In the spring of 2016 I travelled to North Korea with nine other Americans. Getting there isn't as hard as it might seem. Various tour companies based out of Beijing, China, offer foreigners a very controlled, often staged, glimpse inside the mysterious hermit kingdom.
A lot's been written about travel to DPRK lately - spurred by the tragic news of Otto Warmbier. - and lawmakers calling for a travel ban for U.S. citizens. Otto's detainment happened just a few weeks before our arrival, and it's fair to say the news put us all on edge. I wouldn't recommend visiting DPRK to everyone, I can only speak to the reasons why I wanted to.
As a photographer and storyteller, the opportunity to experience and document the DPRK was too good to pass up. We knew going in that our entire trip would be tightly controlled, that our tour was designed to show us a propagandized version of North Korea, and that we would be accompanied at all times by DPRK minders. It was assumed that we would also be closely watched by party officials. We were briefed beforehand on what to expect and what not to do. Some of those instructions were obvious, while others not. For example, we were told never to fold or sit on a newspaper with Kim Jun Un's photo on the cover. And we were told to avoid taking photos of certain things - construction, military, sacred monuments. Our hotel sat on an island in the middle of Pyongyang river. We were not permitted to leave without our escorts.
Despite the restrictions, the tour itself was fascinating. Entertaining at times, boring at times, and often very weird - but overwhelmingly positive. While much of the tour was controlled, there were many times when we able to observe and sometimes interact with the people of North Korea. Those moments are the ones I'll cherish most. The people we met were friendly and courteous and genuinely curious about us. And our time inside gave us insight into how the DPRK operates. The people of North Korea are taught from an early age that Americans are their enemy. They believe the Korean War is still very much alive. They believe the U.S. has occupied South Korea and wants very much to wrestle control of the North.
I don't support the brutal regime of DPRK. I don't agree with their politics and I wish the citizens of North Korea could experience the same freedoms much of the rest of the world does. It's those feelings that present any traveller to North Korea a conflict. Several of my companions have written about these same challenges eloquently. Personally, I don't support a travel ban. I believe the human connections made through travel can only make a positive difference - and that travel makes the world a smaller place. Below are some of the photos I took during my 7 days in North Korea.