Gavin is one of the few people I look up to. I met him back in 2011 since we were classmates for two years at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology Polytechnic. He is dedicated and passionate in everything that he does. Having said that, he is not always serious as he is a really fun guy to be around with, as well.
1. Tell me something about yourself?
I am a 29 year old freelance photojournalist from Calgary, AB.
2. What made you decide you wanted to go to North Korea?
A combination of curiosity and a desire to know more about a country that not much is known about.
3. When did you go there?
4. How long were you there for?
I was in country for a week.
5. What was the process you had to go through to get there?
It was pretty straight forward really. Just applied through the government and waiting a spot. They only accept a limited amount of people in, so I had to wait. Luckily, it wasn’t long at all.
6. How were you feeling before your trip?
Nervous. On my application it specifically pointed out that they did not allow journalists in. Which I clearly omitted in my application.
7. Before you got there, what did you think North Korea was like?
I knew that there was a lot that we don’t know and are not shown. I did have a very clear understanding though of the brutality and oppressiveness of their government.
8. What airline did you take to get there? How was your experience with them?
Air Koryo from Beijing. They were pretty pleasant and quirky, as they are North Korea’s only airline.
9. What were some of the first things you noticed when you got there?
How “normal” it seemed. Pyongyang is like most Asian cities I’ve been to, but with less people. It had everything you would expect a large city to have. Far from the stories of no cars on the street that I had heard of.
10. Tell us about your experience there/trip in general/what you did/etc.?
It’s odd. Uncomfortably odd really. Our government minders watched over us like hawks, while still being quite friendly. It all seemed off, as if something wasn’t quite right. All the sites we visited were all very scripted and organized. They have a narrative they want to show the world and they stick to it. There is no deviations from it and sure as heck no questioning it.
11. Tell us something/things about North Korea that we don’t know about?
I can’t really say I know anything “new” really. In fact, I can say I know even less about that country now that I’ve been there. Its citizens are in its own world really, and not by choice. It’s quite unreal how cut off they are and I didn’t expect to be so extreme. It’s like going back to the 1960s but with cell phones and newer cars.
12. What are some of the misconceptions about North Korea?
North Korean people are some of the most kind and gentle people I have met. The citizens that is. The government and people who work for them are willingly lying to their citizens and intentionally restricting basic freedoms of information. We need to separate the people from the government when it comes to criticizing the country.
13. What is the most memorable thing about that trip?
Having to smuggle out my photos in my shoe as all of the images were confiscated as I was accused of being a journalist. I was threatened with conviction of crimes against the state because of the photos and for being a journalist. Which was true, but I denied it to the end. A pretty nerve wracking and terrifying experience really.
14. Would you go there again? Why or why not?
No. Never. For many reasons. I’m sure by now it’s no secret to them that I did get photos out, and clearly lied to them. It’s not safe for me to go back clearly.
15. How did you feel after your trip?
Lucky… and unlucky at the same time. I have a sadness I carry with me that the kind people I met will live the rest of their lives in such a brutal state and I will never see them again. Knowing that there are places like that in the world is very disheartening.
16. What advice would you give to someone who wants to visit North Korea?
Don’t. And I’m not saying that out of my own selfishness. To go there is to directly fund one of the repressive and brutal dictatorships in the world, and that money no doubt contributes to the systematic oppression that the Kim Dynasty subjects its people to. Also, you’re not going to learn more about the country by going, just fed North Korean propaganda the entire time. It’s not a safe place to go at all, one wrong step or word and you can end up disappearing and NO ONE will help you. It’s not a country to visit just to “cross it off a list”. That’s entirely selfish in my mind, the people there are not part of a zoo, and should be treated with respect and dignity. By going on government trips all you are doing is reinforcing the narrative that Kim Jong Un wants. If you do want to go there, better be a damn good reason to go. Looking back I can’t say mine was even a justifiable reason.
17. Anything else you would like to add?
If North Korea is somewhere that interests you, then there are far better things to do with your time/money than visit it. Educate yourself on the current political situation going on there.