Three days into the new year and the 2011 Beatrice Webb Award (for excessive credulity in foreign travel) has already been snatched up! Thanks to BBC News for alerting us to young Brown graduate Matthew Reichel, 23, who has teamed up with North Korean dictatorship to offer a one-way exchange program of "grassroots level of engagement…between citizens" of the DPRK and idiotic American college students. Reichel's "Pyongyang Project" exists for students and academics to "experience DPRK for themselves and try to see a different side of a country that's a lot more dynamic than they may have anticipated." According to Reichel, who is currently "learning" (i.e. doesn't speak) Korean, Westerners are only offered a "one-sided" media view of the world's biggest outdoor Stalinist labor camp.
So what can one learn on a tightly controlled, Potemkin tour of the DPRK? An exceptionally dumb PhD candidate and "Pyongyang Project" alum previously wondered if those Beatlemania-like scenes that greeted leaders Great and Dear were just Juche propaganda. But visiting Pyongyang and speaking with prop North Koreans, he was quickly disabused of one-sided Western misinformation, coming away from with "distinct impression that this was real and this was genuine."
Reichel "firmly believe[s] that peaceful engagement, dialogue and cooperation between citizens—American and North Korean—is the most direct way to build trust, promote mutual respect, and lay the foundation for peace and prosperity between North Korea and the global community." How a student visit to the museum of North Korean Agriculture Museum (I hear that the famine film is the Captain Eo of Pyongyang) would have prevented North Korea's recent shelling of its southern neighbor is a bit unclear.
So what if you want to write about your experiences in Bizarro Korea, if you desire to "promote mutual respect" between the students of Amherst College and the prisoners of North Korea? Forget it. As Reichel's website informs potential applicants, "in line with DPRK government regulations, journalists, professional photographers, media employees (including school publications) and government employees are not able to participate in our programs." In case that wasn't clear enough:
—No cameras or recording devices will be allowed during weekdays, except on accompanied excursions. Cameras may be used during the weekends and with the explicit permission of the Korean program director.
– Students may not publish (professionally, publicly, or online) anything about their experiences in the DPRK or the program in general that has not been explicitly approved by us.
– Students will not be allowed to leave campus without a program representative or program director present.
– Students must sign both a program rules form and a waiver form before the start of the program. Failure to sign these forms may result in expulsion from the program.
Let us never speak of North Korea again.
But the real highlight of the "Pyongyang Project" website are the John Reed-inspired testimonials, where one will look in vain for even the mildest criticism of the most sinister country on Earth.
"What an awesome experience with many highlights: we went to an agricultural museum where both leaders had been to several times, and were guided by the same lady that guided President Kim II Sung; on the very same night when we were back to our hotel, we turned on the TV and the TV was showing President Kim II Sung visiting the exact same museum guided by the lady we just saw in in afternoon. What de ja vu!"
But the best testimonial comes from James McClain, a history professor at Brown University (identified by the "Pyongyang Project" website as James M., a history professor at Brown University, a code of Venona-like complexity), who writes, apparently without irony, that Comrade Reichel deserves "thanks…for assembling such an outstanding group of fellow travelers."