Flashback: American-Jew recalls travels to N. Korea

"A person told me he'd never met a Jew but was taught that Jews were the cleverest people in the world."

December 19, 2011 12:52
4 minute read.
Borenstein in North Korea

borenstein 311. (photo credit: The Jerusalem Post archives)


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While the world is used to seeing images of North Korean soldiers marching across Pyongyang's Kim II Sung Square, for New York native David Borenstein the memory of that square is entirely different.

"We danced there," recalls the 40-year-old physician, who qualified as a doctor at Haifa's Technion and did his initial training at Rambam Hospital, as he begins to describe how he has visited the isolated Democratic People's Republic of Korea twice in the last two years.

It was during his most recent trip in August 2005 that Borenstein spent an evening dancing and watching traditional North Korean performances in the famous square, which is usually used to show the might of the country's over-sized army.

"The people of North Korea believe their country is under siege," says Borenstein, one of the few American citizens granted permission to visit the East Asian nation and certainly one of the few individuals with strong ties to Israel. "They talk about the Korean War [of the 1950s] as if it were yesterday. They think the whole world is out to get them, which is why a large portion of the country's resources are diverted to the military. They feel that if they have nuclear weapons then the rest of the world will listen to them and take them seriously."

North Korean officials announced Monday that the country had set off an atomic weapon underground, placing the communist state into the group of countries with a nuclear arms stock.

Following the announcement, world leaders condemned the test and the UN Security Council called an emergency meeting to discuss the matter.

"We spoke about this subject with our tour guides," says Borenstein, who gained access to North Korea via personal contacts with the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "The average person is convinced that Bush wants to destroy their country."

Although his trip was part of a Friendship Delegation, Borenstein says his visit was more out of a fascination he has with visiting "forbidden nations," than a strong support of North Korean politics or philosophy.

"I have always wanted to visit North Korea," says Borenstein, a former Betar-nik, "but I knew it would be difficult as they do not usually allow American nationals in. I was able to make a personal connection and get an invitation. Later, I was invited back a second time and did not want to miss a good opportunity."

Borenstein has also visited Cuba in 1997 and Syria in 1991. On both of those trips, he spent time with Jewish communities there.

In North Korea, however, Borenstein says he did not hear about any Jewish communal activities. "One person I met there told me that he'd never met a Jew but had been taught in university that Jews were the cleverest people in the world, followed closely by North Koreans," laughs Borenstein, adding that during both his trips he spent time socializing with diplomats from various Arab nations such as Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iran. Borenstein, whose mother is Egyptian born and who speaks fluent Arabic, recalled a conversation with a Libyan official who was shocked when he revealed his Jewishness and his devotion to Israel.

"I don't know if he was surprised to meet a Jew and an Israeli-trained doctor in North Korea or if he had never met a Jew before, but he simply refused to believe that I was Jewish," says Borenstein.

Throughout both his stays in North Korea, Borenstein traveled around the country. He describes the North Korean capital as "drab."

"Pyongyang was destroyed during the Korean War, so most of it has been rebuilt with wide boulevards, from a distance it appears very Orwellian but from close up it looks like Minsk, the buildings do not seem well-built at all," says Borenstein, adding that despite the newly built roads there are very few personal cars on the streets. "Though I definitely noticed a growth in the amount of traffic I saw on the streets in 2005 compared to when I was there in 2004," he says.

Borenstein says that the trip was designed as much to show a selected group of Western tourists the sites of the country, as it was to show the North Korean citizens that there are some Westerners who support the nation.

"For most of the people I meet, I was the first American they ever saw," says Borenstein. "People told me that they'd heard American people were bad. I am sure that those I met went home and told their families that they'd met an American today. The younger generation of people I met was extremely curious."

As for his next trip to a forbidden land, Borenstein has his sights set on visiting Iran. "I heard I can get a good deal on a carpet," he quips.

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