Justin Lukach: departing to Pyongyang

An interview with the former Departures host about his trip to North Korea.

By Matt Bossons
[associate features editor]

Jumbo flash cards, each a tiny piece of the overall picture, flash wildly in unison, creating image after image – each depicting revolutionary ideals.

Justin Lukach, along with fellow traveller Scott Wilson and cameraman Andre Dupuis, watch in awe as the Arirang Festival, otherwise known as the Mass Games, unfold before their eyes. This massive choreographed dance display, of up to 100,000 people, traces the history of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, sometimes called the Hermit Kingdom due to its political and economic isolation) in glorious fashion.

Justin Lukach stands on a stone dragon in North Korea. (Photo courtesy Justin Lukach)

“You know all the little pixels on your television right? Well, imagine every little pixel is a child,” said Lukach while watching the games.

In front of the grand wall of flickering flash cards women in long, flowing white dresses dance in perfect symmetry. Bright colours are abound and it becomes clear to the trio that this alone is a good enough reason to visit North Korea.

When Lukach, Wilson and Dupuis visited the country for two episodes of their Gemini-award-winning show Departures, they had the chance to witness life there first hand. It’s a land where nothing is like back home – your shell fish dinner is cooked in gasoline, the showers are cold and propaganda is just part of the tour.

The three travellers were not new to unique locations; throughout the first two seasons of Departures they visited Libya, while it was still under the control of strongman dictator Muammar Gaddafi, both the Arctic Circle and Antarctica, and one of the world’s last true frontiers – Papua New Guinea.

Locations like these have a stigma in the western world; one that has in many cases kept tourists away, and North Korea is no exception.

“People would say don’t go to Rwanda, don’t go to Libya, don’t go to North Korea, because you might not return,” said Lukach.
Of course this sort of talk didn’t stop them, and it’s not stopping other people from venturing into the last remaining front of the cold war.

Despite having been to less-travelled locations in earlier episodes, North Korea still held a deep appeal to Lukach and the team.
“Going to North Korea for us, was like going to the moon,” said Lukach.

This ‘trip to the moon’ was probably the last thing on his mind a few years earlier. Before Departures, Lukach had a good job as a fire protection engineer, living in Hawaii with his college girlfriend of five years. But the moon, or should I say North Korea, became the future when Lukach received a call from Wilson, an old high school friend from back home in Ontario, who was hoping to recruit him to co-host a television show.

Although the two had lost contact after going to college, Lukach jumped at the chance to join his old friend on Departures, and at Wilson’s request sent off a demo. The network liked him; they had found their “balls to the walls guy.”

And with that Lukach left his girlfriend, job and life in Hawaii behind to start the adventure of a lifetime.

The very first thing you do upon entering North Korea is pay respect to eternal president Kim Il-sung at a giant monument of the leader. When Lukach, Wilson and their guides visited the statue, the sky was grey and the statue stood tall and powerful like an omnipresent watchmen of the country he left behind.

The group approached the statue in unison, across a large concrete courtyard, and Lukach and Wilson both laid a bouquet of flowers at the base of the monument before bowing to the deceased leader. As the first thing you do upon entering the country it was already apparent that North Korea was going to be unique.

Justin Lukach in Brazil during the filming of a Departures episode. (Photo courtesy Justin Lukach)

The western world has become accustom to hearing stories of the backwards lives lived by the citizens of North Korea. The country and it’s former leader, Kim Jong-il, have come in to the mass-consciousness of western countries through films like Team America: World Police, and books like Escape from Camp 14. With a leader that is viewed as a god, a population that is taught a drastically different version of history than the rest of the world and starvation and malnourishment on a massive scale, it’s no wonder it makes headlines.

Travelling to North Korea will change the way you think about things, says Lukach. It’s only when you go there that
you can truly comment on it, and maybe, find some common ground to stand on.

“People are the same all around the world, they have a family, they want shelter, food – you know what I mean? And they want their kids to do well in life. That’s universal,” said Lukach.

“They’re very smart people, they are very aware of what is happening now and they know they are getting brainwashed. It’s like if you know you’re getting brainwashed then you’re not going to get brainwashed. They play along with it. They know what’s going on – I don’t want to be the black sheep that stands out.”

It’s like going to Cuba, according to Lukach, like going back in time to a place where the cars are old, the buildings are rustic and life moves at a completely different pace. North Korea is one of the last truly communist countries on the planet that you can visit.

“If you want to know what a true communist country is like – that’s the one.” And for all the cultural benefits of travelling to a country like North Korea, there are relatively few risks considering its reputation. Provided you don’t speak poorly against the regime, you will likely have no issues.

“The DPRK is probably the safest country it is possible to visit,” said Hannah Barraclough, Manager of Tourism at Koryo Tour Group, in Beijing. “We have never had any safety issues with any of our tourists.”

Lukach’s only fear while travelling in the country was for Dupuis’ safety, as occasionally filmmakers and cameramen that are deemed to have crossed the line are locked up.

According to the first Departures episode in North Korea, you cannot take photos from the tour bus, no sneak pictures, no photos of military installations, no pictures of the public without their permission, and no close ups of Kim Il-sung imagery. To do any of these things would be considered unwise.

On the flip side, the camera proved its worth as a deterrent in several locations, acting as a great hindrance to people who might be up to no good.

“Having that camera was the best insurance policy, or the best bodyguard you could ever have because no one wants to touch you,” said Lukach.

Matthew Reichel, Executive Director of the Vancouver-based Pyongyang Project said via email, “For all the media hype, the DPRK is a safe country to visit. We have never had any safety issues, beyond the occasional university student over- drinking and some diarrhea problems, but never anything serious.”

For a country so famous for it’s reclusive nature, it’s surprisingly easy to get in for a peek. There are numerous companies offering various round trip tours from Beijing.

The year before Lukach, Wilson and Dupuis journeyed together into North Korea they visited another remote and unique location – Antarctica. Visiting the snow-covered and largely unhabituated surface of our planets most southerly landmass, Lukach says, was largely due to the hard work of the shows producers.

After they accomplished getting the boys to Antarctica, they thought it would be prudent to push for North Korea for the show’s final season.

“It’s hard for us, being on the road all the time, to be worrying about visas and all that kind of stuff. Our job is to be travelling and being as authentic as possible, so we did have a group of researchers that would research countries and put together itineraries and we look at the itinerary, tweak it and go,” said Lukach.

From the bottom of the world, to the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea, the Departures producers were the behind-the- scenes masterminds.

“We did take the Departures crew in – they were great fun to work with. It wasn’t very easy to arrange it with the Koreans initially but once there it was fine mainly because they are such great guys and the Koreans really relaxed with them and didn’t feel threatened by what they were doing,” said Barraclough. “It has turned out to be a great promotional piece and the Koreans are very happy with the result.”

The only thing that can occasionally get in the way when travelling to countries controlled by a repressive regime is the occasional riot, revolution or protest movement. Whether it’s the Tiananmen Square incident in China, the slaughter of protesters and monks in Burma or the Arab Spring uprisings – there is certain unpredictability to this type of travel. This is exactly what happened when the Departures team planned to go to Iran to film an episode. All it takes is one bad election, some large-scale civil unrest and all of a sudden travelling there doesn’t seem like that bright of an idea. Needless to say, any plans to travel to Iran were scrapped pretty quickly.

Even with the risk, the rewards of greater understanding that come from unique travel destinations is enticing some western tourists to give North Korea a shot. According to Barraclough, over the past few years the Koryo Tour Group has brought in an average of 1,500 tourists a year, about half of them Westerners. This year has seen an increase to around 2,400 tourists being brought in with the company – a sign that there is a growing interest in the country.

“We could sit here all day and explain what we saw, and yeah, we can only tell you so much, but if you really want to see what this place is about you have to come here,” said Lukach during the season three episode of Departures in which they visit North Korea. This revelation really says it all, that you can’t fully understand a place, its people, or its point of view unless you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and take a look.

Since the show’s completion roughly three years ago, Lukach has moved back to Canada, splitting his time between Vancouver and Las Vegas. Departures may be over, but television programing is something he still plans to have as part of his future; he currently has a project in the works.

And for now, with the adventures in the Hermit Kingdom over, it is unlikely that Lukach will have the chance to see 100,000 people perform for him anytime soon. That is unless the Granville Street Stanley Cup fans get a lot more coordinated and gymnastically inclined.

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