On Tuesday, students, professors, and United Nations officials crowded the 15th floor of the International Affairs building in order to listen to a panel speak about SIPA’s May 2012 trip to North Korea, the first
and last trip of its kind at Columbia. East Asian aficionado Roberta Barnett retells their harrowing tale.
The panel, composed mainly of the fifteen students and professors Charles K. Armstrong and Jeong-Ho Roh, was moderated by trip coordinator Dr. Elisabeth Lindenmayer, director of SIPA’s United Nations Studies program.
The seven-day trip was the brainchild of SIPA student Taeyoung Kim, who proposed the idea to Dr. Lindenmayer last year. Lindenmayer used her connections within the UN to gain a formal invitation to North Korea. Students then applied to be part of the team that visited in the spring. The acceptees were a diverse group, including American and South Korean citizens. Over the course of the trip, the group toured Pyongyang schools, drove through the countryside, and even visited an amusement park.
“There are over 140 people here, and over 190 outside on the waitlist. This shows just how important North Korea is to us, East Asia, and the rest of the world,” began Kim. He went on to cite the power of ideology and the dire economic situation in North Korea as his most salient observations. For example, when purchasing items in a store near the southern border, there was no way to get change back. He either had to purchase more items or give up his change.
SIPA student Tara Badri described what she saw as “like the Cold War Soviet Union.” When the group visited a manufacturing plant for hydroelectric generators, something was amiss. “They admitted the plant hasn’t been producing in years because of sanctions,” Badri said.
In response, Professor Armstrong argued that “North Korea is not living in the past. It has its own trajectory, it’s own dynamics… It’s not as isolated as people [in America] think. Most countries have diplomatic relations with the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].” He asked the audience and panelists to think about why the country has outlasted the Soviet Union.
The group was thoroughly impressed with Pyonyang, however. “We could not reconcile what we saw with what we read,” said Professor Lindenmayer, referring to reports on devastating poverty in North Korea. “It was the city of the elite.”
“There was no indication about poverty and restrictions visibly. People outside were well dressed and fed. I wondered, if this is my experience, what must it be like to be an ordinary North Korean?” asked SIPA student Shamir Ashraf.
The countryside provided sharp contrast to the metropolis. A clearly impoverished area, there were almost no cars nor bicycles. Aside from the plentiful rice fields, there was little indication of where people lived. “We didn’t see any homes,” Ashraf said. “We saw people walking in the streets, but no houses. We asked ‘Where are they coming from?’… Not only are there no answers, but [what we saw] brought up more questions.”
“There is no substitute for actually seeing the country. Nothing we read can really explain it,” said Professor Armstrong.
The students and professors seemed eager to make the trip a regular venture, and Lindenmayer believes that it will continue in the future.
As to whether the trip may be open to undergraduates, it’s not impossible, according to Lindenmayer. However, with countless applications from SIPA students already, it seems doubtful that North Korea will be a possibility for your upcoming study abroad venture.