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I’m often asked what sparked my interest in North Korea. Well, here we go…

Back in June 2008, I was presented with an opportunity to travel to North Korea. It was only a day trip, a little bit more expensive than I could afford and a tough sell when I was in South Korea with the intentions of saving money. I’m not sure whether this applies to me, my friends or just males in general but there comes a few times in life where bragging is absolutely important. You know, the “I just won $650 at that poker tournament” or “I just drank 5 litres of eggnog in a contest to win an iPad, vomited, lost but man, three people cheered me on and it was great!” I’ll be the first to admit that although I couldn’t financially justify a trip to North Korea at the time, bragging was (and usually is) of utmost importance and so if $250 was the price tag to show off, I was more than happy to be a customer. Heck, buy me two. I’ll bring my partner along. Because really, who gets to say they went to North Korea?

A few weeks later we took a five or six hour overnight bus from Masan (way down in the south of South Korea) to Seoul, slept in a PC room and before we knew it, we were on a bus to North Korea. As we were sitting there in our bus, somewhere in the middle of the DMZ, I remember the sight of our South Korean military escort turning around and heading back south of the DMZ after having driven in front of us for the better part of the last hour. In what seemed like somewhere between 10 minutes and forever, we sat there, an entire bus silent, wondering what the heck was going to happen next. Why are we not moving? Where did the South Koreans go? Is this trip over? Why is nobody saying anything? Thought after thought crossed my mind and although a bus full of passengers sat quietly and waited, you just had to know that everyone on that bus was thinking the same thing. It’s like being at a grade 8 dance where the boys and girls stand awkwardly, each group on opposite sides of the gym, as K-Ci and Jojo’s “All My Life” plays in the background. Take that tension, remove the hormones, place it on a bus and drive that bus to the demilitarized zone of two countries at war since 1950. That’s what that felt like.

Without warning and in the distance, we saw a jeep driving towards us. Few moments in life happen in slow motion. For me, it’s my first kiss, proposing to my fiancée, seeing my friends and family at the airport after being gone for a long time, eating a perfect meal and this moment in the bus. You knew who was on that jeep ahead by the soviet style military uniform the passengers were wearing. You knew where they came from and if the goosebumps on my arms were any indication of the feeling during that exact moment, you knew that something cool and somewhat rare was taking place. I remember my thoughts at the time and how I must have felt just like Elliot from E.T. when he first saw that alien, because really, who gets to drive behind a jeep full of North Korean soldiers in you know, North Korea? Oh man, the things I’ll tell my friends. What’d you do today? Eat a grilled cheese? Go to work? Take a flight to Fiji? Unless you were on a rocket to the moon, I win, because I got to go to North Korea.

I’m glad to say that my first introduction to North Korea evolved beyond my ability to brag to everyone. Admittedly, I knew very little about North Korea before arriving there. I knew that it was a closed off society and something about nuclear weapons. I knew a little about the regime and the control it had over its people but to be completely honest, I didn’t know much more. But quite a few times throughout that short trip, I saw things that raised questions in my mind. Why do these roads look so wide? Why aren’t there any cars driving on these roads? Where is everyone? Why does everyone I see look so happy? Is everyone happy? People here do dress much more conservatively than they do in South Korea. Why is that? Why’s everyone wearing a pin of Kim Il Sung? What happens if they don’t wear one? Why are Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il the only authors for the books in this store? What is this place? What the heck is going on?

Upon returning to South Korea, I had to know exactly what North Korea was. What was going on over there and to what extent. Over the next three years, I spent a lot of time asking questions, reading, researching and meeting people who knew some answers: South Koreans, North Koreans, Canadians and others. While I will admit that it has not always been easy learning about what happens in the North, the most surprising thing after all these years is not the information I have come across, but my feeling that a larger part of the world has no clue that all this stuff is going on.

Enter the North Korean Human Rights Film Festival. I want to take that feeling I felt in 2008 – the feeling as I was driving back to South Korea after that bizarre trip – the feeling that inspired me to learn more and tell others. I want the viewers at NKHRFF to walk away feeling the same way.  

- Gilad Cohen

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