Students do holiday drill in the demilitarised zone

While Kim Jong-un was threatening America, HK school party on an eight-day trip to North Korea saw smiling faces … and lots of statues

Most parents would probably hesitate about allowing their children to visit a potential war zone.

But the group of Hong Kong high school students who returned on Saturday from an eight-day tour of North Korea will have holiday stories better than anything their friends will have managed in Phuket or Singapore.

Twenty-two students from Chinese International School watched teenagers practise military drills in Pyongyang, took photos with “friendly” soldiers in the demilitarised zone and stayed two days in the region of Kaesong.

Last week, North Korea banned South Korean managers from entering Kaesong’s joint industrial park, striking a blow against the decade-old symbol of inter-Korean co-operation.

But the returning travellers said they noticed little unease among the North Koreans they encountered.

“Of course, we saw only what they wanted us to see. But the locals were all so warm and relaxed,” said 14-year-old Martin Banson, who is half Korean and half Filipino. “Everyone seemed used to the constant threat of war and were interested in talking to us about other things.”

Parents had pressured the school to cancel the trip after Kim Jong-un threatened to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire” earlier this year and the US sent nuclear-capable bombers over South Korea in exercises last month.

Zhong Hua, the mother of one of the students, said: “We thought about the worst-case scenarios. What if a bomb drops or a war breaks out?”

Instead, the students went on orderly tours of “countless” monuments and museums. Guides watched over them constantly, and they were not allowed to leave their hotels at night.

The trip, costing about HK$20,000 per student, was organised by the British-run and Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which has been taking tourists to North Korea since 1993.

“Seeing so many statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il did get boring after a while,” said 15-year-old Sean Guo. “But it was interesting to hear official perspectives on the Korean war, the US government and the South Korean ‘puppet government’. We heard a lot of things that were frankly hard to believe.”

Guo’s highlight of the trip was the visit to the DMZ, where he climbed the observation towers and looked through binoculars to see South Korean soldiers patrolling the other side of the border.

Dr Laszlo Varro, the trip leader and head of administrative services at CIS, said the school had organised trips to developing countries since the mid-1990s.

“Many of our students are from well-to-do families who wouldn’t have otherwise vacationed in North Korea. It really helps open their eyes … We would consider bringing more students to the country if there is enough interest.”

Varro said the school’s plan in case of an emergency was to “run to the Chinese embassy”.

Pupil Victor Gu, 15, who has mainland parents, is eager to learn more about the country. “I feel lucky to have been one of the only people in the world to have had the chance to see the closed-off country first-hand.”

Published April 8, 2013 in the South China Morning Post K

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