I first visited North Korea in 2009. I remember feeling nervous and anxious in the days and weeks leading up to the trip. I had grown up thinking of only the south as my homeland, and the north seemed remote and foreign. This was also the same year that United States journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee had been detained in North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and I remember colleagues half-joking saying things like, “Hope you come back!” Another person in my North American delegation, also of Korean descent, had been subjected to a family intervention, with her mother pleading with her to not go.
I went as part of a program organized by Nodutdol for Korean Community Development, the DPRK Education and Exposure Program, of which I’m a member. The mission of this program was explicitly political: to create people-to-people connections with North Koreans and demystify the dehumanizing depiction of North Korea as a dangerous place that is populated by a brainwashed populace without human emotions.
But no one else has been able to participate in the Nodutdol program since travel to North Korea was banned under former President Trump in 2017, resulting in Nodutdol suspending its program. On August 23, President Joe Biden renewed Trump’s ban for yet another year. The State Department cited North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as the reason.
Dehumanizing a people by depicting them as brainwashed, and their leadership as irrational, is a time-honored practice in manufacturing consent for war. We have seen this play out tragically in Iraq, Libya, and more. These trips to North Korea enabled people from the U.S. — a country that still remains technically at war with North Korea — to meet directly with North Koreans and view firsthand aspects of life in North Korea. It lays the critical groundwork for a genuine peace.
North Korea’s nuclear program, claims about its human rights record and the past detention of U.S. citizens are commonly cited as reasons to isolate North Korea. Yet cutting off engagement and diplomacy with North Korea ultimately leaves us ignorant of the realities there, and perpetuates U.S. assumptions that it’s only we who have something to teach North Koreans and nothing to learn from them in turn. It also forecloses the possibility of peaceful resolution on any issue, no matter how small or large.
I had been conditioned to think of North Korea through the lens of fear, and it was hard to dismiss my feelings of anxiety. Yet immediately upon landing in Pyongyang, I was confronted with direct evidence that my fears were unfounded as we interacted with North Korean customs officials and met our guides. In fact, upon seeing one of our guides, our coordinator rushed to give him a giant hug, excited that he was accompanying us again this year.
When directly faced with experiences that were mundane and unremarkable, rather than heightened and imbued with a vaguely sinister air, I was able to put aside manufactured fears and engage with people on an everyday level. Our experiences with our guides in particular showed the contrast between the common depiction of guides as a constraint and our experience with our guides as invaluable resources who provided insight and facilitated our engagement with the people we met.
We visited a maternity hospital, a Buddhist temple, an orphanage and a farm. We went on walks along the Taedong River, unaccompanied by guides, and met elderly North Koreans doing their morning exercises. We met with students, farmers, factory workers and teachers. We had random interactions with North Koreans living their everyday lives: One day, a group of us was standing outside of our hotel, chatting casually to each other. It was rush hour, so people were heading home from their jobs, and schoolchildren were presumably on their way to some after school activity. Most ignored us, but out of nowhere, a group of three schoolchildren, maybe 8 years old, took one look at us and said enthusiastically, “Hello!” and “How are you?” in perfect English. We responded “Great! Hello!” They giggled at us and kept walking, red scarves marking them as youth.
Our meeting with students at Kim Chaek University of Technology stands out. We were ushered into a room with lots of chairs. After introductions, each of us wound up sitting among a group of students to have smaller, more intimate conversations. The aim was not only to know them better, but to also share about our own lives and experiences.
In my group, everyone was really friendly and keen to hear from me, and I remember one student in particular being really friendly and good at keeping the conversation going. This is not my strength, and I was grateful. I shared details about my family and daily life and heard about their families and experiences as students. Then, the friendly student asked me, “What do people think of North Korea?” I hesitated, embarrassed. I recalled my anxiety preceding the trip and had been in Pyongyang for long enough to know that my answer would sound ridiculous. “They told me to be careful, that it’s dangerous here.”
The students were not shocked or surprised at my answer, but they were saddened. They asked me to tell people about my experiences. This is a refrain we heard at many of our site visits: “Tell people what you saw.” At no point was I asked to paint North Korea in a particular light or to say only good things. They only asked me to share my experiences.
When I was back at the airport 11 days later, I felt the weight of leaving something behind. I remember tearfully saying goodbye to our guides and bus driver, and when we passed through the boarding checkpoint, the airport official smiled at my teary face and told me to come back soon.
In June this year, the fifth year of the travel ban, Nodutdol released an open letter to President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, signed by 64 organizations, demanding that they lift the ban on travel to North Korea. We also sent more than 1,000 signed postcards to the State Department demanding the same.
The letter states:
The displacement and separation of Koreans as a people since 1945 are a direct result of the division of the homeland by foreign powers and the ongoing Korean War…. To establish peace in Korea, we must continue to engage in direct, in-person relationship-building. Separation creates alienation, while reciprocal exchange fosters understanding. The travel ban prevents us from pursuing these peaceful and diplomatic connections. Before the 2017 travel ban, we organized regular trips to North Korea where we delivered medical aid to hospitals and fostered warm relationships and in-person kinship networks with the people of North Korea. We also supported separated family members in reuniting with relatives and facilitated translation and logistics. These trips forge vital pathways towards peace on the Korean peninsula and in the Asia Pacific region. Lifting the travel ban will allow us to visit the northern part of our homeland again, deepen our kinship networks, and further our peace work.
Without peacebuilding efforts like these, tensions between North Korea and the U.S. and South Korea will continue to escalate, as we see with the U.S.’s recent Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) with South Korea in which the countries plan “for contingencies on the peninsula that might involve nuclear use.” The NCG, Biden’s extension of the travel ban, the continuation of war games, and the formation of a trilateral security agreement between the U.S., Japan and South Korea all inflame tensions on the peninsula. What all this points to is the fact that the armistice is precarious; the Korean War must be formally brought to an end if we are to move toward peace and justice on the Korean Peninsula.
My visit to North Korea in 2009 was transformative. I became aware of the reality that my homeland encompassed the whole peninsula, not just the south. I returned in 2011, 2013 and 2015, each time as part of Nodutdol’s program. Narratives about North Korea have become skewed in the U.S., and North Korea is frequently invoked in pop culture as a stand-in for something bizarre and completely foreign.
These trips by themselves won’t create peace. But they are an essential part of the larger spectrum of peace efforts, small and large, to ensure that the tragedy of active war on the peninsula not begin anew.