So I have been wanting to start a blog for years. Procastination much? What better way to kick it off than with a controversial trip to North Korea. Recently, many news sites like Vanity Fair, The Washington times, NBC news, BBC, Buzzfeed and many others (in many different languages) have been criticising Louis Cole's (funforlouis) recent YouTube Vlogs, accusing him of making propaganda for North Korea. Some even accuse him of being hired by the government. In this blog, I'm going to share about what we were doing, what we experienced and why Louis as well as the rest of the team were so positive about our experiences in North Korea. In this post I'll be focusing on the first half of our trip which was in Pyongyang and in the next post I'll be sharing about our surf camp experience on the East Coast of NK.
HOW I GOT INVOLVED
Last November, I found myself at a Thanksgiving dinner where I met a super chill middle aged surfer dude named Gabe. Someone had introduced me to him as a bboy and said that he needed to take me to North Korea on his next trip. Five months later I receive a message asking me if I'm down to hit up NK as a part of a cultural exchange with a humanitarian group called STN (Surfing the Nations). It would be the groups third annual surf camp where we would teach local Koreans to hop on a board and ride some waves. Without hesitation I replied with a yes. I was incredibly excited to for the opportunity to meet my Korean brothers and sisters in the North. Many of my friends and family didn't share the same sentiments, especially because of the recent growing tension between NK, SK, and the U.S. leading up to our departure. I raised some funds for the trip, quit my job, and off we went.
PREPARING FOR NK
We first arrive to Beijing where we would spend the next couple of days bonding with each other and going through our itinerary and protocol for our North Korean trip. Our group was stacked with really amazing people who also happen to be very talented. Interestingly, it turns out that one of the guys has seen me perform in New Zealand in 2004, another guy is a cousin of a friend of mine who I met in Canada in 2003, one dude produces music and performs around the world named Lancifer, and this other dude is a pretty famous YouTuber named Louis Cole. During our first meeting we introduced ourselves and took turns sharing our expectations for the trip. A common expectation seemed to be to connect with the locals in a real and meaningful way and to simply love them the best we could. It may seem naive, but we believed that love could make a difference. Gabe had shared some really cool stories from past trips and there was a sense that what we were doing was very relevant. We were all there to contribute however small or big and the last thing we wanted was to hurt the relationships and momentum that had been building through past trips. This would mean several things like not breaking the rules set by the guides (although i'm sure we've broken a few..oops) and being careful about the language we use while we are there and even after we return home. None of us are naive to the things that are going on in NK or any other country but negativity and criticism only produces more negativity and criticism. It's my opinion that displaying love and kindness as an International (mostly American ) group to the North Korean people is a much more effective way to produce positive change.
CLOSE CALL IN THE PYONGYANG AIRPORT
After our preparations were done, we flew from Beijing to Pyongyang. It was the first time I felt nervous about our trip. What if I accidentally brought media that I'm not allowed to bring? What if they don't like me because I'm a Korean American who's spent a lot of time in South Korea? These and similar thoughts bombarded my mind but I convinced myself that everything was going to be okay.. until they pulled me aside to search through my iphone and external hard drive. I couldn't have possibly brought any South Korean media could I? Oh.. Snap.. I did! While in Beijing I had finished editing a dance video featuring mostly Korean dancers to a song by a rap artist named Dok2 and forgot to wipe it off my hard drive.
After going through my phone, the officer walks out of sight with my hard drive to connect it to a computer to have a look at what's inside. After one of the longest 15 minutes of my life, he comes back, hands me my hard drive and let's me go. Either they are not as strict with media as I have heard or they didn't have a Mac computer which my hard drive was formatted for. Either way I was incredibly thankful.
FIRST EVENING IN PYONGYANG
As we entered into the arrivals area, we were greeted by our guides. We had 3 guides. Two men and a lady named "Miss Kim." Once we got on the bus we were given a couple rules. 1. We were not allowed to go anywhere without the guides. 2. We were not allowed to photograph any video military officers, construction sites, or locals who seem like they don't want their photo taken. From the airport, they took us to a restaurant in Pyongyang for dinner. I have dined at North Korean restaurants before during my trips to Cambodia and Laos and similarly, the staff here worked both as servers and musical entertainers. They sat us down, served us a delicious meal and proceeded to entertain us with musical performances.
Once the staff had finished their performances, we decided to share some of our own. Stevie grabbed his guitar, plugged in and did his thing. I was next to perform except that I didn't have any music to dance to. So we asked one of the Korean ladies to play her gayageum (traditional Korean instrument similar to the Chinese Zephyr) accompanied with a keyboardist while Louis and Lane beatboxed so that I would have music to dance to. It was perhaps one of the strangest dance experiences of my life. I later learned that the ladies were playing a praise song to Kim Il Sung while I was dancing. It was awesome to learn that it was the first time the restaurant staff and our guides have ever seen breakdancing and how much they enjoyed it.
After dinner, we were taken to our hotel. On the outside, it had this cool kind of gothamy vibe to it. We met inside, went over the itinerary for the next day and explored the hotel. After some exploration and a massage I went to bed excited for what the rest of the trip would bring.
SHAKING THINGS UP IN A NORTH KOREAN CHURCH
The next day we were taken to some of the monuments around Pyongyang and then to a church. It was a surreal experience. To be honest, I didn't know what to think during the service but I do know that I met some genuine Christians there. Near the end of the service, our team was invited to go up and sing a couple songs. We have never practiced singing together before so this was all on the fly. Stevie led us on the guitar and we sang away from the heart. It was a crazy experience. The atmosphere shifted and everyone could feel it. Smiles filled the room and tears began to fall amongst the congregation. It was one of the most powerful moments of the trip. After service, we got to mingle with some of the church members and take some photos.
CONNECTING WITH THE LOCALS AT A WATERPARK
The next day, after visiting some more monuments and landmarks, we we were taken to a waterpark to teach the locals how to surf. They cleared the pool, Riley gave a surf demo, and the locals charged the surfboards. Male and female, young and old lined up to give it a try and some of them rode waves on their very first try.
Surfing, music, and dancing have a way of opening people up which is why we use it as a vehicle to connect with people. This was the first time on our trip that we were able to really connect with the locals. It was cool to see the wonder in their eyes as many of them have never interacted with a foreigner before. Lot's of smiles, laughs, and high 5's were had that day and many of the locals walked away with a good impression about people from the outside world and our feelings were mutual.
CONGA TRAIN IN THE GRAND PEOPLES STUDY HOUSE
One of the most interesting experiences was visiting the "Grand People's Study House." It's a huge library containing over 30 million books including books like Harry Potter. One of the first stops was to a English class in session. Something I found interesting throughout my trip was that generally speaking North Koreans seemed to speak better English than South Koreans even though the latter spends more money per capita on English lessons than any other country in the world. In the South, Koreans speak with more of an American accent whereas in the North they seemed to have more of a U.K. influenced accent.
Soon we were taken to the music room containing boom boxes and loads of CD's and cassettes. To my surprise they had music by many western pop stars. We threw in a Madonna CD, made a conga train and danced around the room. Miss Kim even joined us with a big smile on her face. We then made a dance circle and took turns dancing in it.
During the rest of the Pyongyang portion of our trip, we continued to visit many other places like the Tower of Juche Idea, War Museum, local supermarket, a school and many other places filled with interesting experiences. Conspiracy theorists will say that everything is staged in North Korea as a sort of Truman Show experience. Many of the interactions and conversations we've had with the locals tell me that that's simply not true. I wonder if these people have ever thought about what it would actually take to pull that off. Yes, there is a certain level of control in where we can go and what we can see, but within that realm there are plenty of opportunities to learn about the North Korean culture and get an idea of what's happening around the country.
Are there terrible things happening in North Korea? Are there mass shootings in America and police officers killing innocent people for no reason? Yes but does that mean that if someone returns from a visit from the U.S. they need to broadcast these issues even though they didn't experience any of it during their visit? Especially if they are a famous YouTuber? Of course not. You would just share about what you're experienced during your trip. You would talk about the cool experiences you had, the food you ate, and wonderful people you've met along the way. Many of the videos you watch about people going into NK and criticising the country is because they had an agenda to do so. Louis and the rest of our team did not have this kind of agenda. That is not to say you shouldn't bring attention to important world issues. But there are many documentaries out there and the world knows what's going on. Our agenda was to love, to connect with the locals, and to spread joy through surf, music and dance to those who may not have these types of experiences otherwise. We believe that however big or small, it does make a difference.
If you watch Louis vlogs you know that he is a very upbeat person who chooses to talk about the positive things in life rather than criticise and complain. This is a wonderful trait and a big reason why his subscribers have subscribed to his channel. Some people will say that his vlogs will increase tourism into NK and that it will benefit the regime. I say that cigarettes and alcohol are killing millions of people each year. When was the last time Vanity Fair wrote an article about that? Are you going to stop buying alcohol because it is supporting the alcohol industry? Rather than condemning kind hearted people like Louis, let's talk about how we can make a difference in the world. Let's support those who are actually going out and trying to make a difference, speak life, and love the people in front of us
(To see more photos from our trip check out @dannyseoul on instagram)
Surfin in the DPRK: My journey into North Korea pt.2 (Majon beach) coming soon..