They appear a few weeks before I leave.
Quiet and skeptical at first, a little weirded out by the news. Eyebrows raised, feet shuffling, silent hmms. Then they speak up. “Are you really going there? Now? I mean — c’mon. What if something happens to you? Aren’t you scared? I’d be scared.” As I’m packing my bags and setting up my Gmail autoresponder (“Currently traveling through North Korea. Write you if I get back, lol!”), it reaches an evangelical pitch. “Look around you. Watch the news. Look what’s coming. What do you have to gain? It couldn’t possibly be worth it. Do not go. It’s not right.” No more questions now; just commandments. Not even advice. Just listen.
I call these people my gremlins. My North Korea gremlins.
They’re the people who get in my head about traveling to the DPRK every time I go. One trip, the first time — fine. They can wrap their heads around that. Chalk it up to wanderlust. Every curious twenty-something is entitled to that. But a second time? A third? That’s just indulgent. That’s you being ignorant, flippant, proud. That’s you being an idiot. Stumbling into a war zone. Walking into the lion’s mouth. Signing up for live-action M*A*S*H, minus Alan Alda’s awesome hair. Choose your metaphor: In the weeks leading up to my last North Korea trip, I was basically a VICE segment waiting to happen.
My biggest North Korea gremlins are my parents. My loving, awesome, once wanderlusty parents who always supported my peripatetic instincts — the same ones who sent me off to North Korea the first time with a high five and a “have an amazing time, honey,” the same parents I have never — literally never — had a serious disagreement with, who pretty much let me do whatever I want my whole life — freaked out. Without getting into the details: Things got bad. Like not talking to me bad. Like I can’t believe you’re doing this to us bad. Like visiting the State Department website for hostage protocol bad. Like this might be goodbye bad. Don’t go, they kept saying. And like
any rational person, I started listening. I started wondering if they were right.
Their concerns, of course, were not entirely unfounded. Remember what Korea was like in the spring of 2013. Drudge Report was screaming WAR! to billions of pageviews. Fox News was hyping an epic NoKo showdown. Talk shows and magazines and pundits and basically anyone with a volume button or a pagecount was giving prime real estate to the DPRK situation. So there it was, for a good three weeks or so: NORTH KOREA IS GOING TO WAR. Fact. People really thought a Korean nuclear holocaust was imminent. Any and all imperialist enemies (read: me) would be rounded up and used as pawns. That was the world my gremlins were living in. And there I was, waltzing off to Pyongyang while a war brewed on the peninsula.
What they didn’t see, and for some reason didn’t want to see, was the strange and simple mechanics of the mainstream news cycle. Starting with the fact that North Korea is current-events crack. If you haven’t noticed, and it’s easy not to since it’s packaged as straight news, North Korea = massive pageviews, crazy click-throughs, tons of shares, every time. People love North Korea. And while they love it, they also watch ads — tons of them, like billions of them — placed against that very obsession. Is it any surprise that the prospect of a North Korean war would become major news? Which is to say, is it any surprise that the media would do its best to turn that remote and absurd possibility into the closest thing to reality? Which is precisely what they are designed to do? Which is exactly what they do do?
When NoKo acts a fool, the media is all over it. They have a short window in which to capitalize on the circus, and they’re not going to miss it. A quiet, normal North Korea doesn’t sell ads. We report; the gremlins consume.
I was looking at the whole thing differently.
By the spring I had the benefit of having gone to North Korea before, which removes the pall of confounding mystery that shrouds the DPRK. My gremlins, of course, did not. And so I resorted to firsthand experience and common sense (such underrated faculties!), which seemed like a reasonable tack. I won’t go into all the ways I dissected the corpses of my parents’ bogeymen — they ranged from the geopolitical (it’s war!) to the militaristic (they have nukes!) to the cultural (they hate you!) to the ignorant (ew!) to the (and this was actually the worst) confused (I just don’t get why you want to go) — but I’ll give you one, just to give you a taste for how laughable the creation of North Korean mythology is.
One morning, early April-ish, I awoke to the news that the DPRK had basically
declared war on the U.S. By all accounts, scary stuff. Now, let’s ignore for the moment that the U.S. and North Korea have actually been at war since 1950 — still are at war, technically, after all these years, because the July 1953 armistice was just that, an armistice, not a peace treaty — and so a Korean declaration of war against the U.S. was about as as redundant as a friendship announcement from Canada. (Indeed a Canadian friendship announcement might have been more surprising, if only because it reminded us of something we’ve forgotten, whereas NoKo, for all its mixed messages, never let us forget.) As the KCNA (the DPRK’s official mouthpiece) put it, in its wonderfully blunt real talk, the armistice “so far existed for form’s sake.” So it didn’t mean much from the start. But let’s put that aside. The funnier thing was that if you traced the source of that story, you could see it was coming from an official KCNA announcement, or it was a rehash of an article published in one of North Korea’s state-owned papers, whose journalistic integrity, while infinitely entertaining, is about as trustworthy as Oceania’s fourth estate.
So the headlines my gremlins were reading, along with millions of Americans that morning, were based on material that they would have laughed off immediately had they only read the original source. No average American was picking up a copy of The Pyongyang Times to get his news, but a headline on Drudge based on that kitschy drivel was treated as gospel. It made no sense!
There were other signs. I mean, there hasn’t been a single outbreak on the peninsula since 1953, despite numerous provocations — many of them quite severe, involving serious things like submarines and islands and human lives. And not a single act of war on the world’s most voltaic peninsula? That’s an impressive streak for a powder keg. And yet in the spring of 2013, war was inevitable. Cooler heads (like our homeboy Andrei Lankov) reached some people with his delightful brand of sang-froid realism, but no one wanted to hear that North Korea is too smart to go to war with the rest of the world. They wanted to hear that it wasn’t too smart! That it would go to war! That it will! And they settled for the fact that it might. Might, after all, is news.
My gremlins were adamant. If it was news, it had to be real. Don’t go.
I won’t lie: The gremlins became a problem. They were a problem because I cared for them, I took their opinions seriously, and by this point they were no longer hiding their disdain for my choices. My wanderlust had turned Roarkian, and Howard doesn’t sit well with people. I could literally feel the resentment building up in me with each day: These people were in my way. I seriously considered canceling my trip, if only to avoid the awkwardness and the pain of going against their wishes.
For their part, they were not interested in discussing the matter rationally. Logic doesn’t work on the terrified, and it doesn’t work on the committed. And fear, I’m finding, is a big commitment. People who live in it want everyone else to live in it too. That’s how fear multiplies, and justifies itself. They wanted to know that they were right, and I was wrong, and the fact that we were talking about North Korea was secondary. I think that was the hardest part: We were having two different conversations. I was talking about a life-changing experience, and they were talking about themselves. The gremlins wanted to remain gremlins. I wanted to be free.
At a certain point, I had to accept that North Korea was not something my parents and friends would approve of, that it was something they vehemently dis approved of, unequivocally hated, absolutely would not endorse in good conscience no matter how many protections I secured or how much homework I did. It didn’t matter to them that North Korea only grants visas to people it is willing to let into the country — that’s a fact — and hasn’t detained/captured/fondled any legitimate tourist who wasn’t explicitly asking for said detention/capture/fondle, in, like, decades, arguably ever, since the War — but again, those are facts, and facts were inconvenient — and that’s when I realized that I was on my own. I had to make a decision.
Listen to the gremlins, or listen to myself.
At the end of April, I went to North Korea. In May, I returned, very much alive. More than alive: Renewed. Of course, the war never materialized. It only made being there all the more fascinating. I can’t articulate how spectacular that spring was — it deserves its own post, and is still paying dividends — but it was a life-changing trip. As in, it literally changed my life.
When I got home, something funny happened. My gremlins changed. Suddenly they were proud of me. And they were happy. Not just happy that I was all right, but happy that I was happy, happy that I had the confidence and self-awareness to go without their blessing. Which is another way of saying that they were happy they were wrong. Happy their love for me didn’t get in the way of my love for life. In one of the funniest turns, several asked if they could come with me next year. Nothing like going off and coming back to turn a warzone into a curiosity.
Ultimately, I realized, my gremlins weren’t guilty of trying to stop me. They were only guilty of loving me the only way they know how. Just like your gremlins, whoever they are, love you too, the only way they know how. Which is probably a lot.
North Korea isn’t your typical Eurail backpacking trip. You’re not chilling with gorillas in Uganda. You’re not Instagramming the same $7 latte art everyone else has Instagrammed. You’re going to see the world’s most secretive place. That’s not a normal thing to do. I’d be worried if you didn’t have some gremlins trying to stop you. They’re looking out for you because they care, and because they know way more about their fear of North Korea than they do your curiosity. Where fear exceeds curiosity, there you will find your gremlins.
So what can I tell you? I think you already know. In no particular order: Love your gremlins, and let them know it. It’s the only thing you can do when you realize how much they love you. Only then can you put their cynicism in perspective, and consider their arguments without succumbing to the life their fear has dictated. Notice where the gremlins live — online, in your newsfeed, on TV, in your head. Recognize that the news is not life, but a version of life: The version made for your consumption. News is not wrong by default, but it’s not right by default, either. You’ll notice that the news also lives by fear, and in turn creates it, and that’s how it becomes yet another gremlin. Probably the worst kind of gremlin, because it doesn’t love you at all.
More importantly, find your un-gremlins, the people who are more curious than afraid, who love you so much that they want you to have a safe and meaningful experience, and listen to them just as closely as you do your gremlins. I have three un-gremlins in my life (all of them doing extraordinary things, unsurprisingly, from making us better humans to disrupting the food industry to creating brilliant comedy), and I wouldn’t be the same person without them. Listen to those voices, and see how you feel. If you make the right decision — whatever that is for you — you will find your un-gremlins applauding, and your gremlins turning into un-gremlins. Your courage will reveal their fear, and evaporate it. That’s what great decisions do.
And all of this only works if you do your homework on North Korea. Read this blog and anything else you can get your hands on. Talk to people who know what’s up. Embrace your fears, and understand where they come from. Voice your questions, and find the information you need to feel confident and excited about traveling to the DPRK. Write me. And travel to North Korea with the right company. That is a must.
Most of all, listen to your curiosity. If the gremlins come out to play, you’re probably onto something extraordinary.