Last month I introduced to you Luke Elie. You might have seen him in the news recently because he’s been quite a sensation since his trip to North Korea. He’s been extremely busy with all of the interview requests from big name news outlets like CNN, but I managed to bribe him into meeting me for brunch. Coming from experience, connections and food will go a long way.
When he asked me what I’d like to ask him in regards to his trip to North Korea, I told him that I had no interest in the politics of it. There is plenty of information out there on the politics of North Korea and its current state and I didn’t think that it would be necessary to add another redundant article to that list. What I was curious to hear about was his personal experience and interactions with the North Koreans he met while there.
I also didn’t want our meeting to be a stiff interview but instead wanted it to be just friends getting together to catch up… which will then result in an article. But let’s not linger on that. We met at Itaewon in Seoul, or the foreigners’ district, on a rainy morning and ate at a restaurant that specializes in brunch foods. We sat down and just started to talk. I told Luke what I had been up to since high school, which is when I last saw him, and he told me his story about how he ended up going to North Korea. I felt like it was a fair deal.
Luke told me that Project uNKnown was something he started with hopes that it would become a long term deal. The plan is to take his team to various closed nations and play basketball with the people just for the sake of playing basketball and building relationships. No political agendas involved. And somehow he got lucky on the first try. North Korea had invited him and his basketball team, The Coaches, to play a few games.
Luke described the trip as being both a failure and a success. While planning the trip, the North Korean officials had promised him several games with the North Korean official team. However, that’s not what they got. “When we first got off the plane in North Korea, there was people lined up outside,” Luke says. “They weren’t supposed to stare but I don’t think they could help it.” It’s not every day that North Koreans get to see extremely tall Americans dressed in full basketball attire getting off of an airplane. “I don’t think they were expecting a professional team to come,” he explains. They were probably just thinking that they would shoot a few hoops and visit a few tourist sights and that would be that. However, Luke wasn’t going to settle for just that. He demanded that official games be arranged and North Korea took him seriously. Well, The Coaches eventually didn’t get to play the official North Korean team but instead played against high school student teams, some that didn’t even know how to play basketball. But Luke says that’s okay because the trip was about more than that. It was about meeting people and approaching North Koreans as friendly Americans, contrary to what NK citizens are taught. And in that sense, his trip was a success.
Luke and his team made a deliberate effort to get the kids to laugh every chance they got. They acted silly and fell to the ground on purpose while playing. Luke tells me that at first the kids remained stoic but the team eventually got through to them and were able to have fun with them. But I think the most significant interaction he may have had was with his guide and minder. In North Korea, foreigners do not go anywhere without their guides and minders. It’s the North Korean government’s way of keeping tabs on both the foreigners and the North Koreans.
For the entire week that Luke and his team was in North Korea, they were accompanied by these two people and by the end of the week, they had built a relationship with both. Luke tells me that the minder was especially difficult to break through to. He says that there were plenty of times when the minder and the other teammates would break out into a friendly debate on anti-American issues. However, when the trip came to an end and everyone had to say their goodbyes, the minder came to Luke and said “Of all the foreigners I have met, you will be the only one that I will miss.” And the guide also said her goodbyes with tears in her eyes.
Whenever we read about North Korea in the news, it’s usually all about politics and rockets. But Luke’s trip is proof that it doesn’t always have to be that way. North Koreans are every bit as human as we are and feel all of the emotions we feel. They feel sad when a friend leaves just like you and I do. It’s just a matter of taking the time to get to know them and building a genuine relationship. And I believe this may be more powerful than any politics.