Few Westerners have visited North Korea in recent memory. Yet for the past two years, the Pyongyang Project has brought groups to the region both despite and because of its political significance.
The project, founded by Matthew Reichel '09 and Nick Young '09 in 2009, gives participants an in-depth tour of the heavily guarded communist nation in an attempt to promote cultural understanding. Though the program is entering its third year, watching Reichel greet friends on Thayer Street — "Brown" emblazoned on his cap — is a reminder of just how recently the project's co-founder was a student himself.
Reichel's senior project for East Asian studies sparked the idea. The North Korea program is only one section of the East West Coalition, a larger non-profit organization founded by Reichel and Young. "But North Korea is much more blatantly interesting," Reichel said. "We get a lot of eyebrows."
"It was an idea we were throwing around," Reichel said. "Could we bring students to North Korea?"
But orchestrating the project was not without its challenges. Young and Reichel submitted a proposal to the North Korean government in December 2008 and it was approved by April. The first trip took place that August.
"It's always difficult negotiating with North Korea," Reichel said. "The systems are completely different."
"In the beginning it was easy, because what we were doing was very watered-down. (The North Korean government) knew these kinds of trips, there was a precedent and they knew how to handle it," Reichel said. "What we're doing now is surpassing that."
Jim McClain, professor of history and East Asian studies, helped Reichel with his senior project and also traveled with the group in 2010.
The North Korean government has given Pyongyang Project groups more freedom each year, McClain wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. In one city, program participants were give open access to a public beach, McClain wrote. "In essence, (we) were told to go and talk to whomever we wanted to. It is almost unheard of for Western visitors to be granted such an open opportunity to speak with ordinary people."
Getting American students into North Korea was the "biggest hurdle," Reichel said. Previously, Americans could only enter the country during major festivals, and even then only as tourists, Reichel wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.
"I didn't think I could go to North Korea. The opportunity opened up, so I took it," said Anna Litman, a sophomore at Yale University who traveled with the Pyongyang Project in August 2010. "I was in Asia at the time and it sounded cool."
As Litman grappled for the words to describe her subsequent experience, one came up frequently — "incredible."
"The program gave us insight into a country so fundamentally different from anywhere in the world and gave students a chance to see North Korea for themselves," Litman said.
"We don't push an agenda," Reichel said. "Students can make up their own minds."
Max McFadden '11, who traveled with the Pyongyang Project in August 2010 after reading about it in Brown Morning Mail, did just that.
"The cult of personality of Kim Il Sung permeates everything," he said, describing how heavily the country depends on an image "spoon-fed and dictated by the government."
"You go there and surrender all electronics — no cell phones, no laptops — and they take away books or magazines that have anything to do with politics," McFadden said. "Just the act of going cuts you off from the real world in every single way. It's a little unnerving."
"Even in Pyongyang, the capital city, there are no cars on the road," McFadden said, adding that the few cars he saw appeared to be from the 1960s.
Luckily, McFadden discovered other things were not quite so foreign.
"Meeting people was not as surprising as I thought it would be," he said. "Hearing about their dating life, what they do for fun, was pretty similar to what I do, and other people my age."
There are different options for students wishing to travel with the project. One is a cultural and academic exchange, including discussions and site visits to companies, factories, farms and the beach. Another focuses on conflict resolution. Participants spend a week each in North and South Korea and put together a "consensus document" at the end of the program, according to Reichel. A third option will include an intensive two-month Korean language program, conducted completely in Pyongyang with weekend opportunities to visit other places in North Korea.
This year, Reichel and Young are starting a new tuition scheme, called Scholarship for Scholarship, that would use part of participants' tuition to create a scholarship fund for North Koreans studying abroad, Reichel said.
"I came away from the experience with renewed hope for the future. It is difficult to imagine a peaceful world without there being a stable, peaceful East Asia," McClain wrote. "Right now, there is an awful lot of misunderstanding — on all sides."
"When people think of North Korea, they have images of missiles and tanks and things like that," Litman said. "Before the program, it was the same for me too. Now I think of real people, with real faces and names."