As tempers flare and tensions rise rapidly with North Korea, we wanted to give some resources on allies who are working to de-escalate what is a dangerous situation.  Here is how you can get involved:

Continue to check our  website and facebook page for updates on additional actions you can take.

With the death of the North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il known as the ‘Dear Leader’ and the world’s attention now turned to his youngest son Kim Jong Eun, the “Great Successor”, very interesting and intense times lie ahead for North Korea.

Kim Jong-il was 69 when he died from an apparent hearth attack while on board a train. A video of North Koreans publicly mourning their ‘Dear Leader’ now appears on YouTube.

If you want to learn more about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and go beyond what is portrayed in the media, join one of our citizen diplomacy delegation called “North Korea: Beyond the Bamboo Curtain.”

About Global Exchange “Reality Tour” delegation to North Korea:

The North Korea delegation planned in 2012 runs from April 11th- 19th during the days of the centennial birthday of President Kim Il Sung.

The Citizens Diplomacy Reality Tour to North Korea will give participants the distinct opportunity to see inside this tightly guarded nation and gain first-hand perspective the effects of both U.S. and North Korean policies.

Participants will have a chance to put a human face on this ongoing political dispute and help facilitate understanding and respect between people of different nations. Experience a slice of daily life at a school, farming coop, and temple and visit landmarks like the Sinchon War Museum and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Find out more here.

Got questions about our North Korea Reality Tour trip? If you would like to speak with someone at Global Exchange about our upcoming delegation to North Korea, please e-mail Reality Tours.

The following was written by Jeremy Jimenez, who traveled on a Global Exchange Reality Tour trip to North Korea in 2010.  Jeremy Jimenez has taught Ancient History, Global Studies, and IB Economics at a variety of middle and high schools across the world, including urban and suburban schools in New Jersey, two international schools in Venezuela, and as a guest lecturer to dozens of schools across Norway as a Fulbright Roving Scholar. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in International and Comparative Education at Stanford University.

Having now been to 110 countries, I would not hesitate to state that there is no place on Earth like North Korea. In just the 15 minute ride from Pyongyang’s airport, you feel immediately transported to another era. The city is immaculately clean, the whispered clanking of a bike or occasional car among the little noise you hear in its capital. This calming effect is, of course, somewhat mitigated by the proliferation of posters extolling agricultural production or anti-imperialist slogans. While it is not uncommon to see a solo traveler passing by with a friendly smile, more memorable is how often one encounters people gathered in groups. This mass organization of society manifests itself regularly as you are whizzing past countless brief slices of daily life, whether it be soldiers/civilians practicing some marching formation, women huddled in close proximity polishing the sidewalk clean with brushes, or ‘field trips’ of farmers to the ‘holy sites’ of North Korea. While this collectivist orientation is fairly typical of East Asian cultures in general, North Korea takes it to a whole new level.

Tours, like nearly every other aspect of society, are organized from dawn to dusk, with wandering around on one’s own generally not permitted even within buildings (except one’s hotel.)  Nonetheless, despite this regimented schedule, there were no lack of spontaneous moments that enabled us to see North Koreans as individuals in their own right.  When telling a cashier at a rest stop, upon being asked, that I was a teacher, she told me that I “have wasted my life…..(I) should have been a film star.” On another night, what was initially meant as a quick introduction to a game of rotating ping pong with our local guides became a lengthy, sweaty, and intensely hysterical competition. After the game, being particularly absent minded, I Ieft behind my camera; I had already done this several times before as North Korea is a particularly easy place to abandon one’s usual regard for potential thieves.  When one of the guides retrieved it and gave it to me, he quite humorously pointed out “a man can become very rich following you around.”

What makes a trip to North Korea so unique and important is to have your assumptions challenged, since there are precious few visitors there, or North Koreans abroad, who can share their outlook. For example, hearing so much about how ‘strict’ the government is and how anti-American its orientation, one might suspect to have an unpleasant grilling by customs officers upon arriving.  Would I be interrogated for having a South Korean stamp in my passport? Would my books and tech devices be confiscated as they might be considered against the regime? To my surprise, probably only Singapore had a quicker, more hassle-free passage through customs.

Another interesting observation I couldn’t help but notice is how traditional the society is both with regard to gender stratification as well as the classic Confucion respect for the elderly, no doubt a result of the country’s isolation from the norms of globalization brought by mass media and the lack of opportunities to interact regularly with foreigners. Regarding the latter, I particularly recall when a soldier guiding us to a lookout point at the DMZ was quite impressed and insisted we applaud a fellow 83 year old traveler who was able to climb the steep hill without assistance. Regarding the former, I recall our GX guide Alessandro at a rest stop requesting to drink strawberry milk, but was given coffee instead saying that the strawberry drink is only for girls. Similarly, when I accidentally dropped my shirt in the mud and inquired if there was a nearby sink I could use to wash off the mud, my guide Ms. Kim adamantly insisted I let her clean it because “men are not supposed to wash clothes.” Lastly, when I jokingly wanted my ability to distinguish male from female sculptures of dragons recognized by our guide, he replied that if I was so good at distinguishing the two, I wouldn’t have let a tattoo artist make a female dragon turtle on my leg (though when I explain this is just reflecting a harmonious Yin Yang balance, he mutters something along the line of “touché”.)

What was particularly insightful, though, were the extended conversations afforded to us on our long distance trip to Wonsan, a lovely beach resort town whose laurels I was asked to recount for a producer of a local documentary film. Sometimes these chats simply involved answering our guides’ fascination with our technological devices, such as my ipod or portable Macintosh. But more academic conversations were also more common than I had anticipated, such as when Ms. Kim wished me to summarize the American revolution with notes and diagrams in her notebook (in exchange, of course, for Korean lessons.)  Also of note was when our guides emphatically insisted that I would not be allowed to leave the country until I wrote down the lyrics to the Animaniacs countries of the world song, a rendition of which I frequently was asked to perform at our dinner engagements.

Perhaps most interesting, though, was an extended conversation of politics and economics. Mr. Kim gave a spirited defense of his country’s military first policy, putting the belligerence of its armed forces in the context of the international community’s repeatedly hoping and calling for the downfall of the regime, especially during the famine crisis following the death of Kim Il Sung. While it is hard to imagine a respectable position genuinely defending the human rights abuses perpetrated by the government against its own people, hearing from the perspective of a North Korean directly can help to bring one closer to the complex truth behind many of the governments’ policies.  Of course, despite the English fluency of our guides, cultural misunderstandings can still persist, as when I asked one guide if people are more likely to join political parties from rural or urban areas, it was hard to know if my guide’s deadpan answer “I don’t know – I don’t work for the central statistic committee” was a joke or merely a polite exchange of data.

Another fascinating topic of conversation to me, as an economics teacher, was whether or not North Korea will likely copy China’s liberalization, given its close relationship and dependence on China’s aid (the conclusion of the Mass Games this year involved a not so subtle praise of the country’s special relationship with China.) Surprisingly, Mr. Kim said any investment from China comes with “strings attached”, and that while laws concerning potential investment are “still at (a) conceptual phase” with a “newly formed commission addressing these issues”, Mr. Kim felt it was essential not to ignore the environmental damage of economic growth, for “we don’t wear Chinese clothes.”

In short, any day as an American in North Korea is sure to be an immensely rewarding and stimulating experience. While much of the trip involved a decades old itinerary of grand monuments as well as officially sponsored commercial areas or academic institutions (which in no way, though, makes any of these destinations any less fascinating), the real treasures of North Korea are its people, who are generally curious about the outside world and, despite their obvious reluctance to criticize their own government. have the same kaleidoscope of intriguing and genuinely warm personalities as anywhere else in the world.

Travel to North Korea!

If you’re interested in finding out about upcoming Reality Tour trips to North Korea, please visit our website.

The following is the final 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.


“So, Why North Korea?!” by Sophia Michelen

It goes without saying that my journey in North Korea was far from ordinary- far from a conventional destination, far from the known, and far from the typical place to celebrate a 23rd birthday. Upon returning to the US, and as mentioned, many times before departing, a question echoed: So, tell me again, why would you go to North Korea?

Travel, after all, is a means by which one can escape the ‘everyday.’ Routine does not exist while traveling and the ‘routine’ that is present is exciting at every moment (good or bad), which, by definition, is anything but ‘routine. In that moment of travel, in that place on that day, you have never experienced that exact ‘routine’ before. So the routine of travel is actually an adventure, evolving by the second. Moreover, travel is a way to liberate yourself – to free yourself, to dream and to grow, a way to leave your comfort zone. Travel is a balance between learning about foreign cultures, yet feeling the freedom to experience a different world – even just for a few days.

Nothing makes me feel more alive – more human and more free, then traveling. The joy of the freedom, starting thousands of feet in the air on a secluded plane, is indescribable – literally. My heart fills with butterflies, pure ecstasy runs through me, and I am able to breathe more easily. So why would I want to travel to a place that would prevent me from having any such freedom? Just to check off another unconventional country on my “have been to” list?

I was traveling to the antithesis of freedom, leaving the country of the free. Literally. How would I feel once my Air Koryo flight door closed, with “doors to manual” announced in Korean? No outside world as I knew it for a week. My laptop would not catch the local Starbucks free Wi-Fi, my phone (aka my lifeline to the world as I knew it) would be confiscated, my passport would be held captive. Technically, I would have no identity. I would not, and did not, know what was going on in the world outside of the hermit bubble. I was not free in this sense. But here is where the balance comes in. While I lost the traditional freedom we know of, I gained from the timeless feeling of travelling to North Korea. Because I was not free in this traditional sense, I was free to experience a new culture fully. Cell phones, Starbucks and computers – the link between continents – were not present. So, New York City and Dubai did not exist. The familiar was gone and for the first time in my life, and in my opinion in a place stuck in time, I was traveling as if I were living in the early 1960s. Technology, newspapers and chain restaurants did not exist. Many people dream of what it was like to live “back then” and move without technology or to be connected so rapidly – well here it was. I was given the freedom to live a past life in the present world.

So how can this freedom not thrill you? Yes, there are harsh realities and sometimes frustrating traditions, but through the experience I learned and I saw. I had only seen vintage Royal Enfield motorcycles in movies and museums – side car included. But here, I lived it – old motorbikes scooted around rampantly in the DMZ zone. And nature? I saw the most beautiful “mirror” lake I have ever seen – the water so, so still that the reflection of the valley did not feel real. I had to splash the water to make sure it wasn’t a mirage. I learned American-Korean history from both sides while on the Taedong River in the U.S. Spy Ship, Pueblo by having North Korean sailors and guards explain one side, while having an American marine on hand to explain the other. This is not to say that it is a peaceful topic, but it was the ultimate history class – primary and secondary sources surrounding me! Or even fun times – sharing fries and a drink with North Korean businessmen while bowling in a retro two-lane bowling alley in the basement of our hotel in Pyongyang. Americans and North Koreans bowling – who would have guessed? Language was clearly a barrier, but their screams of “AWESOME!!” (pronounced oh-ahh-sum) in a high-pitched voice, throwing hands in the air for the universal congratulations of a high-five when only a few pins fell was a site to see. Their excitement was as if they had bowled to perfection game in a national completion, and the imagery of this last night makes me laugh out loud – even as I write.

My trip to North Korea was extraordinary, but it was so because of the people on my trip – North Koreans and Americans. Yes, tours in the country are practically the same – the same locations, same remarks, and same routines, but each delegation is different. Not many people understand North Korea’s people. Putting politics aside, not many people bother to learn about the North’s cultural norms, and while friends and relatives back home see the photos and video clips brought back from travels; these modes of capturing the moment do little justice. No matter how many photos I took or how much I wrote in my journal, only my memory can be the full primary source of my trip. Sometimes, words just can’t explain the emotion behind certain situations – like the awe and astonishment of seeing over 60 000 individuals perform at the Arirang Mass Games. No other performance could compare to this, and being in that stadium, in that moment, was just priceless. While more than 60, 000 performers showed visitors their dances and acrobatics, both children and adult alike, people in New York City were grabbing their lattes to go, in a rush to get to the next meeting – two different worlds in that same moment.

I can’t be frustrated when friends or family react in a passive way for something I was so enthusiastic about. Grasping a concept or an experience that does not exist in this Western world is incredibly difficult to capture, almost impossible. I was fortunate to have had such a diverse group with me, but to those planning or wondering what it’s really like in North Korea – just go. Of course, there are endless blogs, thousands of photos, and even YouTube videos to be found that can give you an idea of what it is like. But if you go in impartially, just enter as a curious traveler – I promise that you will gain more. And once you return, you will join those other few individuals who have traveled there, who are the others to understand what it’s like to be inside the invisible walls of North Korea.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

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.

The following is the third 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.

“A Rare Flower” by Sophia Michelen
One lone female college graduate, on a plane to Beijing, then another to Pyongyang, meeting a group of passionate travelers, where the closest female companion was several decades my elder.

That was me.

I did not expect to take my North Korea adventure as a sort of high-school chaperoned trip, but I did imagine that there would be a fairly high chance of meeting another young female professional in the group. I know plenty of adventure-loving females, so why would this trip be any different? There just had to be someone who would be on the trip that I would be able to have age-appropriate discussions and conversations with.

I absolutely cherished the individuals traveling with me to North Korea. However, I found it a bit peculiar that there were no other female 20-somethings jumping at the opportunity. Nonetheless, my gypsy-like travel routine did not make me dependent on a travel buddy.

The night before departing for Pyongyang, our American-South Korean travel guide who would accompany us for the remainder of the trip, briefed us regarding our North Korea schedule and our tour guides. We would have two male guides and a male bus driver. This gendered specification was not surprising, for we were told that it is they, the males, who are most educated in the society – they who are given the opportunity to leave the country, visit Europe, pick up a degree or two, and learn second and third languages fluently [one of the two male tour guides would even be conversing with me in French!]. Our South Korea tour guide, after dinner, pulled me aside asking me why a young female like myself would be so drawn to visiting North Korea. I explained my decade-long curiosity and former Korean language tutorial; and how it felt the time was right for the trip. He happily listened and eagerly told me that on this trip, on a rare occasion, we would be having another tour guide – a young female guide, training to become a senior guide, and, best of all, that she was my age! I would never have guessed that the travel companion I so sought for would be a North Korean – a perfect cultural insider.

Once we landed in North Korea, our guides were waiting for us to pass custom. As normal for travelers visiting the country, they took our passports and mobile phones. Ms. Lee, the lone female guide, greeted us with a friendly smile, comported properly but seemingly excited by the prospect of showing a group of foreigners her country. “We have a lot to show you,” she would say. Getting on the bus, introductions were not lagging. Our South Korea guide said loud and proudly – “Ms. Lee, this is Sophia – you can practice your English with her and you can teach her North Korean culture. She is your age!” We laughed, and that’s where we began.

At our first stop, the Arch of Triumph, Ms. Lee and I conversed naturally, talking initially about the basics– place of birth, family, siblings, schooling, why I came to North Korea, why she became a tour guide. Language was also a topic of conversation – how and where I learned some Korean and why she decided to learn English. She proudly mentioned her previous travels – just a couple countries outside of North Korea, including China.

Moving throughout the sites and meals of our itinerary, Ms. Lee would respectfully sit with the elder guides. We would continuously invite her to sit with us, but politely she refused. But later in the trip she would warm up and she would be like our own private North Korea Wikipedia site. I would start by asking specific questions regarding our current location, before quickly diverging into other questions on my mind– from instruments [she plays the accordion], to friends, social events, TV shows, music [no she hadn’t heard of Lady Gaga],and growing up in North Korea. I was thirsty to know more about her insider’s perspective out of the world from North Korea, despite already knowing how the outside world may view her country.

My questions and these conversations lasted until the bus ride to the airport for our departure flight. However, my most memorable moment was at the demilitarized zone. We visited the old, very desolate and empty meeting room where delegations from both our countries met decades ago to sign the 1953 Armistice. Even the air smelled old. Everything was left intact – except for the Plexiglas casing over the table-top flags during the singing. Other than that, everything was original – original table, chairs, even the turf-like, green table covering was there. I must say I was surprised that these historic artifacts were not better kept or in a more “hands-off” environment, but passionate about original experiences, I treasured being able to interact with these objects in such a way.

As we walked around the zone together), Ms. Lee and I linked elbows and discussed potential change for our countries’ political relationship. Here we were, two citizens, females at that, with our country still technically at war with one another, having a peaceful conversation about future changes – near and distant- for our generation. She discussed how she longed to see the peninsula reunified – where both her people (North and South) would be able to merge again as one, learn from each other and be reunited with lost family. She still desires and hopes to travel abroad, and have some freedoms like her American counterparts while still keeping her strong and proud Korean identity. Not once did she insult or discriminate my country – not once did she impose any of her potential negative views of the States. We both know what is said about the others’ country, but there was no need to rehash the obvious.

At this point in our small walking tour, Ms. Lee and I find ourselves standing behind the actual table where the treaty was signed. We were so busy chatting; we barely realized the flow of the group. As we rushed for a photo-op before the next site in the zone, I paused to appreciate the moment – the rarity of these two individuals, from these two countries, discussing these topics, in this location. As Ms. Lee scurried to the bus, I walked behind the others, took my time, taking in the color of the grounds – a white and violet-petal, growing on a single flower amongst the overgrown grass. So peacefully swaying, I looked and smiled to myself, grateful for the moment. For the unique ability to experience this instant and the conversation I had just had with Ms.Lee. Just like the rarity of the flower amongst the weeds, the symbol of this small flower growing in the tensest boarder on earth reminded me of the unique moment with Ms. Lee, my friend, my peaceful North Korean companion, the fellow female counterpart I imagined having on the journey.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

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.

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!!”

Bill and Mr. Kim

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.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

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.

The following is the first 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.

A first-generation American, Sophia Michelen has had a passion for travel and photography from a young age. With work from the illegal gold mining industry in Ghana to the hidden lives of North Koreans, the world is anything but foreign to her. After graduating from college, Sophia lived and worked in the Middle East with an international NGO office based in Dubai, UAE. Now, Sophia is continuing work in public health and international health policy research in Boston, MA, while preparing for her next trip and photography project.

Run-Away Crab Needed to Enter North Korea by Sophia Michelen

When most think of celebrating their 23rd birthday, eating out, nights on the town, or a weekend trip to a relaxing beach treat might come to mind. However, my 23rd was to be different – a secluded celebration with a trip to North Korea. Reflections, acquired wisdom, aspirations and new adventures often accompany another year of one’s life; so, to bring in my new year, I strictly started with the later of these – an adventure! Having just arrived back from several months living in the Middle East, I wanted to start my 23rd year with an adventure to a place I, like many Westerners, felt to be light years away (or rather, behind,); to a place I have been fascinated with for over a decade, to a place where very little is understood – North Korea.

You can imagine the shock of family and friends to my proposed trip, alone, to the DPRK. Just days after arriving back to the United States, I would be heading east again. No one really understood. With the Cheonan having been sunk just months prior to my trip, and with tense foreign relations between my country and theirs, many tried to dissuade me. They continually mentioned that North Korea would be there tomorrow and that there would thus be other opportunities to travel there. However, I knew for me the time was now – I wanted to experience a Soviet-style way of life that never existed in our Western world. So, on September 9th, 2010 I flew east – first stop, Beijing.

I am an avid traveler, fearless in all respects of flying. I am thrilled at being thousands of feet in the air – where time seems to stop, where my books, my journal and my mind are best friends; where iPhones and the internet are paused for these certain hours of your life, where everyone around is going to the same destination – despite nationality, age, language or race. These strangers become your friends and the plane, your home. However, out of the hundreds of flights I have taken, this plane ride felt different – my thoughts were uncertain as to what to expect. I was a young woman traveling alone to the other side of the world, to tour with people I had never seen in a country that few understand. Except for a few passages regarding North Korea in my Lonely Planet “Korea” book, even my usual companion of a guide book was not available this time. I was about to enter booming Beijing, only to quickly leave and enter primitive Pyongyang. I had plenty of time –literally – to ponder and assess just what I was getting myself into. However, even I was yet to fully understand my motivation for traveling to North Korea.

I landed in Beijing and within minutes of searching for the unknown face of my guide, I was approached by my smiling group leader. This was step one of starting my adventure into the DPRK.

After the rest of the group assembled at the airport, we headed downtown. Before soon, the infamous Beijing became apparent. We passed modern and ancient buildings, bikes, scooters and cars. However, I was unable to appreciate my surroundings in China – I was still waiting to move forward into North Korea. We settled into our rooms, familiarized ourselves with the schedule for night one, and soon headed to dinner nearby.

At the restaurant we sat in a private room at the end of a larger dining room where, as would be the norm for the remainder of the trip, food was brought to us without ever opening a menu– the meals would always be pre-chosen for us. The food was tasty and the camaraderie from the rest of the group was welcoming. Our Chinese guide was reviewing our Beijing itinerary with us while questions regarding North Korea were directed to our American group guide. In talking about trip formalities, the conversation was soon interrupted by a crab – which loosened the mood through a roar of laughter.

Our Chinese guide, mid-sentence, jumped after a live crab that had escaped the kitchen, tried to crawl up his leg. I just could not believe it – it literally felt like it was out of a movie. The crab kept crawling around the room until one waitress finally caught it… with chopsticks! Needless to say, I have never had an experience like this. But it was the after-dinner chit-chat that made me realize just how unique this trip would be.

No longer was I just going to enter a new country, but I would be entering North Korea with several unique individuals. Being the youngest, with over eight decades of history collected between the nine of us, I found myself surrounded with some of the most interesting people I had ever met – our guide, an Italian human rights activist from the Bay Area; a teacher from Jersey, having lived in Venezuela for years and having travelled the world to over 100 countries to date; a retired corrections officer that remembered the Midwest when horses were still tied to posts outside shops; a Chemist who migrated from the Philippines, now living in California; a pastor from Chicago, once one of President Obama’s neighbors; a 6-foot-four programmer, freelance comedian who is studying to become a priest; and a Chinese-American economist who moved to the U.S. when she was very young, now working for the World Bank. And then the real character of the group – an 82 year-old ex-Navy pilot who still flies his plane across the country and travels worldwide, whose stories mesmerized me as I listened for hours on American history– from the Great Depression, to the war, to life in South Boston before technology, and who would end up teaching me the samba and tango in the middle of a Pyongyang hotel lobby.

It was at this dinner that I realized that my trip had begun – that part of the adventure I had been searching for was transpiring through meeting these fellow Americans that, under any other circumstance, would be rare to meet. With this dinner, my trip to North Korea began.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

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.