North Korea Land

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Pyongyang skyline.

Pyongyang skyline. Source: Pricey hide caption

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In a game of rapid response word association, when presented with "North Korea," two things, and two things only, come to mind: nuclear weapons, and dictatorship. Well, now, maybe four things — Kim Jong Il and cerebral hemorrhage. But that's about the extent of my knowledge of the Asian country. Last month, Yale collegiate Jerry Guo traveled to Pyongyang "with a group of Chinese tourists who had come to witness the kitschy architecture, personality worship and over-the-top propaganda machine first-hand." But what he discovered was quite unexpected — yes, travel there is limited and tourists are carefully watched by the state police; but, to his surprise, he also found pockets of capitalism in the capital city that made it seem like "Anytown, USA." He wrote about his experiences in a piece called, "My Excellent North Korean Adventure" for Sunday's Washington Post, and he joins us today to share. If you've visited North Korea, what did you find there? Any surprises?



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I felt that Jerry Guo, the Yale student who snuck away from the hotel to a market in North Korea, showed arrogance and a lack of understanding and concern for his actions, and grossly misrepresented many facts about the DPRK. He acted as an irresponsible journalist.

I just returned from a trip to North Korea, traveling with Koryo Tours. We flew Air Koryo, the national airline, both directions, and it is not "literally held together with bamboo". Our plane from Beijing to Pyongyang was a new Tupolev model airplane, cleaner than most planes I've been on recently in the US. Our flight out was on an older Ilyushin model aircraft, which was again clean and well-maintained. Both flights were right on time, and had good service.

Before traveling, everyone in our group had to sign a form declaring that we are not a journalist, and I'm sure Jerry had to sign that form too. Misrepresenting himself (or even under-representing himself) is very irresponsible journalism, especially since it has consequences for all involved. A journalist posing as something else traveled with Koryo Tours a few years ago, and after he got back and published his article, Koryo Tours was shut down from bringing in tours for nine months because of it.

And there were definitely consequences for Jerry Guo's guides, which he flippantly dismisses. Being a guide for foreigners is both a great opportunity and a great liability in the DPRK; this is carefully explained before entering the country and is something Jerry should have considered. I felt honored and impressed with the amount of contact we were given to regular everyday citizens of Pyongyang on our tour, and the fact that as Americans we could even be there at all. No, it's not all gulags and famine, and that is readily apparent without sneaking off to a market and jeopardizing the careers and livelihoods of your guides, as well as how the tour is allowed to operate. Also, the "Public Security Bureau" he alludes to is a Chinese term for police, not the low-level market police he dealt with in Pyongyang.

I agree that he had chutzpa and daring to wander away from the Yanggakdo Hotel and enter the market. But the price that others may pay for his actions, and the fact that he published that article, made it a foolish and immature stunt, and not responsible (or even factual) journalism.

Sent by Todd Edwards | 10:53 PM | 9-17-2008

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