I had the unique opportunity to spend several days in three different parts of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, more commonly just referred to as “North” Korea. This was an exceptionally life-changing experience that challenged many of the pre-conceptions that myself and fellow western visitors who accompanied me from Beijing had going in. Here are some things about North Korea that may surprise you, as many of them surprised me, as well.
*1. Americans Are Not Hated, But Welcomed*
The Koreans have a very high level of class consciousness, and do not equate the American people with our government. They make no secret of their contempt for U.S. imperialism, but if you say you’re an American, the conversation will usually revolve around culture or sports more than politics. At the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang (think your local library on steorids, with over 30 million books), the most popular CD is The Beatles’ “Greatest Hits”, although Linkin Park is also requested a lot among local youth. The young men seem fascinated with the NBA, and know a lot more about the league than just Dennis Rodman.
*2. Customs and Border Patrol Were A Smooth, Easy Experience*
Many of the westerners who traveled to Pyongyang from Beijing with me were concerned that the immigration procedure would be a long and intense one. Everyone seemed quite surprised that passports were stamped with no questions asked, and that only a handful of passengers had a few items in their bags looked at. Prior to traveling, it is strongly advised by tour companies that people not bring any kind of books on the Korean War or items that have American flags on them. This may be solid advice, but immigration didn’t really seem too concerned about what was brought into the country.
*3. Pyongyang Is Beautiful, Clean and Colourful*
Probably the most gorgeous city in the world, Pyongyang is incredibly well kept. Considering that the entire city was carpet bombed by U.S. forces in the Korean War (what they call the Fatherland Liberation War) and that only two buildings remained in 1953, it is an impressive accomplishment. The statues and grand buildings are awe-inspiring, as are the large green spaces where you can see people relaxing. There are many new apartment buildings sprouting up across the city, but even the ones that are evidently older are maintained well. It is often said that Pyongyang at night is dark, and although it may be compared to a western city, it does have beautiful lights that illuminate much of the downtown area.
*4. Kim Jong Un Haircuts Are Practically Non-Existent*
There was one man who sported the Kim cut who I saw while en route from the airport to the city center, and it wasn’t a good look on him at all! The haircut was rumoured by BBC and TIME who picked up on a South Korean tabloid story to now be mandatory for all North Korean men of university age. Not only is this story not true, so is the allegation that the men in the DPRK only have a select few styles to choose from at the barber shop that are “state sanctioned.” It really works just as it would in the west – there are flyers at barbershops where styles are pictured, making it easier for customers to say, “I want a number seven cut.” But, just as in a New York barber shop, that doesn’t mean that you are restricted to that particular look.
*5. North Koreans Laugh, Smile and Joke – A Lot*
The question you’re asking is probably, “but isn’t that for show?” It would be a mighty accomplishment indeed if with all of the genuine laughs I shared with Koreans, they were putting on an act. Not only that, but for vehicles speeding by on the streets, those Koreans do an impressive job of making sure they’re aware when there are foreigners passing so they can pretend to laugh! Koreans have jokes for just about everything, from Canadians and ice hockey (“why did the Canadians have sex from the back? So they can watch the hockey game”) to Americans at the DMZ (“an American passes a DPRK soldier a cigarette across the demarcation line. The solider smokes it, but the American asks why if he hates Americans he is smoking something from the U.S. The solider replies, I am not smoking it but rather burning it.”)
*6. Monolithic Ideology Does Not Mean Monolithic Personality*
This is a good reminder that individualism and individuality are not one in the same. In fact, observing people interact with one another in North Korea provided the impression that a diversity of personality types was just as strong there as it is in the “open” west. People have a divergence of interests, from sports to culture, and are free to pick what they enjoy and dislike.
*7. People are incredibly well dressed across the country*
Even in the countryside, Koreans dress in a very dignified manner. There was not one place I traveled to where people appeared in the least bit sloppy, or wearing clothes that appeared to be old. Men and women also don’t all wear the same style of clothing, as we are often conditioned to think. It is common to see women wearing very bright clothes, including pink business suits as well as more traditional Korean dresses. Men may often wear ties, collared shirts and suit coats, but it is also not uncommon to see them in more casual wear such as tracksuits depending on the occasion.
*8. Children Begin To Learn English At the Age of 7*
The people’s command of English, particularly among the younger generation, is very impressive. While in previous decades, high school was the time when English began to be learnt, this has been changed to the third grade. Although many children are shy (they don’t see that many foreigners, after all), I was able to get many of them to shake my hand and even exchange a few words in English. Popular languages that are studied in high school include Chinese and German.
*9. Tourism Will Be Boosted In The Near Future*
One of the aspects of the economy that will be prioritized in the future appears to be tourism. The entire Pyongyang Airport is under construction at the moment and in the midst of major expansion. The Koreans are keen to open up to the outside world, but they are also certain to do it in a very different way than the Chinese (after being in Beijing, the omnipotence of some of the worst aspects of western culture their gives them every reason to be cautious in this regard). Air Koryo, which was given the only 1-star rating by the company SkyTrax, was in reality much better in terms of service and comfort than at least a dozen other airlines I had previously flown on. They have a new fleet of Russian planes that fly between Pyongyang and Beijing, provide in flight entertainment throughout the journey (the children’s cartoon Clever Raccoon Dog is hilarious), and serve a “hamburger” (not so good, but edible) and an assortment of drinks (coffee, tea, beer, juice). The whole experience was at least worthly of three-stars if we had to go the rating route!
*10. Koreans Are Keen To Talk About The Country Candidly*
People are very open about the problems facing the country, and don’t shy away from discussing some of the more difficult aspects of life. For instance, they would speak about the “Arduous March” (think the “Special Period” in Cuba) where drought, famine and floods coupled with the loss of the majority of the country’s trading partners brought big setbacks to a country that until the 1980s had a higher standard of living than the South. They will also discuss the narratives regarding the Korean War and are keen for a betterment of relations with South Korea in the eventual hope of reunification. However, they are also very firm on the fact that they will never renounce their socialist principles in order to facilitate this reunification.
*11. Beer Is Considered A Soft Drink, Micro Breweries Are Popular*
Almost every district in the country now has a local brewery that provides beer to the local area. There are a variety of different kinds that are enjoyed around the country, and most meals are served with a small quantity of beer. At Kim Il Sung Stadium where the Pyongyang Marathon started and ended, it was not uncommon to see locals having a drink as they watched the exhibition matches between DPRK football teams. Think Yankee Stadium, just without the aggressiveness of the crowd.
*12. Most of the Tabloid Stories About the DPRK Are Utterly False*
There were probably at least one hundred Americans in Pyongyang at the same time as me, due in large part to foreign amateur runners being allowed to compete for the first time in the marathon. One couple testified how this was their second visit after having traveled to DPRK the year before. They mentioned how they were a bit scared to come the previous time, because it was right after a story had hit the news about Kim Jong Un having had his ex-girlfriend and others killed for making a porn tape. The couple talked about how they walked into an Opera in Pyongyang, and as they sat down noticed that the very women who were supposed to be dead were sitting directly across from them. Walking dead, indeed! Other recent stories to hit the western press via South Korean tabloids regarding mass executions in stadiums or Kim Jong Un’s uncle being fed to a pack of hungry dogs are also said to be non-sense by westerners who travel there frequently and know the country’s situation well. This isn’t to say anything about the existence of political re-education camps or prisons, but an all-out demonization campaign against the country that completely distorts it is of no service to the Korean people.
*13. Koreans Will Not Hesitate To Make You Join In Their Fun*
There were a number of events organized in Pyongyang on the occasion of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, which is a national holiday where people have two days off of work. Some of these were publically organized, like the “mass dances” where hundreds of people dance in large squares to popular Korean songs. Others involved people in the park having family lunches while the kids bought ice cream from vendors and drunk grannies danced hilariously because they had far too much home-made soju. But, just like in any authoritarian state, you must participate! Being shy is not an option, as they will pull you by the arm and teach you every dance move even if they themselves are not quite doing it correctly.
In short, I found the Korean people in the north to be some of the warmest, most authentic human beings I’ve ever had the chance to interact with. It would be silly to refer to the country as a “workers’ paradise” due to the depth of problems it faces. As in all societies, there are positive aspects and negative ones. However, considering that they have overcome centuries of imperial domination, the loss of about a quarter of their population in the Korean War, and continue to maintain their social system in the face of a continued state of war, they have done tremendously well. The accomplishments in free education through university, the non-existence of homelessness, and a proud and dignified people should be presented in order to gain a fuller, more nuanced picture of the country.
I must say that the way that the DPRK is portrayed in the western bourgeois media actually says a great deal more about the effectiveness of our propaganda apparatuses and brainwashing techniques than it does about theirs. The fact that I even have to write about the surprising things I witnessed in DPRK is evidence of the serious lack of understanding we have about the country. The problems facing Korea are never contexualized as they should be – as an oppressed nation aiming to free itself from servitude to big powers intent on gobbling up every remaining state free from a dying unipolarity.
Oh, and I almost forgot about nuclear weapons! Well, let’s consider if the North Korean military was holding military drills annually off the coast of New York that simulated the carpet bombing of Manhattan and the occupation of the entirety of the country, of which they already controlled the western half. Would it not be sensible given that context for Americans to develop a nuclear deterrent? The Koreans are not war hungry or even “obsessed” with the army or military. However, given the way that the situation in Libya played out, they are all the more convinced – rightfully so – that the only reason their independent state continues to stand is due to the Songun (“military first” policy) and the existence of nuclear capabilities. To be sure, they have no intention of using it unless put in that position to have to do so.
It is my sincere desire that there will be continued cultural and people-to-people exchanges in the near future between people from the DPRK and the western countries. Pretty much all of the people who traveled with me back to Beijing were in awe of just how different their experience was compared to what they had expected. They – like myself – gained a great deal from the humanizing experience of interacting with Koreans. Although westerners are relatively free to travel much more so than DPRK citizens, it’s ironic how the Koreans seemingly know a great deal more about us than we know about them. That will need to change in the years to come.