Draper resident Troy Lewis is a married father of three kids, CPA, adjunct professor at BYU, and a travel hobbyist. For the sake of traveling itself, Lewis visited communist North Korea, officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in April, 2013. The ultimate adventurer, Troy booked a tour through the DPRK, the only legal means for a tourist to go. He flew to Beijing and was briefed on communist etiquette and critical laws of the country, so that he could have a better chance of safe travel. There is no American embassy in North Korea, so following the rules, though not a total guarantee of safety, is the best chance he had of making it out okay.
“At the briefing, I was told that I should just assume that every conversation and every thing I did would be monitored. I was also warned not to buy anything unless it was specifically at a tourist shop. They don’t want their currency to leave the country,” he noted. Additionally, he was strongly warned to be careful with any printed images of Kim Jong-un, the supreme leader. For instance, if Lewis were to fold a newspaper image of Kim, a sign of disrespect, he could possibly get arrested.
There is a foreigner compound on a man-made island swimming in the middle of the Taedong River, a river which runs through the heart of the city. The island is about a half mile long, with a bridge that links it to the rest of the city, providing an easy way for the DPRK to control access. The island has a spacious hotel and even a soccer stadium. Five thousand to 10,000 tourists visit every year, with Americans making up a very tiny percentage of that number.
Troy was able to see a lot of the country, but he was cognizant that he was only shown the very best it had to offer, the country the DPRK wants the world to see.
“You are very aware of your surroundings and recognize you have lost all control. You must conform and put American mannerisms on the shelf.” Lewis felt this was a critical means of safe passage through the country.
He was put in a small tour group of nine to 10 other random Americans. The minders, or tour guides, spoke excellent English and were very warm and funny. They would talk to them about anything, but Lewis knew there were certain things you did not talk about, like prison camps and such. It was fruitful to ask open-ended question and was interesting to hear their points of view. The minders are very loyal and have no hesitation of turning a tourist into the police for any type of infraction. It was important to follow the rules, even as they got more comfortable and friendly with the minders throughout the visit.
One of their first outings was to the DMZ, the dividing line between North and South Korea and one of the most contentious places on earth. After many military checkpoints, the local tour guide gave a decidedly communist point of view at the DMZ and the museum there. Although he was not allowed to take pictures on the drive down, the minders did allow Lewis to photograph the DMZ looking towards the South Korean side. Photographs of military personnel was absolutely forbidden.
Throughout the country are little spray-painted red triangles. They commemorate where Kim Jong-un did something, even ordinary things, like instructing workers to plant something here, or fish over there. There is a god-like reverence for their supreme leader, who is considered infallible and untouchable.
Lewis enjoyed seeing the countryside and how citizens lived. The people work very hard and are warm and genuine. The official political philosophy of North Korea is juche, which means self-reliance. It is promoted with propaganda posters everywhere. Since the country tries to be completely autonomous, every inch of land is used for agriculture, including the strips between on-ramps. Every citizen, including military personnel, are expected to put time in on farms.
A highlight of Lewis’ trip was when the minders let him wander freely through a park during a festival. He talked to many people who, though shy, were eager to practice their English skills. The country has a lot of incredible natural beauty, though Lewis probably would not go again for the cuisine, which was not his favorite. As he puts it, “Kimchee (fermented cabbage) goes a long way.”