Ian Bennett has over a decade of experience in software and product development and has visited North Korea several times, both as a tourist, tour leader and Choson Exchange workshop leader. Here he ruminates on his experiences both as traveler and educator in the DPRK.
It’s not yet dawn and I am jogging along the bank of the Taeddong River in central Pyongyang. Men on bicycles make their way slowly to work, military construction workers wash in the river, a group of brightly dressed ladies laugh while they play badminton, and patriotic music wafts from the street corner tannoy. As a lanky bearded foreigner in running shorts I get a few looks, but perhaps fewer than I had expected. My group is asleep back at the hotel, and I’m alone in North Korea.
This country has been open to foreign visitors for some years now, with established companies such as Beijing-based Koryo Tours taking around 2000 tourists in and out every year. Tour options are becoming ever more imaginative, offering helicopter flights around Pyongyang, mountain bike excursions, and home stay options with Korean families, not to mention the opportunity to partake in the annual Pyongyang Marathon. The ‘how on earth did you get in?’ question is long-redundant; for many North Korea visitors, the bulk of the admin work is in obtaining a Chinese visa to fly in from Beijing.
All visitors must travel on organised tours accompanied by guides, which doesn’t always sit easily. A few play the game of trying to slip away from the guides, seeking tedious clickbait ‘rare glimpse’ photos. It’s a selfish act; the foreigner risks little, their Korean guide far more. This is, after all, a country which has held out against the Western world for the past seven decades- a personal crusade to aggressively challenge the narrative is most likely to provoke little more than defensiveness.
For those who accept the rules, such as bowing to statues and respecting requests not to photograph soldiers or construction sites, a trip to North Korea can be a fascinating experience, dispelling many myths but often raising an equal number of questions. It turns out that many people in Pyongyang have a reasonable standard of living, eat well and buy imported everyday and luxury goods using US dollars; there are taxis and mobile phone networks, and locals can even order a pizza for delivery using a Korean-made smartphone which connects to the countrywide intranet. There are microbreweries, decent coffee shops and even a fondue restaurant. People tend to know quite a bit about the outside world and their country’s relative level of economic development, and some do travel internationally.
Most people I met knew far more about the English Premier League than I do, but to be fair that’s not saying a whole lot. The people -- like all people -- have opinions and are anything but the brainwashed automatons they are frequently portrayed as; but equally they are not about to share controversial viewpoints on sensitive political topics with a foreigner they’ve just met. Respect that, instigate discussions with tact and thoughtfulness, and you can learn a lot about the much-maligned people of this country.
My brief moment of jogging solitude is not a bid to slip the leash from my guides, but rather a privilege built upon trust. I am not here not as a tourist, but on an educational visa with Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based NGO.
Choson Exchange (CE) brings in foreign business leaders to run workshops in Pyongyang, as well as sponsoring a small number of North Koreans who travel to Singapore and elsewhere for workshops and mini-MBA programmes. Previous workshop leaders have come from large software companies, travel agencies, retail businesses and more, while others are self-made entrepreneurs. Training entrepreneurial skills in North Korea may seem a little incongruous, but there is a real hunger for business knowledge as people find their way in a challenging economic environment.
I first came to North Korea in early 2008, crossing the heavily fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ) from South Korea by bus (as was possible then, sadly no longer) to the breathtakingly beautiful Geumgang mountain resort. The Sliding Doors alternate Korean reality captivated me, and I returned several times as a tourist, then afterwards as a tour guide, and now in an educational capacity. In the intervening years, the Kim dynasty has moved on a generation, and the capital city -- if not the countryside -- has surged forward in terms of skyline, style, attitudes and traffic. Five years ago, the blue-uniformed traffic ladies of Pyongyang directed non-existent vehicles to the amusement of tourists; today they remain on duty, but backed up by real traffic lights and a several-fold increase in the number of cars, taxis and trucks. I’ve yet to be in a proper traffic jam in Pyongyang, but it can’t be far off.
I’m in Pyongyang today to talk about scaling a startup product with limited capital. The theme of this visit is Women In Business, and other workshop leaders this week are running sessions on a variety of topics including networking, body language, and team building. Many of my audience are business graduates of esteemed Korean universities. Standing in business attire with portraits of the Leaders behind me, I look at the red-Kim-pin-wearing audience and can’t help but wonder whether there is a potential Sheryl Sandberg or Steve Jobs in the room, and, if such entrepreneurial verve is present, whether the channels exist for them to fulfil their potential here. Certainly, the drive is there; I find myself in extended conversation with an earnest delegate who is quite adamant that he is going to open a local branch of H&M in Pyongyang. How this might sit with governmental regulations and international trade sanctions is another matter entirely. I wish him the best of luck, I really do.
Visiting as a Choson Exchange workshop leader differs from the tourist experience, but there are similarities. Many of the same rituals and cultural sights such as the mosaic and chandelier-adorned subway system and Juche tower are visited by both tourists and workshop leaders alike; but with a more relaxed schedule, workshop leaders may find more time to interact with Koreans in the workshop setting. Whilst a large portion of the trip is taken up by workshop sessions, time is also set aside to visit other sites both in and around Pyongyang. Workshop leaders may visit fewer attractions, but have a little more freedom of movement and choice of evening activities, as well as staying in downtown hotels rather than on the Yangakkdo island in the middle of the river. Depending upon the length of visit, however, tourists may venture further afield, with extended trips to hitherto off-limits areas such as Hamhung, Chongjin and the fabled Mount Baekdu in the far north.
As our trip draws to a close, we exit the country by slow train on a Beijing-bound overnight service. The Koreans wave us off at Pyongyang station, and as we roll northwards out of the capital the contrast between urban and rural is stark. The gleaming showpiece ‘Pyonghattan’ tower blocks soon give way to collectivist farms, dirt roads and ox-drawn carts. People work the fields harvesting cabbages to make the kimchi which will tide them over the harsh Korean winter. I have read that this year’s crop yield has been badly affected by the rains, and although few still rely solely on the rations from the public food distribution system, a poor harvest is the last thing these people need.
After six hours of arable land dotted with villages, a row of skyscrapers becomes visible on the horizon, and a fellow passenger’s phone lights up with emails and messages as coverage resumes. We are approaching the Yalu river which divides China from Korea. The contrast couldn’t be starker between the twin border towns; on the far bank, Chinese Dandong is a riot of skyscrapers, neon and traffic noise; on the Korean side of the water, the town of Sinuiju sits in semi-darkness, whilst a solitary Korean propaganda banner at the side of the road defiantly proclaims the virtues of self-reliance. As a political philosophy, that may still hold true, but on an economic and interpersonal level, this is a country less closed than perhaps you might think.