The Truth About North Korea

Ever wondered how it feels to live in North Korea? I have been interviewing North Koreans from all income levels, from all regions of North Korea and asked them questions that journalists from the West will never have the opportunity to.

Qinhuangdao, China, Oct. 2015

The South China Sea laid before me, mirror-like. I waited nervously for my guests to arrive, my translator always by my side. I walked down to the beach and took a last glimpse at the strait between China and North Korea. On one side sparkling lights of shops, restaurants and amusement parks, on the other side a lonely lighthouse diligently blinking in the distance.

I walked back to the restaurant to which I invited my guests this evening, a small traditional Chinese restaurant serving a variety of Chinese food from all provinces. I got nervous. Knees shaking, heart beating like a drum, I welcomed my guests; Workers, from North Korea and a gentle lady, an ex-veteran who now serves as a lawyer in a Chinese court. We shook hands and quitely entered the restaurant.

I should never forget this evening. We ordered, as common in China, a variety of dishes, and a couple of Yanjing Beer. And started talking…

My guests seemed happy and well-fed. Soon, we started talking about life in North Korea and how they got to China. One fled, the others came the legal way to China. But, they said that they did not necessarily had to flee. They even could have stayed in North Korea. Life in China is better then in North Korea but life in North Korea is not particularily bad. Life in North Korea is hard, they told me, and sure they did not have a lot of money but at least it was one thing: NORMAL. My translator and I looked at each other because we actually wanted to hear some ‘Inside North Korea Horror Stories’. “We don’t have cars but a public transport system”, said one of my guests. “I don’t need a car to be happy”, he countinued saying. Suprisingly, all of my guests loved their home country. Were they brainwashed or was it just the truth they are telling?

One of my guests, which offerend me to call him “Han”, drunk or not, started talking about Kim Jong-un and his view on the test of atomic weapons. “I don’t understand why people complain when North Korea does one atomic weapon test, when France or the United States did thousands of those in the last century”, Han told me and my compangnon.

We kept on talking until I confronted them with an article a journalist wrote about North Korea seemingly giving evidence that North Koreans lack nutrition and a healthy diet overall. My guests knew about the article. ‘Lucy’, the lawyer, told me that the statement is true but only for a handful of people. “Poor farmers have that problem”, she said. “The number of those people gets fewer and fewer. Kim Jong-un is not a bad guy, North Korea has just been isolated and completely locked up for centuries. No wonder that we are not on the same level as the West.”

“But what about the concentration camps?”, I asked. Suddenly, the so open-minded North Koreans became quite. No one seemed to take a breath. “I don’t know”, said Lucy. “I heard people going there but I don’t know anything else”. Non of my guests had gotten in contact with anyone from one of those camps. That was it. No further comment. I felt unsatisfied.

On a Ship Close to the North Korean Border, open water, China Oct. 2015,

A few days after I had the interview with my guests in the restaurant, I went on a cruise having a look on North Korea’s beaches. Most people don’t know that in contrast to the border from North Korea to South Korea, the border from North Korea to China is only a river with a few guards. Thinking about nothing, the boatsman started talking to me “You see this over there?”, he cried. “Yes, that’s North Korea”, I answered. “That’s my home. I lived their almost all my life”, the boatsman said. I couldn’t believe my ears. We started talking…

He told me that he is an illegal immigrant and not even has a passport, cannot read and cannot write. In North Korea, he has been a cattle farmer, now he’s a fisherman. I didn’t ask any further questions about his career path. He also reported good living conditions in North Korea and how he swam through the river between China and North Korea in order to make it into China. He is regretting it now, he told me. “Chinese TV is sh**”, he said. I started laughing. That was the last thing I would have expected. “Here, I live from less than in North Korea. My life was not bad over there but quite hard. Working all day long. No rest. I just wanted to escape”, he added.

We went on cruising, him showing me certain places he recognized from the water. After another 1 1/2 hours we left the open water and sailed into the harbor of Qinhuangdao, China.

Interviewing these people (and several more) showed me one thing: Nothing is as it seems! Stay open-minded about the world and travel as much as you can. It will unravel many mysteries…

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