Emily Guendelsberger Emily is senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. She enjoys writing about feminism, opera, television, arts ecosystems, music theory, people with weird jobs and pretty much everything involving money. You can also find her writing at the A.V. Club, the Guardian and other fine publications.
Sean Agnew's Instagram documenting his travels all over the world usually tends to fill us with a combination of envy and doubt about our own career choices. However, some of his photos last week of partying with Dennis Rodman in North Korea, plus his getting interviewed about the U.S./North Korea basketball game on CNN, made us curious enough to bug him for more information.
TL;DW: Agnew says:
When Kim Jong Un came into the stadium...and then it was about 15 minutes of applause, yelling, people jumping up and down screaming... no crying... Rodman played the whole first quarter, then sat away... and got dressed in a traditional Korean suit and then sat next to him, and they just smoked cigars and cigarettes the whole entire... not stopping for a second. But laughing, having a good time, pointing at things, talking... Before the game and during the game, there's no applause. Just silence. And then the North Korean fans had a cheerleader that would literally be like, 'OK. Applaud now... Stop.'
We emailed Agnew, who started R5 Productions and is one of the main guys behind music venues like Union Transfer and Boot & Saddle, to see if if he had time to talk about how the heck he was in North Korea. He replied that he was still flying home at the moment, on "the worst flight path with 3 layovers all around the world," but could answer questions over email.
City Paper: So American citizens can in fact go to North Korea? How so? Is it harder to pull off than traveling to, say, Hong Kong?
Sean Agnew: Yes! There are no travel restrictions currently to North Korea. You do have to fill out a visa application in advance which is a simple one page document. So it's the same as traveling to India or China. However "independent travel" does not exist in North Korea. You cannot come and go as you please. You are always with North Korean guides who take you from place to place. You are free to interact with people, take pictures etc. But you can't just go running down the street and go anywhere you want. You have to ask permission and have someone accompany you at all times.
CP: What's "the worst flight path with 3 layovers all around the world?"
SA: This wouldn't be important. I was offered the opportunity to go while I was already in Asia, so I had to reschedule my flight home which meant 3 long layovers. Getting there was easy. A direct flight from Beijing. About 90 minutes. On Air Koryo (North Korea's airline). They fly out of there 4 times a week. It was the equivalent of a US Air flight. The inflight meal was a hamburger (invented of course by Kim Jong Il)
CP: You were there for... basketball? How did that happen? How did the game go?
SA: I received an e-mail from Koryo Group, a company specializing in North Korean visits for Westerners. I had been e-mailing with them about visiting the most isolated place on the planet since 2007 but never "pulled the trigger". They are the most experienced and established and therefore have the best connections. They got special approval to take a small group of tourists in to come watch the game. I just happened to already been in Asia for Xmas and NYE and this was obviously a once in a lifetime opportunity – so I figured better now than later.
The players were mostly older former NBA All-Stars. I believe Rodman himself is around 53 years old. The rest of the NBA guys were in the mid to late 40s. It wasn't terribly serious – more friendly / exhibition style of play. For the first half the two teams played against each other and the American team "lost" which wasn't a surprise being that they were playing guys in the early 20s who were trying super hard. For the next half of the game, the two teams traded players and it was a mixed group of Americans and Koreans playing side by side. That was much more fun and enjoyable (lots more showing off / fast breaks etc)
CP: Did you meet/hang out with basketballers from either team? How were they different?
SA: I didn't meet any of the Korean players. The NBA guys were exceptionally nice. They would come hang out and drink with some of us down stairs in the lobby. Talking about everything from personal lives to basketball to what they thought of the game / situation. So super friendly. That was an unexpected bonus. I am a huge basketball fan and was familiar with all the players. I got too drunk the one night and I missed a big hotel suite party that kicked off around 4am. We hung out and had drinks with Rodman on the last night. Won't forget that anytime soon.
CP: You mention on a photo with Dennis Rodman at your table that this was "easily the weirdest conversation that was happening at that given moment on the planet." What was that about?
SA: Everything. Politics. His life. Basketball. Politics. His friend Kim Jong Un. Even a discussion on regurgitation. But I don't want to get into details and blow up his spot as that was a private conversation. But every few minutes I had to look around to the other tourists and be like "wait..what is happening here??".
CP: Was this the first time you've been to North Korea?
CP: It seems like you travel to Asia a lot — did you find North Korea to be different than other countries in the area?
SA: Yes. So completely different. Again it's the most isolated place the world, whose citizens have been forced to pledge their lives to two, now three leaders. It's hard to summarize in a few sentences. But politically / socially – it's the most unique place I have ever been. There aren't many places that you can visit in 2014, that re-call 1970s communist Russia (although North Korea is has begun to remove all links to Communism/Marxism). There are of course familiar aspects. Restaurants, bars, taxis, subways, cars, even a pizza shop. Here was something appreciated – there were only 5 advertisements (billboards) in the whole country.
CP: Were you free to wander around Pyongyang?
SA: Not really. Again you have to have a guide at all times. We had a pretty packed itinerary – so there wasn't much time to do anything else. One night a small group of us wanted to go to a "locals restaurant" (basically a place not for tourists) It took about 30 minutes of our guide calling someone (who knows??) to make it happen. It ended up working out and she came with us to walk a few blocks to it. It was a highlight for sure, although they did put us in a separate room from the Korean citizens.
CP: How are North Korean bars?
SA: I believe there are only 3 "bars". Some of the hotels and diplomatic clubs serve alcohol. The place we went to served 7 draft beers. No names for the beers, just "Beer #1", "Beer #2" etc. As the number increased, the level of hops/barely decreased. They were surprisingly good. Cheap too. Around $2 or so for a pint. The outside was a non-descript concrete building. Inside it was designed looked like a German beer hall. Sort of like Frankfort Hall. Except they were playing North Korean propaganda songs inside. That bar was also the only place that we went to that served mixed drinks. While there two small groups of Koreans came in. Not exactly crowded. Only middle-class to rich people (aka the "Pyonyang Elite") could afford to go there.
CP: Did you interact with many North Koreans?
SA: Aside from a guides, servers or hotel staff. No. Years ago, I read reports that citizens were forbidden to talk to foreigners. That's not true. I did have one older guy come up to me while riding the subway to tell me in broken English that North Korea was "the most beautiful country in the world". That was cool. Younger children were the most friendly and would come up to you to wave or say hello. Took a few photos with them. I saw some kids sledding and went up to them but they all hid from me behind trees.
CP: Were there any other specific things that made you think, "...This country is really strange/different."
SA: Yes. Almost everything. Politically / socially its extremely different. I wanted to experience North Korea and see this "system" with my own eyes (well to the best that I could). It's fascinating to see the "Cult of Personality" in action.
CP: What's the story you've been telling people about the trip?
SA: Being there in the stadium (for the game) when Dennis Rodman sang Happy Birthday to Kim Jong Il – we were about 100 feet from "The Grand Marshall" – it was surreal.
CP: There was a ton of outrage about this trip in the conservative press, have you been affected by any of that?
SA: I wasn't in the country for when it happened, so I am only just starting to catch up on it now. His statement about Kenneth Bae was ridiculous and so wrong on so many levels. I think he apologized for it. [CP note: He did.] It's very likely that this trip won't change anything as terms of US/North Korean relations. But perhaps an unintended result, more people will learn about North Korea and all of the problems with it as well as the history of the Korean Peninsula and US foreign policy in the 50s/60s and even now. I believe the State Department did issue a slight statement of support about how Cultural Exchanges can lead to positive change.
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