A Freelance Media Trainer and Lecturer in Broadcast Journalism at Queen’s University Belfast, Don Duncan joined our May 2018 Workshop to train participants from the DPRK in various aspects of business communications. Here, Don recalls his many memorable experiences in Pyongyang, and expresses the same streak of cautious optimism North Koreans have for the future.
“Oh you’re Irish!” the professor said to me as we shook hands. “You’ve overcome imperialism as well. We know a lot about your country. You’ve got your own language and only about 5% of you speak it today.”
I was surprised by the specific knowledge the man had about my little country, 9,000km away. It turns out that North Koreans pay particular attention to countries that have experienced and overcome imperialism. Its most recent struggle against the Japanese occupation that lasted from 1910 till the end of World War II helped shape the political philosophy that underpins North Korea’s specific brand of communism, which strives to attain the dual national goals of self-sufficiency and “unassailable strength.”
Since assuming power in 2011, current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has pursued those goals through reprising his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s doctrine of Byungjin or “parallel advance,” a binary strategy that simultaneously seeks to build the country’s nuclear prowess and boost its economy.
I found myself in Pyongyang in May of this year as a volunteer trainer with Choson Exchange, a Singapore-based NGO that brings business professionals from outside North Korea to the country to run workshops for North Koreans involved in business.
I wanted to go to North Korea because I feel deeply ambivalent about the way the country is represented to us by our media in the West. The coverage is over-simplified, I find, and the subtext seems to persistently suggest a cartoonishly crazed leadership, an unhinged political ideology and a population that is heavily brainwashed – a mass of unthinking automatons which, when not slaving away in deplorable factories, spends its time marching in enormous military parades or partaking in bizarre, mass choreographed dances in public squares.
Foreigners visiting North Korea are usually accompanied by government minders who control what they see and where they can go. While my group had its minder, I was allowed, on several occasions, to wander freely around the city for limited periods of time and to observe real, everyday life. What I saw is something we are never shown in our own media constructions of North Korea: humanity.
On my solo strolls around the city, I saw a group of three women walking home from work, laughing over a joke and having to stop walking and bend over in convulsions because the laughter became so deep and overwhelming. I saw primary school kids run in their distinctive uniforms – rolled-up, red neck kerchiefs over white short-sleeve shirts – racing each other towards an amusement stall in the street where, in exchange for a coin, they could shoot rubber pellets at targets in the hopes of winning prizes.
Along the banks of the wide, slovenly Taedong river, lone men sit writing in notebooks and gazing out at the water. Couples stroll by and occasionally sit together to cuddle by the current. I pass by a café window. It’s full to the brim with men drinking beer merrily, clearly well into a session. They see me pass by, a rare sighting of a foreigner, and beckon me in wildly with laughter.
Elsewhere, in a square, I see groups of women rehearsing a dance led by a woman playing a tune on a mini-speaker hanging from her belt. They’re rehearsing for the famous mass choreographed dance that happens in September during North Korea’s gymnastics and arts festival, returning in 2018 after a five year hiatus. Come September, they will be a flawless mass of 1000s – the kind we see so often on our TV screens – but for now – back in May, with months ahead of them – they’re two dozen sweaty and huffing ladies, confused in their movements, botching their steps and playfully cringing when they see me witness their rough rehearsal.
Down in a metro station, people crowd around the glazed public display stand of Radong Sinmun, the state-run newspaper. They’re finding out the news that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been in Pyongyang the day before, had met with Kim Jong-un and that the summit between their leader and US President Trump had been set for June 12th in Singapore. We had visited the hotel at which the meeting was held just hours prior to Pompeo’s arrival there and we had found out about the momentous event via an internet data connection our delegation had access to. In this sense, we heard the news almost a day before it broke to the larger population via official channels.
Many North Koreans I spoke with saw that summit as necessary. The economy must get moving again and to do so, sanctions must be reduced or lifted. However, the summit and the changes it could usher in for North Korea was also a cause of nervousness for them.
When communist Russia fell in the early 90s, North Koreans – who were kept largely unaware of the repressions and abuses that happened under Soviet communism – watched on in horror as an aggressive capitalism swooped into Russia and the Eastern Bloc and replaced a system that aimed at class equality, with oligarchs, gaping income gaps, rabid crime and grinding poverty.
All the parties with stakes in the developing détente with North Korea are proceeding with caution, not least North Korea. Economically, it has much to gain from diplomatic progress with the West but if the process is rushed or botched, North Koreans fear, the opportunity could turn sour and spell out the beginning of the end of their entire political system and way of life.
“We may have to sleep with the enemy,” one North Korean man in finance told me while I was in Pyongyang, “but that doesn't mean we’ll get kicked out of the bed.”
Just as our North Korean participants benefit from the invaluable insights shared by workshop leaders like Don, our workshop leaders too embark on an equally insightful experience in North Korea. Join us as a volunteer trainer in our upcoming workshops and be part of our story today!