North Korea Through a Different Lens

When compared with a country like Mozambique, which boasts a population and GDP of roughly similar size, we find that North Korea garners a disproportionate degree of media coverage. Here are a couple quotes from some of the most popular stories of recent years: “the North Korean Central News reported that Hung Il Gong, 17, has become the first man to land on the sun” (India Today), “Male university students in North Korea are now required to get the same haircut as their leader Kim Jong-un” (the BBC), “Unicorn-Lair ‘Discovered’ in North Korea” (The Guardian) and “Pyongyang media reported that Kim Jong-il shot an amazing 11 holes-in-one… on his first try at golf” (Herald Sun, originally reported in a 1994 New York Times op-ed). These stories each portray North Korea as a place that is impervious to rationality, perhaps suggesting that its people are just so brainwashed that they’ll do or believe anything, which makes sense when most of the images we see from North Korea are of things like goose stepping soldiers and mass gymnastics.

That however is not the only thing that they each share in common, the other being that they are false. Nor are they alone in this respect, and together with a plethora of other stories which may not necessarily be false but are greatly exaggerated, they have shaped in the public mind a shallow caricature which constitutes an obstacle to our better understanding of the country. As for why such a phenomenon exists, it’s simple to say that sensationalism sells. Combine the closed nature of the country with a dash of Orientalism and we end up with a volatile mix.

This is part of what led me to establish Tongil Tours – Australia’s only North Korea tour specialists and the world’s only North Korea tour service staffed entirely by Korean-speaking academic specialists – in the hopes of promoting a more nuanced understanding of the so called hermit kingdom among the Australian public. The other part being the North Korean friends I made, firstly in China and then in North Korea, and their warmth, inquisitiveness, humour, yes dare I say it – their humanity. This is something acutely missing from the mainstream narrative of North Korea, which portrays North Koreans as other, lacking in individuality or agency.

The ‘Tongil’ in our name is an oft-seen word meaning ‘reunification’ in Korean, and is generally used in reference to the division of the peninsula. To us, it also means bringing Australians and North Koreans together in the spirit of exchange. Given the closed nature of the country, the value of person to person exchange between Westerners and North Koreans cannot be understated. Just as much as we need to learn more about them, North Koreans need to learn more about us, and tourism can be a small step towards achieving this.

At this point you might feel skeptical, asking, “How can a tourist really learn more about the country when they are shown a Potemkin Village?” and, “How can exchanges be achieved when tours are accompanied by government minders?”. Such questions are asked rightly, and are only the mark of a critical mind. With regard to the first question, tours are certainly somewhat restricted, being forced to follow set itineraries, but this doesn’t mean that the astute observer cannot pick up a lot during one week of travelling the country from East to West. And with regard to second the question, the previously mentioned aspect of the tours does somewhat restrict interaction, but tourists are generally surprised at the degree of interaction that does occur along the tour route – some recent examples from our tours include the sharing of (alcoholic) drinks, meals and quite a bit of conversation on a trainride, being invited to dance with local university students at a National Day celebration and many more.

Admittedly, engaging with North Korea is a complicated, multifaceted issue and it is virtually impossible to explore its many aspects within a limited word count. But if any of this interests you, you may join one of our tours to discover a North Korea that is more complex and dynamic than you perhaps initially presupposed. We are also proud of the fact that our tours have a more academic bent, our yearly September mid-semester break ANU Study Tour beginning with academic seminars led by some of the world’s best experts on North Korea.

Alek Sigley is a student at ANU and Director of Tongil Tours, an Australian tour organisation that takes students to North Korea to promote deeper engagement and understanding of the country. Tongil Tours organises an annual North Korea study tour for ANU students each September mid-semester break. See here for a previous Woroni piece written by two of last year’s ANU study tour participants.

Photo by Alek Sigley.