The following is the second installment in a 4-part series written by Sophia Michelen, a Global Exchange Reality Tours participant who was on the delegation to North Korea last September 2010. In this series, she reflects on her experiences in North Korea.
“We are not crazy!” By Sophia Michelen
Most people, or rather the few that ask specifically about bus rides in North Korea, wonder how moving between regions with constant supervision could have been any more enjoyable than a lengthy car ride through a consistently monochrome and silent scenery. For our group it was nothing of the sort. At the beginning, everyone – age and generational differences aside – comported themselves in the best, most politically correct way possible. Thank yous, compliments, careful bows and nonexaggerated remarks abounded what our North Korean guides did, we did. We learned by following the cultural norms, carefully selecting conversation topics, and praising the sites we visited. So, with this [unspoken] code of conduct between both sides, our group moved through meals, visits and lengthy bus rides as we travelled throughout the DPRK on our tour.
I was not expecting my mannerisms to change or heavy political discussions to occur while on this trip. I knew that there were boundaries and I agreed to the standard set for me as a visitor to the Hermit Kingdom – their hermit kingdom. However, on the eve before our visit to Panmunjom, better known as the 38th parallel, after a day’s visit to the most anti-American museum I have ever seen or really, could have imagined, our silent bus ride because a high diplomatic meeting of sorts.
On this sunny afternoon, the silence was broken when Rob, our comedian and priest-in-training from the Midwest asked our guide, Mr. Kim a question that little did we know, would trigger a powerful and productive discussion. Rob prefaced the question in stating that this question was asked on all his trips, so he wanted to ask our new North Korean friend.
“Mr. Kim – now, I usually ask many people I meet while traveling this question, so I’d like to ask you: If you were live on American national television, what is one thing you would say to our country?”
A bit shocked but gently and sincerely smiling, Mr. Kim picked up the 1980s bus microphone looking as if it had been snatched from a vintage karaoke bar. Hesitating a bit while he gathered his thoughts to a question never asked of him, Mr. Kim faced us in it uniform composure and said:
“We are not crazy!!”
We could not believe it – the bus laughed. Not expecting such an out-of-character remark from our head guide, Mr. Kim continued: “I would tell America that we are not crazy.” This was the first time we saw any emotion or relations mentioned between both dueling nations. The most fascinating part of our discussion was the door that this question opened. Mr. Kim decided to, in turn, ask each of us what we were proud of. He commenced the dialogue by mentioning that he was proud of “Being Korean – of speaking Korean.” He handed each of us the mic and one by one the comments began: pride of being first generation, of immigrating to the U.S., of everything America has given us, of seeing the [US] form over the decades and seeing a country grow before technology. Even the driver commented, adding that he was proud of being a North Korean.
The dialogue was profound and brought us all closer – such open, judgment-free personal remarks brought down the invisible wall between our North Korean counterparts and ourselves. We were all equally human and felt the tension disseminate a bit more – ironically before entering one of the tensest latitudes on Earth at the DMZ.
With a more personable dynamic amongst us, we were circled around the back of the bus, nearly off our seats like children around a school teacher’s skirt hem – eager to be next to ask a question to Mr. Kim – holding onto every remark and trying to quickly capture every word. Adrenaline and excitement was our caffeine on our nearly coffee-less trip.
We asked questions regarding the recent Cheonan sinking, the Obama administration and U.S – DPRK politics. We asked questions regarding the Korean war and future potential positive relations between North Korea and America, about the Bush administration, the famine (although a denial was given as an answer), about DPRK citizen knowledge regarding understanding of their own country’s politics. More interestingly, we asked about 9/11. Mr. Kim paused a bit – what seemed to be in a way to figure out the most and more polite way to say it: some citizens do not even know it occurred. We were a bit perplexed, but not completely shocked. Mr. Kim continued in earnest saying that some people in the country thought it was not terrorism, but rather an American ploy, while others think it’s merely science fiction. Mr. Kim said he only found out because he happened to be in Europe, surrounded by German tourists at the time, when on the television in the background, the Germans yelled that the towers fell! Mr. Kim did not understand exactly what was happening, but the instantly panicking German men apparently quickly discussed an escape route off the European continent.
This ended the open conversation, but our amazement flooded us with exhaustion. It was such an intense and interactive discussion that the rest of the trip ended as it started – in silence. Here we were, freely conversing with the quintessential “enemy” of the U.S., in discussion that seemed like amongst friends. We were all human. We respected, we shared. While our nations were in constant and continuous tensions, here we were – a small group of a citizen delegation understanding the other side, while on their side, on unknown territory. This was a real-world high meeting. This was the way to fully understand the differences and appreciate the similarities.
Come back here tomorrow to read the next installment in this 4-part series.
Interested in traveling to North Korea? We have a Reality Tour delegation coming up at the end of August, and other trips planned after that. Find out the details here.