I just can’t get enough of Seoul and Incheon.  Both are sister cities with Honolulu.  This means our cities are tied together to foster diplomacy, friendship, understanding of our cultural differences and encouragement of trade and tourism.

For these reasons while I was Mayor of Honolulu I had the pleasure and privilege of making a number of visits to the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

Recently, I returned as a private citizen.  A highlight of the trip included the Seoul City Tour Bus.  The Seoul City Tour Bus allows you to hop on and off the bus to see what you want to, stay as long as you want and return when you are ready.

Another highlight of this trip was my first visit to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from the South.  This gave me the opportunity to stand in South Korea and look into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).

North Korea DMMZ

The North Korea side of the DMZ (demilitarized zone).

Peter Carlisle

Less than a week and a half later, after a brief visit to China, I had the pleasure and privilege of standing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) while looking back at South Korea.  It was a remarkable experience.

Many people ask me why and how it was possible to get to North Korea.  To this I owe a great debt of gratitude to my close friend, former Judge Pat Border.  He loves all things Korean.  He invited me to join him in North Korea and knew exactly how to get me there.  He knows exactly how to get us to North Korea since he has visited there more than half a dozen times.

A little history might be instructive.  Korea was ruled by Japan from 1910 until the closing days of World War II.  The United States entered World War II in December of 1941 after the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy.  Near the end of the war in August 1945 the Soviet Union, then an ally of the United States, declared war on Japan and, by agreement with the United States, occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel.  United States forces subsequently occupied Korea south of the 38th parallel.

After I flew out of China it wasn’t long before I saw the DPRK from the air.  The landscape was beautiful.  There were verdant fields, rugged mountains and large free flowing rivers.  Once on the ground I was a tourist and invited guest of the DPRK.

The landscape was beautiful.  There were verdant fields, rugged mountains and large free flowing rivers.

In some ways this involved more restrictions than many Americans are accustomed to while in America.  But that is the point.  I was not in America, was permitted to be a guest in North Korea and a guest should be polite and respectful of their host.

North Koreas are aware of and can accept that foreigners hold different opinions, but they do not wish to be “taught” or “saved” by their guest anymore than I want to be saved from being an American.  I also learned that most North Koreans have never been outside of North Korea.

Wisdom and manners in North Korea include not showing disrespect to any aspect of North Korean life or belief and especially not to their leaders Kim il Sung, Kim Jong il and Kim Jong Un.  Pictures of these leaders in newspapers are folded so their faces are never creased.  A large number of enormous pictures and statutes of them are seen on government buildings, as monuments, in parks, in schools and elsewhere for the citizens to appreciate and enjoy.

North Korea Peter Carlisle with statues of leaders

Peter Carlisle poses in front of statues of North Korean leaders. Tourists are cautioned not to show any disrespect to the country’s leaders.

Peter Carlisle

During my visit I was exposed to a wide variety of experiences.  Our group was taken around the capital city of Pyongyang in a mini bus with a tour guide explaining landmarks, buildings, everyday life in North Korea and places of historic and revolutionary significance.  We had fantastic meals wherever we went.  More importantly the beer was outstanding and it was the first time since college I went the better part of a week without eating at a McDonald’s.

We were invited to the Supreme People’s Court where I met the highest ranking lawyer who presents cases to and advises the Court.  Most of his courtroom work is prosecution.  It was a tremendous honor for him to take time out to speak to us and answer our questions.  In all of North Korea there are only 215 lawyers 15 of whom are women.

He and I talked about civil rights and their system of justice.  I told him it would be interesting if we could meet again so that we could have further discussions and invited him to visit.  He told me he would have a hard time getting a visa to the United States.  I felt like an idiot for not anticipating that problem.  But he did suggest that if he was going to go to a convention of lawyers somewhere other than in the United States we might be able to continue our discussions.

The high point for me of the trip was returning to the DMZ this time from the North.  On the southern side of the DMZ is a modern metal and glass facility.  Fortunately on the northern side of the DMZ the buildings where the signing of the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement took place have been preserved.  As a result it is a place of tremendous historic significance that is frozen in time.

In all of North Korea there are only 215 lawyers 15 of whom are women.

The signed armistice established a complete cessation of all hostilities in Korea by all armed forces that is enforced by the commanders of both sides.  Essentially a complete cease-fire was put into effect.  The armistice is however only a cease-fire between military forces, rather than an agreement between governments.  No peace treaty was signed, meaning that the Korean War has not officially ended.  As a result, Korea’s DMZ is recognized as the most heavily defended national border in the world.

During my visit to the DPRK (North Korea) I was given instruction on the Korean War which is called in the DPRK the Fatherland Liberation War.  I was informed that the United States government had been planning the war ever since the end of World War II.  The United States government started the war and the DPRK won it.  There was little discussion of United Nations participation nor of General Douglas McArthur nor of Incheon.  I listened politely and kept my mouth shut which, for me, I dare say was no small task.

My sincere impression is that both North and South Korea want unification of Korea.  But there is an omnipresent devil in the details.  Both Koreas want their own forms of leadership, economic institutions and current culture left intact.

It is my endlessly optimistic nature to hope that one small step in mitigating and narrowing this vast divide is by having Americans visit both North and South Korea while being good guests to these hosts.

North Korea Peter Carlisle with soldier

Carlisle greets a North Korean officer. Americans are heavily restricted when they travel to North Korea.

Peter Carlisle


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