With Backpack

One World in One Lifetime

The Workers’ Paradise

Posted by Heliocentrism on June 17, 2014

October 2012 – March 2013

One of the many potlucks at our apartment

How did you get such a crazy notion?

It started at a potluck in October 2012. Once a month, Mark and I would host a potluck. We had to limit the amount of people attending the potluck to 8 because that was how many chairs we owned. Because of the limit we tried to get a different 8 people to attend so that at the end of our stay we would have had dinner with everyone.

I don’t remember who all was at this particular potluck or what exactly we were talking about. But, at some point during the conversation my friend, Vera mentioned that she was thinking about going to North Korea. “What!? Really!?” I asked as I zoomed in to sit near her. Then I quizzed her for the next half hour about her plans.

We have a mutual friend who had been to North Korea with a tour company. He enjoyed it so much that he got a job with that same company and would start doing tours to North Korea in the fall of 2013. This company Young Pioneers, was having a May Day anniversary special. This tour would be offered at the same price their first ever tour to North Korea was; about 800 euros.

the DMZ from the South Korean side

I’ve wanted to visit North Korea ever since I looked at it from the DMZ in South Korea. I’ve read every book about North Korea I could get my hands on and hoped to one day visit. But all the tours cost at least 2,000USD and I had students loans to pay off.

But what really started it, I think, was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. That book is actually about China under Mao. But, that China does not exist anymore. The closest thing to the China in Wild Swans is North Korea. That China is described in the book as having people who needed to “believe” propaganda in order to stay safe. That China had a crazy dictator whose agenda had nothing to do with what was best for the country or its people. Today China is far from a beacon of freedom or justice, but there is no longer a looming personality cult like there was in the Mao years.

I have read Wild Swans and several other books about the Cultural Revolution and Mao-styled communism. But I still cannot understand how something like that happens. How do people get so conditioned to fear that they do nothing. After countless denunciations and struggle sessions, why don’t more people fight back?

But I know that it’s hard for me to fully understand. I did not grow up in a culture of suppression. Even when I said the most unpopular thing I could think of as a child, “I think that god is not real,” I never worried that anyone would stone me or put me in prison. No one would torture my family or give them undesirable jobs because of my “odd” beliefs.

A birthday present from a friend in 2009

Although I could never truly know what it’s like to live in such a society and that I would probably get a better view through the eyes of other people who had lived in such a society by way of reading books, I still wanted to see China and North Korea for myself. …and I had already seen China.

I would go with Vera. I still had a few more student loan payments to make, but by February 2013 the debt would be paid off. I told Vera that I was serious about going with her and she seemed excited. Another person at the potluck showed some interest in joining us. “Perfect,” I thought, “if I get thrown into prison I’ll have some company.”

(That was just a joke. If at anytime I thought that there was a chance that I would be held in North Korea I would have never gone.)

The picture page of my 2nd passport (age 5)


I sent the tour company an email saying that I wanted to join a tour of North Korea. They sent me back lots of documents to fill out and advice on getting a Chinese visa. I was to start the process as soon as possible.

You know, the visa for China caused me more worry and hassle to get than the one for North Korea! There is no Chinese embassy on the island of Kyushu and for getting a visa, the consulate in Fukuoka won’t do. I was supposed to go to Osaka in person to pay, fill out a form, and drop off my passport then return a few days later to get my passport back. Luckily I found a company that would take my passport to the Chinese embassy for me.

But, I came up against two problems. One, a passport cannot expire within 6 months of an expected date of entry to China. I wanted to go to China in April 2013 and the passport expired in July 2013. I had to get a new passport first. I would have had to do this anyway because even with 2 extensions attached to my passport, it only had about 3 blank pages left. Most embassies prefer you to have at least 4 consecutive blank pages in your passport when applying for a visa.

The other problem was that I lived in Japan. North Korea, like an 8-year-old girl, is besties with some country one week then not on speaking terms the next. In October of 2012 North Korea and Japan were not on speaking terms and no Japanese citizens were being given visas to North Korea. The tour company said that it was okay since I was American not Japanese. “Just don’t mention that you live in Japan.”

This turned out to not matter at all. Before I could do anything with getting a visa to North Korea, I needed a visa to China. And before I could get a visa to China I needed a new passport. By the time I got the new passport and then the Chinese visa, North Korea and Japan were speaking to each other again. I filled out my North Korean paperwork writing that Japan was my country of residency.

My co-workers

Getting my bosses’ permission to go

I work in Japan (or at least I did during this trip). I cannot just take time off and head out into the sunset. Officially, I need to ask permission every time I leave the prefecture of Oita and I need to get the permission at least 1 month in advance. Yes, when I take a 2 hour drive to Kumamoto prefecture on a nice Saturday afternoon I really should have filled out a travel form and I should have turned it in 4 weeks prior.

Of course I don’t do that. My poor hand would be arthritic by now. I only fill out the form when it’s obvious that I would be travelling, like during Golden Week or the winter holidays. And then I get hassled by the vice-principal.

Once my paperwork was held up by the VP because she was disturbed by my accommodations during a Golden Week trip. Mark and I were going to travel around Kyushu and stay at various campsites. “She’s worried,” my supervisor at the time told me. “She wants you to promise that you’ll let your husband do all the driving and that you will call me every morning and evening so we know you’re okay.”

I tried to protest. My husband does not even have a driver’s license that is valid in Japan. And, my SoftBank phone doesn’t work in Kumamoto prefecture. “I know. I know,” my supervisor said, “She thinks that men are better drivers. So, you will agree to what she wants so you can go. But do not call me, unless you are in trouble and do not let your husband drive! Only say you will agree to her demands. Then do what you like.”

One of my schools in Japan

So I contemplated whether I should tell them that I was going to the DPRK or lie. I’m not a very good liar. No, actually I’m good at lying. What I’m bad at, is remembering that I lied, what lie I’ve told, and how much I’ve lied. If I’ve lied about being sick to stay home from work or school, weeks later I will have forgotten whether I said I had TB or the flu.

I decided not to lie. When I come back I wanted to be able to talk about my trip without having to “keep my story straight”. I asked Vera if she was going to tell her co-workers. She said that she had decided not to go.

She was enrolling in grad-school the following year and decided to save her money. The other person had dropped out of the trip weeks ago, but I expected that. I was a little disappointed that Vera wasn’t coming, but I was still determined to go.

I got the travel form and filled it out sometime in January. I wrote the tour company’s president’s name and phone number on the form along with the name of the US ambassador to China. I also added the name of the Swedish ambassador to North Korea and his phone number and email address. (The US has no diplomatic relations with North Korea so, the embassy of Sweden in Pyongyang is where I would run to if something went wrong.) I thought of anything my bosses could want to know and put that information down. I literally had an hour-by-hour itinerary of what I was going to do and where I would do it from April  27th to May 5th.

the teachers’ office

“The principal wants to talk to you,” my supervisor told me. “You want to go to North Korea!?” We went downstairs to the principal’s office. He had a big office that looked more like a living room or a dining hall. There was a long mahogany table about a knee’s height off the ground. It was surrounded by low leather chairs that suck you in when you sit down.

I sat down. The chairs in this office never made me feel comfortable. They were too low. My knees would come up to my chest and whenever I moved the leather would squeak loudly. The table was no help either. It was also too low and more than an arm’s length away.

The meeting started with the vice principal giving an open statement. Then the principal talked, then the assistant vice principal. Then my supervisor said something. Then everyone looked at me. I had no idea what was going on since everyone spoke in Japanese.

“They are worried about your plans,” my supervisor said. “What exactly worries them?” I asked. “Why do you want to go to North Korea?” They looked at me hoping that I would say something like, “North Korea!? Did I write ‘North Korea’? I meant ‘South Korea.”

But I did not say that. I started to think that maybe lying would have been a better idea. “Why do I want to go to North Korea?” The answer is so complex that it was hard to explain it right there, to people who don’t speak English. I had to trust my supervisor to understand what I needed to say and explain it in Japanese. I had to keep it simple.

“I want to go, because I’m curious. What is North Korea like? What do North Koreans look like? What do they eat? Do they have chocolate over there? Do they have Chinese or Russian friends? What kind of music do they listen to?”

The meeting continued with everyone else speaking in Japanese. I sat still, trying not to squeak and felt invisible. After 10 minutes the meeting was over. I turned to my supervisor and ask her what their decision was. “They have decided to have another meeting.”

They had several more meetings, but I was only invited to the last one. This time I came prepared. I printed out a few articles written by people who had visited North Korea, safely. I had the emergency phone numbers of the US embassy in China and the Swedish embassy in North Korea. (I hoped that no one would ask me how I planned to make a phone call from a North Korean prison if I ended up in one.) And I planned to argue that since I had already paid for the tour I wasn’t going to not go.

But none of this came up. It was another meeting where everyone talked in Japanese and I just sat there. They did ask me a few questions like, “What will you eat?” and “What if you get sick?” “The tour takes care of that. All meals are included in the tour. If I get sick, the tour guide and a North Korean handler would take me to see a doctor. If it’s anything really bad, they would send me back to China.”

At the end of this meeting they politely asked me to not go. They did not tell me that I could not go, so I asked why they had not. “We cannot tell you not to go. We can only ask you to not go. If you say, ‘no’ you will have another meeting with the prefectural Board of Education.” So, I said, “No.”

The next week my supervisor and I went to the BOE. It was about a month and a half since I first turned in my travel form. I felt that it was a good thing I turned it in so early because this might drag out for a long time. At the BOE I met with the head of the board, Mr. Sato, and Christina, a JET representative who was also a friend of mine. This meeting was held in English and Mr. Sato asked many questions about my safety. I think I satisfactorily answered all his questions.

I was also glad Christina was there. She spoke on my behalf and told Mr. Sato about my responsible nature. “If Josie signed up for a tour of North Korea, I’m sure she has done lots of research on both the tour company and North Korea.” At the end of the meeting Mr. Sato told me that neither he nor my school could tell me not to go. If I choose to go, I could.

So I chose to go.

I’m a great speaker.

There was, of course, one more meeting. The next day the principal asked to speak with me. This time it was just him, me, and my supervisor as translator.

He told me that the Japanese think of Japan as the greatest country. So, they are not curious about other countries. I told him that the US was similar to Japan in that respect. He went on to say that some Japanese look down on people of other countries. He knows this because his grandmother was from China and she had a hard time when she came to Japan.

But, because his grandmother was from China, he had always wondered about China. What is China like? What do they eat? Do they have Chocolate? He wondered what he would have been like if he grew up in China. So he understood my curiosity.

Then he told me to enjoy my trip, learn as much as I can, and come back to Japan safely.



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