No Margaritaville in North Korea

I wasn’t exactly a world traveler when I joined The Fuller Center for Housing in June of 2011 — unless you count that one night in Windsor, Canada, when I nearly missed the last bus of the night back into Detroit. The bus went through a tunnel under the Detroit River, which I found a wee bit disturbing.

But one of my first tasks with The Fuller Center was to get myself a passport. The Fuller Center works all around the world — in faraway places like Nepal, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, India and a few African countries and a few relatively closer stops such as Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Peru. I didn’t get my passport to go to any of those countries at first. No, I needed to get a passport quickly because my first stop would be North Korea.

It’s hard to believe now, but The Fuller Center had developed an initiative to build 50 homes for families on a farm collective known as Osan-Ri, about 25 kilometers outside of Pyongyang. The plan was to send volunteer teams from the United States to work alongside the North Koreans to develop friendships and trust as much as simple, decent housing. It sprung from a dream Jubilee Partners’ Don Mosley pitched to Millard Fuller, the then-leader of The Fuller Center who saw nothing as impossible.

In the beginning, it seemed to be working. Even after Millard’s untimely passing in 2009, new President David Snell (still my boss today) carried on with the dream as best he could — making four trips to North Korea and bringing back a slew of images from the rogue nation. He was even there for the groundbreaking in 2009 alongside North Korean leaders and families in a festive, friendly atmosphere.

(Click here for my fascinating Q&A with David about his experiences in North Korea, complete with photos from his trips.)

As The Fuller Center’s new director of communications, I was tapped to visit the communist nation and document the progress of this unique project. I wanted to do something different that would capture attention for the work or possibly even go viral on them interwebs. I decided that I would take my colorful acoustic guitar and film myself playing and singing Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” in North Korea. I’m pretty sure that’s never been done.

“Um, OK,” was my boss’ resounding endorsement.

But it never happened. Our last volunteer team visited the project in December 2011 and saw that it was struggling. North Koreans were moving the goalposts and decided that we should just send them the money and they’d do the building. We said, “Um, no.” That would defeat the whole purpose. A couple of days after that last team left, Kim Jong Il died and his Western-educated son Kim Jong Un took over. A lot of folks thought that might signal a new era for North Korea. Unfortunately, it was the beginning of a worse era for the country and the worst may be yet to come.

The Fuller Center’s project was put on indefinite hold, and, to my knowledge, no one has yet to sing “Margaritaville” in North Korea — not even a “Kim Jong Un-aville,” which likely would be the only version allowed by the dictator:

Nibblin’ on uranium cake
Tweets from a fruitcake
Threatening to rain fire down on our soil

His words keep me laughing
And bad hair is my thing
The whole Pacific Rim is beginning to boil

Wastin’ away again in Kim Jong Un-aville …

No, just doesn’t have the same ring, I’m afraid.

My wife is convinced that somehow the combination of my smart mouth, a guitar and my lack of respect for authority would have landed me in a North Korean work camp forever more. But I’m not so sure. Diplomacy hasn’t worked. Threats haven’t worked. So, give margaritas a chance.

The lime has come for a new approach.

What do you think about this?