While Donald Trump threatened “fire and fury” against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea last week, a group of people from the U.S. toured the country in what is to be the last civilian tour before the travel ban goes into effect in late August.
The tour, which lasted a week and ended on Aug. 13, was organized by the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Coalition, and christened the “Korea Peace Tour.” ANSWER organized their first delegation in 2015 to help people from the U.S. see the DPRK for themselves and break through what organizers call a “highly constructed, racist, and caricatured presentation” of the country.
Derek Ford, assistant professor at DePauw University and organizer for the latest Korea Peace Tour, said that “both of our delegations were received very hospitably from the second we arrived in Beijing and interacted with workers at Air Koryo”, he continued “they were really nothing but hospitable” through the entire trip.
While the U.S. press was buzzing about a possible nuclear standoff between the United States and the DPRK, Ford described a disjointed experience. “When we heard about the remarks, we were on a river in Pyongyang and watching a young couple get married on a boat that was speeding by; there was such a disconnect,” Ford said, “it seems that people [are] very confident in their military’s developments and their ability to deter direct U.S. attacks.”
Along the tour, delegates took photos of Korean culture, including bustling amusement parks, restaurants with live music, children playing at the Children’s Palace, dance classes, and much more. The sites that the delegates saw on this tour reportedly changed many of their preconceived notions about the conditions in the DPRK and painted a much different picture than what the Western media presented to them.
The tour was not only about entertainment; delegates also had the chance to visit farm cooperatives, the Korean DMZ, the Pyongyang Vegetable Science Institute, and also had the chance to have open conversations with soldiers, professors, students, researchers, and scientists. Delegates on the peace tour had visited the Sinchon Museum of U.S. War Crimes, a museum showcasing many of the United States’ war crimes during the Korean War, and even had the chance to speak with Jong Gun Song, a 72-year-old survivor of the Sinchon Massacre. Song was “one of hundreds of children who U.S. soldiers locked in a shed for a week, poured gas through a ventilation opening, and burned.”
Ford reported a deep political and class consciousness amongst Koreans, saying that they make a clear distinction between the acts of theU.S. government and the people from the U.S. “That must be something that is emphasized in the media and in the education system,” he said, “I can’t see any other way that that would be so universal around the country.”
When asked if this experience was only unique to Pyongyang or also shared across rural areas, Ford indicated that everywhere from Pyongyang, Sinchon, Kaesong, and Sariwan, people were very accepting of the delegates. Although, he clarified, that they often received curious looks because of the rarity of foreigners.
At one point, Ford said that he and another delegate became ill during the tour from traveling so much. Despite the fact that Ford did not want to go to a hospital out of fear of missing an interview with students, the hotel’s medical professional recommended that he go to a hospital just in case it may have been something serious—an experience that only took several hours from start to finish and was free of charge. Ford, in discussing a highly professional medical staff and modern equipment, referred to former World Health Organization Director-General Margarets Chan’s 2010 statement that “North Korea's health system would be the envy of many developing countries because of the abundance of medical staff that it has available.”
The delegation’s contacts within the DPRK had been skeptical that U.S. delegates would even show up for the tour in the wake of the controversial travel ban, and officials were apparently pleased with the delegation’s decision to move forward. Pyongyang has made expanding tourism a policy priority and even recently launched a tourist site to promote tourism within the country. Ford described the travel ban as a “crime” and said that he believed that the U.S. government has banned tourists from experiencing the DPRK because “when you land in the DPRK, the media and the government’s narrative quickly crumbles.”
The travel ban, which is set to last a year, will make it difficult or impossible for people from the U.S. to visit the DPRK. Ford said that “we are definitely going to be taking more people” once the ban is lifted, and that “there is a desire to challenge [the travel ban] legally.”