SIPA Students Trek to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

September 24, 2012
North Korean visitors to the Mansudae Grand Monument bow in respect to bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il that are 20 meters in height.

In May, 15 graduate students at the School of International and Public Affairs traveled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—a research trip to one of the world’s most authoritarian regimes.

The students were able to take photographs (currently on exhibit at SIPA) that provide a fascinating glimpse into a version of the daily life of North Koreans. They are scheduled to present their research findings at an October 2 panel discussion entitled “A First Glimpse of North Korea.”

North Korea is rarely visited by the general public, in part because it has been dominated by a patrilineal political dynasty begun by Kim Jong Sung in 1948—who led the country until his death in 1994. Though the United States and the U.N. signed the Korean armistice with the Chinese and North Korean governments on July 27, 1953, the countries are technically still at war since no peace treaty has ever been adopted.

The extraordinary seven-day trip was led by Professor Elisabeth Lindenmayer, the director of the UN Studies Program, who was able to obtain a formal invitation to North Korea through her extensive UN contacts.

“I told them that students from an American university wanted to see North Korea for themselves in order to form their own opinions about the country and the people,” Lindenmayer said.

The students had their passports and cell phones collected upon arrival to Pyongyang and were only able to watch North Korean news. Despite the “claustrophobic” feel of the trip, Lindenmayer felt strongly that it was very important for the students to have the experience.

Interim Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs Robert Lieberman echoed that sentiment.

“The chance for SIPA students to visit, observe, and study North Korea was too good to pass up,” he said.

Samir Ashraf, a second-year SIPA student, walked away with a greater understanding of the difference between fact and fiction, as well as firsthand knowledge of the North Korean people.

“Although their political leanings could not be more different than mine, our guides were honest, kind, and genuine human beings,” he said.

—by Tanya Domi