When you’re a twenty-something living the corporate life in Singapore, it’s easy to get bored, fast. Two years into my third full-time job I was content with the way things were, and the general quality of life. Working late and never sleeping, overpriced drinks and client meetings. It was a rat race I was briefly excited to be part of. Still, my Generation Y (remember the days before they started calling us Millenials?) dissatisfaction continued to grow, and frequent short trips were never enough.
Naturally, when a friend I’d met on a backpacking trip years ago told me he was heading to the heart of North Korea, I was intrigued. I knew precious little about it, but I knew it would be different, and I knew it would give me the stories I was so desperately trying to accumulate.
In August 2013, I went on a tour to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea with Young Pioneer Tours. Yes, the same company who has recently been all over the news for the arrest and subsequent death of a young American tourist, Otto Warmbier. And because of the death of this poor boy, I’ve been forced to spend a lot of time thinking about a trip I really wish I’d never gone on.
But I did, and I had about 6 months’ worth of ‘I’ve-been-somewhere-you-haven’t-been’ bragging rights in me. And then I stopped bragging. And then I stopped talking about it altogether. And shortly after, I started turning down opportunities to write about it (which as a freelance writer is saying something). Six months after the trip, discomfort with my travel decisions began to seep in. Soon after, it began to thoroughly overwhelm. And now there’s Otto Warmbier and his unimaginable death; it’s a reality that’s impossible to escape. So, here we are.
WHY WE GO
For me and many other young travellers, the YPT experience meant two things: you’d get to travel to a place most people fear and avoid (read: travel cred) and you’d get to drink a LOT while you were doing it. There wasn’t a sober day in the week and a half that I spent in Pyongyang, and that’s probably for the best – five years later, many of these memories aren’t at their sharpest.
For many, it’s about curiosity. Is the DPRK really as crazy as we’re told on the news, will it be dangerous, and is it worth going to? The answers, respectively: yes and no, yes and no, and in my opinion, no.
WHAT WE’RE TOLD
Before you even go on the tour, an obvious moral dilemma presents itself: Are you supporting an incredibly oppressive dictatorship by visiting North Korea? I told myself that my presence, just a single person, was inconsequential to the state of North Korea. I couldn’t do anything about labour camps or execution squads any more than I could reason with their great leader or ask the locals why they wept and bowed at the giant gold statues of the memorialised fallen heroes.
Does a single act contribute, and can it effect positive change? I believe so; I know so. It’s a less comfortable thought, but the same can be said about poor decisions.
Maybe visitors didn’t directly contribute to this regime, but by adding to the normalisation of travel there, by being both observers and participants in this cruel charade in such a secretive state, we can’t ever know what sort of change we have helped to move forward – whether positive or negative. And that’s something that visitors like myself just have to acknowledge and to admit. The real bigger picture is almost certainly far greater than any tourist or tour guide will ever know.
WHAT WE TELL OURSELVES
A few nights before I left North Korea, a couple of fools, including your humble(d) narrator, decided to see how we could get in to the famed secret, staff-only floor. Encouraged and led by our foreign guide, we went. Soon after, we were caught and detained by North Korean guards. We spent the night in the hotel lobby with more guards making angry phone calls we couldn’t understand. We eventually got away with a written and signed statement expressing sincere remorse to the people of North Korea. My only sheepish claim to travel cred now: I’ve done something dumber than you.
As with most things, the reality of visiting North Korea presents many avenues for further thought. It could be helpful if you’re researching a book, for example, or writing a study. If you’re looking to travel off the beaten path, and to have fun with new alcoholic friends, the same fun can be had in many places all over the world, for a lot less money, and with your peace of mind intact.
As for the tour group that I travelled with, there will always be plenty of other, more forgiving adventures to go on and tales for the kids one day – preferably without fucking up as badly and foolishly as I did, or as consequentially and unfairly as Otto Warmbier. My misadventures with the company were just beginning – I ended up quitting the aforementioned cushy corporate job, moving to China, and working briefly for YPT as a social media and marketing manager, from a dingy old apartment in Beijing.
But that, as they say, is another story for another day.