5 Myths about Life In North Korea

by Ray Kua
Pyongyang, North Korea

How is life in North Korea actually like? Before my trip, I thought it would be akin to time-travelling back to a place stuck in the 1950s. The wonder of experiencing time-travel in our modern time.

The most reclusive and closed up country in the world, news from the “Hermit Kingdom” are often headline grabbers. So much so that the news can become exciting, mysterious, and even unbelievable “stories”. These facts often seem to have more “WOW” factor than factual evidence.

Such as:

  • The life in North Korea that tourists see is a massive choreographed showcase. Everyone is an actor and actress putting on a show for the tourists.
  • Their tour guides are soldiers who watch and spy on your every step. They are looking for mistakes to throw you into concentration camps.
  • Life in North Korea is under strict governance, resulting in citizens not know anything else outside of their country. This includes the existence of skyscrapers and common internet functions such as Google.

As many of us dare not travel there, the mystery of life in North Korea deepens with every such story. No matter how absurd they may be, the only choice seems to be in believing them.

Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea

Do not believe in everything you hear

My fascination with life in North Korea began in high school. I was taken on a South Korea school trip of the infamous Demilitarized Zone(DMZ). It was to my luck to have a compelling story-teller for a history teacher too. Mr. Hendri inspired me to pour countless hours into books and research on how life in North Korea is actually like.

This was back in 2008, when travel to North Korea was even more unheard of. Yet I knew the only way to satisfy my curiosity would be to visit the very place one day.

View of North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), from South Korea
Taken in 2008: A view of North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), from South Korea
View of South Korea in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), from North Korea
10 Years later, I am on the opposite side!

Why we should be curious about life in North Korea

Travelling to North Korea represents a modern-day way of time-travel. Their way of dressing, architecture, technology, and way of social interaction is akin to being trapped in a time capsule stuck in the 1950s.

Hoping to catch a glimpse of any such sort of life, I started my travels to ex-Soviet Union countries. Yet the only glimpses I caught remaining was the little architecture left behind. There was no time-traveling. Everyone had moved on with the times.

The only way to fulfill my curiosity would ultimately be to travel to the place itself, North Korea.

Seeing is believing

Through my 10 days there, I realized many of the “facts” that I had read were more myths than truths. Of course, I was not under the illusion that all I saw was all there is. With such a short span of time spent there in so little places, there had to be more evidence to prove otherwise.

And evidence there was. Established authors such as Drew Brinsky and the Wandering Earl also wrote accounts that mirrored my experiences. I was not alone, and I hope my first-hand experience would enable you to have a more unbiased view of life in North Korea.

North Korean soldiers spying on tourists at the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone
Taken in 2009, where I stared in awe of North Korean Soldiers using binoculars to “spy” on us when we were at the South Korean side.

1. Social life in North Korea draws many similarities with ours

School life in North Korea

When you travel to North Korea, a lot of what you can experience depends on your relationship with your North Korean guide. I was assigned two guides that clicked well with me. Jin, the English tour guide was fresh out of University just like me and thus we had more common topics to share. While Jung, the Chinese guide was always up for witty banter.

During the Mount Kumgang hike was where Jin shared insights about her life in North Korea. She talked about her dates in college and how she even caught her date being unfaithful.

She was open to also discussing about the scandals that went on in college! The conversation had went something like this-

Ray: The universities in Singapore are pretty westernized and our hostels are mixed gender, so things do get crazy here and there, which I supposed won’t be true here?

Jin: *with a chuckle* “You mean like how people get frisky in the washrooms in university?

School life in North Korea also constitutes learning English and Chinese as a second language. This is especially so in the younger generation. The society recognizes that fluency in such languages opens up more opportunities beyond life in North Korea. And these opportunities can be the very platform they need to elevate their social status.

Jin, after an Acrobatics show
Ryomyong New Town, Scientist Street in the evening in Pyongyang, North Korea
Ryomyong New Town, known as “Scientist Street”, where students aspire to be part of one day

Adulting in North Korea

Cycling as transport in downtown Pyongyang,North Korea.
Cycling is the common means of transport to get to work in downtown Pyongyang
North Koreans bonding over drinks and food after work at a diner
After-work meals and drinks in a North Korean diner

After-work meals and drinks were also commonplace in their job, just as company bonding sessions over sports (volleyball and basketball in the winter, football in the summer) are regular occurrences.

Jin also acknowledged that as they enter the workforce, North Koreans are regularly exposed to information on what is happening outside the country. She actually tells us that North Koreans find it amusing that the world seems to think they know nothing about what lies beneath their life in North Korea. They even crack jokes about our misconceptions!

She proceeded to list to me her knowledge of social media, from Google, Facebook, to even Instagram and Twitter! She even proudly mentioned how she got featured on the Instagram of DPRK 360, a page by Aram Pan, North Korean Enthusiast.

Life as a tour guide

North Korea Military officer at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
North Korea Military officer at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

At the DMZ, a high-ranking military soldier also engaged in lengthy conversations about our basketball playing days in school. He mentioned that sports were a revered subject in life in North Korea. To play sports well, is a show of masculinity among men, particularly when they were students.

One thing Jung and the military guide had in common was their dislike for tour groups which were loud and unruly. Rolling their eyes, they described to me the frustration they encounter with certain tour groups, and how they still had to present their best service in respect of their country.

It was really amusing to that these very North Koreans-whom the world likes to describe them as backdated, unruly, and even vicious, have this level of tolerance and respect to visitors. While tour groups themselves are the ones displaying backdated and unruly mannerisms when visiting North Korea. Fruit for thought…

View of South Korea from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) Tour from North Korea
Our guide frowning against “unruly” tourists who squeeze and cramp

The only topic that Jin avoided talking much about was when I starting mentioning about their leaders, Kim Jung IL and Kim Jung Un. The atmosphere had tensed up, and I could see she prefered to stay out commenting anything about out of her immense respect for her leaders.

Of course, I am under no illusion at this stage of the tour that Jung and the soldier would belong to a very privileged class in North Korea. Just being entrusted with foreigners would definitely have allowed them access and knowledge that may not be presented to others.

Yet what bought me over was the way they open up about their life in North Korea. Things they share were the very things that research says could lead to a North Korea tried for treason! Yet there Jin was, openly laughing and joking about her life, just like any other young fresh University graduate would. Thank you, Jin for sharing all these insights!

2. Life seems too natural to be a choreographed show

Pyongyang Metro station during peak hour in North Korea
Pyongyang Metro station during peak hour
North Koreans gather to play chess at at their park
North Koreans gather to play chess at at their park
North Korean students on a school trip to the Mangyongdae Native House
North Korean students on a school trip to the Mangyongdae Native House

Pyongyang has long been seen as North Korea’s “Showcase City”. Many experts even go as far as saying that life in North Korea is being presented as a choreographed display for tourists. Well, if that was the truth, I would say that the North Koreans are a flawless group of actors.

In my 10 days there, what I saw wasn’t too much of a difference to other busy cities. The morning was filled with uniformed students rushing to school, workers rushing for work, with the roads busier than any time of the day (quantity of cars are even more than other cities I’ve been to!).

People were buying breakfast and coffee at street stands, students are using their smartphone while walking, and throngs of people rushing towards the metro station.

Students exiting from The State Circus in Pyongyang, North Korea
Students exiting from The State Circus in Pyongyang, North Korea

In the evening, people packed food stands for drinks and dinner. They walk in groups, presumably colleagues or friends. Mothers were holding the hands of their children and walking them back home. People gathered to play chess at a park. Sports were being played on random patches of open field grass, and even joggers jogging through the streets of Pyongyang!

The only thing that was different from other countries was the darkness of the city at night, as there were no street lamps lit up in any part of the city. Everyone had to literally get around in the dark.

Cycling is a common means of transport in North Korea
End of a typical day in North Korea

I could understand that a country would always only showcase the better side of their cities to tourists, but don’t all countries do that?

Granted, life in the capital, Pyongyang may be different from what happens in the other areas of North Korea, but doesn’t that hold true for all other countries too, where cities are generally much busier and livelier. What I saw was definitely not a showcase, but more of a city operating just like any other in the world (except for the lack of lights at night).

Sports being played at various facilities

3. We could roam practically anywhere we wanted

Typical street in Pyongyang, North Korea
Typical street in Pyongyang, North Korea

One of the most common knowledge and fear that prevents people from going to North Korea is that every move would be chaperoned by a guide. You would have every step carefully scrutinized, and any wrong move or word said would get you 10 years of hard labor.

That was not true in my experience. In fact, there were many a times that I had “tested” the system, and wandered off far beyond the sight of my guides. To my disappointment, neither a spy nor a soldier sneaked up on me.

With our guides at the entrance of Yanggakdo International Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea
Our North Korean guides, on the furthest left, and 2nd to the furthest right. Bus driver the the furthest right.

One example was on the first night that we checked into Yanggakdo International Hotel (the only hotel in Pyongyang for tourists). We had ended our night early and the tour guides left us to ourselves. I decided to challenge the rumor that armed soldiers are stationing outside of the hotel to catch any tourists who decide to walk out.

Off I went, as far away as 400m from the entrance, and nothing happened! The only thing that kept me from going further was the pitch-black street without any lights.

Yanggakdo International Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea
Yanggakdo International Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

From day 1 of the trip, I was also keen to head out for a tour of Pyongyang’s nightlife. I had expected a hostile response from my guides, yet they were actually brainstorming on where we could go. Jung, in particular, was more of ” Where can we do, it is pitch black at night, and we do not have any bars or clubs in North Korea.” After some convincing, Jung finally offered to bring me out on the last night.

Though before doing so, he had popped up on one of our bus trips right beside me, asking to look through my phone for photos. He claimed he was interested to see how Singaporean girls look like, and my university life. Scanning through my entire gallery and curiously asking me about the pictures, did make the situation awkward.

To this day, I cannot comprehend whether that was part of the so-called rumored checks due to my persistence in heading out at night, or just plain curiosity on his part.

Pyongyang city in the day
Pyongyang city in the day
Night tour in Pyongyang, North Korea
Night walk. Bus stop with commuters

His idea was just a one hour walk into the main streets of the city. I had suggested I wanted to walk to the apartment of the locals but this was rejected (more on this in the next post)

He shared with me it was dangerous for a foreigner to by myself outside at night. There would not be any soldiers capturing me, but locals are actually encouraged from young to report a sighting of possible foreign spies (and foreigners’ clothing do stand us apart from them) to the police.

He shared a story of how a Chinese tourist had wandered off in adventure during one of his tours and ended up in the police station (not hard labor). With no passport (kept by the guides on the first day), GPS or handphone connection in a pitch-black city with locals not used to seeing foreigners at night, the concern was more of tourists getting lost in a city with locals not familiar with tourists in the evening.

English signs are common in Pyongyang, North Korea
English signs are common in Pyongyang, North Korea

During the walk, I was free to take photos of anywhere I wanted to. Neither did he restricted me to walk in any direction. We passed by many locals who seemed to know their way around the pitch-black city really well. Along the way, I saw people carrying suitcases on the way home from work, waiting for the bus, and families out walking.

The only difference from a normal city was the lack of pubs and clubs or mega malls. There was no loud music or hustle and bustle of any shopping district. There was just a strange sense of peace in this darkness of life in North Korea. That peace made me wonder, was I actually in one of the most feared rogue nations in the world?

The walk ended off with the guide hailing a taxi to get us back, which I paid for in 5 US dollars ( I could see the taxi driver was very thankful for that). The guide did explicitly mentioned it was not common for tourists to take a cab in the city. He told me not to take photos here. The taxi was no different from the other taxis I’ve taken in Asia, and even way better compared to a lot of countries. One point to note was that Jung requested us to be dropped off 200m from the hotel entrance, before we walked the remaining way.

4. You can take photos practically anywhere.

A visit to a traditional North Korean House
A visit to a traditional North Korean House

As mentioned in point 3, I had free reign of my photo-taking escapades. From the streets to the buildings, and even photos of their citizens too. Local students had also spoken to me out of curiosity and even asked for pictures (probably intrigued with our dressing which stands out awkwardly in their 1950s fashion attire). Neither did the supposed “photo checking” happened when we are the airport (entering and leaving).

The only places which we were disallowed photos was at the International Friendship Exhibition and the DMZ.

North Korean students interacting with us freely at Mount Kumgang
North Korean students interacting with us freely at Mount Kumgang
April 25 Football Club before their trip, taken at Pyongyang International Airport
April 25 Football Club before their trip, taken at Pyongyang International Airport

Of course, what is North Korea without some quirks without freedom. The only rule they had regarding photo taking was when it was done with portraits or statues of their leaders. We not only had to ensure our body posture was of prim and proper stance, but we also could not smile or look too happy. It had to be a serious and formal shot whenever we grace their leaders. Photos of their leaders also had to be taken full portrait, with full-bodied shots.

I had learned this the hard way. In the first photo below, I was casually posing with the portraits before I got hollered at in a soldier-like bark from our Chinese guide to “Stand properly! Your hands out of your pocket! Stand on both legs! Mind your smile!”. I was caught aback as his demeanor had changed completely. And yet, after the photo-taking was over, he was smiling once again. Lesson learned.

Portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
Got hollered badly for such a pose!
Portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
Accepted posture: Stand on both legs, hands by the side, not too wide a smile

5. The Internet is available… if you are willing to pay

Internet booth to purchase data sim card in Pyongyang
SIM Card Data booth-180 USD for 100MB

As a small-scale business owner in Singapore, one worry I had before the tour was the lack of internet connection in the life in North Korea. So imagine the happiness we all felt, when Jin told us during touchdown, that she could take us to buy sim cards.

She did not mention the catch until we reached the only booth in Pyongyang, in the lobby of a 5-star hotel.

100Mb of data for 180US!. Unsurprisingly, no one bought the SIM card except for our tour guide from Singapore (the company paid for her). One could also pay for an overseas phone call around 50USD for 10minutes. So ensure you have tidied up all your work matters before coming to experience the internetless life in North Korea!

International phone booth in Pyongyang, North Korea
50 USD for 10 minutes

Conclusion

My years of research into life in North Korea did not coincide with what I saw for. The tour guides and cities had shown more similarity to us than what my countless readings had told me to expect.

Believe nothing you hear, and only one half that you see

Edgar Allan Poe

Of course, I am not naive. These 10 days spent was just a glimpse of this mystery of a country. Life in North Korea, just like life in any other country, cannot be understood with just a short tour.

Yet I left with more questions than answers. What about you? What is your opinion about life in North Korea? If you need more first-person accounts, you could check out this article at Young Pioneer Tours by Gareth Johnson.

Do leave your comment on your opinion on this mystery of a place, as I look forward to seeing you again on my next post at “6 Proven Facts About North Korea”.

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