I just got back from a week long visit to North Korea. AMAA!
Just got back from a trip through the DPRK. Want to know what it's like? Ask away!
Proof: http://imgur.com/W4ZIJ Couple pics from the trip: http://imgur.com/a/3TsbF
Took a while to come back! Saw Psy play Gangnam style last night in Seoul!
Answering a few more questions now!
That's a very good point you bring up. The country tries its best to present itself in the most favorable light possible in every way.
I traveled to several cities, Pyongyang included and there is a big difference.
Oh, neat. The only stuff I heard about was Pyongyang and a couple of the outlying areas.
What is it like out in the smaller cities? All I've heard about them is third or fourth person accounts, so getting a more personal view would be nice.
Some of the places were very rural, people would have giant fields for crops and they would walk or bike for many miles to get from the fields to their houses.
Some of the houses were very simple, think of a concrete square. But for the most part people lived in apartment buildings that were built long long ago and that were mostly run down. The population, even in the smaller cities is mostly centrally located.
Also, the nature in NK is very beautiful! The landscapes and mountains are surreal
Do they listen to Gangnam Style there?
Sure, they are currently working with the army to teach them the dance to do at the next military parade.
The two chapparones or "guides" you guys had, were they NK-schooled in a way that they mostly showed everything "good" with the country? Did they speak about their government?
This is a good question as well.
They were NK citizens, and a part of the privileged class. They definitely showed the country in a positive light, however they did not try and hide things either. We passed by a few labor camps and the guides could have easily closed the curtains on the window of the bus, but never did.
We spoke about the government some, the thing that I found most interesting is that my guides truly believed in their government. They weren't completely ignorant to the outside world (my guides had actually traveled to many countries) and they understood that there were a lot of problems. However the way one of my guides spoke was so full of fire and passion that it convinced me he believes in what his country is doing.
What did the labor camps look like? Did you see people working there? What other countries had your guides been to, and did they say anything about how they were granted permission to go?
I only saw a couple, one of them was especially scary. Imagine a bunch of tents all lined up, next to that there was a shell of an apartment building...nothing but concrete, kinda like a square beehive for some reason part of the apartment building was smoldering and there was smoke coming from the tent grounds...
I saw many people working, they were farming some kind of crop or walking around doing tasks. I can't be 100% sure it was a labor camp, but it seems like if there was one that would have been it.
I can't go into too much detail about the guide because the place he went was very specific. He had been to several Asian countries as well as a few European ones. His family was very affluent and they traveled on behalf of the government. I can only assume he had strong connections.
Did you believe them?
As a human being I cannot support abuse against humans and a lack of concern over human rights.
In addition, a policy they have is that they must first spend money on their military before taking care of other priorities (proper housing and taking care of their citizens basic needs)
I think that's what you were asking about?
I mean did you believe what the guides said was honest, or if they'd been instructed to say that. From what I've read it's very very difficult for a NK citizen to travel outside the country.
I believe that his passion was sincere, in fact there is no doubt in my mind. I also believe from the context of the situations we were in that his words were true. (People had a lot of respect for our guide)
If you are a westerner, how were you treated? Weirdest thing about the country? How is the poverty situation in North Korea?
I am an American. As strange as it sounds, I was treated very well by most of the people.
Weirdest thing is the half finished apartment buildings right next to multi-million dollar office buildings.
I can't really comment on the poverty situation, my Korean isn't good enough to have an in depth conversation and anyone who speaks English is part of the upper echelon of society...
How much did it cost for the visa, if you dont mind telling? Was there any screening process for an american to get into NK? did you have fun?
Getting inside NK was actually really simple... The fees and visas and things cost between 2-3k USD but that also includes a flight, meals, "gifts," and other things. (Any grammar nazis here? I'm not sure if the comma goes in or out of the quotes, haha.)
I did not have any screening except a few questions on a form...
I had a wonderful time there, the Korean people are great. Very kind and warm. I was able to speak to a few of the locals in my very bad Korean and they actually took the time to help me improve my language skills.
Edit for grammar :)
What is the technology like there, and how does it compare to South Korea?
The technology is antiquated, in SK most people have very nice cell phones, technology is everywhere.
In NK very very few people have cells phones, the land line phones are from 20 years ago, and the only place I saw a flat screen TV was at the airport. In fact, they had technology there that was so old I couldn't even figure out what it did...
The reason very few people have cell phones in NK is that they're banned there....
EDIT: It would appear I was mistaken, since 2008 mobile phones are allowed in NK although they can't be used to make international calls.
Oh yeah? I could definitely see that. They thoroughly control the flow of information by keeping citizens locked to certain districts (the people of pyongyang actually can't leave the city unless they have a special permit) which keeps news and gossip located in one district and allows the media to propagate whatever ideas they'd like
There are checkpoints along all major roads that make sure people traveling are traveling on official state business as well
There was this box that had a bunch of knobs and switches at one of the restaurants but no one knew what it did, I even played with it a little bit but I couldn't figure out its purpose. It reminded me of a radio that my grandfather had from the 40s except I didn't see an FM/AM dial
Anyway you could upload a full album of your photos to imgur? I would love to see more
I actually took many many pictures, unfortunately several did not turn out well. I will have to sort through them and I'll let you know!
2) How is the Ryugyong hotel looking nowadays?
3) How is the food?
4) Did you interact with people other than your guides? What was the general feeling then?
Glad you asked these questions!
The Ryugyong hotel is magnificent, the finished the exterior finally (construction began is 87 I believe) and it's visible from most of the city. It's a really cool looking place.
The food was good, it was traditional Korean food (Kimchi, Breads, Rice, etc.) But it messed up my stomach pretty bad.
I'm glad you asked about the people. I went to many places and interacted with a lot of locals. One thing I noticed is that the citizens are good people. Many people smiled back when I would smile at them, and often times they would wave back as well.
With that being said, you could tell that everyone was looking over their shoulders all the time. Also you have to keep in mind that the people I interacted with on most occasions were part of the upper class. Some of the people also may have been actors. I can't be sure.
Did you visit South Korea? If so what is the main difference between North Korea and South Korea? Besides the obvious of course.
I visited both places, the difference is day and night. South Korea is a bustling metropolitan city with advanced technology. North Korea has.. well, they have a city that stopped advancing ~40 years ago
That being said, the people are very similar except for their heights.
Please could you extrapolate on the height difference?
haha extrapolate is a funny word. Well, in SK the people are fairly tall, it's not uncommon to see people pass 6 feet.
In NK, people were much shorter, 5.5 feet maybe?
Here is a WSJ blog about something related http://blogs.wsj.com/numbersguy/the-korean-height-gap-431/
The other thing I notice is that older people in South Korea are around the same height or just a little taller than the people from the North
Do you have any pictures of the traffic policewomen?
Haha, I was unable to get one of them. One of the most interesting things I saw however was an elderly lady, probably in her 80s carrying an AK down the street!
hey, thanks for the AMA.
what is the one misconception people have, or you had, about NK that is total bullshit?
That it is 100% pure evil. Many things that you hear are true, it felt like I was going back in time when I was there.
But the people of the country are just people like you and I. And in general they are really awesome people!
- have you heard of /r/pyongyang before?
- are you subscribed to it?
- are you banned yet?
Hahah I have heard about it. I haven't checked it out but I will see!
Did it feel like you were stepping back in time since the buildings are apparently old there?
This is a very good question.
Absolutely, it feels like the country stopped in the 70s, and started up again just now.
It's a strange juxtaposition. There are many influential Chinese investors there who will drive a 400,000 dollar mercedes next to a car that was manufactures in the late 70s.
The same is true for the architecture in pyongyang
Why did you go to North Korea? Did you have a chapparone following you around? Did you feel in danger at any time? How was the food?
A friend invited me to go, and I wanted a chance to see what the country was like with my own eyes.
We had two chapparones or "guides" with us at all times.
I never felt in danger, but I did feel very uncomfortable a few times. Thankfully our guides were very very good and took care of us!
The food was good, mostly, but it really wrecked my stomach. There are a few private restraunts that serve as a meeting place for tourists and the countries elite as well as the hotel that we ate at.
What made you feel uncomfortable?
Customs into the country, There were border checks on every road we took. Several of them in fact. Any time someone spoke aggressively.
Also the power went out a few times in one of the cities we stayed at.
What was the flight like? It looks like you were on Air China? Were the other passengers mostly businessmen? Or other tourists?
Did you ever feel creeped out in your hotel room? Like it was bugged and someone was listening to everything you said?
Do you feel any guilt for supporting their corrupt government with your visit/visa fees?
The flight scared the shit out of me, it wasn't actually air china flying... it was a Russian airplane made long before I was born. The plane was... lets see... Air Koryo.
I went in knowing that everything I said or did was most likely being monitored so I acted very diplomatically in the situations I found myself in. With that being said, the food gave me the shits really bad so I find it kinda funny that some guy had to listen to me in the toilet :)
I would like to think that I am buying some rice to help some needy families but I'm pretty sure I bought a couple magazines for the DPRK army instead... That being said, I feel that this chance is an opportunity for me to share this experience with other people which just might have a positive impact on the common citizens of NK...maybe
How true is Vice Guide to North Korea?
I'm actually watching it for the first time right now, the impression I have so far is that it's fairly accurate but there is a strong negative bias, and a lot of the points made have been upsold.
I'll come back to ya when I've finished watching it. If you have seen it and have any specific questions about anything you saw I'd be happy to compare my experience to it.
Interesting stuff bud. Don't think i'd have the balls to go there without fearing for my safety haha.
So you say you were in Pyongyang... did you check out the underground subway?
There are some reports that you can only visit 2 stations out of the whole system and if have a good eye and are careful about noticing things, you can always see the same people boarding the trains and leaving them (as if they are actors that are just there to show that there is a lot of activity and everything is going well). Care to comment on that?
Good IAmA by the way.
Thanks for the kind words!
The subway was really interesting. My subway experience was us going down several hundred meters and hopping on the subway that had a few people but it wasn't really packed.
The next stop we got to was a total mindfuck, there were so many people on the subway that were pushing to get in and there was literally no space for more people. http://blog.realin.co.in/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/packed-train-pakistan.jpg it reminded me of this image.
I went through 4 stops then got off at the Arch of Triumph station. Could it have been faked? Absolutely, but I don't think it was...
As far as I know, socialist and communist countries take extreme pride in their underground subway systems. I seen some pictures of the stations (at least the ones available to the public) and they are simply gorgeous.
The subway had cars manufactured in both Russia and Germany. The cars were also extremely old (I would date them at around '74)
The subway itself however was magnificent, there were flowers everywhere and the lighting was set up so that the station looked like it had natural light even though it was deep underground. There were also mosaics, chandeliers, and many other beautiful decorations throughout all of the subway system.
My tour guide said that it was the deepest subway system in the world but I am skeptical of it.
What was the most WTF moment during your stay?
They don't have the internet... and email is really hard to come by
The biggest positive WTF has to be the kids, Korean children are so fucking adorable I can't even explain it... the baby communists are so cute!
I picture cute big eyed babies wearing shirts with KJU's face holding AKs
Hahahaha! The kids had on little communist uniforms and scarves... damn it was so cute
Did you hear any SNSD? What was life like in the DPRK?
No, the only music that we heard was traditional Korean opera and propaganda music from the trucks with speakers on them.
Are you asking about my experience there or are you asking how I would consider life is for the population?
Are there any foreigners living in NK? I see you mentioned Chinese businessmen, but is that the extent of NK's internationality? Other Asian countries have bustling international cities and plenty of expats. Do you think living in NK is even feasible?
That's a really good question. First we have to differentiate between other asians and "westerners"
I did not see a single westerner that was not part of a tour group but that does not mean they are not there.
I have heard stories about westerners living there who were supported by the state and helped with some propaganda but I did not see them for myself.
You're right on with your question. There were only affluent businessmen who were in NK, being an "investor" is really the only way I think someone could get into and live there.
It's probably not feasible to live there in the traditional sense.
How did you get in?
Paid a "visa application fee" to China and the DPRK
Hi, just a couple of questions please. 1. Are you an American citizen ? 2. If you are, then how did you feel knowing that North Koreans are taught from basically birth to hate Americans?
Thank you very much for this question, it actually resonates with me greatly!
I am an American citizen. I felt very very uncomfortable whenever someone would bring up America because we referred to as "American ImPERialists" with a lot of hatred and intensity.
Politically, North Korea is taught that everything bad that happens is because of the US.
My tour guide really hates America, but he was able to differentiate between a government and its people. So to answer your question, it was very difficult for me to hear the things the people would say about my country, but at the same time it was my responsibility to represent the U.S. since I could possibly be the only American Citizen these people ever met. By the end of our trip my guide and I became very close friends and I believe that the people I met will probably still hate America, but not hate Americans as much. Edit*** In the same way, I also learned that the people of NK are not the same as the government, they are people like us!
Did you go to North Korea, or did you go to Pyongyang?
Because I had the chance to talk to defectors when they came to do a piece for the troops on Yongsan, and it's pretty clear they use Pyongyang as a sort of smokescreen for visitors.
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