What I Found In North Korea
A first-hand look inside the Hermit Kingdom
Last year, I had the rare opportunity to experience North Korea for 8 days with some amazing people. Erick Tseng from our cohort also wrote a phenomenal post of the same trip. We lived in its cities, explored its provinces, ate its food, and befriended its people — at least as much as the regime would allow. These are my personal reflections on my time in the Hermit Kingdom.
Originally, we planned to go to Pyongyang with a 23-member delegation of Americans organized by Choson Exchange. We were meant to give workshops on entrepreneurship for North Korean business students. My talk would have been on how startup accelerators, like Y-Combinator and AngelPad, function and add value in the economy.
But — as often happens in the DPRK, our invitation to conduct the workshops were given the bureaucratic runaround amid rising tensions on the Korean peninsula. We were instead given the opportunity to tour the country. Our group shrunk to 13, all successful in our own way and intensely curious about the most isolated country in the world.
They don’t tell you how beautiful it is. Seriously. Somehow, I expected to find an infinite sprawl of gray concrete, similar to how one might imagine the world of 1984. Instead, as we flew away from China’s massive skyscrapers and wind farms, we crossed into a virtually untouched countryside. Small pockets of civilization dotted various narrow valleys — but for the most part, it was a canvas of mountains, hills, and shining rivers framed by a bright blue sky.
As we edged closer towards Pyongyang, the rolling hills turned into vibrant green rice fields — as far as the eye could see. In America, we talk about amber waves of grain, harkening back to a time when we were a country of farmers. Ironically, this was the first time I could visualize what that might have looked like — we must have flown for twenty minutes over pure farmland. I assume that this is a direct reaction to the country’s experience with famine and its anxiety over being able to feed its people.
We bussed into the capital from the airport. Oftentimes, we were the only ones on the road — strange since most modern cities see bumper-to-bumper traffic. Running parallel to us were North Korean men biking over rough dirt paths on identical silver bikes — the first sign of a society dominated by a command economy. I imagine this was much like the China of my father’s youth. Much of it reminded me of the rural village my father grew up in.
The only word I can use to describe what I saw up to this point is this — peaceful. I could scarcely believe that this was the setting of a war where 4 million people lost their lives just 62 years ago. I could not imagine this place as one of repression and brutality. That is, until I got to the city.
The gentle peace of the countryside is immediately disrupted the moment you cross into the capital city of Pyongyang. When you get up close and personal, you find a strangeness to it that’s at first difficult to pinpoint.
For instance, as we drove through town, we found that the huge streets that snaked through the city were still empty of any major traffic. Electric streetcars did run often and were packed to the brim with people, but many were disabled and were being repaired right in the middle of the street. We were given a tour of the underground metro, but it was difficult to believe that it was in daily operational use. The metro didn’t have an official schedule and passengers didn’t organically flow in or out of stations. The whole demonstration felt staged.
There were also no restaurants or commercial stores lining the streets. What the city did have in abundance was housing. Apartment buildings stretched to the sky, all uniform in design and painted in bright pastel colors such as pink and yellow. Interestingly, apartment buildings behind the immediate ones that faced the streets were unpainted and kept in their original gray, providing an interesting façade to visitors. I would later learn that many of these buildings also had non-functional elevators — the most attractive apartments were indeed the ones on the bottom floors!
Electrical outages were frequent — you could see the flickering lights of distant apartment buildings go in and out throughout the night. On one night, we wandered into a floor of our hotel and found it completed powered down. Heated water was also a luxury — many of our hotels had set times where hot water was on.
In fact, most technology was absolutely obsolete. They showed us computer labs with twenty-year-old hardware that had no power cords attached. They even showed us a giant library filled with computers where people could “listen to a library of music” — quite literally a physical version of Spotify.
Even so, when viewed from the Juche Tower, the highest vantage point in the capital, I actually found the city to be quite breathtaking. I did not expect to come to North Korea and see this kind of a city.
As much as the city and countryside are beautiful, the real strangeness of North Korea is its political system. Reading about it is one thing — but seeing it with your own eyes is altogether a different experience.
The surveillance state is very real. Our group was kept on a relatively tight leash — we were not allowed to wander the city on our own and had to stick with our government-mandated guides. It never felt suffocating however, and even with our limits, I found North Korean society fascinating. We were restricted from accessing any cell service or WIFI (“this is the only place where we can actually still argue about facts!”). Many people were in charge of dissuading us from taking sensitive photos, and many locals were at first hesitant to take photos with us at all. The worst it got was an episode in the provinces, where a member of our group broke the water line in the bathroom and had to call on the hotel staff to fix it. As we crowded around the room to poke fun at our friend, we took photos and laughed at the situation — the North Koreans interpreted this as a humiliating moment and demanded the videos be deleted. Every staff member involved had to file an incident report.
Once you get out into the urban center, the first thing you notice are the uniforms. Columns of soldiers, some as young as 13, patrolled the streets in the open, underlining North Korea’s reputation as one of the most militarized societies in the world. Children filled the sidewalks in their standardized red scarves. University students marched in formation at the various city squares by the hundreds — each dressed in standard white dress shirts and carrying the red torch synonymous with the regime.
Gradually, you also notice the pins. Everywhere you go, you see people wearing bright red pins with the faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Initially, I had thought these pins were only worn by Koreans who regularly interacted with foreigners. Indeed, it took me several days to realize that every adult across the country wore the pins on a daily basis with a fervor I had only ever seen in the deeply religious.
The pervasiveness of the pins underlies the incredible cult of personality built around the country’s founding leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. These two men are glorified beyond all measure across every corner of the country. They have massive statues atop the highest hills, elaborate murals placed everywhere from factories to farmlands, and a palace housing their embalmed bodies. At one ludicrous point, the local water park’s entrance had a huge wax statue of Kim Jong Il overlooking a fake beach — visitors had to bow to enter. Even mundane buildings like textile factories had plaques commemorating each date that either leader visited. Orchestras composed entire symphonies for the leaders. Perhaps most frightening was the time we visited an elementary school to hear young children perform Korean songs for the group. These children were adorable and talented — only later did we discover the lyrics of the songs dealt with praising the current leader, Marshal Kim Jong Un. I have the feeling that some of the Koreans we met genuinely believed in their superhuman status, while others simply followed in this type of worship out of a fear of punishment. In any case, I can understand how Nazi Germany could have followed Hitler into a world war and Cultural Revolution China could have placed their blind faith in Mao Zedong — this is simply something one has to see to comprehend.
North Korea is one of the last standing communist societies in the world. Indeed, if you listen to their conversations, you can hear them refer to each other as “comrade” in Korean. It is a world under constant control — from the television people watch to the clothes people wear.
In many respects, North Korea feels like a country frozen in time. Men and women have very clear gender roles — locals told us that abortion is never an option and the mere concept of homosexuality is something they couldn’t even process. Women were officially barred from riding bicycles since they “frighten more easily in traffic situations” (although this rule is something altogether abandoned outside of Pyongyang).
One of the hardest things to see in person was the way they run the schools. In the hallways, horrifying posters of North Koreans capturing and killing American soldiers are glued to the wall. These children are taught a historical narrative far different from the one we are taught in the west — one where their country fought a just war against imperialists and where the world’s last remaining superpower continues to occupy one-half of their country to the current day. Their maps of Korea all include the full Korean peninsula, not just the north. This is a country that is consumed by the outcome of the war and cannot move past 1953.
Yet, amidst all this, I found many gentle reminders of humanity. These were my favorite things to observe. I met a little girl tasked with guiding our group through her school who stole a moment in the hallway to teasingly tug her best friend’s ear, as if escorting us was just another stupid school chore. I saw old people dancing together in the park. I saw young people barbecuing together on a weekend afternoon. I danced with university students in the traditional Korean style — they traded smiles and flirtations just like any twenty-something would.
These are people just like you and me — and they have dreams and aspirations that make them just as human as you and me. The most important lesson I’ve learned is how to divorce the regime from the people. The regime can be brutal and total — but I have found that the people are just normal folks trying to get by. They laugh like us, they love like us, and they bleed all the same.
I often wonder how much we didn’t get to see. We were certainly only given visibility into the North Korea that the regime wanted us to see. Pyongyang, the place of luxury and privilege within the country, is home to only 3 million out of the country’s 24 million people. How do the remaining 21 million fare? What of the democidal violence, the political purges, and the labor camps? The restriction of movement and information? What of the families struggling to feed their children through the winter? Where is the justice?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, nor do I believe the rest of the world will truly understand until North Korea becomes a more open society. I’ll leave it to men and women much smarter than me to answer them. However, I can comment on how I see North Korea is currently changing.
North Korea’s economic collapse in the 1990s and the famines that coincided with it forced average citizens to trade in everyday goods on black markets just to survive. This first foray into entrepreneurship has provided some momentum for private enterprise in the DPRK. Throughout our trip, we saw numerous street stalls selling foodstuffs and snacks, both in the urban centers and in the provincial rural heartland. The microbusinesses we ran into insisted on dealing in dollars, euros, and yuan — completely ignoring the local North Korean won as a viable currency. Most of the microbusinesses were also run by women, as they were the only people who had a socially acceptable excuse for not working in a “full time job”.
Even more promising is the proliferation of other private enterprises. Stores that sell DVDs and specialty restaurants that serve craft beer have developed in the urban core. In one store, I even heard the instrumental version to Disney’s Mulan soundtrack. Just last month, a three-story department store akin to Walmart opened that sells everything from snacks to clothes to appliances. Believe it or not, I got a burger and fries there.
That’s not to say that they don’t have a few things left to learn. Private enterprise is so foreign to the North Koreans. At that same department store, it took 8 employees an excruciatingly long 15 minutes to churn out 1 burger. At a massage parlor, a misunderstanding on pricing led to a 10 minute Mexican standoff where the staff member guilty of misquoting the cost could not comprehend how to treat customers in such a situation. And at one of our hotels, the staff were unwilling to sell a luxury suite to a member of our group because they felt it should be restricted to people of different social standing — it went empty that night.
All the same, the cautious opening of the country to private enterprise and entrepreneurship is encouraging. Supporting this fledgling generation of entrepreneurs is what compelled me to join the Choson Exchange delegation in the first place. But I’d be lying if I said I had no concerns — in fact, a large part of me is deeply troubled by the prospect of accelerating the economic rise of a nation tipped with nuclear fire and hell bent on picking a fight with my fellow Americans.
Then again, China was in North Korea’s shoes not so long ago, and today it stands as one of the chief trading partners of the United States. Perhaps North Korea will find its Deng Xiaoping and engage in a constructive détente over the next decade. At the very least, I can see real positive benefits of showing an entire generation of business leaders in North Korea that the state is not the end-all be-all for daily life. There may, in fact, be another way.