“Intellectual Tours” To North Korea: Thinking Beyond The Stereotype

North Korea, the most isolated country in the world, remains a mystery to many people. Some relate it to communism, or totalitarianism; while some only imagine impoverished people and primitive living conditions. But 26-year-old Rubio Chan thinks there are many facets to this country that people don’t know about. Having set foot in the country fourteen times, the young entrepreneur organizes alternative “intellectual tours” for university students, hoping to bring new insights on how people should treat stereotypes.

When was the first time you went to North Korea? And what did you think about the country at that time?

It was in 2012. I participated in a tour organized by a Canadian NGO, and it was a tour with a combination of academic and humanitarian purposes. Of course there was already a certain kind of image that I expected to see before I went to the country. But still I was impressed by the omnipresent power of the state that you could see everywhere, in every part in the country. It was really impressive.

However, I also had the chance to visit local schools and farmers during the one-week visit. And that made me realize that there are a lot of different facets to this country that you cannot see in the media and that I hadn’t expected.

When and why did you start organizing tours to North Korea?

That first trip to North Korea was the moment when I had this thought of organizing tours that can provide chances for travellers to really talk to local people from different classes of society – academics, professors, journalists, politicians, or representatives of local communities, so that they could get a different view of it.

Then in May 2014, I brought the first tour to the country. I prepared for the trip for around three months. It was just after my friend, Jamie Cheung, and I founded our company, Eastern Vision. Our organization does not only host trips to North Korea but also other Asian countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Tibet.

It was also because we noticed that university students in East Asia travel a lot, and they are very well informed about places for shopping, where the best restaurants are, or where to go out for parties. But they seem to lack knowledge of other aspects of the countries they travel to. We would like to encourage students to pay more attention to international politics, to the political, social and cultural circumstances in other countries, and most important of all, to try to think beyond the stereotypes they get from the media or other people’s opinions.

And we thought that North Korea would be the most extreme example of which stereotypes are so strong, and so many people comment and judge it without really seeing it. And it is one of the centers of attention in international politics, so a trip there could trigger a lot of discussion and reflection.

What were the obstacles you faced when organizing these tours?

Because our North Korean contacts are rather conservative about foreigner activities in the country, we faced quite a lot of restrictions especially when we wanted to organize more communications and exchange experience with the local people. We needed to make a lot of effort to gain their trust and to persuade them.

For example, in the first trip, we wanted to visit some secondary schools and talk to students and have conversations, but we were quite restricted from having this kind of direct communication. With time they gave us more chances, from no interaction at all to allowing us ten minutes of Question and Answer sessions. And gradually, as we have shown that our tours are education-oriented, we have gained more trust from them, and now our participants can even spend one whole day engaging in different activities with the local students. They can even ice-skate together!

You have been to North Korea fourteen times. Would you say the country is very different from how it is portrayed in the media?

I would not say it is different or contrary to the images portrayed by the media. But I would say I get to see a different picture of it. In the international media, we usually see the political or diplomatic aspects of North Korea. It is usually presented with hard facts, and referenced to topics such as nuclear tests, military power, military parades, etc. What I could see by travelling to the country is the daily lives of ordinary North Koreans. I could see the city landscapes, the architecture, and the human side of the country. These pictures are not necessarily contrary to what the media has portrayed, but they are just rarely presented.

So your participants include both European and Asian students. Have you observed any differences in their perception of what they experience in the tours?

It is very interesting to see that people from different backgrounds perceive and reflect on the same incidents so differently. For example, there is a place called “Children Palace” we visit in our tour, where North Korean children perform arts, music, gymnastics for visitors. So after the visit we had a discussion on what they think about the performances. Some European students said that they think it’s very sad these children were forced to be trained and to practice for performing for visitors. They said their childhood was taken away. While some Chinese students responded that actually they had been through similar training when they were young, and they said they never felt sad and even felt honored sometimes because they were chosen to perform. So there was a discussion on whether we should always consider the western perception of childhood as the “good” childhood, while the training and practice in the east is considered a “sad” childhood. We had a lot of these kinds of discussions in the tour, which is also one thing we wanted to achieve.

Have you experienced any personal growth throughout the two years of engaging in this business?

I think I have learnt a lot on how to communicate and cooperate with people from other cultures, and how to walk, figuratively, in others’ shoes. For example, working with North Korean people is a lot about trust and respect. And you can only learn the right way to maneuver through it by real practice.

And also, before I engaged in this business, I was already interested in international politics and relations. I gained my knowledge from reading books, newspapers, or watching documentaries. But the practical and personal experience I gained by working with people has given me more insights than any books I have read. I believe I am a lot more capable of surviving, and adapting to very diverse cultural backgrounds, than I was two years ago.

Photos: From the Archive of Rubio Chan

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