I just returned late last week from our first ever trip to North Korea. In the true spirit of Mountain Travel Sobek’s pioneering heritage, we led a group of 25 intrepid souls on a far-ranging exploration of North Korea, traveling to spots where few westerners—let alone Americans—ever get to go (many tours to North Korea are limited to one or two major cities).
But before sharing with you some highlights and observations, let me go back to the beginning…
When the idea first came up it seemed, at first blush, preposterous—perhaps even impossible. Many people asked us, “is this just a crazy, hair brained scheme?” (That in itself made it all the more intriguing). Would the North Korean government allow American travelers, and would the U.S. government permit us to go? Could we even get visas and how would we go about doing so, given the state of diplomatic relations between our government and theirs? Would anyone even want to go? And if we did manage to overcome all those hurdles, should we go? And if we did go, what would we be able to see—how much of today’s North Korea would we be able to visit and to experience?
Well, the answers to most of these questions clearly became “yes” and over the next few days, in subsequent blog posts, I will answer the last question and share with you our experience and my observations. Stay tuned!
Part 2: “Making Our Way in the DPRK”By Kevin Callaghan —
Yesterday in my first post about our just completed trip to North Korea I posed our initial questions about the feasibility and viability of traveling to North Korea. In short, it is doable (and we can help), but one needs to be accompanied by assigned North Korean guides every step of the way (quite literally) and always under their guidance. So, while a journey to North Korea doesn’t have the hallmark flexibility and creativity of a typical MTS trip, the traveler can still get a revealing glimpse of North Korea. Especially if you do some background reading in advance to help interpret what you see on the ground. In the words of one of my fellow travelers it was “a strange combination of peace/quiet and stress.”
“Peace/quiet” in that the North Korean landscape is physically beautiful, and there is a quietude and pace of life in the air that comes across as serene. But stressful in that the traveler is well aware that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea hasn’t developed as rapidly as its erstwhile socialist brethren and the strict limitations placed on visitors are a constant reminder that life in the DPRK is not without its struggles, including a professed enmity toward the U.S.
In my next couple of posts I will share not only where we were able to travel and some of the fascinating experiences that we did have, but also comment on what we found to be so rewarding.
Part 3: North Korea: Pyongyang and BeyondBy Kevin Callaghan —
Much of North Korea is off limits to foreigners, but we were able to arrange travel to places that few have access to. As promised in my last post, today I will share with you the four major destinations within North Korea that we visited: Pyongyang, the capitol; Mt. Paekdu, the Korean peninsula’s highest peak and considered a sacred site; the Chilbo region, a mountainous area on the northeast coast; and Chongjin, a vast industrial city also on the northeast coast.
Pyongyang, as you might expect of a capitol, is a scrubbed-clean major city replete with innumerable monuments, towers and plazas extolling the virtues of the country’s leadership and wonders of their political system. One of the more interesting and historically significant of Pyongyang’s political displays is the USS Pueblo, an American naval vessel commandeered by North Korea in 1968 during a period of heightened tensions. Pyongyang is also the jumping off point for trips to the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea. The anti-American rhetoric and geopolitical perspective expressed at these two sites alone made the trip worthwhile as they offered an unusually forceful world view seldom experienced by American travelers.
But perhaps the most powerful aspects of our journey were visits to three particularly remote areas—all requiring charter flights—that are seldom seen by non-Koreans, especially Americans.
Mt. Paekdu and the Chilbo area offered stunning contrasts to the harshly urban, highly memorialized Pyongyang. Mt. Paekdu is not only Korea’s highest peak (2,744m), but its crater lake (Lake Chon, pictured above) is reportedly the world’s highest, and is set in a spectacular, otherworldly lunar landscape. It’s an area that just begs for a good hiking itinerary, and needless to say we’re already wondering how we can return and do a hiking trip there! The Chilbo area is equally beautiful, but in a different way—Mediterranean-like cliffs and majestic wind-carved rock formations towering above deep green, cloud-draped valleys. And the prologue to these mountain aeries was rice paddies so verdant that the greens seemed to phosphoresce. But what was most significant was the realization that the Korean locals that we met in these areas had seen few Westerners—and probably no Americans—ever!
An aside of special interest to us was the Soebek (sic) Stream that flows through the guerilla camp where Kim Jong Il was reportedly born. The Soebek Stream’s headwaters are on Mt. Soebek, a sacred peak nearby. Proof to us of the universality of Sobek!
Our final stop, Chongjin, gave us a glimpse into the real working Korea. A major industrial hub (coal, steel, fishing, shipping) Chongjin is, as you might expect of a working town, a gray, desultory kind of place, made even more so by the fact that our presence there coincided with the arrival of a mild typhoon. Here we visited the Revolutionary Museum, the Provincial Library (complete with ongoing computer training classes), and we were given a stunning musical variety show by kindergartners—one of the true highlights of the trip.
As I write this I realize how much there is to describe—far too much for this forum. You’ll just have to experience it for yourself!
In my next post I’ll touch on, from a very general viewpoint, the geopolitical perspective of the North Koreans as we witnessed it.
Part 4: North Korea: A Bit of HistoryBy Kevin Callaghan —
North Korea, beset on all sides by superpowers China, Russia and the Japanese (who occupied Korea for 40 years, ending with WWII), accentuated by the Korean’s fervent nationalistic pride, have felt embattled for a century. With this as background, the legacy of Kim Il Sung (installed by Stalin post WWII) is both controversial and ever-present (his grandson now rules the country). One of the outcomes of this political regime is that American tourists haven’t been allowed in the country until recently (other than for brief periods). As a result, we were not able to interact directly with normal citizens, so our perceptions are limited to what was served up to us. And many knowledgeable and objective researchers have written more powerfully and eloquently about North Korean policies and geopolitical stance than I can, so I will limit my comments to just a couple of personal observations.
First, the ongoing evidence is clear—no matter how outdated in today’s modern world—that North Korea continues to view Americans as the arch enemy. They have on display the USS Pueblo (shown above), taken from international waters in 1968 and still, some 44 years later, proudly held up as an example of how North Korea’s military defeated America. Then at the Demilitarized Zone we heard how that if the US ever initiates an attack on North Korea (we never did launch the first strike) that we would ” …be annihilated.” Further, just because the US is far from North Korea “…doesn’t mean that you are safe…we can still reach you…” They use the US as a scapegoat to hide the deeply failed statist polices that have held the country back compared to other Soviet satellite states such as the Eastern bloc countries, China, and Vietnam, to name just a few. The irony, to put it very mildly, is that North Korea has no real strategic capability, yet it creates this antagonistic illusion that, at the end of the day, holds its own people back. Sadly, these historical forces contribute to an insular and anachronistic society today. Despite the public, and very real, posturing, to the extent that we were able to have interaction with normal Korean people, we found them to be warm, friendly and open.
Part 5: Building Bridges in North KoreaBy Kevin Callaghan —
In my final set of comments here I’ll touch on the thorny question of whether or not tourists should support certain regimes by way of travel, exchange of hard currency and the possibility of implicitly condoning certain policies by simply visiting that country. This is a difficult and controversial topic over which reasonable and thoughtful people can genuinely disagree.
Mountain Travel Sobek has a long history of going into countries (or regions) either before they are open to general tourism (by getting special permits) or as soon as tourism is allowed (e.g., Bhutan, China, Libya, Myanmar). Without exception, we have found that personal interaction with local citizens never fails to facilitate the further opening of a country, better understanding of Americans, and further promotion of more open societies. In essence, we feel that we are doing our small bit (no matter how minor) as ambassadors of freedom.
And I think that we found that to be the case in North Korea—whether we were (1) engaging locals in enthusiastic, mutual waving to each other (they were so surprised to see Americans and to see how friendly we were, most couldn’t help but smile and wave back—especially the kids!), or (2) simply letting our North Korean local guides see that we were normal, generous, thoughtful and respectful guests in their country. There were 27 of us in our group and I think that everyone came away feeling that not only was the trip powerfully worthwhile, we were glad to have participated in our own small ambassador program.
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Photos ©Kevin Callaghan