social sciences

A sneak peek into North Korea

It is actually possible to go to North Korea for vacation. You will need to apply for a visa. Your trip, however, will most likely be highly restricted. You will have a curfew, you can’t leave your hotel at certain hours. And you can’t photograph everything you see, your camera will be checked upon leaving. You will be accompanied by a ‘tour guide’ at all times, so you can’t stray from the predetermined trip. Though, apparently the Chinese have a little bit more freedom and are allowed to drive cars.

One of the most famous hotels in Pyongyang is the Yanggakdo Hotel. If you’re interested in what it must be like staying there, I recommend you read the reviews on TripAdvisor. On average the hotel gets a ‘decent’ rating, though, reviewers often add ‘for North Korean standards’.
One of the reviewers explains:

“Whilst a lot is to be said for the fact this hotel is in the DPRK and all the perks that come with that this is by far one of the worst hotels I have stayed in. Nothing works, not the plugs, television or shower.”

Pyongyang seems to serve a purpose of displaying North Korea’s greatness. There are big skyscrapers, (fast food) restaurants, parks, and luxury stores. The restaurants’ customers or mostly those who are part of the elite, foreign diplomats, or tourists.

Luxury stores

The following video displays a POV of a tourist visiting a luxury store. Most of these goods aren’t available to the general public.

Fast food restaurants

It’s interesting to see the lady behind the counter use a calculator while taking the customers’ order. While it is supposed to be a fastfood restaurant, the service seems to be quite slow.

North Korean news… on YouTube?

North Korean news is interesting because it’s different from our news in the western world. It mostly consists of coverage of new construction projects. The construction and opening of Munsu Water Park were extensively covered by the news. It featured thousands of workers, building the new amusement park in absolute synchronization, using outdated methods of construction compared to western standards. North Korea had its own YouTube channel, Korean Central Television, on which it regularly uploaded (sometimes only hours apart) news, soap operas, and kids’ shows. However, YouTube took down the channel a few months ago.

Concerts

North Korea has its own version of ‘Kpop’. The legend goes that Kim Jung-Il called for his country’s own girl band. The women are always wearing uniforms, oftentimes military-styled. They play the drums, electric guitars, keytars, synthesizers, and more! I have been told that their songs often feature lyrics about the Korean War, the Great Leader, and their accomplishments as ‘a self-sufficient’ nation. In February last year, they held a concert celebrating a rocket launch.

Defectors

In this video, several defectors are interviewed and tell you all the good and bad things they experienced in their homeland.

Documentaries

There are many interesting documentaries that show us the insides of the regime. Including this 3-part series by Vice.

Sources: The Real North Korea (Lankov), Without You There Is No Us (Kim)

Books

North Korea: worse than you can imagine

To my surprise, there are quite a lot of books on North Korea. I wanted to find out more about the regime that is trying its best to keep its inside workings a secret. To get a better understanding of the current situation, I recommend the following books: The Real North Korea (Lankov), Without You There Is No Us (Kim), and Nothing to Envy (Demick). Each book sheds a different light on the lives of the common people living north of the 38th parallel.

The Real North Korea tells an elaborate story of how the regime came to be. Lankov explains how Korea ended up being split up in two different countries. He explains how the diplomatic relationships and tensions during the Cold War led to a ‘civil’ war in Korea. Starting from there he goes on to describe all the major political and economic reforms that took place afterward.
Reading this book, I realized that the measures this country takes to gain political power not only over its own citizens but in the worldwide sphere of influence are more absurd than we can imagine.
For instance, North Korea has abducted Japanese citizens in the seventies and eighties. The author suggests that the purpose might have been to create new spies, that speak both Korean and Japanese. Another strange example is that different North Korean diplomats have been caught smuggling drugs.
Lankov describes the inner workings of the regime, how those serving the regime can be bribed, and how capitalism has taken over some of the markets. He calls some of the actions, carried out by the elite, Orwellian. The government actively removes people from history, as if they never existed in the first place. Once someone is dubbed a traitor and is executed, their name will be taken off any existing document.
At the end of the book, the author speculates what would happen if the two Koreas were to be united right now. An important point made is that the North Korean people need to be protected in this case. They will face many challenges and dangers. For example, most people will not have the right qualifications to carry out their professions, compared to South Korean standards. A North Korean doctor cannot do the same work in South Korea. Another phenomenon to look out for is Ponzi-schemes, to which the North Koreans might fall victim to.

In Without You, There Is No Us, Suki Kim describes her experiences teaching English to sons of the elite. This book is intriguing because it tells the story of someone who’s experienced North Korea at firsthand. Kim gets to interact with North Koreans who are part of the elite. What stood out to me was the fact that the author catches her students lying about ‘trivial’ things, multiple times. They lie about where or how they spent their summers, they lie about having had access to the internet, or that they had contact with their families (which they most likely didn’t). Kim’s story is fascinating because she is also on a journey of ‘self-discovery’ while in North Korea. She was born in South Korea, moved to the USA in her teens, and spent some time in North Korea. In the book, she talks about not knowing where she belongs and having family in North Korea. During the Korean War, her uncle got separated from the family, he probably ended up North of the 38th parallel.

Lastly, Demick wrote a riveting book on the lives of North Korean defectors. The lives of these defectors are beautifully told in, Nothing To Envy. You will get to read how the inner workings of the regime (which Lankov elaborately explains in his book) affects the individual North Koreans. Demick discusses the major events we also read or heard about in the western world, such as the famine or the deaths of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jung-Il. You will learn about the great lengths these people went to survive during the famine and how familiar they got with death around them. How once devoted individuals eventually stop believing in the authorities and make their plans to escape. And what happens to defectors after they crossed the Tumen river in search of a better life.