Reflections on North Korea, Six Months Later
November 1, 2017
A lot has changed since my trip to DPRK six months ago. Otto Warmbier was returned to the US in a coma and subsequently died from his injuries. Tensions have escalated dramatically between the US and North Korea over the missile program and nuclear tests. A travel ban for Americans is now in place.
Pyongyang, North Korea is, on the most superficial level, an interesting place because it makes for seductive travel stories. The inevitable “I’m sorry, did you say NORTH Korea?” reaction still gives me a little dopamine rush, and I confess I genuinely relish trotting out a few North Korea humblebrags guised as insightful sociopolitical commentary at dinner parties. In April 2017, I ran the Pyongyang Half Marathon in only the third year that the race has been open to foreign amateurs, and I ran with a GoPro recording the entire course along the streets of Pyongyang, which, by the way, is likely the only video of its kind in the world. Oh, and I placed 12th in the race. Sometimes my North Korea humblebrags shed their pretense of humility.
But what makes Pyongyang truly interesting to me is how it forces internal reflection about my own place in the world. It asks tough questions that keep me up at night, questions that demand careful consideration and suck the air out of otherwise lighthearted conversations. As an American and as someone who travels and writes about travel, is it ethical for me to visit oppressive totalitarian countries? From what moral high ground am I able to pass judgement on other people and places? In the era of fake news, alternative facts, and patriotic correctness, how should Americans view the North Korean propaganda machine compared to our own?
Ultimately, what makes a place interesting is less about the stories that can be told about it, and more about the questions it asks us about ourselves. How does this new way of viewing the world change what I thought I knew? What is my role in the world and what am I actually doing to make it a better place? In Pyongyang, there are far more questions than answers, and that makes it incredibly interesting.