Unfortunately, going into North Korea sometimes yields the impression that you’re entering a giant theatrical display; and those who are not designated actors are off-limits.
However, this act of theater is actually very thin. If you happen to get a bad group of guides (it’s never happened to me), then you might find your access to the general public is off limits. However, by establishing trust with your supervisors and demonstrating that you’re not some kind of loose canon, you’ll find that you’ll suddenly be given permission to meet, greet, and hang out with various locals.
I remember meeting 19 or 20 year-old guy attending a wedding in Kaesong. He spoke moderate English and seemed savvy with a lot of western pop culture, and he was overall a pretty cool guy. We chatted for a while, and he seemed thrilled to meet an American.
I met him while my guides were tending to some other business. They basically parked at this wedding and allowed us to “roam free”. After a while, when you’ve built up enough trust, they really don’t care as much as you’d think. If, however, you act unruly or you’re deemed a political threat in any way, the guides will most certainly show you different colors.
In another instance, I met a young woman, also in Kaesong, who spoke very little English. We were again waiting on our guides to finish some business, and since we had nothing else to do, we just hung out at this shop for 30 or 40 minutes.
I took some pictures with her. And, afterward, she started showing interest in me. I was standing around the porch and she ran up to me with a chair to make sure I had a place to sit, and she spent as much time as she could just lingering next to me, communicating a lot non-verbally, with glances and smiles. I noticed a small hint of desperation or longing; that somebody might come along and break all the laws in her country, act as a knight in shining armor, and take her far away.
Obviously, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. But, I have no doubt she’d recognize me if I suddenly returned to Kaesong.
In other instances, we’ve met people on the streets of Wonsan, played Frisbee with kids in Kim-il Sung Square, and also made friends with plenty of people in the tourist circuit (the waitresses, tourism department employees, hotel staff, and even military brass).
On my second trip to the hermit kingdom, a woman we had met in 2012 recognized us on the Pyongyang metro (she worked in the tourism department), and she was really excited to see us. I thought it was very novel that we were beginning to know enough people in Pyongyang to bump into friends in random places.
However, despite all of this, North Korea continues to have the element of forbidden territory. The huge, dilapidated Soviet-era condominiums all over Pyongyang remain completely hidden to foreigners. Outside of carefully state-sanctioned “home-stays” that some have went on, no outsider has ever ventured into a North Korean residence.
This really illustrates just how alienated the DPRK is. In the other remaining communist countries I’ve been to (Laos and China), I’ve never had a feeling that the people are sheltered or hidden. In China, you’re very likely to meet a bunch of folks at a pub, then end up having dumplings with them at their house for dinner. In Laos, the population is quite friendly and it’s not hard to tour people’s homes or apartments. The closest political cousin to the North’s extremism would be Myanmar (Burma), which used to have similar draconian policies. However, now even Burma is altogether open, with resorts popping up across the coastlines and foreigners given full access to most parts of the country.
Until some type of great reform happens, making friends with North Koreans will remain difficult. Although I now have plenty of friends in the DPRK, I’ll never be able to send them e-mails or add them on any type of social media network.
However, difficult is not impossible. And, by showing good manners and building trust with your guides, you too can make an assortment of friends even in this most unlikely of places.