Concerned that North Korea is getting a bad rap, some Brown University alumni have actually started a travel program to give students an eyewitness experience inside the totalitarian state. The project apparently started as a short trip for students, but it has now been expanded into a semester-long study abroad program:
The Pyongyang Project was the brainchild of Matthew Reichel and Nick Young, who were inspired to counteract what they describe as the “one-sided” coverage of North Korea in the international media.
“The US and North Korea don’t have established relations, and talks are indirect at best. And what we believe is that there is a need for a grassroots level of engagement that we haven’t seen yet between citizens,” says Mr Reichel, a 23-year-old Brown University graduate. “We feel that education is the best ice-breaker.”
The pair scheduled meetings with North Korean government officials at consulates in the US and China – and got the go ahead to run a scheme which takes university students and professors from the US, UK, Canada and other nations inside North Korea in a bid to reach out to the nation behind the headlines.
This program has the potential to be a useful educational tool if it actually exposes students to the deplorable conditions that most North Koreans live under. But like most “tourists” of North Korea, the participants of this trip visited only areas of the country handpicked by government propagandists.
The naivety of these students — enrolled at one of the top American universities — is simply astounding. One participant was amazed that he was allowed to wonder freely around a beach and interact with North Koreans — apparently unaware that the visit was probably about as orchestrated as a Hollywood movie set:
“They took us to the beach, we got our swimming trunks on and they basically said, ‘Go have a good time, you can talk to people’,” said Dave Fields, 27, a participant from the US state of Wisconsin.
Another participant gushed over a gymnastics competition she watched, but added that she noticed some “red flags” during her visit. “It definitely felt like there were props around the university. You get the feeling that it is sort of like a time capsule society — hair styles even that are kind of stuck in the 1960s,” she told the BBC.
I’m not sure if the founders of the Pyongyang Project planned to make this a pure propaganda campaign for the North Korean government, or if they’re simply clueless. But there’s no doubt that Pyongyang officials are probably thrilled by the results, judging from the comically fawning “participant reflections” posted on the project’s website.
“The DMZ was my favorite. Mass Games, local restaurants were wonderful, Mt Myohyang was beautiful, USS Pueblo, Korean War Museum, Metro. All of it was fantastic. I commend the two of you for putting together such an action-packed, well-rounded program,” wrote Amy C., a 2009 Fulbright scholar.
Another participant was apparently honored to have been given a museum tour by the same woman who guided President Kim Il-Sung. “[W]e went to an agricultural museum where both leaders had been to several times, and were guided by the same lady that guided President Kim II Sung; on the very same night when we were back to our hotel, we turned on the TV and the TV was showing President Kim II Sung visiting the exact same museum guided by the lady we just saw in in afternoon. What de ja vu!” wrote Ji G.
And in a ringing endorsement, Neil E., a Bowling Green State University professor, wrote that the “highlights” of his trip were “the kids playing in the street in front of the Children’s Palace, followed by the glitzy, absolutely perfect performance inside, the crowd streaming out of the Kaesong rally interrupted by a fight, the audiences clapping in unison. I would definitely recommend the experience to others — in fact, I already have.”
Well, I suppose we can at least we can be thankful that the unpleasant sight of emaciated North Koreans didn’t get in the way of their thrilling vacation.