Adventurous Jacob Laukatis took a very unusual trip last year, travelling to one of the most mysterious and dangerous places in the world, North Korea.
Jacob is extremely well travelled, having previously visited numerous countries, and has always had a fascination with the ‘mysterious and unique’ hermit kingdom.
However, a definite shadow hangs over Jacob’s trip. Only two weeks before Jacob arrived at the hotel, American student Otto Wambler was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for attempting to steal a poster. He later died from brain damage.
Speaking with UNILAD, Jacob admitted:
A few times I got really paranoid, thinking I might have done something wrong and will be stopped at the airport (that’s how they take you away – at the end of your trip, it happened with Otto too), but apart from that there weren’t really any specific situations where I thought me or other people on my group were in danger.
Finally came back from North Korea, safe and sound. Those 7 days were life-changing in many ways and I'm very happy I visited this truly unique country. This is me running/walking 10 kilometers in the annual #Pyongyang marathon. There were a lot of people on the streets and I got to interact with them by smiling, waving and taking pictures. What an awesome experience that was! P.S. I was only shown what they wanted me to see and didn't have the chance to explore on my own. So obviously I was only shown the good parts of the country. But this image does not represent the daily life in North Korea or the daily lives of its people.
Unlike other documentary makers before him, Jacob made the choice not to comment on the complex political situation in North Korea, leaving it to viewers to form their own opinions.
According to Jacob:
I think the impact is much stronger if the story told in my video makes the situation clear, not me saying – oh, this is good or this is bad or whatever. Also, the Korean situation is quite complicated and I want people to come up with their own questions after watching my videos and do more research – read books, watch TED talks given by the refugees and watch other documentaries.
Instead, Jacob focused on showing the day-to-day life of a tourist in North Korea, spending time with the people, who he describes as being ‘extremely friendly, helpful and fun’.
He rode the Pyongyang Metro, attended a North Korean cinema and took part in the Pyongyang marathon. He played table tennis with school kids, ate out at pizza restaurants and even rode a roller coaster at a theme park. There was much more dancing and laughter than you might expect however, as Jacob admits, he was only being shown what he was supposed to see.
You can follow Jacob’s seven day trip below:
After his trip, Jacob was curious about South Korea, fascinated by the idea of two very different countries having once been one and the same. Since travelling to the South, he has made a new and insightful short documentary comparing the experiences of his two trips.
Bustling Seoul is a very different city to Pyonyang, full of cars, construction work and luxury shopping districts. Most of all there was the freedom for Jacob to speak to others honestly about their life experiences.
Jacob summed up the two vastly different cities in the following words:
Seoul – one of the biggest and most modern cities in the world that never sleeps. Pyongyang – a mysterious city for the privileged few percent of North Korea.
For the last 12 months, after my time in North Korea, I could not stop wondering about life in South Korea. I knew that the South, unlike the North, has become one of the most developed countries in the world. I also knew that its citizens had access to incredibly fast Wi-Fi, voted in free elections, could travel to anywhere they wished and enjoyed a total freedom of speech. It was obvious that over the years these two countries have become very different. However, only now I realize that they've become two completely separate worlds. In just… 64 years. These 10 days in South #Korea have been a lot of fun. I made friends with quite a few Korean people (most of whom have traveled extensively), visited half a dozen different cities, summited the country's second highest peak, rocked an awesome motorbike and did so much more. Today is my last day in South Korea, but I'll definitely come back to this wonderful country. I love being here.
Jacob very quickly learned how limited his experience of North Korea had been. He spoke with Jeong, who was born in North Korea but managed to escape to the South. Jeong’s previous life in the rural North was very different to the carefully cultivated city existence Jacob was shown in Pyonyang, and his escape had come at great personal risk.
According to Jacob, spending the day with Jeong was the most fun part of his adventure:
I learned tons from him and kept wondering if I could have ever gone through what he had.
You can watch Jacob compare his two very different trips below:
Jacob has learnt plenty after taking his two trips, with each country offering him a different perspective:
In North Korea it was interesting to not have any freedom for a week. At the end of those 7 days I think none of us wanted to stay there for longer, because it got really frustrating. In the South, I really enjoyed making friends with the local people and spending time with them.
As a friendly and personable person, Jacob has enjoyed the social interactions he had in both countries, with their very different behaviours:
In North Korea everyone acted very similar and looked very similar. People were usually in huge groups either working, walking or practicing for the parades. There definitely wasn’t much space for expressing one’s personality. However, in the South, people could dance however they wanted, dress however they wanted and look however they wanted.
You can check out more from Jacob’s travels on his YouTube channel, Jacob Laukaitis.
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.