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“The group from Harvard University,” the North Korean official on the other line remarked, “You have been approved to enter the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and we have been expecting you.” The date was May 27, two days before our group was to depart Beijing for North Korea, one of the most isolated and enigmatic nations on earth. The previous week, a report conducted by an international civilian and military group concluded that North Korea was behind the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March, which killed 46 people. What had ensued was a chorus of statements – by South Korea, the United States, and others – condemning North Korea for its “provocative behavior,” to which the regime threatened “all-out war” if any retaliations followed.
It was under this backdrop, one of the tensest periods in North-South Korean relations since the end of the Korean War, that 10 HKS students embarked on an eight-day trip to North Korea (after receiving assurances we would be safe, of course). For some, the trip was an opportunity to better understand the country’s economic and developmental challenges, and for others, a chance to learn more about the North Korean political system and relations between the two Koreas. For me, the trip was deeply personal. As one of five Korean-Americans on the trip, it was an opportunity to satisfy a lifelong, insatiable curiosity, derived from countless North Korea-related conversations at the family dinner table, Korean language school, and church.
The trip came together this past spring break when my plan to visit North Korea with a tour group and fellow MPP2 Euyhun Yi’s idea of incorporating North Korea into the South Korea Trek both fell short. Together, we decided to organize a separate trip to North Korea, through contacts Euyhun had made as a journalist. People frequently questioned the feasibility of getting in, considering that a year earlier, two American journalists had been detained and sentenced with 12 years of hard labor for illegally crossing into North Korea. The answer was simple – as visa-issued tourists, we had permission.
The North Korean government treated us hospitably, and although the thought of being in North Korea was often unnerving, we never felt that our lives were in danger. We were assigned with four tour guides, who with nearly impeccable English, bragged incessantly about their leader and country. They took us to their best restaurants, shuttled us around in a comfortable air-conditioned bus, and allowed us to grill them with tough questions, many of which were somewhat sensitive and political in nature. We were often reminded that this was all possible only through the North Korean government’s easing of travel restrictions for U.S. citizens. (Previously, Americans could only visit between August and October during the Mass Games, a performing arts spectacle involving tens of thousands of North Korean performers.)
The rules in North Korea, as well as the consequences of disobeying them, were strict but straightforward. Among them, we were prohibited from photographing military subjects, and at night, required to remain within the confines of our hotel. If uncooperative, we were warned, “You will have trouble returning to your country.”