On Interacting With North Koreans

Kaesong

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.

kidfunnyhelmet

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.

kimilsung square

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.

NorthKoreans

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.

 

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Comments

  1. Wow that is so interesting! I had no idea that you could travel to North Korea, although I’ve never thought about it much. I just assumed it was closed to Western travel. Maybe some day I can be sharing dumplings with a nice family myself! Cheers!

  2. Haha you probably won’t share dumplings in North Korea, but you can in China 🙂 That’s the thing, you can’t interact with North Koreans like that unless it’s some weird conotrolled thing.

  3. Very inspiring! I like this independent style of travelling myself. I also think that exploring other cultures, so different to ours, opens up our minds and makes us grateful for what we have.
    What is your preffered style of accomodation when you travel? hostals, local families, couch-surfing..?

  4. In North Korea it’s hotels and places the government tells me to go to lol. Hostels are great for adventuring in places for 1 or 2 weeks at a time, and you meet a lot of people. But it’s both cheaper and more effective to rent short term apartments. I may do that in Tokyo next year. I found a place that’s only $350-400 a month right in Tokyo, as a shared living apartment.

  5. As Marta said, I love this “independent style of traveling” too! I love cultures and meeting people with different backgrounds. I love to learn how people, specially their mindsets and ways of thinking, differ from one country to another. It is also interesting to see how history and the government and the society deeply influences people’s thinking and behaviors as well.

    I am originally from China. And yes, we would like to invite people to our homes for dinner and talks if we become friends 😉 For accommodation when you travel in China though, couch-surfing or staying at local families is not very popular in China, at least in older generations, because Chinese tend to distrust people who they don’t know…Or least they are being very very cautious about this….

    Anyway, very interesting post. Look forward to your next travel log to another country Cyrus!

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