back to article So. What's North Korea really like?

First hand accounts from The People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) are very rare - only around a hundred outsiders get to see it each year week. Simon Buckby spent two weeks exploring the secretive state, and have reported back with a fascinating, 8,000 word account which is by far the most detailed you’ll have ever read. ( …

  1. Alfred
    Headmaster

    "only around a hundred outsiders get to see it each year"? Really?

    The actual document the article is reporting says, and I quote:

    "About 5,000 Western tourists a year go through this rigmarole. "

    Went myself with the same tour group in 2012. The act of going is really not such a big deal.

    1. jamesb2147

      Re: "only around a hundred outsiders get to see it each year"? Really?

      Came just to say this. Thanks, Alfred, have an upvote. Even in 2003 there's a BBC article about how there were 1500 "Western tourists" annually.

      Even an American can go, they just need to arrange travel through a Chinese travel agency, which can in turn book your travel into the country. They have tours starting by taking a train in or flying the national airline, Air Koryo, which, ironically, offers a business class cabin, for those who feel more comrade than the other comrades.

      What's strange is that the DPRK offers tourism at all. You'd think it would cause unrest, but they're looking to increase numbers officially to 2M+ visitors/yr by 2020.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: "only around a hundred outsiders get to see it each year"? Really?

        They've officially been trying to massively increase tourist numbers for years. The target was hundreds of thousands when my mate went in 2001. Of his tour group, over half failed to get visas. Which is one reason, of many, why they'll fail to achieve it.

        But the reason they'll keep doing it is that it's a good source of foreign currency, which the regime can spend on luxury goodies. I doubt it causes much local discontent, as it's so tightly controlled.

        1. Alfred

          Re: "only around a hundred outsiders get to see it each year"? Really?

          I think they must have relaxed a bit on visas. As I understood it from Koryo tours, if you're not a journalist and you don't have pictures of yourself on facebook mocking the DPRK or Kim, you'll be fine.

    2. Ellipsis
      IT Angle

      Re: "only around a hundred outsiders get to see it each year"? Really?

      Indeed, booking a package tour specifically designed for Western tourists doesn’t seem like much of an achievement.

      For a fascinating account of a proper hard-core trip to Best Korea, read this: http://vienna-pyongyang.blogspot.com/

      Two guys went by train from Europe, via the Russian border crossing that’s not supposed to be open to foreigners. They got away with it, but their advice is not to attempt it yourself…

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "only around a hundred outsiders get to see it each year"? Really?

        @Ellipsis

        I would discourage outsiders from trying that too, especially if you have a connection to the U.S., South Korea or Japan. I have little doubt that the DPRK will put you up on pretty spurious charges and try to exchange you for some favor, if they feel that will suit their interests.

  2. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    I wish I was a dictator.

    Its about time that Kim got off the pot and let someone else have a go.

    Imagine how great you could make the country if you didnt spend all the money on statues and atomic bombs. And you wernt batshit crazy

    1. Oh Matron!

      "Imagine how great you could make the country if you didnt spend all the money on tax breaks for the rich. And you wernt batshit crazy"

      Sounds like the UK...

      1. Bloodbeastterror

        "Imagine how great you could make the country if you didnt spend all the money on tax breaks for the rich and atomic bombs."

        FTFY... :-)

      2. Teiwaz

        Glad I live in the UK...

        ..and not in a state that has surveillance and a out of touch head of state busy awarding itself medals and nut-job inward facing government that thinks it's a proud world power and not a wacked-out former entity with fading infrastructure living on fading victory.

        Oh, wait now!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Glad I live in the UK...

          a wacked-out former entity with fading infrastructure living on fading victory.

          If that's what you really think about the UK, we don't need you. Why not fsck off to the US, you'll feel right at home.

          1. illiad

            Re: Glad I live in the UK...

            'a wacked-out former entity with fading infrastructure living on fading victory'

            hey the *people* in UK are great, BUT it is the ancient gvmt bureaucracy that has that effect... and the 'house of lords' older guys are similar, lost sight of the 'normal people' , thinking their 'great plan' is what *everyone* wants.. their rich friends only, of course.. :/

            1. herman Silver badge

              Re: Glad I live in the UK...

              "what *everyone* wants" - Well, everyone that is anyone, which isn't you of course, since you are just a pleb...

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Glad I live in the UK...

              > and the 'house of lords' older guys are similar, lost sight of the 'normal people'

              They're the only ones showing some sanity. Meanwhile, the "normal people" are the ones voting nutjobs like Ms May into office.

            3. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Glad I live in the UK...@illiad

              and the 'house of lords' older guys are similar, lost sight of the 'normal people'

              For some years now the House of Lords hasn't been full of sleepy old hereditary peers largely minding their own business, but has been an over-stuffed chamber full of (mostly) Tony Blair's mates, who with no democratic mandate seek to interfere in the business of government.

              In the sense that these people are out of touch and serving their own interests, and representing the source of their patronage, you're right, but it tends to be the "younger" element of the House of Lords that is the problem. Like everything else that the grinning idiot touched, he made it worse, and then left the mess for somebody else to clear up.

    2. EddieD

      Talking of pot, it's legal there. You can buy bags of it on most markets, as tobacco is hard to source.

      Just saying.

  3. frank ly

    re. The Party Monument

    It's an industrial worker, a knowledge worker and an agricultural worker. All equal and marching forward in unison for the greater good of ....etc.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      IT Angle

      Re: re. The Party Monument

      If that middle arm was a representation of a knowledge worker, it would be holding up a can of Red Bull.

      1. Mark 85

        Re: re. The Party Monument

        If that middle arm was a representation of a knowledge worker, it would be holding up a can of Red Bull.

        Shouldn't there be one more representing Glorious Leader III (or maybe it's II?). I'm thinking an arm with the middle finger of the hand raised. Crap... now I can never visit N. Korea.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Joke

      Re: re. The Party Monument

      > It's an industrial worker, a knowledge worker and an agricultural worker. All equal and marching forward in unison for the greater good of ....etc.

      And there was I thinking it meant: go at it hammer and tongs otherwise you'll get the third

      1. JDX Gold badge

        Re: re. The Party Monument

        It's clearly a willy

  4. Anonymous Blowhard

    One word

    Bonkers!

  5. Leeroy

    Wow

    Just wow, I read the entire linked article. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    The radios cemented into the walls though, maybe 1984 is actually being used as an instruction manual.

    Not somewhere I would ever want to live or even visit !

    1. JaitcH
      Happy

      Re: Wow

      Check out: > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oULO3i5Xra0 <.

    2. Solmyr ibn Wali Barad

      Re: Wow

      The radios cemented into the walls

      In USSR it was nicknamed "the microconcrete". A type of concrete that is full of microphones.

    3. herman Silver badge

      Re: Wow

      The speakers in the schools and public places - you still get them in some villages in some Eastern European countries, but nowadays they broadcast advertisements for the local stores and vendors. So they are actually useful.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wow

      > Not somewhere I would ever want to live or even visit !

      I hope you realised that there are people in N. Korea thinking exactly the same about the West, based on what they read on their local press. Replace "radio" with "CCTV" camera and you may start feeling some sympathy for their point of view.

      I have been a long-term resident (two years or more) of about a dozen countries in four continents so far, starting when I was a little Hosenscheißer (as opposed to a big one like now), and frankly everywhere looks much the same like anywhere else after a while.

  6. Herby

    I wonder...

    What would happen if you had a "conversation" with another tourist in your room discussing something banned. It could be...

    "So, on the morning of the 11th they are going to come over the border."

    "Yes, with 40 battalions and tanks."

    "Then a missile strike on Kim's residence."

    "Yes, that's the plan. Do you think we will have any resistance."

    "No, they are passive wimps."

    Of course, it would all be in Klingon, and well rehearsed. It might send them scrambling and wondering what to do. Hilarity, but for the fact they have missiles and A-bombs. Oh, well.....

    No, I don't want to go there.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Facepalm

      Re: I wonder...

      Not like here where a humourous tweet born out of frustration threatening to blow up Robin Hood airport was taken in good humour by all concerned.

  7. JaitcH
    Meh

    Living in a country that doesn't observe sanction niceties ...

    I have worked in the DPRK repairing our companies equipment they purchased through government resellers.

    Getting there requires a multiple-entry Chinese visa. I go through HongKong then use rail to the border. There are three border gates for non-tourists. Tourists have to travel to Pyongyang and Americans can only fly there from BeiJing.

    As my DPRK visa states "Government Guest Worker" I can choose the gate nearest my destination - travel, food and accommodation is best on the Chinese side of the border. I prefer land travel - rail - as I usually have to carry test equipment. The DPRK trains I class as hard seat - worse than any aged UK train.

    Since I am going to industrial DPRK I make sure I am well stocked with Chinese noodles as I don't like extremely spicy food. The DPRK customs inspection takes an age, uneducated inspectors gazing at awe at modern electronics. They seal my laptops - to be only opened at destination. Water-based glue is not very effective on plastic!

    My visas are 'loose', stapled and not glued into my passport. (Glued visas are easily removed with acetone) This means I have deniability. Since I legally have several passports I leave China on one and enter the DPRK on another.

    I have to be escorted, usually a female, from the border to the work centre. I have had the same female for the last several years, so we are now friends. Her English is excellent. I pack my equipment interiors with small, valuable, gifts to give away.

    I carry large business cards on which is printed information about Canada and I give these to people who dare to shake hands and say 'Hello'! At the work centre things are very relaxed, but the food and accommodation is not good. They eat some very strange things!

    There is a hunger for technical knowledge and we print out what I take since DPRK storage media is encoded and re-entering by hand circumvents these trackers. The customs might count SD chips but they can't count the contents! I usually leave

    You can now use cell handsets in the DPRK - you buy a 'Foreigner' SIM that restricts your connections to other Foreigners and International calls. I use a multi-SIM Chinese handset and my customer gives me a DPRK resident SIM which allows me to contact DPRK users.

    As I have been there numerous times over the past 7 years and my work place is somewhat distant from Pyongyang what I call the 'Communist bullsh*t' is more relaxed. The local techs invite me to their homes, along with my female guide. I often take my female guide, a widow with children, to dinner and she takes large 'doggy bags' home.

    If any tech reader gets the opportunity to visit the DPRK - go. Just learn the rules. And leave whatever technical goodies behind as gifts when you leave. They appreciate even solder.

    Also remember the DPRK gets bloody cold, as cold as Northern Canada, and the difference is they have minimal inside heating. Take warm clothes. Assume that there are no facilities there that you need for your work. And if you see a national entertainment group, such as the Moranbong Band (Moran Hill Orchestra) out in the regions, often there are only a few members of the main Orchestra there with back-ups picking up the slack.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Living in a country that doesn't observe sanction niceties ...

      Wow - interesting experiences! Thanks for sharing. Your account of the limitations and restrictions that the North Koreans experience on an ongoing basis reminds me how fortunate I am to be sitting in a nice, warm office in Vancouver... And good for you too; not many folks (myself included) would be brave enough to venture to NK on a semi-regular basis like you do! :)

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Living in a country that doesn't observe sanction niceties ...

      Thank you, great post about your personal experiences there, which are absolutely fascinating. Reading the article, your post and others' links have formed in me a dream to visit myself one day

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Living in a country that doesn't observe sanction niceties ...

      The only thing I'd add, thinking back to similar conditions, is that the health and well-being of your Minder depends on your behavior. And yes, at that latitude, it get's very cold!

    4. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

      Re: Living in a country that doesn't observe sanction niceties ...

      Thank you for sharing some very interesting first hand experiences. Safe travels!

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Monumental

    The Party Monument: featuring the hands of a worker, an intellectual and a peasant.

    Looks more like Hammer, Missile and Sickle to me.

    1. pryonic

      Re: Monumental

      It'll be a hammer, sickle and a paint brush representing workers, farmers and artists - pretty common trilogy in communist art

      1. Uffish

        Re: "workers, farmers and artists"

        Artists maybe but the brush is a writing instrument.

  9. martinusher Silver badge

    Communism and Korea

    Given South Korea's history and the article about the corporate culture inside Samsung elsewhere on this website we have to ask ourselves what's "Communist" and what's "Korea". A lot of the weirdness appears to be uniquely Korean, a fusion of Korean culture with Russia circa 1953, which is made worse by the way our society -- you could say our 'official' media -- interprets their society in Cold War terms.

    We've grown up with this Cold War mindset so we still think in Orwellian terms -- we're 'free' and they're not. It gets really weird when we try to reapply this mindset to somewhere like Russia but its a testimonial to how well its imprinted that most people accept it despite its obvious contradictions.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Communism and Korea

      North Korea is 1984. It's at least as repressive as Stalin's Russia. With gulags, random executions, mass starvation, terror, paranoia, the whole works.

      Of course in one way it's not. 1984 assumed a competence from the secret police that no state has ever achieved. There were plenty of people in Stalin's Russia who managed to walk out of the Siberian gulags, get back home and live "happily ever after" without papers - and still not get spotted by the police. I saw an interview with one guy who went back to live in his own apartment on Moscow un-noticed. Or take the Gestapo, who missed the von Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler even though several hundred people knew about it, as he'd been going round most of the major military headquarters for months trying to get support. Most of the Abwehr and the planning staff of army group centre (in Russia) were actively plotting to kill Hitler from at least 1942.

  10. rsole

    The monument is so wrong (probably like just about everything else). Can a worker not also be an intellectual or a peasant, an intellectual also a peasant etc.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      In a state wher your career and day to day life is planned and organised for you, no, you can't.

      1. Pompous Git Silver badge

        In a state wher your career and day to day life is planned and organised for you, no, you can't.

        The Git was born working class in UKLand in 1951. When the factory my father worked at was merged with a German company my father, a machine tool maker on piece-work, was asked to interpret for the German executive chosen to manage the merger. The trade union told management that they would call a strike if my father was paid for this. He was none too popular with the union for "working too hard".

        We had a choice of emigrating to Germany, Canada or Australia. My father's memories of Mr H's Holiday Camps were still too vivid and we came to Australia where you're not punished for rising above your allotted station in life.

      2. JaitcH
        Happy

        Job for Life?

        @ John Brown (no body)

        In actuality gifted people, women as well as men, are talent spotted and promoted to where their skills are most beneficial to the State.

        I have witnessed in the client work centre where I go in the DPRK, several sharp people in their 20's have now risen above their typical scheduled promotion.

    2. Pompous Git Silver badge

      Can a worker not also be an intellectual or a peasant, an intellectual also a peasant etc.

      Read Living the Good Life by Helen and Scott Nearing. And have an upvote :-)

  11. Florida1920

    North/South

    Is Samsung taking management lessons from the Norks?

  12. herman Silver badge

    'Felt like rubber necking at a car crash' - brilliant, understated tone in that article.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Questions about the linked article.

    "The first thing that jumps out at you are the badges. Every DPRK citizen from the age of 14 always has to wear a badge next to their heart with the faces of one or both of the dead Kim leaders. The next thing you notice is that nobody ever wears jeans."

    Contradicts.

    "For men, it is compulsory to wear closed shoes, trousers (not jeans)"

    Next two,

    "The very few cars on the roads are controlled by a series of “traffic ladies”: all are young, unmarried, dressed in matronly uniforms, and waving bright orange sticks"

    Pedestrians have to use zebra crossings or risk losing their jobs.

    Conjecture based on handlers not allowing conversation or contact - unmarried, losing jobs. How could they even know that?

    Interestingly it does offer insight into Korea's technical abilities. Does anyone know anything about North Korea's internet pipe? That could shed some light on perceived hacking.

    It's just Lazy propaganda bullshit, I believe JaitcH has more or less described the real North Korea without the need to add opinion that furthers the western media rubbish opinion though I'm curious as to why they would have issue with Israeli's visiting the country?

    1. goodjudge

      No contradiction between "The next thing you notice is that nobody ever wears jeans." and "For men, it is compulsory to wear closed shoes, trousers (not jeans)". If you'd read it properly, the first statement was about the country in general, the second was specifically about visiting the Kims' memorial. I.e. tourists have to dress up, not wear jeans.

      As for "Conjecture based on handlers not allowing conversation or contact", surely you can grasp that the handlers and tourists talked to each other and/or that such things can be inferred from others' actions?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Fair points though one would assume that if every room is bugged then handlers couldn't talk in the first place unless it was for the glorious benefit of the peoples.

        1. JaitcH
          Happy

          Fair points though one would assume that if every room is bugged ...

          I go for a lot of walks in the open when I am there. When someone suggest we 'go for a walk' often we end up in a local restaurant (a stretch of the word) and drink tea and talk in low whispers.

          Usually both parties list items of a conversation so if asked we can answer honestly if incompletely.

          Before I visit people's homes, the inviter usually advises their manager. My trips are usually over two weeks in duration and they realise I want to have breaks. My guide and I often take her children to places of entertainment or parks where we can be 'spotted' from a distance. She says her house is 'clear' of 'intrusions' but we still limit our activities to innocuous things such as I teaching her English.

          The worker hotel I stay in might be bugged but given it's minimal decoration it is unlikely bugged. I use various ruses when securing my bags and I have never detected them having been touched.

    2. JaitcH

      @ Anonymous Coward - Questions about the linked article.

      - "The first thing that jumps out at you are the badges. ...

      Remember. most Western visitors see the show case DPRK - what they want the West to think. I, however, go to places where few Foreigners are allowed to even see from the outside. People are people and the BS is quickly disposed of as soon as BS Senior Management goes away.

      - "For men, it is compulsory to wear

      People can only buy what is available in the stores - unless someone has remarkable sewing skills or access to a sewing machine.

      I am now quite used to having people reach out and touch my clothes, my shoes and my skin - Foreigners are a very rare occurrence in centres outside the capital. I consider it an privilege to be able to share my life with my colleagues over there. I never abuse my privileges as the people who suffer are those supposed to be escorting you.

      I am apolitical. I neither express an interest in their system, neither do I support it. But that is OK with them as they understand my position. During the first few visits I was treated as tourists are in the capital but since then we are what I consider 'friends'. My special friend, the guide/escort lady, has shared many things with me because she has good English communication skills.

      Visiting people in their homes are one of the things that I treasure.

      As for the InterNet, there are many restraints on it but it is available in most sizable communities. I can actually connect to the InterNet under the supervision of Senior Management when I urgently require technical information. It takes about two hours to get approval. I am not allowed to use e-mail.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    An interesting BBC Outlook episode, with an interview on topic

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04b3n94

  15. hypernovasoftware

    Having to bow down to show respect for their dead dictators?

    I don't think so.

    What a shithole!

  16. Potemkine Silver badge

    ROTFL

    Simon Bickley and Camilla Wright spent two weeks exploring the secretive state

    If they had really tried to explore NK, I doubt they would have been able to depart from there alive.

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like