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. (You can read the first part of Alecia's blog here.)
Back at the hotel, we parted ways and I was alone for the first time in a week. I turned in early because I was the only foreigner in the hotel and it was very quiet after dark. When I went out the next morning, a Korean lady was on her phone in the hall. She looked up, saw me, and exclaimed, “Oh, there's a foreigner here!” I greeted her in Korean, and she said hello back and walked away, telling her friend, “And she just spoke Korean to me!” Simply being able to say hello surprises people on both sides of the DMZ.
That morning, we visited the railway station where Kim Il-sung stayed for a time and led a resistance movement against the Japanese. Along the way, we drove through an area of the city that was noticeably rougher than places I'd seen thus far. It reminded me a bit of parts of Manila or Bangkok, where the homes are run down and the sewer is an open stream. A truck was spraying for mosquitos, which also happens in the South, but it was a much older vehicle, and the way of spraying involved dropping a flaming brick of repellent into a cauldron-like vat, then letting the smoke pour out everywhere as it drove by.
I tried snapping two pictures of this part of town, but Mr. Lim got a little nervous. He asked, “Alecia, can I please see your camera?” I handed it over, and he very politely said, “If it's not too much trouble, please delete those two photos. Our government is very sensitive…” I replied, “Of course, I completely understand,” and did as he asked. The images are in my mind, anyway. People have the idea that you cannot take photos in the DPRK, or the guards at the airport will delete most of them. In two trips, I've been asked to delete exactly two photos. I've been given more hassle for trying to take photos in the wrong direction at the South Korean side of the JSA, or trying to sneak photos in European museums.
After seeing the station and a small art gallery, my guides took me to the beach. I didn't want to swim, but I did want to walk along the beach and put my feet in the East Sea on the other side of the DMZ. Seo-yun took off her shoes and took a stroll with me. As we went, we talked about boyfriends, movies she liked, the difference between Disney and Pixar, and family life. By this point, it felt like we had been friends for years. As we walked, I saw kids playing in the sea, boys digging for clams with their feet, people playing volleyball, and scenes that essentially reminded me of Sokcho in the South.
At one point, Seo-yun nearly stepped on a jellyfish. I told her to look out, and she asked why. I said, “That's a jellyfish. If you step on the wrong part, it'll sting you.” She asked what a jellyfish is, so I replied with the Korean, “Hepari.” She said, “Oh! I've only eaten that! I've never seen one!” I told her she could touch the top if she wanted, but to avoid the tentacles, so she hesitantly poked it with her toe and laughed. At that point, she had only been to the beach once before, so it was fun having the chance to walk with her at Wonsan.
As we went back to the hotel, Mr. Lim asked if I had any DPRK currency. I did, but I was afraid he would tell me I wasn't allowed to take it because technically, it isn't supposed to be removed from the country. I hesitantly told him I did, and he said, “Oh, good. I was going to get you some if you didn't.”
After a lunch at the hotel, we began our drive back to Pyongyang. Seo-yun wanted to see the rest of the photos in one album I'd shown her on the way to Wonsan. I said she could, but quickly scrolled through to the end to double-check I didn't have any strange memes or anything else I may have forgotten about.
As she looked through images of Seoul, China, and Vietnam, she would stop and ask questions. She reached an aerial image of a crowd that I had forgotten about and asked about it. My first thought was, “Oh shit,” because it was a shot of Seoul’s massive LGBT pride parade from the previous month. Homosexuality is taboo on both sides of the border. Because of outspoken activists in the South, the situation is rapidly changing, but people in the North don't really seem to discuss it. I replied, “It's a demonstration that happened last month.” She scrolled through the next photos, which were of my students and me enjoying the parade, signs held by participants, and protest signs. She seemed to quickly catch on to what it was about because she didn't ask questions. She merely scrolled through with curiosity.
I began talking to Mr. Lim about travel and his favorite places he's visited. He chuckled and said, “You know I only travel in the DPRK.” I told him I wanted to know his favorite place in the DPRK, and he named a few places, then said, “I really want to travel outside of Korea, though. I would like to see China, Russia, Mongolia…and I wish I could visit you in Seoul,” he added with a smile. I was momentarily floored because this was yet another thing I never expected to hear from a Korean guide in the North. Just like in the South, it is the dream of many to visit their Korean neighbor.
Before we reached Pyongyang, our van broke down in the middle of nowhere. A screw popped out of the gear shift, which I figured was a pretty easy fix for the driver. The funniest part was how my guides went about like it was part of the program. Mr. Lim said, “Okay, we're taking a break. You can get out and stretch your legs if you want. I'm going to water the plants,” which made me break into a fit of giggles. I asked if I could take my camera and he told me that was fine, as long as I didn't take photos of people. There were no people in sight, so that wasn't an issue. I walked for a few hundred meters in the middle of the countryside and I was struck yet again by how similar the North side of Gangwon-do is to the South. I felt like I was in one of the quieter parts of the same province on the other side of the DMZ.
After meeting back up with the other YPT group that was still in Pyongyang for a taekwondo exhibit, we left for dinner. Mr. Lim told me, “Since you requested to try Pyongyang pizza, we will take you to Pyongyang’s pizza restaurant.” Confused, I responded, “I didn't request to try pizza, but I'd like to if it's possible.” He panicked for a moment, checked my itinerary, made the driver pull over, and phoned someone. After the call, he said, “Okay, you have two options: We can go for pizza, but you'll have to pay for the meal because it isn't part of your tour, or we can go eat at the hotel.” I asked if he liked pizza, but being extremely polite, he told me the choice was mine. I turned to Seo-yun and asked the same thing, and she also insisted the choice was mine, but it was pretty obvious that she wanted pizza. So did I.
The DPRK paid foreign chefs to come in and consult about making pizza and the country imported a large pizza oven, so Pyongyang pizza is actually good. The other YPT group was there as well, but I sat with my guides and driver, and we ordered a few pizzas and beer. We were laughing and having such a good time during the meal that one of my friends in the other group told me she wished she could have joined us. As we drove back to the hotel, my guides asked if I wanted them to take me to the airport in the morning, or if I'd rather just go with the other group. Of course, I wanted them to take me. Seo-yun then sang me the English version of a DPRK song and nearly made me cry on the way back to the hotel. I knew saying goodbye the next day would be hard.
The next morning, I gave them a note I'd written thanking them for everything, along with a small tip. I also took off two bracelets I'd been wearing since high school. My mother gave them to me when I was younger because she has her own little tradition of giving them to close friends and family. They're silver and made in my hometown. I told both Seo-yun and Mr. Lim the background and handed one to Mr. Lim and said, “Give this to your wife or keep it for your daughter and give it to her when she gets older.” I gave the other to Seo-yun, who asked, “Are you sure? Isn't this expensive?” I said, “Only a little, but don't worry about it. I have more.”
When I mentioned this to a couple of people in the other group, one guy said with skepticism, “You know they don't get to keep the gifts, right? That was a waste.” I told him he could believe whatever he wanted. Months later, I saw one of my guide friends tagged in a tour photo on Facebook. He was standing with Seo-yun, who was holding a bag with her arms crossed. Halfway up her arm was the bracelet I had gifted to her.
We got to the airport, I bought some chocolate and drinks to share, we took some photos, and said our goodbyes. I promised to come back and visit again. Waving and going through immigration was honestly one of the saddest moments I've had while travelling. In a mere 48 hours, my wonderful new friends had effortlessly disproven everything I had ever read about DPRK guides, conversations in the North, and travelling within the country. We only spent two days together, but our time together was invaluable. The insights they gave me into their country and our new friendship were enough to make me want to return as soon as possible.
This winter, I did return to the DPRK for New Year's. A year and a half had passed since I last saw my guides. I thought about them often, and told so many stories from my first trip to friends and coworkers. On New Year's Day, I was walking through Kim Il-sung Square, watching kids play and celebrate the holiday. I heard, “Alecia! Alecia!” and turned to see Jeong-im, one of my guides for my first group tour of Pyongyang and, by happy coincidence, my guide on my second tour. She grabbed my hand and said, “Seo-yun is here! Come on!” Seo-yun wasn't with a YPT group this time, so I was a little disappointed that I wouldn't see her.
I took off jogging behind Jeong-im and she got Seo-yun’s attention. She turned to say hello to Jeong-im, then looking past her and saw me. She stopped mid-sentence, exclaimed, “You're here! Why are you back?!” and gave me a huge hug. She told me Mr. Lim had been promoted and was working in the office now, and she said she'd see me at the airport. I saw her again at lunch and joined her and the other Korean guides. It was as if no time had passed. She was the last guide I saw before leaving the airport two mornings later. I promised to visit again, and I will.
I didn't really know what to expect the first time I entered the DPRK. I had an idea that most of the articles I'd read about travel there were essentially clickbait, but I wasn't sure how the tour would go. I certainly did not expect to leave with people who I now consider close friends, and a desperation to go back and visit. The cultural exchanges between my guides and I significantly altered my view of the current situation on the Korean peninsula, and I felt I was left with a more thorough understanding of it.
When it comes to the DPRK, don't believe everything you read in articles sensationalizing the situation for their own benefit. Go see for yourself. You won't be disappointed.
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.