Educational programme brings foreigners to North Korea
Amid the ongoing tensions between North Korea and the international community, an educational scheme created by two young men from the US is engaging directly with citizens and students inside the country. Organisers of the Pyongyang Project say their programme is breaking down barriers to the secretive state that government bodies cannot.
The Pyongyang Project was the brainchild of Matthew Reichel and Nick Young, who were inspired to counteract what they describe as the "one-sided" coverage of North Korea in the international media.
"The US and North Korea don't have established relations, and talks are indirect at best. And what we believe is that there is a need for a grassroots level of engagement that we haven't seen yet between citizens," says Mr Reichel, a 23-year-old Brown University graduate. "We feel that education is the best ice-breaker."
The pair scheduled meetings with North Korean government officials at consulates in the US and China - and got the go ahead to run a scheme which takes university students and professors from the US, UK, Canada and other nations inside North Korea in a bid to reach out to the nation behind the headlines.
Fostering direct conversation
Unlike government-run guided tours, its founders say their project allows participants to visit university students in schools and unshackles visitors, allowing them to wander around public spaces - striking up conversations with North Korean residents.
During a recent stop in the port city of Wonsan, participants were brought to the beach and allowed to play among thousands of apparently ordinary local beachgoers.
"They took us to the beach, we got our swimming trunks on and they basically said, 'Go have a good time, you can talk to people'," said Dave Fields, 27, a participant from the US state of Wisconsin.
He said that while many of those on the beach were malnourished in appearance, they were cheerful and receptive to speaking with foreigners, inviting them to sit with them on the beach and challenging students to jump off a diving board into the sea.
While several commercial companies run tours of North Korea, the Pyongyang Project is said to be the only educational programme of its kind run by individuals from the US.
Mr Reichel says a programme, called Choson Exchange, has been established by a Singapore native to train North Koreans in business and economics in the Republic of Singapore.
He adds that he created his programme because he wanted those in academia to "experience DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea - North Korea's official name] for themselves and try to see a different side of a country that's a lot more dynamic than they may have anticipated".
The project currently offers three separate programmes - some workshop-based and some course-based - through which students and professors visit Kim Il-sung University in the country's capital and tour North Korea through the assistance of native and foreign guides.
The project is now also preparing for the country's first full-fledged, two-month study abroad programme at Kim Il-sung University, where Mr Reichel has established relations.
'Time capsule society'
It is perfectly legal to enter North Korea for many citizens in many western nations. As a US citizen specifically, a valid passport, a visa to enter the country and a pre-arranged guided tour through a legitimate North Korean agency is all that is required.
Esther Han, a medical student from Texas, said the most impressive part of her Pyongyang Project trip was the Arirang Festival, a roughly 100,000-person strong dance and gymnastics performance dedicated to the nation's founder Kim Il-sung.
"It was definitely one of those events that could kind of take your breath away," she says.
But the 26-year-old said she noticed what she described as a number of "red flags" throughout her visit.
At one point during a tour through a computer lab at Kim Il-sung University, students stared blank-faced into machines that were turned off, she said, adding that some rooms in the university even felt unused and smelled of fresh wood and paint.
"It definitely felt like there were props around the university. You get the feeling that it is sort of like a time capsule society - hair styles even that are kind of stuck in the 1960s."
From the start of her trip there were also indications of animosity toward the US, Ms Han said, like the newspaper she was handed aboard the flight into North Korea which contained a story with the headline "US nukes threaten the world".
One might assume that recent tension on the Korean peninsula over North Korea's November shelling of Yeonpyeong, a small South Korean island, might be enough to force Mr Reichel and Mr Young to shut the programme's doors.
But Scott Snyder, director of the Center for US-Korea Policy at The Asia Foundation, says it shouldn't be a concern for the project's founders or prospective students.
"There is a heightened level of political tension that exists, and one cannot rule out the possibility of additional actions that could lead to further tensions - but I don't see it, honestly," he says.
"It was an event that occurred that has proven to be isolated," he adds, explaining that he would not have a particular problem sending a son or daughter to study in North Korea.
Mr Reichel remains confident in the programme's continued success.
"If anything this will supply some of our university courses and our North-South dialogue project with another topic to cover," he says.