North Korea: the rogue pseudo-communist state that clings to the belly of China above its far richer southern neighbour. We all have preconceptions of the Hermit Kingdom, but what would it be like to study there? As the rule of the Workers Party of Korea (and by default, the Kim dynasty) enters its seventieth year and celebrations crowd the streets of Pyonyang, Swansea war studies student Jonas Davidson is prepared to offer us a snapshot of life inside the DPRK. Renowned for its Orwellian feel and military complex North Korea is often portrayed as a surreal and unwelcoming place. We ask if that is really the case.
GW: Out of all the propaganda you were fed what was the hardest lie to swallow?
JD: Truth be told we weren’t “fed” anything that was inconceivable or completely ridiculous. Most of us before we went on the trip were pretty uncertain as to what to expect anyway. In reality the North Koreans are extremely proud of some of their achievements, especially their architectural feats like the Juche tower in Pyongyang. Some things were slightly exaggerated such as the number of times that Kim Jong Il had visited a particular factory, but that was expected since they hold their leaders in such high regards. Memorizing the number of bricks and how long it took to build was hardly the propaganda we were expecting to hear about and lots of it was probably true or just mildly exaggerated. We all heard the rumors about North Korea reporting that they discovered a unicorn lair and other silly rumors. In reality they don’t actually try and tell us stuff like that and ironically a lot of it is western propaganda. If you asked a North Korean about how they won the world cup they would probably think you were joking. I doubt they even report that as news within the state. I think it’s easy to forget in the West that these are still people with normal lives and everyday problems that just so happen to live under an oppressive regime.
GW: Did you ever get to talk to a regular North Korean citizen absent of a minder?
JD: Not really, since our guides are always with us anyway and we would have been pretty lost without them. A surprising amount of North Koreans speak English which makes sense seeing as it’s the business language of the world. We packed so many activities into the day that we didn’t really get a chance to properly have a chat to passersby. I guess it depends on what you mean by regular North Koreans in such a strange and far away country. It’s pretty hard to tell what a regular North Korean is supposed to be, but then you realize it’s just the normal people that live there every day. Lots of them would come and say hello to us in the street but they seemed to be just as mystified and intrigued by us as we were of them.
GW: How aware were you, if at all, of being under constant surveillance?
JD: We were told by our western tour guides that it’s a question they always get asked. Realistically The Koreans have neither the resources nor incline to bug and monitor every single room, conversation and topic we asked about. The Korean guides were naturally keeping an eye on us but it felt more as though they wanted to make sure we weren’t misbehaving as opposed to actually spying on us. Going to North Korea you feel more like a guest as opposed to a tourist like in other countries. They’re happy to have you there but you still need to observe some basic common law that wouldn’t be out of place in any other country really.
GW: As a person from a Western democratic state which fought against the DPRK in the Korean War, what was the reaction of North Koreans towards you?
JD: I was amazed at how nice the North Koreans were to us to be honest. Again, we were all a bit worried in the group at first about what people would think of us. You quickly realize that they are just as interested in finding about your culture and lifestyle because although they seem strange and foreign to us, they think the same thing about the Western tourists. We did stick out a lot in our bright colored shirts and shorts in a uniformed nation, but that they were never hostile towards us. Naturally some people showed more interest in speaking to us than others since Pyongyang is pretty used to tourism now. Lots of people ignored us not because they were hostile or didn’t like us, but because they had better things to do than talk to a bunch of tourists!
GW: Were you ever allowed to leave Pyonyang apart from on state sanctioned visits?
JD: We were a tour group so we obviously had a schedule. You can do personal tours where it’s just you and a tour guide but they’re quite expensive. Either way I’m sure they only show you what they want you to see but we expected nothing less. It was still a fascinating and often bizarre experience you really couldn’t get anywhere else. Ultimately they wanted to show us the best of their country which is surely the point of any tour regardless of which country you’re in.
GW: Was there any evidence of famine given North Korea’s recent appeal to the UN?
JD: As I said, we were a tour group. If you went to any country on a tour they would hardly show you civil unrest or the bad parts of their country, so why would the North Koreans want to show us anything like that? I can’t say that firsthand I saw any evidence of famine on my trip and if there was they weren’t going to let us see it.
GW: Aside from lip service, did you find people were genuinely passionate about Jucheism and the North Korean regime, in particular the personality cult of the Kim dynasty?
JD: Here is really the only area where North Koreans differ from other people when you talk to them. They take the idea of Jucheism very seriously since it’s an extremely important ideal to them and something of a national pride. Oddly enough, at the base of the Juche tower there were hundreds of plaques from other countries ranging from the UK to South Africa that were donated from various sympathetic groups. North Korean life is very political so most of them weren’t too keen to have long conversations about it. Besides, sinking North Korean beers in the bar during the evenings hardly seemed like the right place to ask about it in detail. Speaking to the tourists is one of the few times they don’t have to and to them it’s a bit of a relief to have a break from talking politics. They all spoke admirably about the leaders and the party and from the short experience I had there, the people I spoke to seemed to genuinely believe in it.
GW: What was your strangest and most idiosyncratic North Korean experience?
JD: The entire trip. It is the strangest, most interesting and odd place I have ever visited. I’ve visited most of Western Europe, Russia, the US, parts of Africa and China to name but a few. However North Korea takes the prize in terms of peculiarity. It’s quite hard to really describe to your friends when you get back because words can’t really put you there. Up until Korea the strangest thing I had seen was live bears performing on motorbikes at the Moscow state Circus in Russia a few years ago. For now the oddest experience was Karaoke in one of the bars after a few beers (more than a few). Asia takes Karaoke very seriously and I had the honor of performing “Barbie Girl” by Aqua to the group along with a mixed audience of North Korean and Chinese tourists. It was about as dignified as it sounds but my flip flops, rugby shorts and university jumper combo seemed to be a real crowd pleaser. Another, more cultural experience was probably the Northern side of the DMZ. Most of the people who had been to the South side said the Northern side was less restricted. We were given an in depth analysis of the border by a senior army officer and had far more freedom to look around than you would get from the tours in the South. It’s pretty indescribable to be staring down at a South Korean army post and see him looking straight back at you through his binoculars. The same could be said about the no man’s land in between the countries. You wouldn’t think it, but this beautiful and overgrown haven for the wildlife was in fact, the most heavily land mined place on earth. Overall, everything you do there is so foreign and out of the ordinary, that even the simplest thing you do seems amazing and a new experience that no amount of storytelling could give justice to.
GW: Did you ever come into contact with any Westerners apart from your party and what were their impressions of the country?
JD: There were other western groups that used different tour organizations but there weren’t many. There were far more Chinese groups and a few Russian tourists as well. We spoke briefly at the hotel during mornings but we all had different schedules so it was hard to tell what we had or hadn’t seen. From the people I did speak to we were all in the same boat which was pure amazement at what we were seeing each day.
GW: Did you feel restrained in your studies, your daily movements and your conversation?
JD: Not really, the North Koreans were pretty happy to answer any questions about whatever they were showing us. We were briefed by the tour guides before we set off from Beijing not to ask questions about nuclear weapons or sensitive subjects. Realistically the tour guides wouldn’t know the answers and it would have been pretty rude to ask them anyway. All it would have done was irritate the Korean guides and that wasn’t what we came here to do.
GW: Were any North Koreans ever honest with them about the situation there, maybe a guide after having a drink, or just generally?
JD: The British and North Koreans certainly share a common interest in cheap strong lager, that’s for sure! There were many opportunities in the evenings to enjoy as many or as few drinks as you wanted and the Korean guides were always there doing the same. A fond memory of mine was introducing the group to “Fives” and a couple of other university drinking favorites. It was a great chance to not only find out about the guides, but also the rest of the group who were all completely different ages from different countries and backgrounds. Ironically the group had literally nothing in common, apart from an interest and fascination about visiting this strange and far away country but we all got to know each other quite well by the end of it.
GW: Were the North Koreans happy?
JD: The ones I met seemed pretty content. Even the ones in the countryside who were just going about their business would usually stop and give us a wave. I suppose it was a bit of excitement for them in what would otherwise be a pretty boring and ordinary day at work.
GW: What was the environment like? Were the buildings old, soviet style blocs or more traditional and regal? If you had to choose an era of buildings in the UK as a comparison what would be most applicable?
JD: I don’t know much about architecture, but most of the utilitarian buildings in Pyongyang were of a Soviet style concrete block. The North Koreans quite enjoy adding color to some of them and make them look a bit friendlier than the standard khaki skyline most people would assume the North Korean capital looks like. This was just the living blocks and office buildings though. There were still hundreds of amazing buildings such as murals, war memorials, libraries and public buildings to name a few. Most of what you will see in North Korea is like no other, and the architecture can really blow your mind when you realize you’re stood beneath a 20 foot bronze statue of one of the leaders. It’s quite an unknown thing about the country since most people don’t realize the Korean pride in grand buildings until you get there and see them yourself.
GW: What were the government officials most excited about? What did they seem enthused talking about?
JD: Whenever we went somewhere we would be greeted by a local guide who would talk to us specifically about what we were seeing. They all seemed enthusiastic and took pride in what they were talking about. At the border for example, we met a colonel who clearly enjoyed talking to us about the border with the South and we asked lots of questions in return. For example the guides would often beam with pride when they told us about the leader coming to visit them, or when their factory produced more than the figures projected.
GW: Were there any false fronts, so to say, a building which looked great on the outside but was horrible on the inside, run down, or lack of facilities?
JD: Everywhere we visited was immaculate, including the brand new airport that still smelled of fresh plaster board and paint. The Koreans take great pride in looking after their country, so there was almost no litter or graffiti, which was extremely odd to someone like me who has lived in London for my whole life. I personally didn’t see any building fronts themselves. There were obviously few shops since North Korea is hardly a consumerist society compared to more developed countries. I never saw anything like the fake supermarkets I was expecting with badly painted window fronts and crooked “open” signs hanging up in the door. The shops I did see seemed to be open for business and had a people walking in and out of them like normal.
GW: When you wanted to take photos, were they any restrictions? JD: I never had any trouble taking photos and ended up taking about 5000 in the space of a week. It’s almost overwhelming because there’s so much to see and you do end up taking loads. The only thing they didn’t want were pictures of the armed forces, although you wouldn’t take pictures of soldiers or military installations in this country, so it’s hardly an unreasonable request.
GW: Anything else you’d like to add?
JD: It’s funny how many of my friends were shocked to hear that I had somehow been to visit what has been dubbed “the hermit kingdom”. I think most people really aren’t aware how simple it is to visit North Korea or what it’s really like there. I have travelled all over the world and seen some incredible and interesting things, but North Korea has got to be top of the list. It’s one of those things you really should just go for and see for yourself.
GW: Thank you very much, very eye opening indeed.
words by Graham Wilson and interview by Jonas Davidson