DPRK TRAVELER SPOTLIGHT: Thomas Shubbuck, American in North Korea

This week, our DPRK Traveler Spotlight is on Thomas Shubbuck, an American teacher from Las Vegas currently living in Shanghai. He traveled with us to North Korea on one of our Shanghai – Pyongyang Direct Tours. See what he has to say about his trip:

Uri: Can you give us a short introduction about yourself, where you’re from and what you do now?

Thomas: I am from Las Vegas. A few months prior to graduating from my university, I undertook a 5-week intensive study tour of Europe and since then, I found myself traveling as much as I can when I have free time. While in the United States, I worked in the administration departments at some top tier universities before moving to Shanghai, China. I currently spend most of my time counseling and training high school students for continuing their studies in America.

Uri: What made you interested in visiting the DPRK?

Thomas: North Korea was always a mystery to me, which is why it has always intrigued to me. I like going “off the beaten path” and into places that few have visited. Two months ago, I spent three weeks hiking the mountains in western Mongolia and meeting the Islam community there, a place where few foreigners have had the opportunity to visit. And in January I made my way through northern Thailand with stops in Myanmar and Laos. I love meeting new people and experiencing cultures before they become overly crowded cities with loud car horns and people spending their entire dinners looking at their iPhones. In North Korea, it was special to see people speaking to each other on the street instead of rushing to get somewhere.

I’m also inspired by my brother and his wife to travel more. A couple of years ago, they took a 13-month trip around the world and created a travel website TwoTravelAholics.com to write about their adventures. Someday I would like to beat their record in number of countries visited.

Uri: As an American, what concerns did you have in visiting North Korea?

Thomas: I actually had no concerns about visiting North Korea. After traveling to many countries, I have found most people to be friendly despite our relations with those countries. If I spent my days feeling concerned about such things, I may never leave my front door. My biggest concern was if I could see all the sights that were listed on our itinerary, but surprisingly we were able to fit them all in in the few days of my visit.

Uri: Your students in Shanghai generously donated many gifts for students in the DPRK. How were the gifts received in the DPRK?

Thomas: Yes, the students at my high school in Shanghai donated gifts for both the high schools and the Nampho orphanage that were listed on my itinerary. Before leaving I had asked my students for small donations but I suddenly found myself flooded with school supplies and stuffed animals that it took an additional trip by Andrea [Uri Tours’ CEO] to bring all of the gifts to the children. The gifts were very much welcomed by everyone.

We also made a surprise visit to a kindergarten near a stop at a co-op vegetable nursery. It wasn’t a planned visit but suddenly I found myself visiting handing out crayons and toys to students. They all rushed out, sang songs for me and played a few games with me for about 20 minutes. It was a very good experience to see the smiles on their faces.

Uri: You’re probably not their average visitor. How did the Korean children react to you?

Thomas: The children were overjoyed to see the gifts. Particularly, the children at the orphanage jumped on me and onto my lap.  They really seemed to be having a lot of fun. I didn’t see any of them fighting over the gifts but sharing them with each other. As I think back, I visited all age groups in North Korea except for the elderly. Every place I went, people were friendly and welcoming. Several places I visited there were students painting landscapes. The students really let me see them in their element and how they see the world through their artwork. It wasn’t just the children who reacted positively to me. Even adults on the street when I randomly walked over to people and shook their hand, they would give me the biggest smile and some would even hug me. I shook the hands of young people in Kim II Sung Square, students painting in Nampho, and even the general who gave us a tour of the DMZ. They all gave me a warm and friendly smile and that is the reaction I was hoping for and expecting.

Uri: How did you manage to get yourself into a tug-of-war?

Thomas: Well, working in Asia, I know that there is usually an annual activity at the high schools involving sports. I happened to arrive at one of the schools during their sports day and found myself joining in their tug-of-war. My team won 2-1 and believe me, it was not because they let me win. It was quite fun! They were also playing other games involving “capturing the hat” from the other teams, running to place a flag at the top of a pole, and also wrestling.

Uri: What was your favorite part of the trip?

Thomas: Everything I experienced was very enjoyable from the moment we left the hotel until we returned. While most other tour companies (and this is why I usually do not visit places with tour companies) bring you to souvenir shops for half of the tour, this tour was action packed for nearly 12 hours a day. It wasn’t like I was being quickly moved from one place to another and set on a time table but rather I was able to take my time, experience the people and culture, and spend the entire day interacting with a society I never thought I would have had the opportunity to see. If I had to pick one favorite part I would have to say it was the Pyongyang Circus. The performers were exceptional, the live orchestra was great, the comedians were actually funny, and there were no live animals being whipped or brought out in chains. It really was a lively and amazing show.

Uri: What are your general thoughts and impressions about traveling to North Korea as an American?

Thomas: My impressions of North Korea were all very positive! The new focus in North Korea seems to be on tourism and bringing people into the country to experience something different. They just build a ski resort, will soon open a new airport, were working on paving roads while I was there, and had several amusement parks available to visit. The only time that there was talk specifically about the U.S. was at the War Museum. If you do not wish to discuss or view topics about the Korean War and America’s involvement, you can simply request not to visit [Uri comment: yes, this is true, this museum is an optional visit.] In fact, my tour guides kept telling me that all places were optional and that I could choose if I wanted to go or not. We even had some free time and that is when they suggested I visit the circus. I really thought they did a great job in taking care of me and letting me see everything that their country had to offer.

Uri: Would you recommend this trip to others?

Thomas: Yes, very much so. I have a friend who says he would like to go at a later date, but why not go before things change? Before the iPhones arrive and dinner conversations no longer exist, before the traffic lights and cars make traveling through a city too long of a process, before the focus for the day is more on work and less on a simple lifestyle. I was lucky enough to be on my own private tour! As I looked around I saw several other foreigners boarding buses with others and doing the usual “I don’t want to be with these people” glances, as I hopped in my car and took off to adventures that I will never forget. I suggest you go now before you become just another tour bus tourist visiting the sights with 50 other people standing in your picture, shouting to “move along”, and others kicking your chair from behind you. The memories I have from my experience are worth so much. My friends like to tell me that they “were technically in North Korea by walking around the table at the DMZ” but now I look at them and say “technically I was in South Korea.”



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