I never intended to write this book. When I visited my first axis country, North Korea in 2002, it was simply out of curiosity to see the North after living for almost ten years in the South. At the time, the idea of going on to Iraq and Iran couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Two years later, while working as an Asia Analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense in Washington, DC, a chance to visit Iraq materialized, seemingly out of nowhere. At a morning staff meeting my boss asked for volunteers to do a six-month stint helping the war effort in Iraq. Already bored and frustrated with my DC desk job, I quickly seized the opportunity, though more out of a desire for a change of pace than any specific plan to visit my second axis country.
It wasn’t until Iran, the final country on my axis tour, that I traveled with this book in mind. By that time, January 2006, I had given up working for America’s bureaucracy and gone back to South Korea to resume teaching and prepare for further studies on the North. I saw my visit to Iran, and this book, as a way to examine what similarities, if any, the three axis countries possess, plus begin delving into what I hope will become the focus of my PhD studies – the effects a lack of U.S. economic and cultural ties have on ‘pariah’ nations, and the relationships this engenders among the targeted countries.
My visits to Iran, Iraq and North Korea have thus taken place over several years – June 2002 for North Korea, Nov. 2004 to Jan. 2005 for Iraq, and January 2006 for Iran. While not a tour in any traditional sense, where each place is visited in rapid succession, the nature of travel to these three countries, especially for Americans, renders a normal tour all but impossible. Instead, the traveler is forced to wait for an opportunity to present itself, then suddenly drop everything when the time comes. I trust the reader will forgive any disjointedness in the story caused by these gaps.
The trip to North Korea took place as I was living, working and studying in Seoul, South Korea. At the time I had no idea or intention of traveling to all three axis countries, I simply took advantage of a long-awaited opportunity to visit the North. The visit had a powerful and lasting effect, focusing my graduate studies on North Korea, specifically the effects of U.S. economic sanctions on the North.
By the time I was able to get my North Korea travel visa, I had been trying and waiting for one for nearly ten years. Their visas for American tourists are just that rare – to my knowledge they have only been issued a handful of times in the past decade, the most recent being in October, 2005. The time before that was when I went in the summer of 2002, and, as far as I know, the last time before that was in 1994. Any American hoping to visit the North is therefore urged to be quite patient.
Iraq was in many ways the most disappointing of the three places. Tied down at work on a U.S. military base in Baghdad, there was little time or security for exploring the country or meeting its people. Therefore, the focus of my time in Baghdad, and thus the account of Iraq in this book, became life on a U.S. military base in a warzone.
As mentioned above, Iran was the only country in the axis that I visited with this book specifically in mind. It took over six months of patience and paperwork to finally get the visa, plus nearly $7000 for only three weeks of travel.
The best part of the Iran experience was the relative lack of travel restrictions, at least compared to North Korea and Iraq. Choosing the longest tour I could find (Americans are only allowed into Iran on guided tours, hence the astronomical cost), I was able to travel in nearly every region of the country, missing only the northeast.