In 2013 I was a graduate student at American University’s elite School of International Service, where we were charged with a mission to be peace wagers.
SIS had (temporarily) turned a hardened warrior into a peace activist. I sold my gun collection and raised tons of money to carry out a long list of public diplomacy projects that I designed; and I styled myself as a citizen diplomat.
SIS taught me that the last 3 feet of the bridge (where enemies meet) is where the handshakes and hugs are given. Indeed, I even stupidly allowed myself to be photographed hugging a Korean People’s Army soldier.
My projects included an inter-Korean orchestra, joint fishing zones and fishing trips, taekwondo tours, beer tours and a rap video project – to name a few.
My hypothesis was that through People-to-People exchanges, “average” North Koreans and average Americans could participate in “genuine” on-the-ground exchanges that would tear divisions down and allow long time enemies to see the humanity in each other, over time eroding warring stances.
For example, I let the KPA taekwondo fighter knock me out (watch here) just to see if he would cheer or help me up afterward. I thought it would give me a true bead on their changeability. Turns out he helped me up, but even that was not an accurate method to determine their changeability.
I presumed that if I inspired enough foreigners to visit North Korea and try various types of exchanges then we could change North Korea to come out of the cold and abide by international norms.
Boy, was I wrong.
Before you attack me you should know that I already received so many death threats the US Federal Bureau of Investigation had to get involved in my personal safety. And I was bullied so badly for being wrong that I was suicidal and eventually everything in my life got ruined.
But even worse than that, I was detained and interrogated in North Korea. I thought I would never make it home again. After an hour in an interrogation room with State Security Department officials sneering and frothing at the mouth, accusing me of trying to undermine the regime, I was kicked out and banned.
Others who thought like me have not been so lucky.
Fast-forward to the present day: President Donald Trump rightly initiated a travel ban for Americans. Unfortunately other countries did not follow suit. Some of the regime’s biggest defenders were imprisoned in North Korea or by their communist ally, China.
You may well ask, why would the regime detain its “useful idiots”? Well, in my opinion, it is because “engagers” (“citizen diplomats” who think the way I used to) are viewed by the regime as a threat to its existence. Also, because the regime doesn’t want anyone violating any of its Potemkin shows.
Until the day North Korea allows its citizens and guests complete freedom of travel without minders and pre-approvals for every little thing, there is no logical justification for taking the regime off the travel ban list.
Please think twice before traveling to North Korea, or even thinking that this is a regime that’s capable of changing. Every engager I know has deeply regretted it and been changed for the worse.