Professors scout for future travel to North Korea

Sarah Koenen | News Co-Editor

Buena Vista University (BVU) plans to add a new and unique travel opportunity to next year’s docket. The trip is to North Korea, and the travel course would be offered in Spring 2013.

The North Korea trip faculty leaders are Associate Professor of Experimental Psychology Dr. Wind Goodfriend, and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Professor Timothy McDaniel, who have recently returned from a “test run” trip to the country which was taken to research whether the North Korea trip for students would be a good idea or not.

According to Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Dr. David Evans, Goodfriend and McDaniel’s recent trip was to scout out the possibility for students to visit North Korea. Goodfriend and McDaniel went to learn more about the country first-hand.
“Traveling there is a unique opportunity to learn about a country that is often in the news, yet is almost wholly mysterious and unknown to Americans,” Evans said.

Evans noted that each of the faculty who are part of the trip have different interests in the country as well. McDaniel is a political scientist and has always had an interest in communist countries. McDaniel has been to Cuba twice to learn more about the culture and politics. Goodfriend, as a psychologist, took interest in the psychology of the people and North Korea’s government.

The one question on campus about the trip, though, has been whether North Korea is really safe. After North Korea’s failed “satellite” launch on April 13, the buzz about a trip being viable for students increased even more. Goodfriend and McDaniel, who were in North Korea when the satellite launch occurred, said that while the moods of their two official North Korean government guides had tensed that day, they never felt insecure or unsafe in their traveling.

“We had two official North Korean government guides with our group at all times,” Goodfriend said. “The launch happened early in our trip. That morning the senior guide told us that it was a great and glorious success. We noticed that our guides were relatively tense that day, so while we were never concerned about our safety or comfort, we knew that something was up.”

After talking to another group of travelers later in the afternoon, more information was learned about the launch.
“Then the next morning we were given a brief ‘update’ and told that, while the launch itself was indeed a ‘success,’ the subsequent flight of the rocket experienced problems that would eventually be analyzed and resolved.  We found that to be a very interesting spin on the situation,” McDaniel said. “So, in a weird kind of way, if anything, the launch experience enhanced our trip.”

Evans wasn’t able to communicate with Goodfriend and McDaniel while they were in North Korea because there is virtually no external communication to the country. He noted that while North Korea is “unpredictable”, the idea of safety while traveling there is a more complex issue.

“I am always concerned with faculty and student safety whenever they are traveling.  There are always risks inherent in travel.  Relative to North Korea in particular, I did extensive research on travel there, as did Professor McDaniel and Dr. Goodfriend, and we concluded that the risks were minimal,” Evans said.

“There is never a 100% guarantee of safety anywhere in the world, and a sensible weighing of risk and opportunity is always part of our consideration when planning student and faculty travel. I expect that it’s more dangerous to walk in New York City or New Orleans at dusk than it is to travel to North Korea; it’s just that those risks are clearer and more understood.  If we determine that it’s not safe beyond the normal risks of travel for students and faculty to go there next year, we will not allow it,” Evans added.

Goodfriend and McDaniel are hopeful that the trip will go next spring.

“We never felt uneasy, unsafe, or at risk in North Korea, in large part because we made very sure that we were sufficiently prepared for this trip and constrained our behavioral choices appropriately,” Goodfriend said. “In fact, each of us felt safer in North Korea than in some other countries and U.S. cities to which we have taken students.  As a result of this trip, we are extremely confident that our Spring 2013 travel course will be safe, successful, and a transformative experience for our students.”

Evans said no final decision has been made about the trip, and even as they proceed, the decision to go or not might have to change at a moment’s notice.

“A definite decision on the trip will be made with appropriate timing—watching developments in North Korea, paying attention to State Department communications, and so on.  It’s really all about student safety and the quality of their experience.  If we determine that the trip does not pose unreasonable risks, and enough students are interested, we will proceed,” Evans explained.

Goodfriend and McDaniel feel the adequate preparation which will come through the actual course they will teach before they travel in the spring will ensure traveling safety.

“We strongly feel that North Korea is a safe place to take sufficiently mature and motivated students,” McDaniel said. “Students who we select to take this course in Spring 2013 will have a safe, educational, and transformative experience in North Korea.”

Those interested in learning more about Goodfriend and McDaniel’s recent scouting trip or about being part of the travel course to North Korea can attend an ACES Event on May 14 at 7 p.m. in the Estelle Siebens Science Center, Room 126.  While the professors have already had preliminary meetings with interested students, they are willing to talk to other interested students at this ACES Event.  The two faculty members will then conduct interviews and select students for the course before the end of this semester. 

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