My guide’s talking points were very different from the DPRK state media’s bombastic “sea of fire” rhetoric. I did not believe this man’s words to be shallow or part of a rehearsed script. This was a North Korean genuinely expounding universal themes of cooperation, friendship and peace; opinions with which the majority of people would agree.
Those who are anti-engagement will certainly scoff at the details of these interactions; “tour guides are mostly members of the Workers’ Party and, therefore, among the most heavily indoctrinated people in the country. Hence, why their allowed to work with foreigners and why this form of engagement is fruitless.” To the contrary, I would argue that they are exactly the people with whom foreigners should be having this kind of dialogue.
In a country where Americans are portrayed in propaganda only as menacing caricatures with hooked-noses and sharp fingernails, it could only have been positive interaction with Americans that could have brought this North Korean guide around to his current way of thinking. If the guide shares his opinion with his colleagues and fellow party members and it his even a slight impact on North Korean state policy, then that is not insignificant. If North Koreans are left only to be exposed to Americans via state propaganda, it can only have the opposite effect. Conversely, if Americans are exposed to North Koreans only through Western media, they, too, will be left with a caricature of nation of automatons blindly marching with their leader toward nuclear oblivion.
Of course, not all conversations with North Koreans will be like the one I had with my guide in the Chilbo mountains. There will also be plenty of talk by Koreans about the importance of their “nuclear deterrent,” and, I think only a North Korean could parlay a question about North Korean produced mobile phones into a dissertation on the country’s ICBM’s, as I once experienced. However, I have always found myself surprised by the open mindedness of many of the Koreans as well as their sense of humor.
On my trip a few weeks ago, I was doubled over laughing with my guide about a picture we took together comically facing-off in front of a slogan at the war museum that read: “Death to the U.S. Imperialists!” During that same trip, I was in Pyongyang for North Korea’s August 29 missile launch over Japan. I found that the Koreans were interested in my point of view and was asked several times for my thoughts. When I replied that I think “until both sides are willing to make compromises, there will be no meaningful progress,” I did not get the impression that my words fell on deaf ears.
The United State’s ban on its citizens visiting North Korea sets us many steps back from my guide’s “I trust you first” mentality. It is a reactionary measure that, in the long run, will only exacerbate the deeply fractured relationship between the United States and North Korea. It will also increase the risks for Americans granted special permission to visit North Korea for journalism or aid work. Given the tenuous understanding by North Korean bureaucrats of the individual motivations of foreigners, the North Koreans will have trouble presuming that Americans are visiting the DPRK out of good will and of their own volition. Cutting off regular contact between American and North Koreans can only ultimately make traveling to North Korea less safe.
As for the argument that it is unsafe for Americans to visit North Korea, around 5,000 Western tourists visit the DPRK every year, and, while the Americans previously occupied a small percentage among them, I can only speak from my personal experiences, and all of mine have been positive. Never once, even during that tense “welcome” from my guide in North Hamgyong Province, did I ever feel that I was in danger. Was I mindful of where I was? Of course. Did I have to hold my tongue and carefully walk on eggshells so as to narrowly avoid falling into the clutches of the North Korean police state allegedly watching my every move and utterance? No. Absolutely not.
My experience is not representative of all American visitors to the DPRK and there are laws that, if broken, can result in detainment and harsh consequences. It is important to remember that North Korea is not singular in this regard. Americans have been detained and imprisoned in China, Iran, Venezuela, Egypt, Thailand, Singapore and Nigeria; places where you definitely do NOT want to find yourself in prison. By the logic of the current North Korea travel ban, should we also consider banning American travel to those destinations? Granted, your answer may be, ‘Well, I would not want to travel to any of those places, either!’ Fine. That is perfectly understandable. However, for citizens from the ‘land of the free and home of the brave’ wishing to take risks, the DPRK travel ban represents a slippery slope. It is also ironic considering America’s criticism of the inability of North Korean citizens to travel for leisure.
On the heels of Trump mocking Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” a September 18 NPR/IPSOS poll showed that 51% of Americans do not trust Donald Trump’s judgement when it comes to North Korea. Level-headed minds at the New Yorker have warned that “Iraq taught us the cost of going to war against an adversary that we do not fully understand… [and] we should be sure that we’re not making that mistake again.” Meanwhile, Pyongyang has escalated tensions by recently launching two missiles over Japan and conducted its biggest nuclear test to date. In a time when there is no meaningful dialogue and only saber rattling between our governments, person-to-person contact at the ground level is even more crucial.
The American government should not take its cues from the policies that brought us to Iraq, Libya and Syria, but rather from examples such as Ping Pong Diplomacy in China, where non-political exchanges paved the way for real dialogue and change. Dennis Rodman attempted such an endeavor, which, as I learned in North Hamgyong province, had a positive impact on the attitude of Koreans in remote corners of the country. It is not too late for détente with the DPRK and a great place to start would be the immediate reversal of the United States’ travel ban.
“Let’s unite and have energy,” my guide’s words replayed in my mind as my train crossed the Sino-Korean friendship bridge into China on August 31. “Help each other. Let’s solve the problems, one by one.Why not? We can. We’re all humans. Men. We’re not beasts. So we can understand. We can have a conversation. We can communicate. Let’s solve from smallest one to biggest one, one by one.”