Global Exchange is a membership-based international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic, and environmentsl justice around the world.

The following is the first in a 4-part series written by Sophia Michelen, a Global Exchange Reality Tours participant who was on the delegation to North Korea last September 2010. In this series, she reflects on her experiences in North Korea.

A first-generation American, Sophia Michelen has had a passion for travel and photography from a young age. With work from the illegal gold mining industry in Ghana to the hidden lives of North Koreans, the world is anything but foreign to her. After graduating from college, Sophia lived and worked in the Middle East with an international NGO office based in Dubai, UAE. Now, Sophia is continuing work in public health and international health policy research in Boston, MA, while preparing for her next trip and photography project.

Run-Away Crab Needed to Enter North Korea by Sophia Michelen

When most think of celebrating their 23rd birthday, eating out, nights on the town, or a weekend trip to a relaxing beach treat might come to mind. However, my 23rd was to be different – a secluded celebration with a trip to North Korea. Reflections, acquired wisdom, aspirations and new adventures often accompany another year of one’s life; so, to bring in my new year, I strictly started with the later of these – an adventure! Having just arrived back from several months living in the Middle East, I wanted to start my 23rd year with an adventure to a place I, like many Westerners, felt to be light years away (or rather, behind,); to a place I have been fascinated with for over a decade, to a place where very little is understood – North Korea.

You can imagine the shock of family and friends to my proposed trip, alone, to the DPRK. Just days after arriving back to the United States, I would be heading east again. No one really understood. With the Cheonan having been sunk just months prior to my trip, and with tense foreign relations between my country and theirs, many tried to dissuade me. They continually mentioned that North Korea would be there tomorrow and that there would thus be other opportunities to travel there. However, I knew for me the time was now – I wanted to experience a Soviet-style way of life that never existed in our Western world. So, on September 9th, 2010 I flew east – first stop, Beijing.

I am an avid traveler, fearless in all respects of flying. I am thrilled at being thousands of feet in the air – where time seems to stop, where my books, my journal and my mind are best friends; where iPhones and the internet are paused for these certain hours of your life, where everyone around is going to the same destination – despite nationality, age, language or race. These strangers become your friends and the plane, your home. However, out of the hundreds of flights I have taken, this plane ride felt different – my thoughts were uncertain as to what to expect. I was a young woman traveling alone to the other side of the world, to tour with people I had never seen in a country that few understand. Except for a few passages regarding North Korea in my Lonely Planet “Korea” book, even my usual companion of a guide book was not available this time. I was about to enter booming Beijing, only to quickly leave and enter primitive Pyongyang. I had plenty of time –literally – to ponder and assess just what I was getting myself into. However, even I was yet to fully understand my motivation for traveling to North Korea.

I landed in Beijing and within minutes of searching for the unknown face of my guide, I was approached by my smiling group leader. This was step one of starting my adventure into the DPRK.

After the rest of the group assembled at the airport, we headed downtown. Before soon, the infamous Beijing became apparent. We passed modern and ancient buildings, bikes, scooters and cars. However, I was unable to appreciate my surroundings in China – I was still waiting to move forward into North Korea. We settled into our rooms, familiarized ourselves with the schedule for night one, and soon headed to dinner nearby.

At the restaurant we sat in a private room at the end of a larger dining room where, as would be the norm for the remainder of the trip, food was brought to us without ever opening a menu– the meals would always be pre-chosen for us. The food was tasty and the camaraderie from the rest of the group was welcoming. Our Chinese guide was reviewing our Beijing itinerary with us while questions regarding North Korea were directed to our American group guide. In talking about trip formalities, the conversation was soon interrupted by a crab – which loosened the mood through a roar of laughter.

Our Chinese guide, mid-sentence, jumped after a live crab that had escaped the kitchen, tried to crawl up his leg. I just could not believe it – it literally felt like it was out of a movie. The crab kept crawling around the room until one waitress finally caught it… with chopsticks! Needless to say, I have never had an experience like this. But it was the after-dinner chit-chat that made me realize just how unique this trip would be.

No longer was I just going to enter a new country, but I would be entering North Korea with several unique individuals. Being the youngest, with over eight decades of history collected between the nine of us, I found myself surrounded with some of the most interesting people I had ever met – our guide, an Italian human rights activist from the Bay Area; a teacher from Jersey, having lived in Venezuela for years and having travelled the world to over 100 countries to date; a retired corrections officer that remembered the Midwest when horses were still tied to posts outside shops; a Chemist who migrated from the Philippines, now living in California; a pastor from Chicago, once one of President Obama’s neighbors; a 6-foot-four programmer, freelance comedian who is studying to become a priest; and a Chinese-American economist who moved to the U.S. when she was very young, now working for the World Bank. And then the real character of the group – an 82 year-old ex-Navy pilot who still flies his plane across the country and travels worldwide, whose stories mesmerized me as I listened for hours on American history– from the Great Depression, to the war, to life in South Boston before technology, and who would end up teaching me the samba and tango in the middle of a Pyongyang hotel lobby.

It was at this dinner that I realized that my trip had begun – that part of the adventure I had been searching for was transpiring through meeting these fellow Americans that, under any other circumstance, would be rare to meet. With this dinner, my trip to North Korea began.

Join the Next Delegation to North Korea!

Interested in traveling to North Korea? We have a Reality Tour delegation coming up at the end of August, and other trips planned after that. Find out the details here.

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