Why I Went To North Korea

Bronze statues of deceased North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-il stand in the main square of the mountainous city of Pyongsong, South Pyongan Province, March 2016. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

At 17, I became the youngest American to ever visit North Korea. Naturally, this attracts a lot of questions — but always one in particular, no matter who I’m talking to:

“Why?”

Because I refuse to be subject to the near global stigma. Even the most hostile, secretive nation on the planet deserves to be viewed through an unbiased lens. Sure enough, despite being a twisted fabric of propaganda, it wasn’t a bad place to visit. I actually enjoyed myself.

For most people, the notion of North Korea being a tourist attraction is unheard of. Some don’t even realize the country allows foreigners to visit. In the six days I was there I flew in a helicopter, tried dog meat and was forced to bow at the feet of not one, but two deceased dictators. I drank and sang and made dozens of great friends from all over the world, and came home with countless stories.

Hand-painted propaganda murals like this one in Pyongyang, featuring Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il smiling in a field of flowers, are commonplace in many larger North Korean cities. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Travelling to North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), requires many things, chief among them determination. Hidden behind the “Bamboo Curtain,” North Korea is a mysterious, cult-like outpost of communism that is notorious for its reluctance to let outsiders in.

As a minor, I had to get a whole host of documents signed by my parents and authenticated by a notary public before I could even apply to travel. Once all the paperwork was in order, I was required to complete about a dozen waivers and forms which I sent, along with my passport, to Asia, where a North Korean diplomat catalogued and registered my tourism visa.

Once Kim Jong-un’s government conducted a background check on me and I was cleared for travel, I had to wire a large amount of cash, in euros, to an anonymous Chinese bank account that then mysteriously forwarded my payment into the DPRK under the table, so as to avoid international sanctions. After that, all I had to do was show up in China and board my flight to Pyongyang.

The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, a massive concrete fortress north of the capital originally built as Kim Il-sung's primary residence, now served as a mausoleum housing the two deceased North Korean rulers. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Immediately, the things I once believed about this reclusive country were disproved. A consistent truth I found in my travels around the DPRK is that most of our conceptions of North Korea are lies. The DPRK has developed such a bizarre reputation in the West that almost anything said about it, no matter how ridiculous, is accepted as fact. Even ideas that I once believed, like thinking North Koreans revere their Leaders like gods, turned out to be false; the DPRK is a secular state, and while the Leaders are respected, the country disavows all gods.

The 2014 comedy film The Interview features the people of North Korea wholeheartedly believing that Kim Jong-un doesn’t go to the bathroom and speaks to dolphins. Obviously, in the context of the movie, these are jokes – however, I have been approached by countless people who genuinely wonder if these are things North Koreans actually believe.

The people of the DPRK are undoubtedly isolated from the outside world, but they’re not idiots, and they are increasingly learning about life beyond North Korea’s borders. Their version of the internet (called intranet) is expanding and cell phones are now widely used in large cities.

A view of northern Pyongyang as taken from an Air Koryo helicopter. The state-owned Munsu Waterpark can be seen in the foreground, and across the river is Mayday Stadium, the world's largest by capacity with 150,000 seats. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Increasing amounts of outsiders have been travelling to the Hermit Kingdom in recent years, and with each visit, they bring uncensored knowledge.

I didn’t go to North Korea to act as an informal ambassador of the United States, but that’s exactly what I became. Believe it or not, the DPRK just doesn’t get many American high schoolers coming to visit their country alone, and many of the North Korean people I encountered were just as amazed to meet me as I was to meet them. I shared stories of my home with them and they reciprocated.

Throughout my time in the DPRK, multiple people, upon discovering that I’m an American, went out of their way to let me know that I wasn’t hated. North Korea doesn’t hide its disdain for the United States — American soldiers were often referred to as “imperialist pig-dog aggressors” right in front of my face — but there was a clear demarcation, I was always hit with: “We don’t hate you, we just hate your government.”

Sungri Street, one of the capital's widest roads, only sees minimal traffic due to the DPRK's low rate of vehicle ownership. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Mr. Lee, the state-employed tour guide assigned to watch over me and a handful of other travelers, made it clear to me that he didn’t like America, a nation he said was the root of all his country’s problems. He called me his enemy and even refused to shake my hand. During the trip, I tried my hardest to combat Mr. Lee’s preconceived ideas about the U.S., without breaking any rules.

In the DPRK, lies about America run rampant; their official stance is that the United States started the Korean War. The difficulty came in being expressly prevented from contradicting any North Korean beliefs. All visitors are forbidden by law from souring the minds of perfectly brainwashed North Korean citizens — telling them the war was the fault of the DPRK, well, that would cause trouble. I had to smile and acknowledge America’s troubled past; I couldn’t call out Mr. Lee’s internalised lies.

The Monument to the Foundation of the Party features three hands holding a hammer, representing the worker, a sickle, representing the farmer, and a paintbrush, representing the intellectual – these three tools are the official symbols of the ruling Worker's Party of Korea. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

Growing up, I always heard that North Korea is evil. When I was in preschool, President Bush grouped the DPRK (along with Iran and Iraq) into his so-called "Axis of Evil," a trio of hostile nations whose top priority was to destroy America. I was told by friends and family alike that travelling to North Korea is dangerous. It didn’t help that during my visit North Korea sentenced American student Otto Warmbier to 15 years of hard labour for trying to steal a poster — but, since I followed the rules, I never felt at risk.

North Koreans are generous and hospitable and genuinely curious about who you are and where you come from. The country sports impressive monuments, stunning feats of architecture and a culture unlike any other on the planet. Sure, the Pyongyang food scene was nothing to write home about and North Korean pop songs all sound vaguely the same, but regardless, the DPRK made for a stellar vacation.

An empty subway car parked in the Pyongyang Metro's Puhung Station, found in the southern part of the city. Visible behind the car is a tile mosaic depicting the life of average North Korean workers. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

When I returned home, I felt it was my duty to spread the word that North Korea is not what the outside world thinks it is. Perhaps I was brainwashed by incredibly effective propaganda, but while I was in the country, North Korea made a surprisingly reasonable case for the actions of Kim Jong-un and the DPRK government.

Every North Korean I encountered was able to rationalise their country’s actions. They saw no aggression in them. Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program was simply a deterrent; the real threat to the earth were the sanctions against the DPRK. I recognised the employment of the victim card — oh, poor, abused North Korea, beaten down by the bully of the world: the United States. Even so, it worked on me. These people didn’t seem crazy at all, they just seemed human.

I went to North Korea to see if my presumptions about the country were right and if it really is as frightening as some people say. Did I find the country to be an oddity in my travels? Absolutely. But frightening? Not in the least. The reality of my trip is that, although the DPRK is undoubtedly a bizarre kingdom of propaganda and socialism, it’s not evil. I don’t hate North Koreans, and they don’t hate me.

A view of the Taedong River as seen from the eastern bank, which was undergoing renovation in March 2016. This picture is actually illegal, as photographing construction sites is prohibited by North Korean law. (Photo by Ethan Jakob Craft.)

On March 19, just before I boarded my flight out of North Korea, Mr. Lee finally shook my hand. So, if anything, at least I made a friend.

NOTE: This article is not an endorsement of Kim Jong-un or the ruling North Korean government. He is a dictator, I do not support him.