This winter break, Adrian and Arthur Yao ’20, along with their parents and sister Rachel Yao ’16, visited North Korea for four days.
Arthur said, “We were talking with our parents about where to go this winter break, and I said, ‘North Korea.’ I meant it first as a joke, and then I realized how exotic and interesting it would be, as well as how much we would learn from it.”
Most South Koreans and Americans, and journalists from all countries are denied visits or are only approved under special circumstances. However, having Hong Kong passports, the Yaos did not face many difficulties acquiring a visa.
All tourists are required to be accompanied by North Korean guides. The family traveled with two tour guides who were fluent in English from studying the language at a North Korean university. They were “very interested” in the family’s lives, as they were foreigners, according to Adrian.
Adrian and Arthur mostly explored Pyongyang, the capital and largest city in North Korea. Most destinations were tourist attractions and historical sites, such as Kim II-Sung Square, the Victorious War Museum, the Mausoleum for deceased leaders, Grand Monument on Mansu Hill, and Kim II-Sung’s birthplace. At each place, the twins learned about the history of North Korea, relations with the U.S. and South Korea, as well as the portrayal of foreign countries through the media and propaganda.
The Yaos visited a middle and high school, an art studio, and used public transportation systems. Further, they went to many recreational facilities, such as an ice skating rink, soccer stadium, bowling alley, and a zoo, where the family saw many locals.
Arthur shared, “I think the two main things that Western media report about North Korea are nuclear weapons and how poor they are, but looking around, [I realized that] awareness of nuclear weapons are not part of the people’s daily lives. They’re normal people.”
The effect of North Korea’s famed totalitarian government on its citizens was also clear; officials were very strict with enforcing rules of respect for images or symbols of their leaders or flags. “The citizens are proud of their country. They usually wear pins of one of the two deceased leaders,” Arthur observed.
Adrian also described that North Korean society is “quiet and conservative compared to America.” Commenting on a cultural nuance he observed, Adrian further remarked, “My tour guide [said with a smile] that it is a requirement for men to be the breadwinners and women should tend the house.”
The twins’ favorite site visited included the Demilitarized Zone, which serves as a border between North and South Korea. Standing on a tower, they were able to see both countries at the same time.
Adrian and Arthur agreed that the trip was “definitely an enriching experience.” Adrian added that the trip “gives you more credibility [when talking about North Korea] because you’re speaking from a firsthand perspective.”
The twins had contrasting opinions on whether or not they want to return. While Arthur expressed he would like the trip to remain a one-time experience, Adrian stated, “This trip really reopened my mind and showed me that there is a lot to learn. [I would like to come] back, but not as a tourist, so I can truly dive into the quirks of this nation.”