On a sunny afternoon, I sat down with Andy. I met Andy during my visit to London over spring break, when I was visiting my sister who works for a consulting company. Andy recently graduated from Oxford University, where he studied Politics, and he recently started working with my sister at a consulting firm based in London. When I first met him Andy struck me as a well-travelled person; the type of guy who would mention a new place he visited every time you strike up a conversation with him. But one of the most interesting places that he had been to recently included Pyongyang. For 10 days last summer (August 2011), Andy travelled to North Korea with a group of other tourists. I had actually never met anyone who had been to North Korea for pure tourism purposes. I was curious to hear about his perspective on the country, and also his experiences during the trip.
Q: What got you interested in the idea of traveling to the NK?
A: One of my friends was interested in traveling to North Korea, which initially got me interested. I was absolutely fascinated to see the things that were going on in this country. I had spent quite a lot of time in Asia before and became interested in the concept of communism… traveling around Asia, I was able to see quite a few of the communist leaders (in Vietnam and China) in their mausoleums. Everyone around me told me that everything I experience in North Korea will be a lie, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to go. I was interested in what they thought I should think about North Korea, what they think would mean ‘normality’ for me. Even if I didn’t really get to see the real everyday lives of people, even just thinking about this expectation fascinated me.
Q: Did you know a lot about NK before you got a chance to visit? What were some of the things that surprised you the most?
A: Obviously I’d kept up with the news… I knew about most of the recent events (like the Cheonanham incident), who the people in power were in the regime and how they had come to power in the aftermath of the conflict. But when I actually got there, I was surprised even by the things that I expected to see, like there being no shops on the streets. I was also really surprised by the theme park and bowling alley that my tour group was taken to. The queues were so long for all of these rides, and tourists could pay a fee of 1 or 2 pounds per ride and get an immediate queue jump (We ended up doing this but felt terrible about skipping such a long queue). I would have expected something like this in a capitalist city, but not in Pyongyang!
Q: What are some of your most memorable moments from your trip to NK?
A: Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to talk to many locals. I could say hello or ask for dishes in restaurants but it was hard to have a conversation with them, due to several reasons. But I would say that one of the most memorable conversations I had was with a 20-year old female tour guide, who had just graduated from a tourist school. This was the first tour she was leading, after graduating from her university. During our conversation, she asked me what ‘communism’ was. I was so taken aback that I didn’t know what to say to her. She literally did not know how her country was different from the country that I came from. There was nothing for me to say to her – I didn’t want to start preaching or lecturing people, so I just left it at that. But it struck me that she is one of the most educated girls coming from a privileged background, and she was completely oblivious to what was going on in her country. I guess nobody really has any idea of what’s going on. And in that sense, I understand why there’s not much incentive to change the system North Koreans are living in currently.
In terms of attractions, I would say that visiting a local arts school was one of the most memorable experiences of my tour. When we were at this school we could walk into any of the classes and watch – and I just could not fathom was genuine and what was pure performance. There were girls swaying with the guitars, completely synchronized in movement, seemingly oblivious to our presence. There were students drawing, but they weren’t actually drawing… they were just shading in the pre-existing drawing that lay on top of the easel. It was such a bizarre experience, I really couldn’t tell what was a façade and what was not.
Food was a memorable aspect of my trip. You could never finish your plate; I noticed that the restaurants we went to always made it a point to fill the plates up, and present a plethora of food. Given what we know about there having been a famine only a 1 or 2 years ago, I couldn’t help but wonder where all the scraps of food would go after we were done with them. I also drank a lot of North Korean beer, which was good. But it was a little harder justifying my purchase when I learned that the money paid for beer directly goes to the government, with no intervening people who benefit from the transaction.
Q: What was your impression of North Koreans’ attitude toward South Korea and unification?
A: Unification is the only thing that North Koreans talk about. They all unequivocally want it. The impression that I got was that they consider South Koreans to be the same people, and perceive no real difference – the two countries in their minds are exactly the same country. I think many North Koreans believe that if the Americans left South Korea, the two countries would naturally fall naturally back together. In other words, Americans are the root cause of the problem.
However, this is just my personal opinion but it seems that South Koreans aren’t overly fussed about the issue with unification. The main impression that I got was that the average South Korean is worried about the burden that would come with unification, and they don’t feel a great deal of attachment to North Korea. Their language is growing apart, the two countries are also becoming less and less culturally similar.
Q: Do you think there is a difference between the image of North Korea a lot of foreigners have (through media, etc. and the image that you have now of the country and its people after your visit?
A: My image of any country has changed after actually having gone there, but it was probably more so with North Korea. I think that people are very scared of the country, with it being lumped in with “axis of evil” and all. It’s a poorly run country that is inwardly hostile towards its own people. I think foreign media treats North Korea with curiosity and speculation, and I wish that they reached out to more experts with relevant experience and opinions, as opposed to just making blind speculations.
Q: Would you like to go back to North Korea? Why or why not?
A: I want to go to Cheongjin and Rajin, because it’s a little further way from Pyongyang, and I think I’ll get to interact more with people. I’m fascinated to see the markets and what’s going on with them; there is talk that they might try and follow Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China in the 1980s. This would be the epicentre of where things are changing.
All in all, my interview with Andy turned out to be interesting and thought-provoking. I couldn’t help but wonder about all the ironies that constitute the fabric of life in North Korea (or rather, Pyongyang, since there is probably a big difference in in the capital and other parts of the country). For example, his experience being allowed to jump the queue as a “VIP” at the adventure park once he paid more – how does that reconcile with the communist rhetoric of equality upheld by the government? What about Andy’s experience with restaurants they kept on piling up food in front of him and the other travellers, when approximately one third of North Korean children are currently stunted in their growth due to lack of food?
The more I wondered about these things, the more curious I became about what actual residents of North Korea would think about these observations, and the implications their opinions would have on prospects of unification. In the end, I realized that there is no way for me to figure this out until one day, I myself make a trip to North Korea – either as a tourist or a local citizen, depending on whether my country remains split into two or not.