Ask Brendan Fahey ’13 what he remembers most from visiting North Korea as part of a for-credit study abroad program – the first of its kind in the U.S. – and it probably won’t be the opulent tomb of the country’s eternal leader, Kim Il Sung, the incredible feats of gymnasts at a famous festival, or even playing a pick-up game of soccer with middle school students who proved themselves worthy adversaries.
While certainly highlights, those experiences don’t compare with what happened on a beach outside the capital city of Pyongyang in one of the most secretive countries on the planet.
“I was challenged to a swimming race by a North Korean police officer,” says Fahey, an international economics and commerce major and midfielder on Lafayette’s lacrosse team. “I thought it was only going to be a few feet, but it was halfway across the bay.”
After the race, the man invited Fahey to join his family on the beach for a picnic of clams and carefully poured shots of distilled alcohol made from grain, a North Korean specialty.
It was just one of many encounters enjoyed by Lafayette students who traveled to China, North Korea, and South Korea this summer for two-and-a-half weeks as part of the course “Interconnections in Northeast Asia.” Organized with help from the Pyongyang Project, a nonprofit in Beijing, the program focused on the history, culture, and politics of East Asia since 1945, and explored the similarities and differences among the three countries.
“We wanted to study North Korea not in isolation, but as a complicated and diverse region,” says Seo-Hyun Park, assistant professor of government and law.
Paul Barclay, associate professor of history, who accompanied Park on the trip along with Michael Jordan, director of international and off-campus education, says the group was able to compare representation of the Korean War by visiting museums devoted to the conflict in each country. North Korea’s version is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, China’s is the Museum of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid North Korea, and South Korea’s museum commemorates the Korean War as but one of many invasions on the peninsula.
However, it’s one thing to read a plaque or gape at a display in a history museum, but another to meet the people who have been affected by the conflict, says Connor McNamara ’13, a mechanical engineering major and member of the fencing team.
“Many of our experiences were off the normal tourist routes, so we were able to experience the countries from the perspective of the citizens,” he says.
In Beijing, students met with peers at Peking University to discuss Korea, foreign policy matters, and U.S.-China relations. And if their conversations indicate the future of diplomacy between the two nations, we can all exhale a hopeful sigh. Although social media is blocked in some parts of China, university students occasionally have access and the two groups are now Facebook friends. Students also hiked the Great Wall, glimpsed the Forbidden City, and took a boat ride in the Yalu River, which borders North Korea.
Originally, class participants thought they’d have to fly to Pyongyang, but at the last hour learned they’d be taking a train into North Korea, following an experience on an overnight one from Beijing to Shenyang, another Chinese city closer to the border of North Korea.
Once there, security was a lot more lax than imagined. Christina Cucinotta ’14 says a security guard seemed more interested in looking at her postcards of the Great Wall than screening her person and bags with a metal wand.
Although the group’s passage through North Korea was carefully planned, citizens were extremely friendly, with one man wanting to practice his English with students on the train.
“I was amazed at how easy it was to connect with people, even in situations where you do not speak the same language,” says McNamara.
The biggest tourist attraction in the country by far is the Kim Il Sung Tomb Palace. Security there was much more rigorous; cameras had to be turned over and visitors subjected to the equivalent of a full body scan.
“We had to step on these mats that were like a carwash for our feet,” says Cucinotta.
The story of Kim Il Sung’s life and death was told in epic and somber fashion and the place was packed with tourists and citizens.
As part of the tour, students visited an orphanage where smiling children performed traditional dances, attended the Arirang Mass Games, a famed display of synchronized gymnastics, and toured the capital city.
“I was amazed by what Pyongyang looked like,” McNamara says. “A fair amount of the buildings had a retro futuristic design to them. They reminded me of almost a Jetsons look. The ’50s and ’60s design elements meshed in a strangely wonderful fashion with the traditional Korean architecture.”
Plastic flowers on balconies were also popular, says Margaret Abelkop ’14, a chemical engineering major and McKelvy House scholar.
But it was the outing to the beach that gave students a real-life brush with average North Koreans.
“At first the people were a little nervous, but some of us went in the water and started a splash fight and then people just kind of warmed up,” Abelkop says in the Sept. 4 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “At one point we also got a volleyball game going, although we had to mix up the teams because no one thought it would be a good idea to have the U.S. versus North Korea.”
People from across the beach gathered to watch and applauded with enthusiasm for both teams.
“These people were trained not to like us, but they were cheering us on,” says Melissa Drennan ’12, a psychology major and member of Lafayette’s dance team.
Taught by faculty from different fields, students had an opportunity to study a region through the lens of multiple perspectives and methodologies, says Park.
“Many of them, I’m sure, ended up with more questions than answers, and I hope that this course was a stepping stone for them to pursue their interest in Asian studies specifically — and also to think further about globalization, diversity, and interconnections more broadly,” she says.
It also gave them a new outlook on North Korea.
“It made me think it is way more complicated than I had imagined,” says Abelkop in the Chronicle interview. “Before we left, we read a book by Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which followed people living in a third- or fourth-tier city during the famine of the 1990s. So that gave us a sense of some of the cruelest realities of the country.
“I think somewhere between what we saw and her book lies the truth about North Korea, which I’m never going to have access to. But what we saw was real as well. There’s a lot of nuance to life there.”