A Bit about Ping Pyongyang Diplomacy

Featured Columns February 28 2008 2 Comments

This is admittedly a slightly off-topic note…(but it’ll come around to airlines. I think.)

I’ve been rather fascinated by the New York Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang, North Korea, to perform for the sheltered nation. If you watched any of the performance it’s pretty hard not to get a bit choked up when the crowd, which gave the performers a 5 minute ovation, started waving goodbye to them as they left the stage. It was an oddly emotional moment as I’m neither a particularly huge classical music fan nor Korean.

It was a very human moment that exemplifies why all of us care so much about travel (and since you’re reading this, I’ll assume you care about travel). Travel starts as dots on a map (or a routemap, if you’re an airline geek), and the names of the cities on those maps are loaded with significance. I think back to when I used to stare at Pan Am’s route map in the 1980s and saw it filled with dots at Zagreb and Dubrovnik and Bucharest, places that I assumed I would never have the chance to visit. The idea of the iron curtain shut off large swaths of the world to Westerners (and children, such as myself at the time), and the very names of those cities brought to mind images of greyness and depression.

I think back to watching Wide World of Sports during the same period and seeing gymnastics or figure skating coming from Prague or Leningrad or Budapest and thinking that they represented only bad things and that, certainly, no American would want to go and actually visit those places, filled with people who hate us.

But the world changed, and suddenly Prague doesn’t bring to mind Communism (in fact, it’s hard to even imagine that 20 years ago Prague was part of a Communist empire) – it’s been absorbed into the western travel psyche — just another place you go visit.

The list of places like those on my old Pan Am map have become fewer and farther between. The end of the cold war, the growing deregulation of airlines around the world, the free movement of immigrants around the globe have all opened up air routes to places that were closed just 20 years ago. Or places that conjured up images that were so disinviting that no westerner would want to visit.

Pyongyang represents the last of those places (nearly all places you wouldn’t visit now are simply unsafe, rather than unwelcoming. For Americans, Cuba is probably the other last safe place you would want to visit but can’t…) Seeing the video of the performance in North Korean (in high definition, of all things) coupled with the scenes from the city – empty wide boulevards, the ubiquitous images of Kim Jong Il, the overriding greyness of the whole place – brought me back to 1985, listening to ABC’s Chris Schenkel show us around Krakow (or wherever). The world has shrunk tremendously in those 20 years, but not entirely.

We are living in a time where we have the opportunity to see nearly all the world for a ticket that costs less than a 50 inch television. Seeing the North Koreans cheering the American performers shows that the differences between nations can, in so many cases, be bridged by traveling and meeting with others. I’ve been lucky enough to see this in Cuba, where people on the street couldn’t wait to chat with us or show us their houses, or take us around. And I’ve seen it in the Arab world where, as a Jewish American, I was brought up believing that the entire Arab world wanted to see me dead. But every person I came across was unfailingly polite. And on and on.

And, as I promised in the beginning, to bring it back to the airlines – we have the opportunity now to visit those places that seemed to horrible to us; to visit countries where our government tells us that people hate us; to break some of the long-held beliefs we were taught when we were raised during a time when the world was different. So spend those miles and get a ticket to Sarajevo, or South Africa, or Croatia and go see how history has changed in the past 20 years. It’ll be the best 50,000 miles you’ve ever spent.

2 Responses on “A Bit about Ping Pyongyang Diplomacy”

  1. Pierre says:

    Amen to that. Every time I travel, I learn how much I know nothing…

    I was in Tunisia and learned how much I had misconceptions of other religions. I learned that many young Muslims drink too. Like one guy told me: we sin too. In my mental image, no Muslim ever drank, period. How close minded was that! I think I’m a very open minded person, I visited over 20 countries but I keep surprising myself by how much my thinking is biased by TV and mainstream media. Traveling opens our mind and breaks down the religion and cultural misconceptions we have. We realize that we don’t have all the answers. And some other systems are quite clever (ah, Iceland, I kept saying “hey, this is clever, we should do that too”).

    We need to get over the fear of others. We need to fear our leaders who keep us in a state of fear. We need to realize that we all want to be safe and want the best for our kids. Sure, there are some crazies out there like I wouldn’t have visited Sarajevo in the 90s, that’s a given. But most places in the world are safe.

    Fear: seriously, Australia put Canada on a list of “dangerous countries” because of snow falls and avalanches. Come on, is that for real? We need to get the person who wrote that a free plane ticket to pay us a visit… We can all laugh over here because we know it’s nonsense. But it wouldn’t be surprising for Someone in Dubai that never traveled to believe it. In France, some people still think they can come and see “Indians in tipis”… Seriously! Just like we believe everyone in Cuba is psyched about communism. Or that you’ll get killed in Morocco for being American…

    Cuba, worth a visit too. They are dirt poor yet seem light years ahead of other “free” countries (like in the Dominican Republic, where I’m not quite sure if slavery has truly been abolished [creating huge dept and then having people work 16 hour days in sugarcanes and have only enough money to eat bananas doesn't count as "free" to me]). Cuba has some clever things too to maximize the little they have. Like if you have a car, you are obligated to pick up passengers at designated points [if there's a seat available]. Kinda like the “slug lines” in Washington DC where drivers pick up people at designated stops so they can travel on the HOV lanes (just that in Cuba, it’s obligatory). Cubans have a lot to teach too. They too can’t wait to travel. And once Cuba opens up, just watch their biotech industry, they have smart people out there, just waiting to impress us.

    Life is too short to believe what others say. You gotta go make an opinion for yourself. And stay out of the truly dangerous regions.


  2. charlie says:

    Yeah, all true, but then again, thank to the Department of State and DHS, a lot of those same foreigners can’t visit us. And based on how my fellow Americans behave overseas, I can’t always blame people for hating us.

    @Pierre. RE: visiting Cuba. You know, it’s funny. I have no problems going to Burma. But going to these commie countries which oppress their own people and give them dollars makes me sick. Particularly since most visitors are only interested in cheap sex with the locals. At least that is not a problem in North Korea.

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