There’s no education like travel, and especially travel to “controversial” countries – countries that have a dark, evil, dangerous image, thanks to the mind-bending techniques employed by the mass media. It’s all very Orwellian. As Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four, regarding brain-dead citizens of fictional Oceania who have been conditioned to hate on command, “The average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia….If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred and self-righteousness on which his morale depends might evaporate.” I mention a few of these countries in my book. But North Korea is a special case. Of the 97 countries I’ve visited, my week-long trip to North Korea in August 2013 is the only one I would call a life-changer.
My first memory of North Korea was the January 23, 1968 attack and seizure of the U.S. Navy intelligence ship Pueblo, which had been sailing and spying just outside North Korea’s claimed territorial waters twelves miles from its coast. The crew of 83, one of whom was killed in the assault by gunboats, was imprisoned for eleven months, and at times beaten.
Years later I read a book on this episode, My Story, by Lloyd Bucher, the captain of the Pueblo. In 1976 there was another incident in the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea – the most heavily fortified border in the world – in which two American soldiers who had been pruning a tree for a better view to the north were bludgeoned to death by a squad of North Korean troops. In 1980 I visited South Korea for five days, having taken the ferry over from Japan, and while in the capital city of Seoul, booked a half-day tour to the DMZ, just 35 miles away. It was both spooky and captivating, gazing into the world’s most forbidden, mysterious, and sealed-off nation, and seeing a North Korean soldier from afar peering at us through binoculars. Everything about this country reinforced the image of the fanatical Oriental communist savage that had subtly been planted in my brain over the years. In my entire life – in fact, right up to 2013, shortly before I went there – I never learned anything about the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, nor of how the ancient nation of Korea, a small country the size of Minnesota, had been casually divided at the 38th parallel right after the end of World War Two, the northern half handed over to the tender mercies of Joseph Stalin. The man responsible for this was Dean Rusk, an obscure military bureaucrat at the time, later to become Secretary of State in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Rusk knew little about Korea but was handed the assignment of figuring out what to do with it after the Japanese, who had occupied Korea since 1910, surrendered in August 1945. Rusk tells us about it on page 124 of his autobiography As I Saw It. I was also totally unaware that during the Korean War, North Korea was used as a testing ground for a recent invention, napalm, which is jellied gasoline, and that roughly 1.5 million civilians, 25% of the country’s population, were murdered by our air terrorists, though it will never be known how many died from napalm, and how many from conventional bombing, famine and disease. The terror from above was directed by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, a psycho whose one purpose in life was burning people alive, having perfected this art from the skies above 67 cities in Japan, and who may have personally killed more human beings than any man who ever lived.
So let’s get this straight. First we allow Stalin, history’s greatest mass murderer and our ally in World War Two, to foist a particularly harsh version of communism on the people living in the northern half of Korea, who had no say in the matter, a failed system which endures to this day. Then, while pretending to destroy the very regime we were responsible for creating, we wipe out about one-fourth of the civilian population. Imagine filling all of our thirty major league baseball stadiums to capacity with innocent men, women and children, drenching them with gasoline, then tossing a lit match on them. That gives you some idea of what we did to that country.
And Americans wonder why the North Korean government fears and hates the U.S. military.
We’ve been saturated with so much lying media crap over the years that my brain has flushed much of it out, and I honestly don’t recall any news about North Korea from about 1980 to 2000, though I’m sure there was plenty. The communist regime of North Korea is unique as a family dynasty. Kim Il-Sung, Stalin’s point man, was current leader Kim Jong-Un’s grandfather, and Kim Jong-Il his father. Grandpa died in 1994, Dad in 2011. I recall nothing about Kim Il-Sung, and little about Kim Jong-Il, but lo and behold, in rummaging through piles of old literature, I came across an article in the July/August 2003 edition of Patriot Report, a newsletter out of Panama, Oklahoma that I subscribed to for a while before it folded, and which combined important, censored news reports from around the world with occasional Bible bunk. In big, black, bold letters the front page headline reads NORTH KOREA CONTINUES SABRE RATTLING – AMERICA PREPARES FOR WAR, and below that, in smaller type, NORTH KOREAN DEATH WISH BAFFLES U.S. POLITICIANS AND MILITARY EXPERTS. IRRATIONAL BEHAVIOR OF THE COMMUNIST DICTATORSHIP COULD LEAD TO NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST. I could find nothing about Ian Mather, the author, who was probably British, and I have no idea where this story originally appeared. Here it is in its entirety, and note how the big numbers jump out at you, just like the big numbers of people who have supposedly died or tested positive for the Covid-19:
While the White House continues its public war of words with North Korea, a battle plan is already being laid in secret by military strategists at the Pentagon. Until now leader Kim Jong-Il’s increasingly flamboyant and frightening game of international brinkmanship has only attracted condemnation from the Bush administration. But behind the scenes, American strategists are now weighing up the option of a pre-emptive military strike against North Korea as the rogue Stalinist state forges ahead with its plans to build a nuclear arsenal – threatening not only a “domino effect” of nuclear proliferation in east Asia but also a strike against the very heart of America. It is a terrifying scenario, with likely casualties running to one million during the first day of an attack on North Korea – most falling victim to the long-range artillery trained on its southern neighbour.
Last week, in its most defiant act yet, a North Korean fighter jet crossed the border and played cat-and-mouse with a South Korean aircraft. When the U.S. condemned the incursion, North Korea declared that there could be nuclear war on the Korean peninsula “at any time”. The U.S. responded by placing on alert its long-range bombers based on Guam and ordering the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its battle group to sail to waters off the Korean Peninsula, fueling talk of a possible U.S. pre-emptive strike against North Korea’s nuclear facilities.
Military analysts predict North Korea’s next move will be a provocative missile test similar to the one carried out in 1998 which demonstrated that it could hit Japan. Only these day, North Korea has an as yet untested missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to California and, according to the CIA, “one or two plutonium-based devices.” As Victor Cha, a Korea expert at Washington’s Georgetown University, points out: “North Korea is not just a peninsula security problem for the U.S. anymore. It is a homeland security issue.” And one member of the Capitol Hill staff warned: “They are the masters of brinkmanship, until they get to the point where they have crossed as yet undeclared lines.” Japan has already drawn a line in the sand, saying it would have the legal right to strike first if it were to receive intelligence of a planned missile attack by North Korea.
The U.S. military assets now being sent to the region could stage air and missile strikes against the nuclear plant at Yongbyon and other sites where the north may have concealed production facilities for, and stockpiles of, nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. Strikes would also target the production and launching sites of North Korea’s growing ballistic missile programme. But the odds are not good for the U.S. According to its own estimates, one million casualties could be expected in the first 24 hours of a war. Even though much of North Korea’s hardware is old, its army is nearly a million strong and more than half of its soldiers are deployed within 100 miles of the demilitarised zone with 8000 artillery pieces. It is estimated that North Korea could fire 300,000 shells an hour on to targets in the south. In addition, it is believed to have about 5000 tons of chemical and biological agents, including sarin, anthrax, smallpox and the plague.
John Pike, executive director of GlobalSecurity.org, a group that tracks military developments, said: “The problem is that you just don’t know what fraction of North Korea’s capabilities would be destroyed in those attacks.” Kim has pledged to respond in kind to any U.S. military move. On Friday, North Korea condemned next month’s joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises as a “nuclear test war” and prelude to military attack. Andrew Kennedy, head of Asia programmes at the royal united Services Institute in London, said: “There are few good military options available to the Bush administration. North Korea has spent the last 50 years planning for this. The missiles are already in place, and the tunnels are already dug. All they have to do is pull the trigger.” Kennedy added: “You have two countries, North Korea and Iraq, one with nuclear weapons and one without, one that is contained and one that is not. Yet you invade the one that has no nuclear weapons and is already contained, and you do a deal and send aid to the other.”
Mind you, this was 2003 under Bush, not 2017 under Trump with all his blustering tweets threatening North Korea with total annihilation, as the world held its collective breath, until the clown changed course and became buddies with Kim Jong-Un, though that course too has taken a few more twists. With Trump, the first Twitter president, you never know what he’s going to tweet text.
In 2010 I was amazed to learn that Kim Jong-Il had lifted the travel ban for U.S. citizens to North Korea. For the first time in more than sixty years, ordinary Americans would be able to visit the country on a tourist visa. I put North Korea on my definite to-do list, and it became reality in 2013.
Since it’s impossible to travel around North Korea independently, I booked with an outfit called Young Pioneer Tours. Nearly all tours to North Korea begin and end in the Chinese capital of Beijing, and we, meaning three groups of about twenty each – many nationalities, but most from the English-speaking countries, as is YPT’s management – were instructed to meet at a certain hotel for a briefing the day before departure. I’m sure most of us were a little nervous about going to such an isolated country with such a menacing image, and there were many questions, from tables where people had parked themselves with a bottle of beer. Very safe country, we were assured, with a few special rules, the most important ones of which were: No criticism or displays of disrespect towards the regime; no distribution of religious literature; no wandering off on your own. Restrictions on photography were also mentioned, though I later discovered that they were very lenient about this. Basically, just behave like a mature adult and there’s nothing to worry about.
It’s a very strange experience taking a ninety minute flight from the huge, modern, bustling airport in Beijing to the ghost town atmosphere of the dinky little airport in Pyongyang, where a grand total of four flights were arriving and departing that day. By the time I got to the hotel lobby, a lively place with Chinese businessmen and quite a few tourists checking in and checking out, I felt totally at ease, and I had to pinch myself. Was I really here? Am I really in North Korea?
I had a wonderful time in North Korea. There were seven Americans in our group of nineteen and we were always made to feel welcome. I never worried about my safety. There were no incidents of any kind. Without a doubt it’s an extremely repressive society, a bizarre combination of Stalinism and the divine personality cult of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, whose portraits are seen everywhere. It was that, combined with the wonderful hospitality, the feeling that there had been some reforms under Kim Jong-Un and that the failures of the old system had been recognized, the beaten down faces of the older people who had lived a hard life, and the pure Korean culture as seen in the folk art and lovely dresses worn by many women (so different from cosmopolitan Seoul), that made it such a special place. I realized, too, that the parents or grandparents of almost everyone I saw, young and old, were either killed or lost everything they had due to American terror bombing during the Korean War. Something deep down inside of me cried out, “Why can’t we be friends with these people? What have they ever done to us?”
After I got home I hit upon the idea of organizing small groups on my own and personally escorting them to North Korea in conjunction with YPT, whose people were supportive of the idea and easy to work with, and who themselves worked closely with people in the North Korean ministry of tourism, with whom they had developed firm friendships. In particular I exchanged numerous emails with Troy Collings, a New Zealander and one of YPT’s co-founders. I’d run ideas by him, he’d run them by his North Korean partners, and he’d get back to me on it. (Sadly, Troy died of a heart attack on March 5, 2020 at the age of 33.) Only one other small, obscure outfit in the U.S., Uri Tours, booked tours to North Korea, so I figured it was a ground floor opportunity. My plan was to shoot for two tours a year, and turn a profit of around $5000 for each one to supplement my income – I was still driving oil part time in the winter months – but I gladly would’ve done it for nothing. I felt that reunification of this country was inevitable and I wanted to be part of that event, I wanted to make history. And, of course, I wanted to put an end to the senseless hostility between my country and North Korea.
I had seen that fishing and public dancing, with outdoor speakers, were among the few leisure activities people enjoyed, and being an avid fisherman myself, kept that in mind. But to test the waters for the first time, I wrote a letter on September 24, 2013 and mailed it to about fifty private high schools in the tri-state New York metropolitan area that I’d found on the internet. This would be something that, over the months, would occupy an enormous amount of my time – appraising private high schools, colleges and universities around the country on the internet, and selecting those that seemed worth sending a letter to, inviting them to be the first school group ever to visit North Korea. I got no responses from this initial mailing.
On October 1, 2013, I emailed Brother Thomas Cleary, the principal at Chaminade, the all-boys Catholic high school from where I graduated in 1971. I had a dream of taking a sports team from my alma mater to play in a friendship match with their North Korean counterparts, basketball, soccer and volleyball being the three most popular sports in the country. What a great achievement that would be in my life. Brother Cleary, whom I had never met, turned down the proposal, alluding to the imaginary danger factor and a few other things. At least he had the courtesy to write back.
I went back to the idea of taking a group of anglers to North Korea. Accordingly, I called the director of advertising at The Fisherman, a weekly magazine (monthly in the winter months) on Long Island with a subscription of 22,000, plus newsstand sales, and asked him about taking out a full page ad. He was incredulous at first, but warmed to the idea so I drove out east to their office in Shirley, and we sat down and designed the ad, which cost me $1465. It was published in the February 2014 issue, and was headed “Goodwill Fishing Tour to North Korea, May 15 – May 29, 2014”. Some photos I had taken were in it, and there was a good deal of heartfelt text. I wrote, for example, “Many of our Vietnam veterans have returned to Vietnam to heal the wounds of war and meet their former enemies in a spirit of friendship and reconciliation. The same kind of rapprochement is long past due with the people of North Korea.” The ad was appealing to the eye and I was very happy with it. My phone number was at the bottom of the page. It never rang. Not once. A week later I called Mike, the ad director, just to chat and mention this. He told me that several readers had called to express their disapproval of the ad, and a few had even canceled their subscriptions. I was beginning to learn.
That same month, on February 15th, an article headed “War Hero Pete McCloskey Back From Reunion in North Korea” appeared in a few newspapers in California, McCloskey’s home state, and nowhere else. McCloskey, 86 at the time, had visited North Korea as part of a delegation from an organization that promotes friendship and better commercial ties with countries in the Asian Pacific region. He had been a congressman from 1967 to 1983, one of the very few with a sense of honor and integrity. He was also a Marine platoon leader who had fought in the Korean War, and had been wounded twice. By chance, during his 2014 return visit, he ran into a retired four-star general named Ji Yung Choon, who also had been wounded in the Korean War, and with a young female soldier acting as interpreter they recounted their battles. In an emotional moment, the men embraced and vowed that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren would never go to war against each other. McCloskey had earlier written a book, The Taking of Hill 610, in which he related a moment of discomposure when he took a faded photograph from the body of a dead enemy soldier which showed him with his large extended family in front of their humble mountain home. He reflected: “What right did I, a big American from 10,000 miles away, have to be killing a poor kid who probably lived within 100 miles of where we were fighting? His family, standing so proud and happy in that picture, old grandparents to little kids, didn’t deserve what was happening to their peasant sons.” Upon returning home from his 2014 trip, McCloskey told reporters, “I feel I’ve had an experience I’ve wanted to have for 64 years, which is to shake hands with one of the young kids I fought against and tell them how bravely they fought.” That is true nobility. Pete McCloskey is a genuine American hero in a country starved for genuine heroes, and for that reason the media shut him out and very few have heard of him. Who is glorified as a “hero” in a bestselling book and a box office smash hit movie? The cold-blooded Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the legendary “American Sniper” with more than 150 kills in Iraq to his credit. Many of our soldiers are tormented for life by the killing of one enemy soldier in foreign wars they were lied into and don’t understand, but not Kyle. His only regret was the he didn’t kill more. Well, as we all know, on February 2, 2013 this chap got a terminal taste of his own medicine at a rifle range in Texas, fittingly enough from a Marine veteran who had also served in Iraq and whose head was all messed up. Good riddance. By the way, an interesting analysis of Kyle by a Danish criminologist, titled “American Monster: Chris Kyle, the American Sniper,” was published on October 30, 2019 on the occasionally good but mostly flaky website veteranstoday.com, run by a Vietnam vet named Gordon Duff. VT editor Kevin Barrett introduces it by asking the pertinent question, “Are Americans who lap up Chris Kyle’s blood-specked vomit suffering from hybristophilia – groupie-like fanboy adulation of psychopathic serial killers?” But back to North Korea.
It’s no exaggeration to say that cumulatively, in 2014, I put four months of full time work into this. My next step was having a web designer create a website for me, orinocotravel.com. I was very happy with this site, on which I had written a lot and included photos and videos of my trip. Then I stopped by the office of the Mineola American, a weekly community newspaper, to see if they’d be interested in doing a story about me, since I was a hometown boy. They were. I met the guy who would write the story. We hit it off well. The piece came out in the April 2nd issue. It was on the front page, headed “You Can Go Everywhere Too,” and showed a photo of me with a North Korean soldier taken at the DMZ. I was disgusted with this article. Anyone reading it would’ve thought, “What is this guy, some kind of jerk?,” although I’m sure it wasn’t written to make me look bad. It was just so shallow and silly. There was no real perception of how I felt and what I was trying to do, and I’ve since come to believe that just about everyone who makes a living as a mainstream journalist, small town or big time, has no sensitivity or intelligence to speak of. Anyway, there was contact information, but no one ever contacted me, and I immediately decided that I would never use this approach again in trying to get my message out.
By this time I had selected 370 high schools from about 35 states and wrote a four-page, single-spaced letter to the athletic director and the chairman of the history and music departments of each one – 1110 letters in all. I addressed and stamped all 1110 envelopes by hand and dropped them in the mail. The result? I got six replies telling me to take them off my mailing list. In May, my brother and I, who are solid fishing and hunting partners and who have always gotten along, even though we’re very different, were drifting for fluke by Point Lookout in a rented motorboat. I mentioned my mass mailing, interested to hear his feedback, as he was a longtime high school math teacher and coach of three sports, and had daily contact with teenagers, whereas I had next to none. “You’re out of your mind,” he said. “No parents are going to let their kids go to North Korea.” No, I’m not out of my mind. America is out of its collective mind, not me. I do admit to being naive about certain things, like thinking that three or four teachers out of 1110 would express an interest in being the first to go to North Korea, but I’m really quite sane.
If the media drumbeat wasn’t enough, anyone reading the State Department travel warning on North Korea would be scared witless. Here’s an excerpt from what I believe was the last update, published on May 20, 2014:
The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK)….Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizen tourists have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention. North Korean authorities have arrested U.S. citizens who entered the DPRK legally on valid DPRK visas as well as U.S. citizens who accidentally crossed into DPRK territory. The Department of State has also received reports of DPRK authorities arbitrarily detaining U.S. citizens without charges and not allowing them to depart the country….Do not assume that joining a group tour or use of a tour guide will prevent your arrest or detention by North Korean authorities….It is a criminal act in North Korea to show disrespect to the country’s former leaders, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-Sung, or the current leader Kim Jong-Un….Penalties for knowingly or unknowingly violating North Korea’s laws are much harsher than U.S. penalties for similar offenses. Sentences for crimes can include years of detention in hard labor camps or death.
It goes on and on like this – a clever mishmash of truths, half-truths and outright lies. For example, it is virtually impossible to “accidentally cross” into North Korea, and I’ve never heard of anyone who did. The bureaucrat didn’t mention that more than 99.9% of foreign tourists who go there have no problems, and of the tiny percentage who do, nearly all knowingly broke the law.
Stung by the lack of response, in the fall of 2014 I decided to shift gears and contact newspapers and talk radio stations, mostly in the eastern U.S. In early November I mailed 200 letters. On the 6th I got an email from a Chris Citorik at WBZ in Boston, program director of a radio talk show called Nightside hosted by Dan Rea. It covers all New England and beyond, though I’d never heard of it. I learned that Rea had been a close friend of Lloyd Bucher, the captain of the Pueblo, and my letter had sparked his interest. It goes to show you how, when you mail that many letters out, you’re bound to hit paydirt sooner or later. We made tentative plans for a live interview at the WBZ studio. Shortly thereafter, I received a handwritten letter expressing disbelief at my own letter. The writer was a disc jockey at a radio station in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey. I replied with my own letter written by hand, in a calm tone pointing out his misconceptions. He replied abusively on the 17th in another letter he wrote, or I should say scrawled, as I could barely read it. I learned a lesson here: never try to reason with an asshole. Never debate or argue with such people and never try to change their minds, because nothing productive will come out of it. On November 13th I got a call from someone at WBAL in Baltimore. Would I do an interview by phone, not live but pre-recorded? Sure. I ended up doing it on the 25th. It lasted about 15 minutes and I thought it went well. I have no idea if they ever aired it.
On the morning of December 15, 2014 I took Amtrak from New York to Boston to do a one-hour live studio show that evening. I’d done a little homework on Nightside, which seemed to be dull beyond comment – like discussing life and death issues like unfair stopping rules for Boston cab drivers. Dan Rea, as I said, had been close to Lloyd Bucher, whose book I’d read. Bucher came across as a self-made, decent man made of the right stuff, and I hope there are many more high-ranking military men like him. He did, however, suffer from that infantile American trait of being unable to think objectively in terms of our relations with the rest of the world. In My Story he tacitly admitted that the Pueblo was a spy ship disguised as an oceanographic research vessel, yet he was still outraged at the assault and subsequent beating and imprisonment of his crew because he was following the rules by sailing in international waters about 15 miles from the North Korean coastline. Did he not understand that when we reduced that country to ashes with our B-29 bombers from halfway around the word that no rules apply? That the North Koreans who brutally beat him and his men from time to time almost certainly lost family members to relentless American bombing during the Korean War? That if the North Koreans had the intent and the ability to even the score it would mean wiping out 60 or 70 million Americans – and much of the world, fed up with American terrorism, would cheer them on? No, no and no. I don’t think he even mentioned the Korean War once in his book, and he might never had heard of the genocidal Curtis LeMay, America’s answer to Genghis Khan.
Citorik had asked me to email him some talking points for Rea to review, which I did, avoiding the atrocities our airmen committed in the Korean War – Americans don’t want to hear that since we’re the good guys who can do no wrong – but once the show started, he steered off in a different direction. All in all it didn’t go bad, though I was somewhat dissatisfied. Dan was courteous even while disagreeing with me, but I just wasn’t getting to say what I wanted to say. In the second half of the show the phone lines were opened. Four people called in and all four let me have it, making me out to be some kind of moral leper for wanting to take Americans to North Korea. What morons. I returned some of their fire, and when the show ended I was left shaking my head. What a waste of time coming up here to do this. Another learning experience, but I was getting tired of making no progress.
In late December I got a call from a Josh Noel, travel writer at the Chicago Tribune. He was interested in doing a story on travel to North Korea. He asked me good questions. I spent 45 minutes on the phone with him. The article was published on January 21, 2015. It lumped me in with Uri Tours. I didn’t like it. Of the twenty or so questions he had asked me, he only elaborated on two or three, and they were all pretty much irrelevant. He didn’t misquote me or anything like that, he just completely missed the essence of what I was trying to do. For all my efforts through the media, not one person ever contacted me.
Surfing the net, I’d read seven or eight articles from American and British newspapers about what it was like to join a group tour to North Korea. All were slanted, as if the writer had been instructed to put the country in a bad light somehow – for example, by making it sound like the local tour guides, usually two to a group, barked orders like drill sergeants, or were otherwise cold and distant. Or that visitors couldn’t be sure if hotel rooms weren’t bugged. Or that we lived in fear of doing something wrong and getting arrested. What crap. The April 17, 2015 edition of USA Today, published the only article I’ve ever seen, headed “U.S. runners defy travel warning on North Korea,” that reflected my own pleasant experience in the country. Even this writer had to throw in a few scary paragraphs, but the bulk of it, which focused on three Americans who had come to run in the Pyongyang Marathon, was fair and accurate. In nearly all the letters I sent from that point on, I included copies of this article, the McCloskey article, and page 124 of Dean Rusk’s As I Saw It. Anyone reading these printouts, in addition to what I had written on my website, plus the photos and videos that I’d posted there, would complete a graduate course on North Korea in a few hours. It was more than enough to turn people’s heads in the right direction and make them see North Korea as I saw it, and be filled with awe. And surely at least a few would want to take a chance and go there. Or so I thought.
Let’s go fishing again. At the tackle shop I patronize there’s a rack where you can pick up a free copy of Salt Water Angler as you walk out the door. This magazine has regional articles along the coast from Maine to Texas, and most states have their own editor, all with email addresses listed. I also went online and got contact info from freshwater fishing publications in landlocked states – about 30 email addresses in all. They went out on August 7. Another stroke of luck! The South Carolina editor got back to me a few days later, saying that he had once lived in South Korea, and was fascinated by my idea. He asked me to write an article of no more than 1000 words, which he would publish and then gauge the response. I wrote a lively little piece and emailed it to him on August 18th. When a week passed without a response, I inquired. He did not reply and I never heard from him again.
Over the summer of 2015 I went to work again, assessing colleges and universities on the internet, and making a list of about seventy that stood out scholastically. This time I concentrated solely on sports, and bypassing athletic directors, sent letters directly to the head coaches of both men’s and women’s basketball, soccer and volleyball teams. In addition to these more than 400 letters, I wrote another letter and sent it to 89 instructors in Asian Studies Departments, most of whom had specified an interest in Korea in their profiles. All these letters stressed what a thrill it would be to be the first group to break the ice, to truly make history, by going to North Korea. I put all of them in the mail on September 17th. Here’s what happened. I got a text message from the men’s basketball coach at Hamilton College in upstate New York, turning down my offer but wishing me the best of luck in my efforts. And I got a brief, polite email from a Charles Armstrong, connected with Columbia University, informing me that I wouldn’t be the first to do this, that a group of Columbia students had visited North Korea in May 2012. I didn’t know that. On December 27, 2015, I wrote a ridiculously long letter to Brother Cleary at Chaminade, asking him to reconsider his misgivings of two years earlier. I said that I knew he was a busy man, and if he wasn’t interested he shouldn’t feel obligated to reply again, as he had courteously done the first time. He didn’t, and I don’t blame him. It was all bad timing anyway because six days later Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who would become famous in death, was arrested in Pyongyang at the end of a 3-day YPT New Years tour. That changed the whole equation.
When I learned that Otto Warmbier had been taken into custody at the airport in Pyongyang, just before boarding a flight to Beijing, I felt bad for him. My first thought was that he had gotten drunk at a New Years Eve party, then went off and did something really stupid – trying to steal a poster of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. It’s something I could’ve done as an immature, fun-loving guy who got drunk a few times when I was his age. As always, though, there was more to it than the media had reported, and that you could only find on the internet – and I don’t know if these accounts were true, but I’m guessing that they were. It seems that Warmbier had previously traveled to Cuba and Israel – and now North Korea. That’s an extremely unusual travel resume for a 21-year-old. Furthermore, he had to have some advance knowledge about the fifth floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel, not accessible by elevator. It seems a few travelers in earlier years had snuck onto that floor and photographed the posters that lined the wall, though they never tried to steal anything and never got caught. I stayed at the Yanggakdo myself, and there simply is no way that you would go to the fifth floor, reserved for staff only, unless you knew something about it. My conjecture – and it’s only a conjecture – is that Warmbier was being groomed for some kind of secretive government post, and stealing something like this in North Korea was an initiation rite. I should also add that, even though he might have felt it was a harmless prank, which is how it was presented in the news, in North Korea the act of pulling down a portrait of the father and grandfather of the country’s leader was seen as an outrage, perhaps the equivalent of a foreign tourist defacing George Washington’s tomb. After a brief trial in March, Warmbier was convicted of subversion and sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor. He was the sixth American tourist to get in big trouble in North Korea in as many years – six out of about 5000 – my estimate – who have gone there. Like the others, except for one marginal case, he had blatantly broken the law, and like them, I was pretty sure he would be released before long, especially since he had broken down and expressed contrition at his trial. Americans quickly forgot about him, but I kept looking for developments that never came.
On January 15, 2016, despite my earlier negative experience with The Fisherman, I wrote a seven-page letter to Mike Caruso and Fred Golofaro, the publisher and senior editor of the magazine, in an attempt to interest them in a trip to that faraway, forbidden country, and I would throw in a trip to the Great Wall of China to make it even sweeter. I know the ropes of offbeat travel and could easily have made something like that happen. Could there not be a handful of fishermen in all Long Island who this would appeal to? When I reread these letters, I cringe at my failure to realize that I was projecting my own psyche onto others, that very few even remotely feel the way that I do about North Korea, not to mention the tremendous amount of time I wasted writing all these damn letters. What I envisioned was a group of ten or fifteen mixing with these long-suffering people, just yearning to meet Americans of good will, and bringing them the latest in quality tackle – hooks, lures, braided line and such that I’m sure they can use – casting from shore, or going out on a boat, however it’s done there, then grilling our catch on the beach as the sun goes down while enjoying a few beers together. Pure magic. An unforgettable life experience. Yet how can anyone whose mind is plugged into the television screen, who associates North Korea only with goose-stepping robotic soldiers and huge missiles on parade – parades that happen only two or three times a year on special holidays, incidentally – and endless make-believe threats from Kim Jong-Un – how can such people, meaning well over 99% of the American population, possibly see what my mind’s eye sees? Needless to say, neither man replied.
In arranging all this material in chronological order – I stored it in an oversized shoebox – I came across a clipping from the March 14, 2016 issue of the Long Island daily rag Newsday, reprinted from the Washington Post. The pot must be kept simmering at all times, but now and then they turn up the flame. The story is headed “N. Korea: Bomb could wipe out Manhattan.” It begins: “North Korea claimed yesterday it could wipe out Manhattan by sending a hydrogen bomb on a ballistic missile, the latest in a string of brazen threats.”
Keep it up, lying media bastards, keep it up. Keep pumping out all that Orwellian horseshit. Helping it flow was our rabid North Korea-detesting witch ambassador to the UN under Obama, Samantha Power, followed by Trump’s choice, a screaming meemie out of the same mold named Nimrata Randhawa, aka Nikki Haley. In their entire history going back more than 3000 years, incidentally, the people of Korea have never made war on another country. The U.S. has engaged in more wars and killed more people outside its borders than any nation in history.
On March 31, 2016, I wrote a letter to former major league baseball player R. A. Dickey, who then was pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays. I mailed it to Rogers Centre in Toronto, the Blue Jays’ home stadium. I had recently read his autobiography Wherever I Wind Up, and he struck me as a quirky guy, a risk taker with a crazy streak, but also someone with solid values – a man after my own heart. He seemed like the type who would take up the challenge of going to North Korea, even if it scared him. The Blue Jays were not slated to be a contender that year, so I suggested going there in early October, right after the season ended, and before it got too cold – perhaps with some teammates, and introduce baseball to the country. Don’t roll your eyes, reader, I was well aware that my schemes were growing madder by the month. I gave a shout to Troy, who turned down the idea, telling me the regime wouldn’t go for baseball because it was “too American.” It didn’t matter because I never heard from Dickey. Not that I expected to.
Now it occurred to me to go quid pro quo, to give Kim Jong-Un a golden opportunity to improve his image by welcoming an American group in exchange for the release of young Otto Warmbier, which would also make Kim look really good. This could be done with YPT as an intermediary. But first I had to line up an American group, and I knew that wasn’t going to be easy. If there was an ideal candidate it was the athletic director of the high school Warmbier had attended in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati. He had played on the varsity soccer team there. On April 12th I wrote a letter to Jan Wilking, the athletic director. No response. Surprise, surprise.
In early August 2016 I called the North Korean mission to the United Nations. In fact, I called several times over a few days – there was no answering machine – before someone picked up the phone. This person was reluctant to speak and seemed kind of weird. He said if I had something to communicate, put it in the mail. This I did. On August 9th I wrote a short letter, mentioning that I’d been to NK, how much I’d enjoyed it, and I enclosed a group photo taken at the Mansudae Grand Monument in front of the 66-feet high bronze statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. I also mentioned the Warmbier situation, and inquired about the possibility of bringing a sports group in exchange for his release. I gave my home address, email address, and phone number. To my amazement I received an email within days from Kwon Jung Gun, the North Korean UN ambassador expressing interest in my proposal, and even stating that he would pass it on to Pyongyang. Whoa! One thing led to another and on the 22nd I met Mr. Kwon, along with his associate, at the Cafe Olympia on Second Avenue, a few blocks from the UN building. (At the time we met, I very much doubt he had any idea what was going on with Warmbier. Only a few people in NK knew.) He was courteous but businesslike, telling me there were no preconditions for Warmbier’s release but that he would wait to hear from his government and get back to me on it. We chatted for only about 15 minutes, and most of our conversation was about a subject dear to the heart of every citizen of that peninsular country – fishing! Later that day I shot an email to Gareth Johnson, the president of YPT, apprising him of my meeting, and he replied right away. He seemed deeply concerned about the mystery surrounding Warmbier, as nothing had been heard about him in five months, and was totally supportive of my efforts. YPT had taken more than 7000 tourists to NK since 2008, and Warmbier was the first to be detained. On the 26th I wrote a thoughtful follow-up letter to Mr. Kwon, with an invitation to take him fishing on the north shore of Long Island, and maybe even visit Theodore Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill, in Oyster Bay, quite an interesting place. He did not reply.
On September 16th I emailed a few athletic coaches at UV, Warmbier’s school, asking them to consider taking a team to NK to get Otto back home. Steve Swanson, the head women’s soccer coach, replied that same day, informing me that something like this would require permission from both the athletic director and the school president, and even if it were granted, he would not want to be responsible for the safety of his students in a country like North Korea. Always the fear, always the totally unfounded fear planted in nearly every American brain by the goddamn news media. Just like the irrational fear of a piddling virus. Thank you, Steve, for at least being one of the infinitesimal few to have the courtesy to send a thoughtful response. On October 7th, I wrote another letter to Kwon Jong Gun telling him I was disappointed that I hadn’t heard from him. No reply was forthcoming, and that was the end of that. I keep mentioning these letters and emails, without mentioning the length and substance of them, because that would take close to 200 pages. But believe me, they covered a lot of ground and I put a lot of thought into them.
As I was still driving oil in the cold weather months, and getting worn out by all these failures, I put my exertions on hold for four months, but I did muster the energy to write a nine-page letter dated February 9, 2017 to Theresa Sullivan, the UV president, probably – and I know this sounds cocky – giving her more of an education about North Korea, and on both the real and imaginary dangers of travel all over the world, which I knew firsthand, than she ever got in school or on her own. I enclosed the usual Rusk, McCloskey and USA Today articles, plus my NK group photo. Expecting nothing, I received a letter a month later from a subordinate declining my proposition. It was kind of nice getting something on a university president letterhead just the same. At this point, I stopped taking myself seriously and figured I’d have a little fun. So on March 30, 2017 I wrote directly to the big man himself, addressing my letter “Dear Respected Leader Kim Jong-Un.” I sent copies of the letter to the NK embassy in Beijing, one to Jie Jae Ryong, ambassador, and one to Kim Yong Nam, consul. I have no idea if any of these letters reached their destination and no idea if they were read.
On June 13, 2017 it was reported that Otto Warmbier was in a coma and was being flown from NK back to Cincinnati. His Wikipedia page states that the North Koreans claimed he had been in a vegetative state since April 2016 as a result of contracting botulism. This sounds plausible, but we’ll never know. He died on the 19th. The next day, around 4:30 in the afternoon, I got a call out of the blue from a woman named Chitra Wadhwani, a producer of CBS This Morning. She had found orinocotravel.com and asked me if I could come to the CBS studio at 7PM to tape a show about travel to North Korea. Sorry for the short notice, she said. Imagine that! Little ol’ me, obscure oil truck driver from Long Island discussing a news item this big on national television! My first thought was that I’d be pretty nervous doing something like this, and would definitely want to prepare for it. Can I come in tomorrow morning instead? No, she said, the show is pre-recorded and would air in the morning. I did some quick thinking. I’d have to shave, get cleaned up, rush to the train station, hope that the next train, which takes an hour to reach the city from my home, would arrive soon, then take a taxi to the CBS building. I’d be lucky to get there by seven. I decided against it. Well, suppose our news van stops by your home for a brief interview. I agreed to that. I’ll have to check on our van’s location and get back to you in twenty minutes, she said. I asked her if she had read much on my website. She hadn’t. Well, you should take a look at it, I said, knowing full well that the employee of any mainstream media organ would not like what I had written. She called me back as promised and told me sorry, our van is out of range, but thanks for your time.
I never regretted my decision. Undoubtedly I would’ve been put on the defensive and made to look like an ogre if I said anything positive about visiting NK. I’m almost certain that if I had done the show, anything I said that didn’t echo the Party line would have been chopped out, if it had been broadcast in the first place. And another thing – what kind of knuckleheads (nearly 4 million of them) get out of bed in the morning, and first thing turn on the TV to watch one of these news gab shows? What’s the use of appearing in front of such people? I thought about this for a few days, then on the 23rd wrote Chitra a letter in which I said I would be willing to come in and do a show provided I could mention on camera that it was our government that split Korea in half, and that we obliterated NK in the Korean War. Poor Chitra, just another journalistic bubblehead, never replied. In the middle of this, I got another phone call from a guy named Alex who worked for Reuters in Los Angeles. He sounded like a cub reporter, all full of piss and vinegar, genuinely interested in North Korea. He kept me on the phone for 45 minutes. Actually, I enjoyed speaking with him. Then he called me the next day to corroborate what I had said and asked me more questions. So how are you going to report this, I asked. Just check our website, he said. Day after day, for ten days, I checked the Reuters news website. Nothing. I gave Alex a call. What’s up? Did I miss something? Um, er, ah, be patient, he said, I learned a lot from you, don’t worry, we’ll be posting something soon. I checked for another week. They never posted anything.
The whole Warmbier affair was just the usual media shenanigans and mass mind control. North Korea is one of the few countries in the world that refuses to be play ball with international finance and for that reason the country is endlessly vilifed – its leaders demonized and their people dehumanized – by the international Jewish media. There are probably hundreds of Western tourists doing time in prisons around the world for various crimes, particularly drug violations. I’ve met a few of these types in my travels who think they can just flout local laws with impunity, believing they’ll never get caught, or if they do they’ll just get a slap on the wrist. That’s true in some countries; in others you can get the rope. I’m not saying that Otto Warmbier deserved to die for what he did. Then again, neither did the tens of millions of innocents in Germany, Japan, Vietnam, Korea and many other countries slaughtered by American bombs or planned starvation, or by proxy armies funded with your tax dollars, for whom the media masters never shed a tear. Nor was a tear shed, and probably not a line written nor a word spoken by a talking head, about Rachel Corrie, the young American woman who on March 16, 2003, while standing between a Palestinian home and a bulldozer about to demolish it, and making the fatal mistake of believing that the Jew operating it was human, was run over by the machine, then run over a second time when the animal put it into reverse. She died within minutes.
Warmbier’s death galvanized congressional scum to work up legislation to ban American travel to NK. I saw that one coming. The nanny state, here to protect us from danger halfway around the world. Why not just ban rock climbing, white water rafting, skydiving, and hiking the Appalachian trail too? The sponsoring scum were Adam Schiff, Bob Corker, Ed Royce and Joe Wilson. I knew about Schiff and didn’t want to deal with that piece of shit in any way. I knew nothing about the other three, but after looking them up, and reading their acid statements on NK, especially that of Wilson, realized I was up against a wall of human garbage. Nevertheless, I wrote the three stooges a letter on July 22, 2017, the last two lines of which read:
I am only trying to do what thousands of our Vietnam combat veterans did – those who had the nobility of the heart to go back to that country and meet their former enemies, in order to heal the wounds of war. Having experienced the warmth of the North Korean people firsthand, I felt that same emotion of wanting to put all the bitterness and hostility of the past behind us and start a new chapter. Please have a look at my website and keep an open mind, instead of ramming through this vicious and unproductive travel ban which only keeps the pot boiling. Get over your spite. The North Koreans – the leaders as well as the people – desire our friendship. That’s the direction we should be taking too.
And I did something I’d never done in my life: I called the State Department to voice my opposition, and also called the office of Bob Corker, Tennessee senator and then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I spoke to a woman at State, and a man in Corker’s office. The woman was pleasant on the phone, the man rather morose. Both struck me as young interns, and total airheads. The rancid legislation sailed through, and Donald Trump signed it into law, making it illegal for American citizens to visit North Korea as of September 1, 2017.
After more than a year of childish taunts and threats emanating from the White House, while the boobs doubled down on their fear and hatred of Kim Jong-Un, who was just a heartbeat away from nuking America they imagined, Trump stunned everyone by agreeing to meet with the NK leader in Singapore, which he did on June 12, 2018. I must admit that I fell for this, as I’ve fallen for a few, but only a few, unexpected moves by Trump, momentarily forgetting that this man is incapable of reason, kindness, and vision. I believe now that he had come to see Kim as a tough negotiator, and that’s what won his respect, nothing else. That was how he always operated as a businessman. He doesn’t know anything else.
Before that meeting, around the end of 2017, there was a buzz about the upcoming winter Olympics, scheduled to begin in Seoul on February 9th, and the fact that North Korean athletes had been invited to participate. I thought this was huge – possibly the beginning of the end of the artificial and insane division of Korea. I scanned the morning news shows, discovered a Lara Spencer, anchor of Good Morning America, whom I’d never heard of, and for no other reason than that she’d grown up right down the block from where I did, I wrote her a four-page letter on January 22, 2018, the usual free and valuable education on NK, ending with this paragraph:
The purpose of this letter is to inform you, and ask if you would be interested in having me as a guest on your program, or possibly another program on your network. I am sending one copy of this to ABC, CBS and NBC. If the Olympics do indeed prove to be an historical turning point with reunification on the horizon, all the news media and government officials in this country are going to have to radically change their perspective on North Korea and abandon all the nonsense about that country being a nuclear threat. Indeed, a year or two from now, there may no longer be a North and South Korea, just as the artificial entities of West and East Germany and North and South Vietnam were dissolved – and just as communism collapsed all over eastern Europe in the late twentieth century, which none of our “experts” saw coming. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Korea and neither do you, and neither does anyone in Washington D.C. But I think you might agree that the issues I’ve raised, which no one in the mainstream media has yet discussed, are highly relevant.
No one ever contacted me. I wondered, and still wonder, who reads these damn letters, and what kind of discussion, if any, they get. On February 5th I wrote another letter, this time a rare one of only one page, and mailed it to about 25 radio stations with talk shows. I heard nothing. And, of course, I was wrong in my premonition that the Olympics would be a catalyst in uniting the two Koreas.
On May 16, 2018, I wrote directly to President Trump, just before his first meeting with Kim, the first time I ever sent a letter to the White House. In four pages I summarized all my efforts and my perspective on the Korean situation. I figured it was a sure bet that he would personally pull it out of his daily sack of mail, read it immediately, and be deeply moved. I was certain I’d get a phone call within days, that he’d send Air Force One to Republic Airport in Farmingdale and whisk me to Washington, where I’d soon be sitting in the Oval Office with our great nation’s illustrious commander in chief, mapping out strategy and making plans to turn the Page of History. His support was a foregone conclusion, I was sure of it, and school groups of all kinds would be clamoring to be the first to go to North Korea. Then – can you believe it? – he never called me back. For the hell of it, I sent a copy of the letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, thinking he might read it and prevail on the president. As they say in the New York State lottery commercial, “Hey, you never know.” A the time, I was unaware that Pompeo was a flipped-out fundamentalist fruitcake who worships Israel and keeps an open Bible on his desk which he calls the word of God, and from which he presumably studies prophecies to formulate foreign policy. You have to be careful with those former Eagle scouts. Deranged war criminal Robert McNamara was one. Anyway, Pompeo never called me either.
My very last maneuver, which would close out nearly six years of earnest effort, was to write to Tucker Carlson on July 9, 2019, nine days after Trump met with Kim at the DMZ, with Carlson, who has or at least had Trump’s ear, accompanying him. Carlson is the only mainstream journalists I have a little respect for, but only a little. At bottom he’s a Zionist toady like the rest of them, which is why he stays on at Fox News. Criticize Israel and you’re finished. I wrote him a letter of six pages, once again encapsulating everything I’ve written above, and requesting that he take my message to Trump. And as expected, I never heard from the man. And that’s where my story ends.
So here we are in the middle of 2020, with the issue of North Korea on the back burner for now, and perhaps permanently, pending the fate of the Disunited States of America. In my entire life, none but a handful of citizens have advanced one inch in learning of the crucial events in Korea from 1945 to 1953, and how they affect the attitude of the North Korean regime towards our government and military today. Only a handful laugh at the anxiety created by the media over a nonexistent NK nuclear missile threat. Woeful ignorance, blind trust in stupid “experts” on the federal payroll, groundless fear generated by a mainstream news media monolith that has never stopped lying about every important issue under the sun.
(Note: Now, near the end of 2021, I have just reviewed this again, and saw no need to change or update anything. Have a look at my website orinocotravel.com if you care to. You’ll see the kind of photos and videos that you’ll find practically nowhere else on the internet, aside from clicking on the YPT link headed “Top 10 Myths about tourism in North Korea.” Unfortunately, like nearly all other world leaders, Kim Jong-Un has bought into the Covid-19 lunacy and it appears the country is closed to tourism until further notice.)