An American in Pyongyang: A Tourist on His Travels to the Hermit Kingdom

Professor Tom Dolan has traveled North Korea coast to coast

A statue of Kim Il-sung and farmers at a collective farm south of Pyongyang. Tom Dolan

North Korea recently became the only country Americans are banned from visiting, thanks in part due to the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who had been arrested there and returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state. Knowing what the country is like is on the inside is rare; few Americans visited the country even before the ban, which Congress is also set to take up. An exception is Columbus State University Political Science Professor Tom Dolan, who talked to the Observer about his experiences in the Hermit Kingdom.

“Let me give you a little background on my interest in North Korea,” Dolan wrote. “While I was working on my Master’s degree in National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in the mid-1980s, I learned that I would be going to South Korea as an intelligence analyst. I took what time I had left in Monterey to take area study courses and to begin learning Korean. I served with the ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command from 1985 to 1987; my boss at that time was Air Force Brigadier General James R. Clapper, who was the national intelligence director under President Obama.”

Dolan continued, “After coming back to the states for a few years, I returned to Asia (Japan) in 1992 and visited South Korea twice while I was there. I then retired from the military, finished my doctorate, and began teaching. My mentor at Georgia State was Dr. Nack Young An, who had come to the U.S. as a teenager after the Korean War. He was the person who first got me interested in the issue of Korean reunification. One problem I face is that if I say anything that is not unfavorable about North Korea, many people think that I’ve been brainwashed or that I’m a collaborator. I’m not.”

The Observer sat down to talk with Dolan about his multiple trips to North Korea, his impression of the people, and if he only saw what the government wanted him to see.

The Observer:  When did you first go to North Korea?

Tom Dolan: Other than going to the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom during my assignment in the 1980s, my first visit into North Korea was in 2012. As the result of my membership in the Association for Asian Studies, I was invited to apply for an academic visa to visit there. As it turned out, I had already scheduled a visit to South Korea to conduct research that summer, so after two weeks in the South, I returned to the U.S. (since people cannot cross from one Korea to the other), then went through China and on to Pyongyang.

More recently, I went back in May and returned in early June.

Where do you go within North Korea?

Flights from Beijing land at the Pyongyang Susan International Airport. In 2012, the airport was under renovation, with the 1950s-style terminal building being demolished. The airport is about 20 miles from the city. International travelers begin their stay at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang, where they can be monitored easily since the hotel is on an island in the river that flows through the city.

On my first trip, I also got to visit the west coast city of Nampo, where President Jimmy Carter visited, and spent two days in an area north of Pyongyang in Myohyangsan. This is the location of the “International Friendship Exhibition,” a six-story museum of all the gifts that had been given to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. One of the gifts here was a basketball signed by Michael Jordan, which was given to Kin Jong-il by President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, when she visited Pyongyang in 2000.

I also was able to visit the border city of Kaesong and Panmunjon. It was really interesting seeing the area from the north, realizing that I was looking at a place I had stood just a month before but had to travel 25,000 miles to get to.

In Pyongyang, as with any nation’s capital, there were many places to see, including museums, a bookstore, the People’s Grand Reading House (a huge library and learning center) the Martyrs’ Cemetery, and of course the giant statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. We also visited a collective farm on the way down to Kaesong. For entertainment, I went to the Pyongyang Circus.

On my more recent trip, I was able to go to the east coast city of Wonsan, a bouncy four-hour drive across the country. So I’ve been coast-to-coast across North Korea.

What do you research when you are in North Korea?

My main area of interest for the last several years has been people’s attitudes toward national unification. I had seen references in South Korean government studies that popular support for unification was dropping, but no explanations were given. I decided in 2012 that I would repeat the South Korean studies with additional questions, but this meant going to South Korea, conducting the research in Korean. Obviously I wouldn’t have the freedom to do this kind of work in North Korea, but by engaging in conversations with the people I was able to see, including some North Korean Army officers, I was able to get a sampling of their opinions. Not surprisingly, all the North Koreans gave the same responses: “Reunification will happen within 10 years, unless the Americans prevent it.”

This year, the answer to the reunification question was consistently, “Soon.”

Has the treatment of Americans changed since you first started going?

I did not see any difference in my treatment between the 2012 and 2017 visits. I did notice this year that a lot more foreign tourists, especially Europeans, were in North Korea. In 2012, I only met one Frenchman, two Germans, a few Japanese, six Swiss and four Americans. This year I met Australians, Swiss, a Slovene, a Brazilian, Lithuanians, a Norwegian, some Brits, lots of Chinese, as well as a couple of Americans.

When you go there, how obvious is government surveillance and security shadowing your movements?

Because of my background, I am a very observant tourist, but other than the obvious presence of our tour guides (our “minders”) and the attention that hotel staff paid to us, I wasn’t really concerned about surveillance. Of course, since we couldn’t just wander freely, some people might feel put out, but this trip I actually felt a lot freer than I was on the first trip.

Have you ever felt concerned about your safety in North Korea?

I never had any concerns at all. The people who have been detained have been suspected of anti-government activities. In some cases this is because of misunderstanding, like the American who accidentally left his Bible in a hotel lobby, or the Korean War vet who asked his minder if he might be able to meet with some of the men he might have fought against in the war. I found that the North Koreans I met were very curious about me, because most of them had never met an American before. Children, especially, were very curious because I did not look the part of the round-eyed devils that Americans are depicted as.

On a personal note, I found that regular North Koreans are a very moral people and never feared pickpockets or personal violence.

Is this current crisis one of many since 1953 or is one different?

In my research, I’ve found that American analysts have been predicting that the Kim regime will fall within 10 years since the 1970s.  After Kim Il-sung died in 1994, people predicted that his son Kim Jong-il did not have the charisma of his father or the support of the military; he ruled until 2011. When his son, the current leader Kim Jong-un took over, people made the same predictions. Kim Jong-un has established himself completely, and the North Korean people appear to love him because he makes them feel safe.

Most of the bellicose rhetoric we hear out of North Korea isn’t really directed at us; it’s meant for the North Korean people. Kim can tell them that he has hydrogen bombs, and they believe him. He can tell them that North Korea can destroy the U.S., and they believe him.  Each spring, when the U.S. and South Korean military forces have a scheduled combined exercise, Kim can declare that it is a practice for invasion and threaten us with annihilation. Once the exercise is over, and the Americans pack up and leave, Kim can thump his chest and declare “Mission Accomplished” to the cheers of his people.

North Korea has been separated from the rest of the world since the 1950s. Did you get the sense that you were traveling back in time?

It isn’t just North Korea that has been separated; the U.S. does a lot of that by choice. We refused to recognize the Castro regime in Cuba until recently, and we use diplomatic non-recognition often. Remember, we didn’t even recognize the USSR for 16 years after the 1917 revolution. Germany, Sweden, the U.K., and 21 other countries have embassies or diplomatic facilities in Pyongyang.

As for feeling like I was traveling back in time, five years ago the surface public transit system did remind me of what I saw in my home town (Des Moines, Iowa) in the 1950s, with electric buses with overhead wires. This time the buses were a lot newer. The design of new conference centers and downtown streets is very modern, like what I would expect to see in Taipei. Five years ago I was surprised to see kids on rollerblades; today there’s a rollerblade park in Pyongyang, along with waterparks and a dolphinarium.

The North Korean dialect uses many outdated terms, but my 25-year-old dictionary worked perfectly well.

What else do North Koreans like (other than basketball and Karaoke)?

Like most countries outside the U.S., North Koreans really enjoy soccer. I have been to the Pyongyang golf course; this is the place where Kim Jong-il scored 11 holes in one the first time he ever played. (North Koreans actually believe this. I suspect that every time Kim shagged one into the weeds, his caddie yelled, “I found your ball, Dear Leader! It’s in this hole!”)

I saw North Koreans swimming in streams, fishing for sport, and I even saw one person panning for gold in a stream. In Pyongyang, there are a lot of outdoor activities like boating and picnic areas. The day before I left I was able to visit the Olympic shooting range for some target practice. We had a choice of targets: small targets, big targets, bottles or chickens. Yes, chickens. I didn’t shoot at them, but if you got one, you could take it back to your hotel for dinner.

Does North Korea’s government only show you what they want you to see? Could you see any poverty or government repression? Or does the government restrict any vision of that?

There were strong limitations on what we saw. One of my friends in Columbus asked me if I was able to visit the prison camps there; I replied that if a foreign tourist came to America and asked to go to a super-max prison, or to Guantanamo Bay, he wouldn’t be able to either.

The rural areas are less prosperous than the major cities, just as Meriwether County (in Georgia) is less prosperous than Muscogee County (also in Georgia). I saw cattle being used as draft animals (pulling plows) and was told not to take photographs of that. We weren’t supposed to take photos of any military people or facilities, but I was never questioned about what was on my camera.

Some criticize you for visiting North Korea for safety or ideological reasons. How would you respond?

Please try to understand that I was not duped by anything I say about the country. The people are nice, but the country ought to be wrapped up in crime scene tape. Some people ask me why I would go to such a dangerous place, but I expect if you asked an astronomer if he would like to spend a week on the Moon, he would go. North Korea was my Moon.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2.