Korean peninsula, in part because the mountains remind me of home. In the South, I've travelled there at least 10 times, so I figured I should see the North side as well.

Near the end of my five-day group tour in Pyongyang, my Korean guide from the tour, Jeong-im, approached me in a rush at the Grand People's Study House to tell me to go get my bag from the bus because my new Korean guides had arrived to take me to Wonsan. Part of the reason I wanted to do an independent tour was because I knew I would have the chance to spend two days alone with two Korean guides and a driver. I told my new friend goodbye, gave her a gift, and told her I'd see her again. I got my things, bade our group tour driver farewell, and joined my new guides.

Nearly every article I've read about visiting the DPRK characterizes the Korean guides as “cold,” “reserved,” or “unfriendly.” My first five days had already proven said characterizations to be overdramatic nonsense, but the next two days made me want to write editorials for every publication that has ever propagated such garbage.

My new guides introduced themselves, and we got in the van and headed toward the May Day Stadium, where I got private tour of the world's largest coliseum. We then headed out of Pyongyang for the trip to Wonsan. My guides and I started chatting - I was with a veteran guide, Mr. Lim, who had been running tours for a decade, and Seo-yun, a recent university graduate who was still fairly new to guiding.

Mr. Lim is full of facts and anecdotes about the DPRK, and also full of jokes. I love cheesy jokes, so he told jokes throughout the entire tour, some of which were political. He is also brilliant and very curious about the outside world. Given the lack of access to open information in the DPRK, he was full of questions… especially when I told him and Seo-yun that I had been living in South Korea for six years at this point.

Before the trip, I'd read that it was nearly impossible to have a real conversation about anything in the DPRK, and people kept telling me I should be careful about speaking openly about…well…most topics. I quickly found this to be untrue. After showing my guides photos of Seoul, my students, friends, family, and other places I'd visited before the trip, Mr. Lim asked, “How is the economy of South Korea?” I replied, “It is currently the 15th-largest in the world.” “15th?” he asked with a note of surprise. “America must be number one.” I responded, “America and China keep trading places at the top. Korea is one of the smallest countries on the list.” He quietly took in this information.

Seo-yun began telling me about Korean holidays. She started with Korean Thanksgiving, or Chuseok, and I found out that North Koreans go do some sort of service for the nation during the holiday. Seo-yun pointed to a mountain in the distance and said, “During Chuseok last year, the guides came here to plant trees.” I asked, “Do you also have a traditional dinner and visit your ancestors’ graves during the holiday? That is what people do in the South.” “You do? Yes, it is the same here. We eat some special foods, such as a glutinous rice cake filled with a sweet filling.” I nodded and replied, “Songpyeon. We eat them in the South, too.” Astonished, she asked, “You know songpyeon?!” and I said, “Of course. They're delicious. I look forward to having them at Chuseok every year.”

We continued discussing similarities between Chuseok celebrations on both sides of the border as Mr. Lim made a phone call. When he got off the phone, he told me, “I called the restaurant where we will eat tonight. You will try songpyeon on this side of the border at dinner.” We continued discussing Korean holidays and Seo-yun was surprised to hear that I'd celebrated Korean weddings, 100-day and one-year parties for babies, and Lunar New Year during my time in Korea. I got the impression that people in the North have been told that the US has wiped out Korean culture in the South.

What struck me most about the conversation is how similar the traditional cultures of both countries are. From a cultural standpoint, nearly everything pre-Korean War is the same. Over the years, I've heard many colleagues, students, and friends say, “Despite the divide, we are one Korea.” Politically, economically, and socially speaking, the divide is vast, but in terms of old culture, I really felt what they meant for the first time. I understood before I travelled to the North, but I didn't truly get it until that van ride to Wonsan.

When we arrived in Wonsan, my first thought was, “Wow, this looks like Sokcho with less money.” Sokcho, like Wonsan, is a city on the East Sea, but on the South side of the border. The two are strikingly similar. When we visited the pier, I noticed Seo-yun fell behind while Mr. Lim talked to me. They would take turns talking to me one-on-one during visits to tourist sites, I guess to give each other a chance to discuss with me what they wanted.

As we walked, Mr. Lim asked me about recent deals between the US and both Cuba and Iran. He was curious as to how they happened, and I said, “They're basically similar in that we finally have a president who is willing to talk to countries we've labelled enemies and isolated.” He then asked a question I never thought I'd receive in the DPRK: “Do you think reunification is possible?” I tried to be diplomatic with my answer because that is a tricky subject for obvious reasons. “Well, it is similar to what I was saying before. When both countries are willing to sit down and actually talk, perhaps some change will come.” After a moment, I added, “And other parties, such as the US, will have to take a step back.”

He did not ask me to elaborate, nodded, and said, “Okay, let's go to the next location.” His coworkers call him Serious-Lim because of his demeanor in the office, and the foreign guides know him as Serious-Lim because of his often-serious demeanor during group tours. To me, he is Serious-Lim because of the nature of his questions and our discussions.

Our next stop was Songdowon International Children's Camp, just outside of Wonsan. The camp invites kids and families from eight countries including Russia, China, and Nigeria, plus some lucky DPRK children, to spend school breaks there. As we drove onto the compound, the first thing I saw was a moderately sized water park full of kids and their parents having some afternoon fun. It is one of the more unusual places I've visited in the DPRK because, outside of the hotels in Pyongyang, it is the only place I've seen a large group of foreigners.

Mr. Lim hung back with the driver while Seo-yun and I took a tour of the facilities with a Korean employee. As we approached one of the main buildings, she started to read a sign to me. Every building features a sign indicating its construction date and which leader was in charge during that time. Before she finished reading, I asked, “Oh, so this was built during the current leader's time?” She looked at me for a second, and asked, “Can you read that?!” I said, “Sure, I've been in Korea for six years. I learned to read in the beginning.” She then made me read her the sign. When I finished, I looked over and a German family was filming me.

Seo-yun wanted to know why I wasn't speaking Korean with her if I could read. I replied, “Well, it's like English: You might be able to read every word, but you might not know every word. In this case, your English is far better than my Korean.” I didn't mention that the variations of the language in the North and South add am extra layer of difficulty because my first guide in Pyongyang was insistent that the language is the same across the peninsula. It isn't.

By some estimates, North Korean defectors who end up in the South are unable to understand up to half of the vocabulary in school textbooks when they arrive. Linguists in the South have worked to develop dictionaries and language programs to help overcome this difficulty. This isn't often mentioned in the North because it undermines the idea that Korea is one. The divide happened because of the physical division of the countries. It is a byproduct of one country remaining closed while the other has developed at an astronomical rate. As a result, I have more difficulty understanding Korean in the DPRK.

Touring this facility without Seo-yun would have been a bit boring. It was a long tour. We saw the bedroom Kim Jong Un inspected when he visited, the kitchen facilities where kids from various countries were preparing dishes from their respective homes for dinner, a huge theatre, a brand new sports facility, an aquarium, an aviary, and the grounds of the camp. As we went along, Seo-yun and I paid less and less attention to the guide and joked around more and more. Every time we saw a sign in Korean, she made me read it, and the novelty didn't seem to wear off.

Before visiting the aquarium, our guide led us to a mirror maze. Seo-yun and I hadn't been in a mirror maze before, and this one was genuinely challenging. We laughed and stumbled our way through it, finally finding our way out after an absurd amount of time. When we went to the aquarium, there were hands-on exhibits, and she started giggling like a little kid when she touched one of the fish. This turned into us both acting like kids, playing at all the hands-on exhibits. When we went to the aviary, we took turns holding birds and laughing as they pecked us. Had I done all of this alone, it would not have been nearly as entertaining, but having her there was like having an old friend with me.

When we left the aviary and were alone, she asked me, “The languages in the North and South have some big differences, right?” I told her that was true, so she asked if I could tell her the South Korean word for things if she told me the North Korean word. I agreed, but warned her my Korean is not fantastic. It was interesting to hear the DPRK variations on even simple words, like “beautiful” and “hanbok” (the traditional Korean dress), and I was impressed that she brought up the differences at all. I told her in the South, we always call younger female friends “dongsaeng” and older friends “eonni,” so for the rest of the tour, I called her “dongsaeng” and she called me “eonni.”

When we got back to the van, Mr. Lim was holding a tattered notebook and asked if I could take a look at something for him. In his notebook, he had transcribed the entire script of “Finding Nemo,” which he was using to study English. He asked if I could be his teacher since I am a teacher. I replied, “Of course!” He then had me explain some of the more difficult phrases from the movie. It turns out, Disney and Pixar films are quite popular with the guides and they use them to study English. When I asked which were their favorites, Seo-yun started singing one of the original songs from “Tangled.” I have read article after article claiming that watching any foreign media will get North Koreans jailed, or worse. Once again, I was proven that those articles often miss the mark.

After leaving the camp, we made our way to dinner, where I discovered that our driver is one of the pickiest eaters I've ever seen. We shared a huge meal of sashimi, traditional side dishes, and my special songpyeon, but he would only eat kimchi. He said he didn't like fish. As my guides and I ate one of the best meals I've had on the peninsula, Mr. Lim kept making jokes and having a really funny conversation with me. Finally, Seo-yun broke down laughing. I asked what was funny, and she replied, “He is! He is my boss in the office and he is ALWAYS so serious. I've never seen him be funny. It's just so…” and she started laughing again.

At the end of the meal, we shared two plates of songpyeon. Mr. Lim tried to make me eat them all, but there were enough for four or five people, so I insisted we share. Mr. Lim told me I had to have the last one because it would bring me luck in relationships and my love life in the coming year. Superstitions like this exist on both sides of the border, and I obliged, but told him it probably wouldn't bring me much luck. (To be continued...) 

Special thanks to Alecia for blog and photos. If you're interested in writing for YPT about your experiences travelling with us, please get in touch.



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