Water Park Diplomacy: Bridging the Gap with North Korea

Where governments fail, everyday people sometimes succeed (in the most unlikely of places).

This summer I had the fortunate opportunity to take a short sabbatical after 15 years of service to my nonprofit organization, United Planet, which focuses on building stronger global community.

My two sons, aged 13 and 15, had been nagging me to go to (of all places) North Korea. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. When I was about their age, I traveled to the Soviet Union with a school group. While growing up, I had been immersed -- like most children of my generation -- in the fear and tension surrounding the Cold War. I wanted to help solve the conflict by studying Russian and understanding the issues first-hand.

Today, challenges with Russia still persist on some level, but there are other countries, like North Korea, and regions, such as the Middle East, which vex us even more.

For whatever reason, North Korea was a place that captured the imaginations of my two teenage sons.

To my surprise, there were multiple companies and organizations in the US, UK, and China that arranged travel to North Korea.

Fast forward, six months. My sons and I are bobbing up and down, skin to skin, with 300 bikini-clad North Koreans of all ages, shapes, and sizes in a wave pool in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. We're the only foreigners in a water park of more than 3,000 people and it is a crowded Sunday in the middle of summer.

When we first entered, we were welcomed with a lot of odd, inquisitive stares. It could have been our height, our blondish hair, or just maybe it was the fact that I was a lot more hirsute than the average local.

As the water began to churn and the waves began to roll, our ideologies, politics, and fears washed away. Glares turned to giggles as we were thrown into each other like a thousand corks in a small swirling tub.

A moment later, I found myself running after my two sons as they quickly zeroed in on the most dangerous (and hair-raising) of all the attractions in the park -- the diving platforms.

The platforms started at 3 meters, rose to 5, and then climbed to a towering 7.5 and 10 meters. Most of the crowd huddled around the 3-meter platform. Some jumped and others plodded awkwardly into the water a short distance below. But a few hardy souls stepped over the "section closed" rope to access the 7.5 and 10 meter platforms. The life guards stood by nonchalantly.

My sons immediately followed this small fool-hardy crew. Out of fatherly love and obligation, I followed.

Suddenly a crowd gathered around the entire rim of the pool, clapping and crying out with laughter. What might all this commotion be about we wondered. Then we realized that all fingers were pointing toward us. They expected nothing less than for us to jump. All of us to jump!

Fear gripped me as I lumbered toward the edge of the platform and peered at the precipice below that appeared to be two to three stories down. I looked out at the crowd, and then patted my fingers against my chest to mimic the palpitations that pounded within. They let out a giant guffaw. "They've all come to watch me drop," I pondered. I whispered to my boys that I loved them (just in case) and tippy toed to the edge. One by one, we plummeted down. As we emerged from the pool, our skin stinging from the fall, the crowd embraced us with enthusiastic pats, handshakes, and grins.

We had entered the park as foreign antibodies in a pool, but when we left the "other" had become "a brother." We dubbed the experience "Water Park Diplomacy!"

Later on in our journey, we set off to Brunei, the small Muslim nation tucked away on the island of Borneo. A cyclone of preconceived notions rushed through our minds before we arrived in country based on messages of the media and the state of current affairs.

As we waited to board the plane from Manila, a very kind family dressed in colorful headscarves asked us where we were headed. "You're going to Brunei," they exclaimed. "We don't hear of that very often. Most people just come for business. They go around and they don't even know what they are seeing. We want that to be different for you. We want to take you around."

So the next morning, our new friends picked us up from our hotel and took us around the whole city of Bandar Sewi Begawan. For lunch they took us to a hidden gem -- a place known only to the locals for its authentic "home-made" Bruneian cuisine. And when we sat down at the large circular table, our friends ordered for at least five minutes straight. "We want you to try everything," they said. It was one of the best meals that we've ever had.

After lunch, our friends treated us to a taxi boat ride through the oldest (and largest) water village in the world dating back over 1,000 years. Multi-colored homes hung precariously on thin stilts before us as we sat back in awe in our small canoe.

Again, like in North Korea, water united us. North Korean, American. Muslim, Christian. We were separated by language, culture, dress, ideology, and religion, but united through the joy of friendship, mutual discovery and our common humanity.

Governments can only take us so far. But people -- everyday citizens (like you and me), everyday water park and water village diplomats -- can change the world and build peace one relationship at a time.

"Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean." -- Ryunosuke Satoro

If enough of us take the leap and dive into uncharted waters, whether it is across our neighborhoods or across the world, perhaps we will no longer find a foreigner there; perhaps we will find a friend.