P5DX-what could have been….
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This morning, I had to cancel a DXpedition. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life. It was not for lack of permission, it was not for lack of a team and equipment willing to go.
The prospect of a P5 activation brings out the worst in this hobby. The posers, the nuts, the ill-informed and the opinionated. But in the end, it mostly came down to a surprising lack of support and lack of funding from some of the world’s paramount DX foundations when asked to fund grants to the world’s #1 Most Wanted Entity.
This is the story of P5DX.
Throughout several years of ongoing negotiations, the North Koreans have told us that they have never before given permission for an amateur radio activity within the DPRK. Of course we don’t know if this is true or not as others have gone before us and have been approved for DXCC, but this is what we were told. We had hoped to be the first large DXpedition with clear and unambiguous proof that we were active within the country and with real evidence of permission. After tireless efforts, we finally had a letter of invitation in hand from DPRK authorities inviting us into the country as the first-ever large scale amateur radio event.
In April, 2013, we informed the world of our “P5 Project”. We were making numerous visits to the DPRK and establishing real contacts. We were spending thousands of dollars of our family’s money shuttling back and forth from our homes to Pyongyang, and we wanted to give hope to the DX Community that an operation might actually take place.
All told, we made nine visits to the DPRK. Despite several false leads, for the most part our efforts seemed pointless, unproductive and futile.
Until recently, when we finally got our big break.
As part of our P5 Project, we retained an expert in all things North Korea to work and lobby on our behalf. Our “Emissary” was very interested in our project and asked for no money from us. Our “Emissary” has strong relationships within the DPRK and regularly travels there.
In February 2016, our Emissary contacted us while we were on the VP8STI/VP8SGI DXpedition. Our Emissary had been communicating with relevant DPRK officials and sensed a new willingness to consider our proposal.
We renewed our proposal and the talks continued. When we returned home, we learned that we were very close to having complete permission. After a couple more months of back and forth negotiations, the DPRK agreed to a ten day amateur radio activity with three radios and up to 20 team members. A venue was investigated and approved.
Like the 2012 7O6T Dxpedition, the DPRK officials wanted to showcase a new resort and offered it as a DXpedition location. Within a span of a few weeks our Emissary and one of our team leaders made a visit to Pyongyang to have face to face meetings with high level officials. These officials had been involved in Dennis Rodman’s visit as well as the just-completed Pyongyang marathon race. Now that the marathon was over, we had their full attention and cooperation. Things were moving fast.
The DPRK officials stipulated that only three Americans could be on the team and no Japanese, but beyond that we were given the green light to begin assembling a team of varying nationalities from Europe, South America, and Oceania.
The DPRK officials insisted on no publicity in advance of us going on the air, so everyone joining our team was sworn to secrecy. A website was developed but would not be launched until we were live and on the air within the DPRK. It was agreed that we would use the call sign P5DX.
Our last major hurdle was that the DPRK was asking for a very large fee to be paid for the permissions at various government levels and ministries to operate from within the DPRK. It is a very common practice for various governments throughout the world to request a fee to be paid for DXpedition permission and licensing. These fees are typically several thousand dollars in many Third World countries. As we would see, the DPRK fee would be considerably more.
While still trying to keep everything a secret, the largeness of this fee required that we approach several of the biggest amateur radio foundations for financial grants to help us with our tremendous up-front costs.
We also consulted with an international attorney who counseled us how to avoid becoming entangled in violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Essentially, it is a serious crime for Americans to bribe foreign government officials. However, it is not a crime for Americans to be charged extra fees to visit a foreign country. All of our fees would be paid directly ta China-based tour company and no direct exchange would take place with the North Koreans.
Given the outpouring of support that these amateur radio consortia had given to lesser-needed entities in the past, it never occurred to us that they would resist supporting a trip to P5. One organization actually said that we didn’t need their funding because we could charge whatever we wanted for the QSLs! It was a disheartening revelation that they seemed more interested in our ability to raise funds by charging high fees later for confirmation “because we can” rather than in assisting a major DXpedition that was in dire need of immediate pre-departure funding to pull it off. We later proposed that they merely pledge an amount to be donated if we were successful and our operation was accredited by the DXCC staff, thus giving them an easy way out if they were not pleased with our performance. This still did not sway them. Here we were, just a couple of weeks away from the first authorized multinational DXpedition from the world’s most needed country, and we were told we were on our own. I never thought it would come to this.
I have tremendous respect for these organizations and I am deeply disappointed that they could not find a way to support our plans.
This left my Co-Leader, David-K3LP and I no other recourse but to drain our own personal retirement savings to provide the bulk of our funding. In addition to our upfront license fees, we needed to buy radios, power supplies, coax, antennas and many more items. We purchased roughly $16,000 in equipment and we spent almost $4000 to ship it FedEx to Beijing to our staging area, where it still sits as I write this Blog.
We continued to discreetly build our team. Many potential team members were not able to travel to the DPRK with such short notice, which was understandable. We worked very hard and we were glad that we were able to complete a final team of 14 very able operators by the time the deadline to apply for our DPRK visas was upon us. Our plans continued to come together and everyone booked their flights to Beijing. A hotel in China was secured for our pre-DXpedition briefings. Reservations with Air Koryo, the DPRK’s national airline, were made. Less than two weeks to go now. We were delighted that everyone seemed to respect our need for confidentiality. Nothing had been leaked.
But that euphoria would not last. Much to our disappointment, April 19 featured the first of many betrayals of our trust when a blogger opined that he was “hearing rumblings of a P5 activation by 10 US/EU Ops planned for May 2016”. Someone talked. These leaks came almost immediately after our attempts to get grant funds, despite our repeated insistence that the meetings not be made public. And soon the repercussions of that would unravel our plans and cost tens of thousands of DXers a possible contact with P5.
Within a short time, we were contacted by numerous other amateur radio websites and bloggers asking if we were the ones involved in these rumors. We tried not to comment at all, but the rumors would not go away. Finally we admitted we might be making progress but begged for discretion, saying that negotiations were still ongoing and that one of the conditions of the trip was that we not go public until we were ready to go on the air. But in pursuit of their own interests in having a “scoop”, most re-published the unsubstantiated rumors and, as expected, this brought out the crazies and every armchair DXer with an opinion chimed in.
One eHam commenter posted that if all, or some of us were to wind up in a North Korean gulag, that none of us would have his sympathy. We were powerless to act or respond and we kept our heads down and focused on moving forward. Within days, all four Web and Email based DX news sources ran with the rumors, providing links to the original Blogger. All of this was in defiance of the directive of the DPRK officials that we make no pre-event publicity. All of this was working against our efforts.
The Internet ramblings continued and more and more information was shared. Things began to spiral out of control. Impostors pirated my call sign and made numerous posts on DX Summit revealing more of our plans. I had to ask DX Summit to block the use of my call sign after that.
On April 23, just a week before our departure to Beijing and then into Pyongyang, our Emissary traveled to Pyongyang to make final arrangements and obtain our visas. On April 24, our Emissary alerted us that all of the visas were approved with a couple notable exceptions, myself included.
I will never know why my DPRK visa request was refused. I had been to the DPRK on two previous visits and everything was quite positive. It is possible that my pirated call-sign on DX Summit was seen by the DPRK authorities who may have viewed it as a violation of their trust and me not keeping quiet. But i feel I know where the real blame lies.
As I was one of the team members bringing a significant amount of equipment to Beijing with me as well as providing a major portion of the upfront funding from my own personal savings, this proved to be an insurmountable problem. I could not devote a sizable chunk of my life savings for a project that I could no longer participate in.
And since we received absolutely no financial support from the DX foundations we courted for funding despite our desperate pleas for assistance, we decided we had no choice but to cancel the P5DX DXpedition. We waited another 24 hours hoping for a miracle that would never come before finally sending word to Pyongyang to ask our Emissary to inform the DPRK officials of our decision to terminate the project.
At this time, we have a significant amount of equipment waiting for us in Beijing that we shipped a few weeks ago and that would consume another several thousand dollars to ship back. We all have full-fare non-refundable flights that we have to cancel at considerable expense. The financial losses suffered by Intrepid DX and all of our team members are substantial.
I can’t help but feel a tremendous sense of frustration that someone felt the need to betray our request for confidentiality by blabbing about our plans to others, and by those who published these rumors despite being told this would be counterproductive. I am also certain that if some of the large foundations that we had approached had funded our grant request, the remaining team members who already had visas cleared would have been able to continue on to the DPRK and conduct a successful CW/SSB/RTTY activation.
Let me reiterate. We had permission. We had a team. We had all necessary equipment staged in Beijing. We had a venue in North Korea. We had flights and hotels to China and the DPRK confirmed.
What we did not have was the support of those we asked to remain quiet, nor the support of anyone we asked for help with funding. This could have been a Expedition for the record books.
But now we will never know.
What do you think?