Is North Korea such a strange country? Most of the time, not really.

I went to North Korea thinking I was going to land on another planet. I should have known better. I have been to strange places like Afghanistan, Syria or Yemen and discovered that most people, including people who support extreme political ideologies, have mostly normal everyday concerns and spend the vast majority of their time doing perfectly normal things. But, because it is so isolated and such a rogue on the international stage, North Korea gets a reputation as being literally out of this world. If I wanted to, I could easily contribute to this image, and many people have done so following a visit to the country.


For example, I could show you this picture I took in the Grand People’s Study House and say: “Isn’t that crazy? All they do is learn about their dead President!”. Perhaps it would make my trip seem more incredible than it already was.


On the other hand, while that reading room does exist, it is one of many, and the others have much less entertaining topics. But showing that would be boring, so most people would only focus on the first one. Does that first reading room on its own make the country so unusual? I don’t know. In Canada, the United Kingdom and other Western countries, tens of thousands of children attend Government subsidized Orthodox Jewish and Muslim schools, where they learn to count, basic reading and writing skills, and then spend the next 10 years memorizing every page of a big religious book. Stranger? At least I’m sure Kim Il Sung actually existed.

Another challenge on the normality of the country is the suspicion that if the Government-run tour fails to show you a place or a thing, it must be because they have something to hide. Of course, they do have things to hide. You will not see the gulags where political dissidents are sent, often with their entire family, and you will not see chemical weapon caches. But travel to the Land of the Free and try to visit a nuclear launch silo or a Supermax prison and see how far that gets you. That being said, if you try to visit the nuclear silo while screaming “Allahu Akbar”, maybe you will get to see the Supermax!


So we went in the subway. This is a fairly typical activity on Pyongyang tours and traditionally involved only one stop; with your tour bus picking you up at the next station.


This led many visitors to speculate that these must be “showcase stations”, with all the other ones being horrible, filled with nuclear weapons or possibly non-existent.


Truth be told, these two stations are probably the nicest, most ornate of the whole network. So what? Pyongyang is hardly the only city in the world where some subway stations are nicer than others. If you run a tour of a city and take people to visit the subway, do you take them to the interesting stations or the boring ones? Well, this speculation about the rest of the network was enough for Young Pioneer Tours to ask the Korea International Travel Company if we could visit more stations, so we did.


Guess what, the other stations are not as nice. They are boring, normal looking stations. I saw 4, and they all looked like this one. Busy, with normal lights on the ceiling and propaganda mosaics on the walls. No dissidents chained to the walls, no zombies, no chemical weapons. Normal.

What was not normal – to the Koreans – was seeing a fat Asian guy! When we walked as a group, we were the object of a lot of curiosity, especially outside Pyongyang. But when we wandered apart, like here in the subway, one guy from Ottawa, of Chinese decent, was the object of all the attention. Zoom in on the picture and look at people’s look of amazement (especially on the right)! While I saw a few chubby people in the DPRK, severe obesity doesn’t seem to be a major public health issue, to say the least.


A less improbable claim is that the subway, one of, if not the deepest in the world, was built this way for some sort of military purpose. Perhaps. The escalator ride take a full 2.5 minutes and for some reason, nobody ever walks up or down the moving stairs (people also rarely do that in China, for some reason).


And as you exit the subway and drive or walk around town, you see loads of people doing perfectly normal things, such as watching a game of volleyball, probably the most popular sport in the country.


Retired men spend the day fishing.


People wash big things in the river. In North America, people would wash things too big to fit in the sink with an outdoor hose. I guess they don’t have them in the DPRK. But, hardly a strange thing. If anything, not washing your bicycle with potable water is an environmentally preferable choice.


People even travel to China, and their families come to the station to wave them good by.


When not going that far, people wait for the bus.


And they take the bus.


And taxis.


And even private cars, although this is extremely rare. This Pyeonghwa sedan, North Korean built, is one of two privately owned cars I saw all week (I did see a few motorbikes). You can tell by the yellow plate. That being said, if the Government (white plate) or the Army (black plate), “gives” you a vehicle that comes with your job, as far as I can tell, it’s like owning a car. I doubt there is much distinction between official and private use, but I could be wrong.


Speaking of me lying; on my last post I mentioned that what struck me the most in Pyongyang was the complete lack of commercialism in general and advertising in particular. It is still quite true. This billboard is so unusual that when we drove by, our guide, Mrs Park, said: “And here there is the billboard”. Yes, she said THE billboard!

Is lack of commercialism strange? It is certainly unique in today’s world, but it is more anachronistic than strange. It is communism, or rather collective ownership of the means of production, as any reference to communism has long been erased out of North Korean law and doctrine, replaced by Kim Il Sung’s Juche Idea. I will admit to never having been to Cuba, but I have been to all the other existing “communist” countries, and by and large, private industry is everywhere. But not in the DPRK.


This leads to operations and things which, from a capitalist point of view, make no sense at all. For example, highway rest stops like this one, where we would usually be the only customers. This one had not one empty store, but two! Both devoid of customers, and both selling almost the same things. Does it make sense from a socialist point of view? I know nothing of socialist political economy, but I suppose the goals might be met: the tourists and the few local travellers have a washroom and shops to buy water, cigarettes and other trinkets, and a bunch of ladies have jobs running the place. Mission accomplished, I suppose. Not enough people come? Who cares? The consequences of low productivity are only observable on a macro-economic scale. Nothing seems strange for that one person with the redundant job.


Overstaffing is not the only consequence of not seeking to make a profit, marketing decisions are affected as well. The main shop at our Pyongyang hotel sold lots of products that moved off the shelves quickly: water, alcohol, snacks and cigarettes. But tomato puree! Who buys a large can of German tomato puree in a hotel convenience store? And just so we are clear, this hotel is on a small island, no city resident would ever just walk in to shop. This can may very well have been made in the DDR (East Germany), like the chips-like things I bought that had expired months ago. To be fair, the ladies at the store (minimum three at all times), seemed very professional. They kept the place very clean, they hurried like crazy when there was a rush of people and they did there best to speak a few words of English. Do they care about carrying products nobody wants? Of course not. If the customers are happy and get what they want, carrying unwanted inventory is irrelevant when you are not trying to make money.

I first thought the store worked in the strangest way. You went to the lady with your purchases, she rang up the bill and gave it to you. You then went to a cashier booth, paid, and returned to the first lady with your stamped bill. Then I realized it only works like this for foreigners, and the cashier lady is really more like a money changer. A hotel employee once came in at the same time as I and bought a pack of cigarettes by just handing a note and some change. Like in Cuba, foreigners are not allowed to use the local currency, but unlike Cuba, there is no non-convertible, foreigner-only North Korean Won. You just pay in hard currency, preferably Euros or Chinese Yuan, although some places will take US Dollars, UK Pounds or Japanese Yen.

I regretted not being able to visit local shops. And I don’t mean peasants in the middle of nowhere selling vegetables; those are the same in every poor country of the world. I like to visit places where the middle-class go (assuming this means something in the DPRK). I had a great time at the Diamond Mall in Mandalay, Myanmar, that country’s first Western style mall. I find it fascinating to see an emerging country’s take on large scale commercialism.

But, I think I know why KITC is reluctant to let tourists visit locals shops. To this day, staples like rice and cooking oil are not purchased by Koreans, they are distributed on a rationing basis. Perhaps that makes the stores look embarrassingly empty? We did visit a shopping mall, but most stores had just closed, and the cosmetic counter sold thing that could only be targeted at a minuscule number of clients in Pyongyang, like Dior cosmetics for nearly $700. The grocery store had both extremes: a big bunch of vegetables for 50 cents and a couple of imported German sausages for $15. I tried to take a picture of the rack of Heinz ketchup bottles, but I was told it was not allowed, something that rarely occurred outside of military settings.


I mentioned in the previous post that the restaurants, and many shops, are impossible to identify if you don’t speak Korean, as there are no advertisements, graphics or pictures. The florist would be the exception, quite obviously.


The construction boom in Pyongyang is everywhere. This will eventually be the new headquarters of the Central Bank of the DPRK. On big construction sites like these, work crews look much like work crews anywhere in the world, with machinery, hard hats and everything.


But on less complicated projects, one wonders who is doing the work. Perhaps landscaping is these people’s main job, or perhaps they are part of some sort of work party. The machinery is certainly nowhere to be seen.


What was very obvious is that military service in the DPRK is about a lot more than training for war and manning the Demilitarized Zone. It’s about roadwork and construction. While tourists are free to take pictures almost everywhere, you are not supposed to deliberately take pictures of soldiers. I say deliberately because in many places, it would be nearly impossible to take a picture without some soldier being in it, as they are simply everywhere. The vast majority of the people working here, and at countless other sites, are soldiers and a massive tent camp has been built along the river to house them.

The DPRK has the 5th largest military in the world, with over 1.1 million soldiers in the regular force. These are mostly conscripts, as the DPRK has a mandatory military service of three years. How many of them are actually soldiering and doing collective training exercises? I have no idea, but huge numbers are laying pavement and painting stuff. With my own eyes I saw thousands as I drove around the country. As I wondered how large and capable the military really is, I remembered a quote from a very witty American General who told the media the day after the beginning of the Gulf War: “Yesterday, Iraq had the 5th largest military in the world. Today, they have the 2nd largest military in Iraq.”


That woman is in the military. That baton won’t do much to repel an invasion. Pyongyang’s traffic ladies are quite famous. You are not supposed to photograph them, since they are in the military, but it is somewhat tolerated, as everyone wants to do it. Here is a link to a video I found on Youtube. It shows the “changing of the guard”.

And by the way, these are not soldiers, these are officers, all of them. Mostly junior officers, but in Wonsan, I saw a Major handling the traffic at an important intersection. This is typical of communist, conscript armies. The sergeants and warrant officers that form the backbone of most Western armies are in very few numbers in communist conscript armies; it’s professional officers and inexperienced, very young conscripts. Anything requiring some experience or judgement is thus done by officers.

Going back to the normalcy of the DPRK. Here is a one pager of there ideology, which I photographed in a museum of sorts.


Of course, it embellishes reality, but if you ask me to describe Canada in one page, I probably won’t talk much about Native Reserves in the North. My point is that I think Korean urbanites probably believe quite a bit in their system. Even now, 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, millions and millions of people in the former East Bloc vote for communist parties. Some people are just more comfortable in collectivist systems. They like the certainty, the equality and for many, the sense of purpose. I did say urbanites because North Korea, like China, is not economically one country, it is the cities on one side and the countryside on the other, and life in these places can be very different. Many of these differences you could never see on a short visit, but the guides were quite open about some things. I learned that people with non-agricultural jobs work 6 days a week, with Sundays off. Peasants work 9 days, and then have “market day” off. Of course, the few things they are allowed to grow for themselves, they have to sell at the market, so in fact, they basically never get a day off!

A very taboo subject in the DPRK is that of Songbun, a system where every citizen is assigned a rating of “core”, “wavering” or “hostile”. These are then further divided into many sub rankings. The Government denies this exists and it is never publicly disclosed, i.e. you can’t ask to know your rating. However, there is near unanimity amongst DPRK experts that this is the main determinant of your opportunities in life, from education and employment to where you are allowed to live. Everyone in Pyongyang is in the more loyal category, and their life seemed OK to me. Basically, a big group of poor to low middle class people living the socialist dream. While tourists are now allowed in the much poorer northern provinces, my itinerary didn’t involve going there.

In short, the country is not monolithic, and despite the crushing poverty of the country as a whole, the life of people in cities, who are of course the people who control everything, is not that bad. The fact that they don’t rebel and overthrow the regime is perhaps in part due to oppression, but also because they are in a favoured position, and they might prefer this to the uncertainty of becoming like Russia in the 1990’s. Peasants have nothing to lose, but they also have no voice, no means, and now that I think of it, they do have their freedom and their life to lose.

Even the propaganda aimed at foreigners has taken a turn for the more normal. Instead of claiming Kim Yong-Il scored 7 holes in one in his first ever golf game, they write pieces like this one, in the Pyongyang times.


On the whole, it is a ridiculous piece of propaganda, but nothing is completely fabricated. They take something that happened – perhaps an isolated incident – and pull it out of context, exaggerate it or “embellish” it. To someone who likes to hear this kind of message (think the occupy [insert name of place] crowd), it is probably somewhat credible. In a completely different political registry, I heard more incredible narratives on Tennessee conservative talk radio in July!

Perhaps I have convinced some of you that the DPRK is different because it is the last remaining communist state, but that it’s not the craziest place the world has ever seen. If I did, good, it reflects the reality of millions of its citizens who go about their normal daily life in a perfectly normal way. But now, let me open the window to the Twilight Zone.


Sometimes, you think you are in an important place, like Kim Il Sung square. Everything looks nice, like these big propaganda messages and signs.


But walk 30 seconds South, and they look like garbage. Why? Because the cameras are not on that side. Wait a second, this is Hollywood!

Of course the folks in Pyongyang are the “in” crowd, who cares if they see backstage? Apart from some key things I will address in the next post, I think everything we were told was mostly true. Sometimes with surprising candour in a socialist context:

– “How do they select the traffic police?”, ask a fellow tourist.

– “They pick the best looking girls in the Army” answered the guide.

However, I also began to think that all the true things I was told were also slightly exaggerated. I became convinced at the DMZ when our guide said an important officer would come and talk to us. After he left, she referred to him as a Colonel 2 or 3 times. Well, I can read their ranks, and he was a Captain. There was no reason to lie, but perhaps there is an engrained habit to exaggerate everything. The Western guide and business owner, Troy, thought she may not know ranks and such things when I mentioned this over a beer. I have no reason to doubt his honesty, but I cannot believe that in a country with over a million soldiers, where nearly all adult males and millions of females are in some sort of reserve or militia, a grown women can’t tell the difference between a Captain and a Colonel. For people who know nothing about armies, one might command 100 soldiers and the other 5,000!


So I became a little suspicious, and when our guide discussed the size of the Government-provided apartments (rather large, of course), I started looking into one thing I know well, real estate. Generally, vertical divides on balconies are only placed between separate units. They provide privacy, but they block light and view, so you don’t put them up for fun. Well, either this building is an exception, or there are a lot of very, very small units in there.


I kept this picture in quite high resolution so you can zoom on it. Every single balcony is full of stuff. This can have two explanations: people are shopaholics and gather tons of useless consumer goods or, their apartments are really small and they have nowhere to put things. So, I was getting a little skeptical.

I will leave it at that for now and tell you what’s coming next. I hope I conveyed that despite our impressions of their isolated country, 99% of North Koreans are perfectly normal people, doing perfectly normal things 99% of the time. Tomorrow, I will tell you about what they do that remaining 1%: they become absolute, total FREAKS!


2 thoughts on “Is North Korea such a strange country? Most of the time, not really.

    • Happy at the amusement park, sad at the mausoleum, dreamy in the park and angry at the husband because he was drunk in public, like in any country. That’s why even though I will elaborate later today on why they can sometimes be very weird, most of the time they are just regular folks going about their normal, daily business, with concerns like missing the bus or running out of cigarettes. The whole visit was a strange mixture the totally fantastic and the completely banal.

Leave a Reply