Two Buena Vista University professors recently visited North Korea as part of their preparation to lead a spring 2013 student travel course to that country, one of the least-known and least-accessible nations in the world.
Dr. Wind Goodfriend, associate professor of psychology and Tim McDaniel, assistant professor of mathematics and business, are both seasoned world travelers, having made a total of 28 international trips for academic purposes during their tenure at Buena Vista — most with students and some with faculty colleagues.
To see what students will get to experience in North Korea — and determine if the trip would be appropriate and safe for everyone — the professors’ “scouting” trip in April closely followed the itinerary they are planning for 2013.
Based on their travel experience in North Korea, they both believe the trip will be safe and a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for students.
“It is essentially impossible to travel to North Korea without a group, and educational groups are among the most likely to obtain access,” says Dr. David Evans, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, less than 2,500 U.S. citizens have visited North Korea, according to a report on CNN International.
“The timing of our pre-trip was perfect due to the national celebration of Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday,” says Goodfriend. “This national holiday meant that the Korean people had a four-day break from work, which allowed us to see them in the streets and shops more than we would have on any other occasion. We were also able to witness historic events, such as the massive military parade through the streets of downtown Pyongyang.”
“We will make sure that our students understand that, like everything else in North Korea, travel itineraries and experiences are tightlyand intentionally controlled by the central government,” says McDaniel. The proposed 2013 itinerary includes visits to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North and South Korea; the mausoleum with the glass-encased embalmed body of Kim Il Sung, the father of communist North Korea; history and art museums; famous monuments; a countryside farm; a university; elementary school; and various city and rural areas. The BVU group will be based at a hotel in Pyongyang.
During their April trip, the professors’ activities were restricted, as they had anticipated, but they were surprised by the opportunities they had to see the North Korean people in the streets and the welcoming attitude of their two official North Korean government-appointed guides who accompanied them everywhere.
“Our guides were intelligent, passionate about peace and eager to talk with us,” notes Goodfriend. “They expressed that even though our respective countries may have disparate politics that does not mean that individual people can’t connect and form friendships. However, we were not able to have conversations with ‘regular’ people because of being closely monitored at all times, and the language barrier on both sides.”
The professors have been developing plans for the trip ever since they first discussed the idea when traveling with a BVU faculty delegation to Singapore in 2009.
“Tim and I agree that the best types of travel opportunities are those that make you really reflect on your own perspective due to the travel location being truly different from your home,” says Goodfriend. “North Korea offers a unique opportunity to visit a culture that is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to U.S. culture, and that difference is why this experience is valuable.”
The professors are intentionally limiting the trip to eight students in order to keep it manageable and to maximize the learning opportunities. So far, approximately 35 students have asked to be interviewed and more are expected. Interested students will be interviewed and the finalists will be selected by the end of the current academic year.
“In our professional, informed and experienced opinion, North Korea is a safe place to travel,” says McDaniel. “In fact, I was less concerned about safety there than in some other places I have traveled with students, such as Greece and Egypt.” If the U.S. State Department issues an official warning about travel to North Korea, BVU policy provides that the trip will be canceled.
As part of the travel course, the students’ academic experience will include advance reading of books and articles about the history and culture of North Korea.
During the scouting trip, the professors found that they will have access to most necessities, but not some amenities. “We were allowed to take laptops and iPads into North Korea, but not cell phones or GPS devices and we did not have access to the Internet,” says McDaniel. The students will also be restricted on taking photos. Because there is no U.S. Embassy in North Korea, the professors will contact the Swedish Embassy if consular assistance is needed.
“A big part of the college experience is, or at least should be, putting yourself into positions that cause a bit of controlled discomfort,” notes McDaniel. “For many students, international travel is a way in which they can expand their experiential boundaries and push themselves to try new, and sometimes at first even a bit scary, things. In doing so, they can learn about themselves firsthand, come to appreciate different perspectives and prepare for being in similar situations later in life.”
McDaniel co-led a BVU travel course in 2004 to Cuba, a country that is also very different than the United States and which has tense relations with the U.S. government that he says were not necessarily reflected on a person-to-person level. In 2011, he was in a BVU faculty group that traveled to South Korea, which included a visit to south side of the DMZ, which he says was a very different experience than his visit in April to the north side.
The approximate cost of the North Korea trip to students, including a BVU subsidy, is $4,500 which includes visas, travel, lodging and all meals.