I wanted to erode idealogical indoctrination among average North Koreans by inundating them with foreign ideas
In spring, 2013, I embarked on a series of journeys between North and South Korea in attempt to facilitate an inter-Korean orchestra project where 50 persons ensembles from ROK and DPRK would gather in one of the newly constructed peace parks to perform together.
The purpose of the joint orchestra was conflict de-escalation. At the time, tensions were measurably higher than at any point in the past 20 years, so my plan was to reduce the bellicosity by getting the Koreas to focus on music and all its rhythms and harmonies.
Unfortunately, the North Koreans had no intention of letting an American facilitate such a project, much less doing anything that could reconcile issues with their southern neighbor, so they strung me along for months until I finally accepted that I’d wasted a ton of time and money on the project.
At the time, I was a graduate student studying citizen diplomacy and non-state actor conflict resolution at American University’s elite School of International Service and I depended on the project’s success for my practicum and thesis. I had to come up with something.
Voicing my frustrations to my friend Ramsey Aburdene, founder and CEO of Forest-Hills Tenley Town Music Group (FHTMG), he suggested we make a rap video on my final trip. We found two street rappers, Peso and Pac-Man, at a basketball court in South East Washington, DC, and proposed the project to the aspiring rappers.
On Thanksgiving break, 2013, we embarked on the final leg of my journey, and my hope was that the Escape to North Korea project would inspire foreigners from around the world to visit North Korea and try any type of outside-the-box project one could imagine: hackie sack tours, parkour tours, sports tours, arts tours, music tours, beer tasting tours, fishing tours, etc.
The point was to inundate North Korea with such a plethora of foreign concepts that it would eventually erode indoctrination in the minds of average people who witnessed what was taking place, and cause them to question everything they’d ever been taught. Call it a revenge project, if you will.
With financial sponsorship of a hedge fund manager, we set out on the journey. Peso and Pac-Man had never been out of the state, much less out of the country, much less to an enemy country, so things were challenging. For example, they had spent their entire lives living off fast food and junk food, so the healthy food in North Korea made them so sick they couldn’t eat.
On their third day of starving, the North Koreans — we assumed not trying to be racist or stereotypical — brought out huge plates of fried chicken and watermelon for Peso and Pac-Man, which they ate every bite of and got the energy to continue the project.
The North Koreans were not happy with the filming and picture taking. They became extremely upset when we “disrespected the regime” by rapping about “mass killings” on their most sacred ground, The Palace of the Sun. They confiscated some of our equipment and all memory cards — except the ones we smuggled out.
At the end of the trip, right before our flight was scheduled to depart, I was detained and taken to the third floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel — where I was interrogated for thirty minutes by a State Security Department official who looked like he had meth mouth when he was talking. They accused me of disrespecting the regime. It was terrifying but I was eventually kicked out of the country and banned for life. Thankfully, I didn’t suffer a worse fate.
Because I was so upset by the detention, I avoided the media when we landed and made a B-line straight to luggage pick up. It was a very disturbing incident but I wish I would’ve stayed and spoke to the media because, even though it would’ve totally undermined my masters thesis, I would’ve announced my support for a tourism ban.