David Cogswell | January 28, 2016 1:00 PM ET
North Korea: Trimming the Bucket List
I think I just found a tourist destination I am afraid to visit.
I’ve often traveled to places that were being shunned by masses of would-be travelers due to panic generated by salacious news reports, panic that usually has little rational foundation. The list would be long and depressing. There are so many places that travelers shun unjustifiably for a period after some incident or other.
I’ve traveled many times specifically to support the people whose survival depends on the tourism industries in countries that have suffered paralyzing economic blows because of some mass fear. Those times are actually some of the best times to travel. Security is tighter than ever. Crowds are lighter than usual. The people are at their most welcoming.
Most of this panic is generated by media that can increase their viewership by stoking the fears of their audiences. They succeed in creating the most fear in the people who have the least experience of traveling. They have no personal experience against which to balance the frightening news reports.
Once when I told a driver who was taking me to the airport that I was going to South Africa, he said, “Is that a civilized country?”
Well yes. It is.
When I am in South Africa it feels just about as civilized as America to me, and I’ll leave it at that. And I’ve observed similar chauvinistic misconceptions about many other places.
The point is that I find most fears of travel to most countries to be overblown. And those unfounded fears are harmful to those who harbor them because they cause people to hold back from going ahead and living their lives fully because of fears that are unrealistic.
I find myself enjoying practically every place I visit, regardless of whatever fear is keeping people away at that moment.
But there are limits.
The story reported last week about Otto Frederick Warmbier, a student of the University of Virginia, who was detained by North Korean authorities for allegedly “committing a hostile act” and trying to “destroy the county’s unity” is chilling.
The reports say Warmbier was at the airport about to board his flight out of North Korea to Beijing to leave the country when he was approached by North Korean officers and taken away. No one seems to know what incident the authorities are referring to.
My attitude when I hear frightening stories that would discourage travel is to be highly skeptical. I’ve seen the mass media generate fear over nothing so many times that I withhold judgment until I’ve had time to investigate further.
But it is really just the latest of a series of such chilling incidents of Western visitors being captured, imprisoned, sentenced to life in prison doing hard labor and such as that.
Most of the time they are released or returned in some kind of diplomatic exchange.
That was the case with Jeffrey Fowle, who was detained in North Korea for leaving a Bible in his hotel room.
A missionary named Kenneth Bae was sentence to 15 years of hard labor for “anti-state acts.” Fortunately he was later released. Sandra Suh was deported for “plot-breeding and propaganda," accused of creating negative videos “out of inveterate repugnancy for the state.”
Some have not had it so good.
Hyeon Soo Lim, a Canadian pastor, had visited the country more than 100 times to support a nursing home when he was convicted of “crimes against the state” and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. Originally the prosecutors sought the death penalty for “harming the dignity of the supreme leadership, using religion to destroy the North Korean system and disseminating negative propaganda about the country.”
No thank you. I can’t see the President of the United States putting up a lot of chips to rescue me from prison in Korea. This is one kind of experiential travel I do not want to experience.
I had an accidental encounter in Africa once that showed me how easily the carpet can be pulled from under you when you find yourself in the wrong place in terms of political boundaries and national customs.
I was traveling from Rwanda to Kenya with a small group of fellow travelers. I did not realize that it was not a nonstop flight — it had a stop in Benin on the way. When I had boarded in Rwanda, I fell asleep right away and had a good doze. I woke a short time later with a start when I realized the plane landed and people were standing up, pulling their bags down from the overhead compartments and getting off the plane.
Still half asleep, I grabbed my shoulder bag and started heading out of the plane. I walked to the door and emerged onto a sunny tarmac with a stairway rolled up to the plane. I walked down the steps and toward a small airport terminal. As I was walking away from the plane I looked back. It looked so beautiful I decided to snap a picture to share with the folks back home.
That turned out to be a serious mistake.
In the age of information when nearly everyone carries a camera in his or her cell phone, it is sometimes jarring to realize that taking photos is a threatening act to some people in some situations. In airports, for example, taking photos is often seen as suspicious behavior. You may well be capturing images that could be used to plan some sort of attack.
After taking a picture of the airplane on the tarmac, I turned back around and continued heading toward the terminal, still unaware that I was not even in the country I thought I was in. Almost immediately I encountered a soldier, a very serious looking young man carrying a rifle and wearing a military uniform with a sharply slanted beret.
He wanted to see my pictures. I showed them to him and he insisted I erase them, which I did. But that was not the end of it. He escorted me into the building and told me to wait. I had to be questioned. Meanwhile I had by then gathered that I was the only one of my party who had left the plane, that no one was with me and I was not in the country I meant to be. And my plane would be departing soon, without me aboard. And I would be there. In Benin.
I did not know what the political situation was at that time in Benin. I had not read the U.S. State Department profile of Benin before I left. I had not planned to be in Benin. I didn’t know what I was up against.
A very long 20 minutes later, I was allowed to return to the plane, which mercifully had not yet left without me. Later I found out that my tour director had discovered I had left and had insisted that the plane not leave until I was on board. It would not have worked forever, but it worked long enough for me to get back on the plane.
Sometimes when I travel to a destination that is pretty much as safe as anywhere, I am surprised when people say, “Aren’t you afraid?”
And in some situations I will explain that no, I am not crazy. I won’t walk right into the jaws of death. I don’t want to travel into an active war zone. Most of the time, however, these places are no more dangerous than the world in general and I’m not going to wait around my whole life for the world to be completely peaceful before I undertake any travel adventures.
But that does not apply to North Korea. Not just now. This is not an experience I want to have.
This is one place I do not want to take the risk.
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