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Offbeat Tour of North Korea

Truly full of history and intrigue.

Tours of North Korea

The week I spent in North Korea in August 2013 - a country that has been visited by a mere handful of Americans - is what inspired me to start Orinoco Travel.  But the story actually begins in another country I visited on the same trip, a country whose recent history had an important bearing on the way I came to feel about North Korea.

 

North Korean Tours

    

For quite some time I'd been thinking about making a pilgrimage to Vietnam.  The Vietnam War raged all through my high school years, and it distressed me to think about all those young American men, just a few years older than me, fighting and dying in that seemingly endless war.  Nor could I ever forget what an explosive issue it was in the late 1960s, deeply dividing America.  Demonstrations, protest marches and violent clashes in the streets and on college campuses were commonplace, and became even more frequent as the war dragged on.

Offbeat Korean Tours    

Not that I hadn't been thinking about North Korea.  Just three years earlier they had begun allowing entry to Americans for the first time since the Korean War ended in 1953, the year I was born.  There were so many things about this secretive country, the last hardcore communist nation on earth, that intrigued me.  Naturally, my family and friends told me I was out of my mind to even consider going there, but I knew from experience to ignore them.  But I did give it a lot of thought as I looked into the few companies who do tours in North Korea - a country where independent travel does not exist - and I also began mapping out a plan for the whole trip.  In the end, I decided to travel for seven weeks starting in Cambodia, followed by Vietnam and China, getting around by bus, train, and the occasional riverboat, then finishing in North Korea on a one week tour I booked with Young Pioneer Tours, a company that seemed like the best choice.  It turned out to be the right decision.

    North Korea Offbeat Tous

 

Most people reading this are too young to remember the Vietnam War, or were born after it ended in 1975, so I'm sure very few of you share my deep interest in that conflict.  At the time I was one of those who staunchly supported the American war effort and despised those who opposed it.  I was sold on the "domino theory," the belief that if we didn't defend our ally South Vietnam from a takeover by the communist North, then all the countries of Southeast Asia would fall, one by one, to the international communist movement.  The Viet Cong, the guerilla army in the south supported by the north, were evil terrorists who had to be wiped out by any means.  I knew, as everyone did,  that we were dropping bombs on civilian areas in the north, but that didn't bother me; after all, war is war, or so I used to think.  What very few knew at the time, however, were the actual horrors of war that our soldiers were facing, and the fact that we were losing it, which was the opposite of what the military higher-ups were claiming and the media were reporting.  Nor did we know of the daily saturation bombing of North Vietnamese supply routes through remote areas of Laos and Cambodia that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians.  Most of the truth about these and many other atrocities came out after the war ended, in the spoken and written accounts of our veterans, many of whom were and still are extremely bitter towards their own government.

    

  

History has shown just how senseless and destructive - destructive to all sides - our involvement in the Vietnam War was.  I traveled the length and breadth of Vietnam and everywhere the people struck me as free and happy, relatively speaking.  In fact, it seems absurd to call the country "communist," and to think that Marxist ideology had anything to do with the war - not to mention what a bunch of nonsense the domino theory was.   I would never have imagined it forty years ago, but I now believe that a reunified Vietnam is the best thing that ever happened to that country.
   

Tour North Korea Today

 

Furthermore, I think the rulers of Vietnam, whatever their motives, have chosen a wise course by putting all the hatred generated by the war behind them, and fostering the same friendly relations with America that they enjoy with the rest of the world - again, something I could never have envisioned when the south fell to the north in 1975.  Nowhere did I as an American encounter the slightest animosity.  In fact, throughout the southern half of the country, there was no evidence of the war at all, other than the well-known museum in the old capital of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) where one can see a vast outdoor array of tanks and aircraft abandoned by the U.S., and four floors of what some would call propaganda exhibits.  Even here, though, they have toned things down, having recently changed the name from "The American War Crimes Museum" to "The War Remnants Museum."

    

Up north, in the capital Hanoi, there are several museums and exhibitions pertaining to the frequent aerial bombardment of that city throughout the war.  Closer to the demilitarized zone, on either side of heavily traveled Route 1, bomb craters from B-52 raids are still plainly visible.  Throughout the area, and even more so in the adjacent regions of Laos and Cambodia, the relentless bombing created a lasting danger known throughout the region as UXO (unexploded ordnance).  To this day, people are maimed and killed by stepping on old American bombs embedded in the soil.  In Cambodia especially, I saw at least fifty amputees, mostly young farmers, who had lost one or both legs to UXO.

    

   It is only to the immediate south of the DMZ, which was the border between north and south in old times, that the government has preserved any famous battle zones.  Foremost is Khe Sanh, a remote American air base which was shelled for months from the surrounding mountains, killing hundreds of Marines who were trapped in their bunkers, which have been restored.  I remember the battle of Khe Sanh well, and got a real feeling of "being there" forty-five years earlier, and walking on hallowed ground.  Not far away is Hamburger Hill, which saw ten days of the bloodiest fighting of the whole war.  To climb it I had to apply for a special permit, then go up with a guide.  Very few, other than those who fought in the war, come to these places.  It's sad but understandable that so few of the many American tourists who visit Vietnam annually know little or nothing about what our soldiers went through in that terrible war.  I know I'm digressing here, but I will use this space to say that every American should honor the sacrifice made in Vietnam by more than 58,000 young men by at least learning something about the war, and to that end I recommend two great books written by combat veterans: A Rumor Of War by Philip Caputo and Fields Of Fire by James Webb.

    

   If any good ever came out of that war, it is that thousands of veterans who were traumatized by their combat experience have tried to heal their wounds by returning to Vietnam decades later and getting to know their former enemies - eating and drinking, laughing and crying together, walking the places where they had once slaughtered each other.  In this way, men on both sides have discovered that their old foes are not the bloodthirsty killers they had once imagined, but just "regular guys" with a common humanity and an unshakable bond of having shared the horrors of war.  This touches everyone with a heart, and with the miracle of the internet it is easy to find and watch films of these unlikely reunions.
    

   One particularly poignant story stays with me: a gray-haired veteran who had killed a North Vietnamese soldier and taken a precious photograph from his wallet, returns to the country thirty-three years later and presents it to his daughter.  You can watch this five-minute You Tube video by typing in "Emotional Return to Vietnam."  If this doesn't bring a tear to your eye, nothing will.

    

   Fast forward to North Korea.  In some ways the parallels between Korea and Vietnam are striking.  Although over a thousand miles separates them, both share a border and a destiny intertwined with their colossal neighbor China.  Both countries were artificially divided into north and south after World War Two, after having been occupied by the Japanese.  In both the north was communist, the south allied with the U.S.  We fought inconclusive ground wars in each of these lands.  We intensively bombed the norther sectors of these countries with great destruction and loss of life.

Beautiful Korean Architecture    

The differences, however, are just as striking.  Within twenty years of war's end, the Vietnamese inaugurated an era of peace and friendship with the U.S. and the future looks only bright.  More than sixty years have passed since the end of the Korean War, a period marked only by mutual hostility and mistrust with no end in sight.  The Vietnamese brand of communism is exceptionally mild; North Korea's is exceptionally harsh.  The tourist industry in Vietnam is thriving with around five million Western visitors annually, boosting an already prosperous economy; less than four thousand tourists a year visit North Korea, where the economy is on life support.
    

So then why go there?  For all the reasons alluded to above: because so few do; because travel is the best education; because making friends is better than making enemies; because we have been led to believe things about North Korea that aren't true.  I am one of the very few Americans who has visited this country, and on several levels it was the most unique and extraordinary travel experience of my life.  Let me tell you what I recently saw with my own eyes and what I learned.

    

 First, North Korea's reputation as an extremely repressive communist tyranny is accurate.  I traveled to several east Europan countries back in the late 1970s, several years before the collapse of communism in that region, and nothing back then compares to the atmosphere of North Korea today.  It is straight out of Orwell's 1984, except that the North Korean version of Big Brother is the divine personality cult of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, the father and grandfather of current dictator Kim Jong-Un.  It is thus the only hereditary communist dynasty in history.  Everywhere there are statues, sculptures, murals, billboards and portraits depicting the imaginary benevolence of the late "dear leaders."  Virtually all citizens wear a small picture of them pinned over their hearts; not to do so would be very dangerous, as one in fifty are reputed to be informers.  There are also numerous murals showing soldiers on the attack, and workers exhorting their comrades to work harder.  In addition, loudspeakers throughout the capital Pyongyang, and every other town we visited, blare propaganda broadcasts or martial music any time of day.  Wherever one goes, there are exhibits commemorating their "victory" (actually a stalemate) over the U.S. in the Korean War, and a few shops sell virulently anti-American posters and postcards.  The American ship Pueblo, attacked and seized by the North Korean navy in 1968 - her 83 crewmen held prisoner for eleven months and often brutally beaten - was kept as a "trophy" and is on every tour itinerary.  Just to see and hear everything I've described here is a priceless education in itself.  There is nothing else like it in the world and probably never will be.

   

But before writing off the leaders of North Korea and their armed forces as a bunch of belligerent lunatics, try to see things from their side.  Consider the fact that our air force leveled  every town and city in the north during the Korean War, killed well over a million civilians, many of them burned alive by napalm, and threatened to use atomic weapons - and furthermore that we still have a large military presence right across the border in South Korea, and occasionally conduct "war games" there.  How would you feel about all that if you were a North Korean?
    

In America the Korean War is rightly called "the forgotten war," despite the fact that more than 36,000 American troops were killed in action there.  In sixteen years of school I never heard a word about it.  There were no notable books or television documentaries that I can recall.  I suspected that the above charges, which I first learned of while in North Korea, were just a bunch of war atrocity myths until I returned home, checked various credible sources, and found them to be true.  I was ashamed at how ignorant I was about that war my entire life.  In terms of population percentage, American bombs killed more than three thousand times as many innocent North Koreans as the 9-11 terror attacks killed innocent Americans.  That war is part of that nation's collective memory, and the root cause of their continual animosity towards the U.S.  Again, can you blame them?

    

Then again, this has nothing to do with how the regime treats its own people.  It is a country whose citizens live in a permanent atmosphere of paranoia and rigid conformity.  The slightest hint of dissent is ruthlessly crushed, with not only the offender but often his entire family sent to one of the many hard labor camps scattered throughout the country.  An estimated 150,000 are imprisoned in the North Korean gulag, and many are worked to death.  In the 1990s widespread famine stalked the country due to senseless agricultural policies exacerbated by disastrous floods.  Most rural people still live in dire poverty.  Even in Pyongyang, which is supposed to be a showcase city, there are gaping potholes in the streets, decrepit apartment building with chunks of concrete missing, and ancient buses with passengers packed like sardines.  There is still no internet connection or cell phone service to the outside world.  One wonders how long this system can survive.

   

It is no exaggeration to say that in the last two generations, North Korea has lost twenty percent of its population through war and starvation, and most of those alive today endure a bleak existence and constant mind-numbing propaganda.  They've had a hard life, and you can see it in the faces of those who have reached middle age.  Yet, for all that, the people who work in the tourist industry - the guides, hotel staff, restaurant hostesses - are very polite, and the ordinary people, while generally fearful of outsiders, are invariably friendly and curious, if from a distance.   Everywhere I could sense a silent yearning to embrace the outside world.  And if one thing needs to be stressed, it's this: North Koreans do not hate Americans.  As everywhere else, they make a clear distinction between the policies of the U.S. government and everyday Americans.  Believe me, I've been to some scary places - countries I would never return to, much less take a bunch of high school kids.  North Korea is not one of them.  Despite its frightful image, there is no safer place on earth to travel.

     

No one can travel on their own there.  Those who wish to visit North Korea must go with an organized group, and I can't imagine taking a better week-long tour than what Young Pioneer Tours gave our group of nineteen, which included six Americans.  I was so impressed with them, and so taken by this forbidden land,  that by the last day I was speaking to Chris White, our American guide and one of YPT's directors (two English-speaking North Korean guides also accompany every tour), about bringing high school students to the country.  He thought it was a great idea and that's why you're reading this.  Since then I have been in contact with both Chris and his colleague Troy Collings, and will be collaborating with them on all tours.

Korea Leaders    

I can't begin to write about all the highlights of my trip to North Korea, so I'll just touch on two.  The first was the Arirang mass games, which run from late July through September.  "Games" is a misnomer; rather it is an intricately choreographed, intensely patriotic, even mystical spectacle featuring over 100,000 performers.  I was mesmerized, even emotionally overwhelmed by it all, and everyone else in our group felt the same way.  You can get an idea of Arirang by watching some clips on You Tube, but it does not convey the feeling of being inside this enormous, fully packed stadium, nor the festive atmosphere outside, with so many jubilant people and army units from around the country marching and singing.  And that in itself was such a pleasure to see - the people enjoying themselves.

  

   Another unforgettable experience was visiting the demilitarized zone, which separates North and South Korea.  It is the most hostile and heavily mined border in the world.  This was especially captivating to me, because back in 1980 I had visited the DMZ from the south side, escorted by a U.S.  soldier, after being briefed and signing a liability waiver.  (Four years earlier, two American soldiers were pruning a tree with an axe in the DMZ; a confrontation ensued and they were hacked to death with the axe by their North Korean counterparts.)  I was told not to make any gestures that would provoke soldiers on the other side.  With some apprehension I noticed two of these subhuman communist robots - which is how I thought of them - watching me through binoculars a hundred yards away.  Now here I was in 2013 having my picture taken with one.

   

As we rode back on the bus, I said to Chris, "You know, there's no doubt in my mind that if you could get a bunch of American soldiers and North Korean soldiers to sit down over a couple of beers, in ten minutes they'd be the best of friends."  He totally agreed.  Which brings us back to the heartwarming reconciliation that has already happened between us and the Vietnamese - and is still waiting, no, aching to happen with the North Koreans.  There's a part of me, a vain part perhaps, that wants to "make history" by leading the first American student delegation to this country.  How wonderful it would be to build the first solid bridge of friendship between our young people and theirs.

   

As you leave Pyongyang, you drive under an imposing structure that towers above the nearly deserted road.  It is two women holding aloft a portrait of a single Korea, which is a dream that everyone in this country, south as well as north, holds dear.  It was a cruel accident of history that tore a nation of one people, one culture, one language in half; no one knows how it will happen, and it won't be an easy road, but someday, somehow, this country will be reunified, just as it happened in Vietnam and also in Germany.  If you become one of the intrepid few to visit North Korea, your heart will go out to these people, as mine did, and you will see things in a different light.
    

As improbable as it sounds, a student tour to North Korea would be among the easiest for me to arrange.  I work in conjunction with Young Pioneer Tours, an acclaimed specialist in budget tours to that country, whose directors incidentally have a close working relationship with the government-run tourist industry in North Korea.  It is possible to join any departure on YPT's schedule (see youngpioneertours.com) or better still, they can customize a trip during any time of year that would allow interaction between American students and their peers in North Korea (who learn English in school).   Virtually all tours to North Korea begin in Beijing, the Chinese capital, which is less than two hours by air or 24 hours by train to Pyongyang.   A 12 to 14 day trip, which would include three to five days in Beijing with a visit to the Great Wall and other sights, would be roughly $4500 to $4800 per person, all-inclusive - meaning roundtrip air from the U.S., all transportation and transfers, hotels, meals, tours, visas - everything.  I would personally arrange all the logistics in China, while YPT would handle everything in North Korea.  I would take care of all the red tape, be available to students and their parents at all times, and of course escort the tour in its entirety, beginning and ending in the U.S.

   

Finally, I've been told by people I know that I'm crazy to be offering tours to North Korea, that no parents in their right minds would ever let their kids go there.  Well, after reading this, and after checking out the YPT site, and their adjunct website americaninnorthkorea.com, you can judge for yourself if I'm crazy or they're mired in ignorance.  It's sad but true that most people have no idea that the real world is often very different from what they see on television - another reason why travel is so important as an educational tool.  Here's how I see it: if 1000 people log on to this site, about 975 will think I'm nuts, twenty or so will inquire, and one or two will be bold enough to organize a group and go.  I invite you and your students to be the very first American high schoolers to "make history" by traveling with me to North Korea.