Interim sign-ups are closed for this year, but it’s never too early to start planning for next year. Here’s one possibility: a seven-day global studies course with an integrated service component. What makes this course special is that it’s set in Pyongyang — the capital of North Korea.
Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it is a country like no other. For most people, the mention of North Korea brings to mind catchphrases like Communism, nuclear weapons, and Americans in prison. Every week, news sites churn out article after article on the latest revelations about Kim Jong-Un and the latest developments (or lack thereof) in nuclear talks. North Korea is making headlines all the time.
Yet how much do we really know about the “Hermit Kingdom”?
There is no denying that the Kim regime is one of the strictest in the world, with media being tightly controlled by the state. But contrary to popular belief, North Korea is far from inaccessible to the rest of the world. Tourism exists in the DPRK, and not just with Dennis Rodman or high-profile diplomats. A Beijing-based group called Koryo Tours has been organizing trips into North Korea for 20 years. Within the last year, they brought over 6,000 tourists into the country, according to the company’s general manager Simon Cockerell.
Soon enough, SAS students might have their turn to glimpse this reclusive nation, if high school social studies teacher Ian Coppell gets his way. He is in the process of researching and planning a potential interim semester course in North Korea. It may not have made the cut in time for this year’s sign-ups, but that hasn’t deterred Coppell in his quest for future admin approval.
Coppell envisions a trip itinerary along these lines: first, the students and trip sponsors fly into Beijing, where they are debriefed on what to expect. Then, they would take a flight into Pyongyang the next morning to begin their tour, which would include sightseeing in various museums, a night in the village near the Demilitarized Zone, and a hike in the mountains.
To expand the ‘global studies’ aspect of the trip, students would also get to interact with the expatriate community in North Korea. According to Coppell, this could include “meeting [diplomats] to discuss the geopolitical situation, foreign NGOs to talk about agricultural challenges, and…other expats living and working in the DPRK to talk about the challenges of day-to-day life.”
Finally, the students would spend two days engaging in community service. They would prepare a lesson plan on a subject of their choice — dance, art, music — and teach it to several different middle schools.
There are a few setbacks: South Koreans can’t travel to the north, unless they are willing to stay there to complete the DPRK’s mandatory national service. Additionally, the train that runs between mainland China and North Korea is off-limits to Americans. Regarding the potential stigma that comes from traveling as ‘Singapore American School’, Coppell acknowledged that it is a challenge that needs to be worked around. The American label would put us under increased scrutiny, so both students and sponsors would need to exercise prudence at all times. Coppell feels it would be worth it.
“There would be a service element [in tutoring local schools], but really, it’s for students to get a snapshot of what North Korea is like and interact with North Koreans. And in a very small way, that would help relationships,” Coppell explained. “If our students see that North Koreans go to school, they laugh and they cry the same way as our kids do — it might just help to put a face on North Korea.”
Coppell’s enthusiasm stems partly from his own experiences with North Korea. In 2007, he went on a guided (and closely monitored) group tour. There was plenty of sightseeing along the standard route: museums upon museums, idols of the Kim leaders, the northern side of the DMZ, and the U.S.S. Pueblo that was captured in 1963. They also witnessed what Coppell described as “inefficient agriculture,” most likely tied to the food shortages that still plague the country today.
Equally intriguing, however, were the sights less often associated with North Korea. For instance, their hotel in Pyongyang was equipped with over 40 floors, nice restaurants, and a bowling alley. Next door was a golf course, and beside that was a cinema playing “Bend It Like Beckham.” Coppell recalls a day when the museum they were going to visit was unexpectedly closed — so the guides took them to a funfair instead.
“We were just mixing with people, general people… kids and older North Koreans,” Coppell said.
Of course, things have changed over the course of seven years. In 2011, Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father as supreme leader, implementing several reforms to the regime. North Korea carried out another controversial nuclear test. More recently, the detention of three American citizens has caused a stir in the media. Two are serving hard labor sentences; the third is presumably awaiting trial.
So, on to the million dollar question: is it safe to go to North Korea?
It is difficult to say. Just this summer, SAS Middle School teacher Betsy Hall spent a week in the DPRK. As an American tourist, she felt as if she were under extra pressure from her North Korean guides, who probed her with questions that sometimes bordered on “interrogations.” Yet the experience was an eye-opener for her, too. In addition to touring sites like the Sinchon Museum of American War Atrocities, she saw youth performances, after-school arts centers, and people learning English through “Titanic” and “The Incredibles.” Hall even had a chance to take the subway in Pyongyang, where she encountered elementary students and other locals going about their daily routines. From their brief interactions, Hall observed that many North Koreans were “incredibly hospitable” individuals.
“It was fascinating, eye-opening, heart-wrenching,” she recalled. Nerve-wracking, too. Hall admitted that she personally would not want the responsibility of taking 20 students to Pyongyang. If the school decides to pursue this trip, Hall speculated that allowing parents to accompany them might ease some concerns over student safety.
“I feel that [North Korea] is a safe enough place, otherwise I wouldn’t take a group of students,” Coppell stated. He knows a teacher from the United World College Hong Kong who has organized similar trips in the past. And there are even Singapore-based groups who take tourists to North Korea, such as the Universal Travel Corporation.
“I can totally understand if a Korean American is hesitant. I can understand if anyone at all is hesitant,” Coppell said. “But I think there’s at least 20 parents who might think it would be a great trip, parents who’ve maybe been there themselves before.”
At the moment, nothing is set in stone. February 2015 is still months away, let alone the next round of sign-ups. But it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye out for the next interim catalog: you never know what might fill that 25th spot for Global Studies.