My short bio: I am a Computer Science Graduate student studying networking and distributed systems at the University of Washington. This fall, I took a quarter off to teach at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. I taught two classes: Operating Systems to the CS seniors, and Databases to the CS juniors.

It was a really interesting experience to live in the DPRK, and one that very few americans have. We interacted somewhat regularly with the diplomatic community in Pyongyang, because they are essentially the only other other long-term english speaking residents there.

The university I taught at is unique in the country in a lot of ways: Instruction is in english, and mainly from foreign professors. There were 50-60 professors there this fall, with maybe 20 of them Caucasians (like me). The majority of professors were Korean-American.

The university's website is down at the moment (normally, but some information is available here:

We got a lot of time to interact with the students, which was awesome, and also did a fair amount of tourism. I'm happy to talk more about the (admittedly fairly privileged slice) of life that I saw in pyongyang!

My Proof: Instagram: Twitter: Links will be posted from both shortly linking to this ama.

Edit: woah, so many questions! I'm trying to get through them but it's going to take a while. There are a lot of posts accusing me of being a traitor / aiding the enemy. For me, teaching undergrad CS feels like a humanitarian aid similar to providing food maybe, where it's something they desperately need for a functioning economy in the modern world. That combined with the chance to add some humanity of what americans are to the students who will one day be reasonably powerful seemed like a net positive to be. Both for the US, and for the eventual state of North Korea.

Edit 2: Thanks for the response! I'm going to go to bed pretty soon. Apologies if I don't get to your question

Comments: 2648 • Responses: 131  • Date: 

Cerveza871331 karma

Did you accidentally say "Just Google it" and then realise...

ttocslliw1351 karma

Yeah! a lot of CS education really breaks down without access to the internet. A lot of the debugging process and figuring things out and being self sufficient boils down to googling and finding stuff online. it made a lot of the assignments ending up feeling like I was spelling everything out and still having to answer a bunch of questions.

superotterman397 karma

This really made me reflect. I'm a third-year CS/Physics major in the US. I've had 3 programming-centered jobs, and informally taught several groups of students various CS topics. Heck, I'm even working on writing a guide to LaTeX and Mathematica. I can't begin to imagine how I would survive without Google and StackOverflow - and I know what I'm doing most of the time. All the little intricacies of weird APIs, or differences between versions of a language. I'd probably have to spend 50% more time without internet to accomplish things.

Do you have an indication of how CS topics get applied post-graduation there? As in, what a workplace based on coding looks like? I presume it's mostly for the government? After they leave the environment where you can spell out what they need to know, are there any obvious effects on productivity, efficiency (of the code) or creativity?

Really interesting AMA!

ttocslliw273 karma

The general impression is that once they're working they do get internet. You do see a lot of copying / plagiarism / whatever you want to call it. Lots of things are pretty clearly adapted from existing software by someone with just enough grasp to make minor language changes.

beckerist42 karma


ttocslliw74 karma

We could suggest the text book, but it needed to get approved. Generally the school would suggest we use the ones they already had to save on cost. We had internet access.

Kadmos50 karma

Define "access"... Was it restricted?

ttocslliw104 karma

No content filter on the internet.

rankiwi19 karma

How fast is/was the internet?? I'm sure you speedtested it a few times.

ttocslliw31 karma

We theoretically had a T1 line as a campus to the hub downtown. In practice it varied from getting 1megabit upload / download to unusably slow. Unclear where the bottleneck was though.

Kim_JongUn706 karma

Would you do it long term?

ttocslliw373 karma

I'd like to go back at some point, but I don't think I'd stay over there for years at a time - it's hard to do research in CS without consistent power + internet.

Gummyish488 karma

How restricted were you from leaving the 'nice' areas of NK? Thanks for the AMA!

ttocslliw601 karma

We could basically only go to places that are approved for foreigners / tourists. Those are basically the same places.

The two trips I took out of pyongyang were to Nampo and myoyang mountain. Nampo is on the coast south of the city, where a big 'west sea barrage' blocks the delta for the taedong river. Myoyang mountain is north, and is where a big museum of gifts to the leaders is, along with hiking and a big cave group.

So, we weren't in any of the super poor provinces of the country, but you end up getting a reasonable sense of what life is probably like in Pyongyang at least by living there for a few months.

Gummyish363 karma

Did you leave a gift for our glorious leader?

ttocslliw520 karma

We went to the main statues in the city a couple times, and the group left a flower basket as was customary, but I personally did not leave a gift :)

GoAheadMakeMySplay1792 karma

You have been banned from /r/pyongyang.

ttocslliw512 karma

That was appropriate. If the group visits, the group leaves a gift. The statues area is too crowded during the holidays for each individual to leave gifts.

beerntitties_467 karma

Could you talk about the supreme leader with anyone? Is their stereotypical love for him as displayed in the western media real? Do you think better or worse of North Korea after having been there? Thanks!

essentially: to what extent is the stereotypical image of north korea realistic?

ttocslliw670 karma

People live normal lives for the most part, maybe 5-10% is the stereotype?

Like, before meals the students would march to the cafeteria while singing patriotic songs. That's the stereotype that you'll see in the media, but then they eat meals and chat normally, and play basketball, and go to class, and none of those things are the stereotype.

The leader is certainly loved and revered.

beerntitties_289 karma

And were the koreans as excited to have the opportunity to be around a westerner as you undoubtedly have been being around koreans? is the cultural curiosity mutual? Thanks for your answer!

ttocslliw501 karma

Yes. Many of the students were at the university more for the chance to get to interact with foreigners than for the specific major they were in. You could tell sometimes when they would get really excited to sit with you at meal times, or when they got really excited about things like soccer or other sports.

beerntitties_233 karma

but I understand it was impossible or not allowed to actually discus politics, possible famines outside of pyongyang and other troubles in daily life, (perceived) military aggression/provocation on either side, or other sensitive topics?

Thanks for keeping answering questions!

ttocslliw524 karma

Military stuff did get talked about some, as did some other topics. Food distribution was not something that I really talked about, maybe it came up more for the agriculture students, though.

For instance, in the spring the understand was that they were at war with the US, there were cars driving around with netting to prevent detection from satellites, and the media reported that there was a US intrusion into the country that the army repelled. The students would ask the professors why they were still there when their countries were actively at war.

beerntitties_238 karma

interesting. We know US and north korea actually weren't at war, because that is what other governments told us... So were people you interacted with ever unfriendly / hostile because of your nationality? were you considered "the enemy" ever (by students or by "normal people")?

ttocslliw362 karma

Yeah. Saying you were american was a good conversation ender :) This was largely in the context of interacting with waitresses or other service people who would assume you were probably european.

_Oak_29 karma

How do they react to other nationalities?

ttocslliw81 karma

It depends on the nationality. Some countries they get really excited about, like Cubans for example. Most are neutral.

necroforest165 karma

Did you / were you allowed to correct them?

ttocslliw331 karma

Yeah. but unclear how much they believed us :)

Xelif80 karma

Were there formal rules for what you were allowed to talk about? I know that it's pretty common for foreigners teaching in China to have formal restrictions on what is and is not appropriate for conversation with students. Did anyone tell you at the outset that you are not allowed to talk about religion, politics, etc.?

ttocslliw146 karma

We basically got told to be cautious - talk about your major subject, and it's okay to answer questions and talk about topics the students bring up. Sports and Dating were safe topics if you needed to start a conversation :)

jimanri331 karma

what kind of computer they have in NK?? i mean old computers (win98!) new computers (win7/8),macs, NASA computers :D

ttocslliw578 karma

Our university had a bunch of Dell core-duos. Mostly running WinXP - there was one newer one with win7 on it.

The graduate students had laptops that dual booted windows xp and Red Star, the DPRK's proprietary redhat-linux-based OS.

odor12247 karma

Did you check out the north Korean tablet? Thoughts?

ttocslliw543 karma

Yeah, I have one :)

The built-in analog TV is kind-of cool, although locked to the specific frequencies in the country. I figured out how to get it into recovery mode and download the disk image. I want to modify some of the APKs so that they're self contained and able to run on other devices and get them posted online, they're really cool in a weird sort of way.

qedb175 karma


ttocslliw235 karma

I'll let you know when I get there - the APKs that come on the tablet are in a really rigid format where all the data is on a '/sdcard2' partition separate from the APK. It should be possible to get that moved to somewhere that is general to more devices.

SpecialOops55 karma

get on the XDA forum rip it apart, buy a riffbox! Jtag time!

ttocslliw86 karma

You hold down the volume buttons on startup and it boots into recovery mode, where they've made the ADB process run as root already - so I don't think I need to do any hardware hacking to mess with it!

odor12122 karma

Were they (or you) able to access the North Korean Internet? Could you access global internet?

ttocslliw214 karma

The two (intranet and internet) are airgapped. Since my university had access to the global internet (for professors and graduate students) we did not have access to the intranet.

The intranet as I understand it is at Kim Il Sung University, Kim Chaek University, a couple other technical universities, some companies, and many of the government agencies.

jemlibrarian127 karma

Is the Internet filtered, and to what extent do you think Internet activity is monitored?

Are you aware of any instances where a student was thoroughly indoctrinated in the regime's message, and access to the Internet has changed their opinion?

What do the students really think of the West, etc?

ttocslliw311 karma

Internet is not filtered, because access is controlled at the physical rather than technical level.

That being said, at our university we had a squid HTTP proxy between us and the internet connection that kept a log of everything visited (and generally breaks mobile device which don't generally expect an HTTP proxy)

Our undergraduate students do not have access to the internet. The graduate students who had a much better grasp on the outside world, although that's a generalization and there was certainly crossover.

Much of the west is okay, the hatred is very directed - it's specifically at the US and Japan. Canada, UK, Europe, those are all fine. They also know about the companies, and don't seem to harbor any particular grudge against Google / Microsoft / Apple / etc. They support Snowden :)

jemlibrarian94 karma

Do you have any examples of the crossover?

From what I understand in reading defector stories, people know to an extent, even if they can't express it. I'm just wondering how deep this indoctrination really is on an individual level. I do understand you're working with the creme de la creme of NK society, so you have to at least pretend to hate those American bastards and the whole lot.

Oh, and have citizens of Pyongyang started to embrace the Western foods like burgers and pizza?

ttocslliw163 karma

There is a fast food restaurant with burgers, and an italian joint-venture restaurant that has reasonable bulgogi pizza :)

Both seem to get a reasonable amount of traffics with the locals, as well as us foreigners.

There's also a pub that's pretty good (and the beer in general!)

tehconz86 karma

Did you go to that pub with the microbrew near the Workers Party Monument? I had beer #2 which was quite good.

ttocslliw133 karma

Beer #6 is the best. All the times we went they only had beers #1,2,5,6. The other three are less popular and generally not available :)

jemlibrarian26 karma

I find it funny that we are their sworn enemy, but the modern version of pizza and hamburgers are, at least AFAIK "American" foods.

ttocslliw61 karma

It's an interesting split, sure - but I feel like the situation that's occured is that they're in a situation where a bunch of the really top privileged class go abroad, and when they come back they want those things as symbols that they're as good as the rest of the world.

They also have burritos, if that makes it more international :)

ttocslliw113 karma

Grad students vs. Undergrads: There were a couple of graduate students who had been given an area to study in, but had trouble getting a good sense of the research in that area, or really how to find it. They seemed to generally not have a very firm grasp on how to navigate the internet, when I'd work with them to find related work on the things they were trying to work on (e.g. optimization of costs in cloud computing)

When I was talking with some of the students about maybe going to wonson (for skiing, which unfortunately didn't open before i left this winter) they wanted to talk about the highway. It got built in the 90s by student groups, and they were really proud of it as an example of perseverance for the country, because, as they explained, the country had a lot of trouble in the 90s, and there were a lot of food problems. so, nationalist tinge maybe, but not a false understanding of the world.

jemlibrarian55 karma

Sorry for peppering you with questions; I'm fascinated with NK.

What were the issues with navigating the web? Functional issues, multi-literacy issues (IE: a BBC article is not a scholarly article)? What do you think are the core reasons behind that?

ttocslliw98 karma

One of the issues was that several companies do actually follow the export restriction rules and prevent IPs in the country from accessing their websites. The most notable is Oracle, and you can't read the mysql documentation off of their site. That being said, you can download it from the ubuntu mirrors so it's not particular effective, but it caused questions from some of the students.

grahamcrackuh25 karma

Did it not occur to them it's a bit inconsistent to support snowden and the nk govt simultaneously ?

ttocslliw77 karma

Snowden made the US government look bad and showed off the bad things we've done. That's about as far as the insight went, as far as I could tell :)

Talking about things like the chinese firewall with the students was also really interesting, since they didn't even get physical access to the net.

Excaliburned2 karma

Snowden made the US government look bad and showed off the bad things we've done. That's about as far as the insight went, as far as I could tell :)

Did they know about the NSA spying program in the US or only that Snowden uncovered something bad about the US government?

ttocslliw4 karma

They knew at least some about NSA spying.

tehconz2 karma

They had it at the Grand People's Study House when I was there, but I don't think anyone really knew how to use it.

ttocslliw6 karma

Yeah, the grand people's study hall has a website on the intranet for searching it's ebook collection :)

JeterWood87 karma

I heard a rumor that in Red Star, whenever one of the leader's names is displayed, it will make the name appear slightly larger than the text around it. Can you verify that?

ttocslliw157 karma

There are certainly places where you see that. It's implemented in javascript on several websites. I don't think it's in the OS of red star, though.

Ponox63 karma

proprietary redhat

That's like, two levels of proprietary.

ttocslliw100 karma

There's a chinese distribution called 'red flag linux', and the DPRK version is modeled off of that.

Morlaak299 karma

Why did you decide to teach there, of all places?

Not judging, but it sounds like a weird choice.

ttocslliw474 karma

It felt like a place I had no understanding of at all. What I had heard of the country from the media it sounded like a box with just Kim Jong Il / Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman in it. I guess I wanted to convince myself that it was another country where people lived and wasn't that different from anywhere else.

From a computer networks perspective, it's interesting because it's one of a few places that has it's own national internet that nobody knows anything about. it was really interesting to talk with the students about what design choices were made for that network.

Morlaak169 karma

So how did your family/friends/SO react when you told them that?

ttocslliw415 karma

Maybe 3 different reactions:

  • That sounds like an awesome adventure!
  • Are you sure you're going to be safe? Are you going to be allowed to leave?
  • Oh, korea, cool.

Lurking_Still11 karma

As someone who's about to take his CCNA cert...what's the deal with NK's network? Anything odd or standoutish about it?

ttocslliw22 karma

They've got an air-gapped internal network with their own DNS system and web pages.

lgbteaparty279 karma

What was the scariest thing to happen to you while there?

ttocslliw521 karma

One event, one generally lingering fear:

When we went to the coast a couple of us walked back up the road to take pictures of the main dam (this thing: and got yelled at by some policemen and told to delete the pictures. Basically, that's the sort of situation where you could get in to trouble, and you just don't have a good sense of how serious it is. Luckily it was minor.

The lingering fear was worrying if any of my internet actions were going to draw the ire of someone looking at them. I'm a networking student so I was poking around to see how stuff was connected and was always on edge that it was going to get me in trouble.

Black_Handkerchief32 karma

I see several references in your replies regarding your curiousity about their networks.

Is there anything you can share with us about how those networks are set up? Did anything surprise you? What is your opinion on differences, and are they better or worse than the ways we would set them up?

ttocslliw72 karma

The main thing is that they do a pretty effective job at keeping the foreigners from getting physical access to them :) Our campus transferred information largely through USB sticks, and there were a lot of viruses going around on them. That to me indicates that the intelligence agencies probably have a pretty good idea of what's going on with the intranet despite the airgap.

Black_Handkerchief20 karma

That is a really interesting perspective I hadn't considered, thanks for the reply!

How often did you end up cleaning out your own system from whatever viruses had snuck on? I suspect a couple must have snuck through at some point. Did they do anything interesting? (Maybe you found some logfiles from a keylogger, for example.)

ttocslliw34 karma

I ran chromeos, so trusted up to the browser. Felt pretty safe about that.

Q73242 karma

I can't imagine experiencing the huge contrasts between North Korean and American culture. What was the most shocking/strange aspect of their country?

ttocslliw675 karma

I think part of it was that the way you deal with requests is totally different. There was an aversion to saying no, so I would request things and wouldn't get told no, but they would just not happen and if you asked about it there would be some temporary excuse, but you'd get told it would still happen - when really for whatever reason your request wasn't going to happen.

It was really frustrating for me to not be able to get a straight answer and know if, for instance, I would be able to go out to dinner on a specific evening.

The other thing was that there was a lot of status given to age. I'd helped arrange a trip to the railroad museum, and that morning the guides told us that the trip was canceled because the museum was closed. After me trying to work with them for a bit to figure out what to do, one of the older korean american professors showed up and asked about it, and then suddenly the museum became open again after the guides made some calls.

lgbteaparty364 karma

one of the older korean american professors showed up and asked about it, and then suddenly the museum became open again

This is really interesting.

ttocslliw323 karma

That was one of the more frustrating experiences (which I think says something about how totally livable the experience was)

Because I didn't have status: young, american. The guides weren't going to put in the effort to call the museum for me. When someone with more status asked, they were willing to arrange the trip. It was just that they needed to go, and would have preferred to stay on campus.

woofiegrrl220 karma

I think part of it was that the way you deal with requests is totally different. There was an aversion to saying no, so I would request things and wouldn't get told no, but they would just not happen and if you asked about it there would be some temporary excuse, but you'd get told it would still happen - when really for whatever reason your request wasn't going to happen.

This is very similar to Japan. Nothing is ever a flat "no" - they have the word, but it's not used much. Excuses and evasions are far more common.

ttocslliw216 karma

I hear it's not dissimilar from South Korea either. One of the other professors who has spent time there said that the culture was pretty similar in that regard, and that there's a class of problem that you just ignore until the lsat moment and then switch to making excuses for.

PounderMcNasty242 karma

Did you hook up with any ladies over there?

Edit: or dudes if that's what you're into

ttocslliw356 karma

Nope :-/

It's illegal for North Korean Citizens to marry foreigners.

My students were all male, so I didn't get much chance to interact socially with any north korean women my age.

nattilee157 karma

Was this because it was an all male program or was that just random that it was all male students?

ttocslliw255 karma

The current program is all-male. The university is working on opening a nursing school that will have women, but it hasn't happened yet.

SelinaFwar111 karma

Is it uncommon for people to have pre-marriage sex over there? Just because the way you worded that heavily suggested it...and if it's not, is it illegal to have sex with a foreigner? I'm curious because they seem REALLY strict with sex over there....since, you know, the whole "PORN IS DEATH" thing.

ttocslliw244 karma

premarital sex didn't seem entirely uncommon - there was a grad. student who when asked what he was going to do over the break said he was going to have lots of sex.

Relations with foreigners seemed to be discouraged / a way to get in trouble though.

Edit: also lots of them were really socially awkward and asking us how to show girls they liked them and the like.

IAmAZappaFan422 karma

Socially awkward computer programmers? Only in North Korea!

Edit: 1 word

ttocslliw227 karma

But they're all in good shape at least! You've never seen a CS class that likes playing soccer more than that one :)

SelinaFwar92 karma

Any idea how they are about 'teh gayz"?

ttocslliw256 karma

There are students who are probably gay, although they're not allowed to say it. I believe I heard that the official stance is that there is not homosexuality in the country.

staytrill77218 karma

What was the craziest thing you saw while you were there?

ttocslliw590 karma

The first thing that comes to mind is that when I was leaving at 6am after a snow storm there were tons of people out in the streets shoveling snow and sweeping the street. Seemed really weird since it was still snowing.

Lots of snakes in alcohol bottles. Lots of random traffic stops and social structure that felt controlling.

The children's palace is pretty depressing. It's a building for developing talent in students, but it ends up feeling like a showcase of the kids who spend their lives performing one trick every week and not getting time to actually grow up - like just repeating the same show over and over again for foreigners.

Broken_Gold_Promises660 karma


ttocslliw424 karma


Edit: wait... :)

deja_entendu1105 karma

How did they deal with being taught by an American imperialist white devil?

ttocslliw128 karma

They took it pretty well :) I was able to become somewhat friends with several of them. I was only really interacting with the juniors and seniors who had been around westerners for a couple years already though. I hear that the first year is a bit harder.

shopcat61 karma

Were there ever any wink/nod moments where it seemed like the students understood the world was more complicated than they are taught to believe? Were your daily communications with the students monitored?

ttocslliw99 karma

There were things that seemed like wink/nod where it seemed like they largely got what was going on, but it would be embarrassing to say it explicitly.

Communications weren't monitored, but the students were supposed to self report / report on each other if anyone was acting out of line.

staytrill77110 karma

Did you feel most people were happy living there? Or did they seem scared or depressed?

ttocslliw380 karma

This is a question that I've been getting on instragram as well:

I mean, it's a hard thing to answer in the general sense, but I think people conform happiness to whatever situation they're in.

ComradeCube88 karma

Seemed really weird since it was still snowing.

Not much experience with snow? If it is going to snow a foot and you shovel every 2-3in, you only have to shovel up 2-3in instead of a foot.

ttocslliw90 karma

I guess so. There was a lot of time spent doing maintenance that seemed more a way to take up peoples time than actually valuable to the appearance of the place.

ComradeCube25 karma

Did people clean the streets, or were there plows from the city/government?

ttocslliw71 karma

People. By hand.

jaywalker1982165 karma

Have you ever encountered a situation or heard of one where someone you knew "went to the mountains"? AKA the prison camps, and how much, if ever, are they spoken about by North Koreans?

ttocslliw263 karma

Nope. Not talked about.

The execution of the uncle was in the news and got talked about, though.

pantherquest132 karma

Could you elaborate on what that news was like in NK vs the US?

ttocslliw222 karma

There are 3 TV stations, Newspaper, and Radio as primary means of media distribution.

Newspapers got delivered to the campus every morning, and were at the reception desk, and the students when they were free would stop by and you would see huddles of them reading the news.

Radio didn't get used much on campus as far as I could tell, but seemed more used elsewhere in the country. You'd hear it sometimes in the car, or in shops.

There's the famous TV host, and she's there. I didn't watch much of the TV, but the general schedule seems pretty straight forwards. Saturday evenings a western movie often gets played, dubbed to korean. Sunday evenings there's a foreign section, where individual segments taken from other countries news media are played. They learn about foreign affairs largely from this - the selection ranges from almost immediate on items that are good news to up to a 6 month delay on things that are neutral or negative. Things like the economic issues in Greece took a long time to hit the news here (only this fall) while the satellite reaching the edge of the solar system got reported the same week. The rest ends up being a combination of rebroadcasts of sports games, some Chinese dramas, and local news segments.

OlderThanGif116 karma

By "western movie" do you mean a Hollywood movie?

ttocslliw221 karma

Yeah, pixar, disney, etc.

Excaliburned19 karma

while the satellite reaching the edge of the solar system got reported the same week

Could you go into more details about what they said about the satellite? Also, isn't the satellite American.

ttocslliw28 karma

When the voyager reached the end of the solar system, they heard a news report and were talking about that. They knew that it meant that it was a change in cosmic radiation. they also knew the satellite was American.

sheepman7616 karma

Could you elaborate more on the TV? Did they play any cartoons for children? How old were the Western movies they played? Did the people in the country realize these movies were from America?

ttocslliw20 karma

they played a bunch of reasonably recent pixar cartoons. They knew they were from pixar, Unclear how closely that connected that with america.

Elvis_Maximus2 karma

What did they say?

ttocslliw4 karma

The discussion was basically around what was reported in the newspaper. people were surprised, wondered how it took until now for this to happen given what was reported, etc.

Paperted148 karma

I've seen some documentaries where the North Korean people have a very strong antipathy towards American people. So it is always interesting to see Korea allowing their "enemies" into their country. Did you feel this among any of the students or the other instructors?

ttocslliw267 karma

Yeah, that's true. At the same time, it's pretty hard to resist the offer of essentially free education.

The students had mostly gotten that cognitive dissonance settled by placing their hate towards the government, and saying they were okay with us individually. Some of them admitted to having nightmares when they first came trying to get to terms with that point though.

In the rest of the country americans are definitely more hated. We got told that the reason we couldn't do some things, like leave by train, was because they were worried about our safety.

Huntard-142 karma

Did you meet supreme leader? What was your salary like?

ttocslliw211 karma

We were not important enough to meet the leader, although there are pictures of him visiting the campus when it was first constructed.

Huntard-92 karma

What kind of salary did you make? Thanks for the first response!

ttocslliw246 karma

Posted elsewhere, but it was a volunteer position. No pay, but free room & food. All you can eat Kim Chi!

yulis132 karma

In photos I see of Pyongyang (mostly @dguttenfelder), one of the things I notice the most is how clean and relatively empty it seems. I especially notice very little car or pedestrian traffic. What was the atmosphere of the city like? Was it unnerving? Or just a relatively quiet city?

ttocslliw221 karma

There's been a ton of new cars in the city in the last year.

Everyone is responsible for keeping the public areas in front of their home / work clean, and a lot of time gets spent on that. Whenever you drive through the city you'll see people cleaning the public areas - they like to dig up stretches of grass, sift the dirt, set it on fire to kill any weeds growing in it, and then re-plant it. That activity seems to take up a huge amount of time in the summers.

The city felt like a city for the most part. The construction was very 'soviet' for the most part, and the streets were super wide for the amount of cars. Lots of public areas (parks, playgrounds) which is hard to complain about.

rdmbradshaw7120 karma

wow! that's so awesome! How much did the authoritarian regime encroach on to day-to-day life?

ttocslliw173 karma

I guess the top-level bit is that people in Pyongyang have relatively decent lives, probably not much worse than a 2nd teir city in China. I have much less insight about life out of that city.

Everyone is really fairly rational as long as you stay away from politics / government / foreign policy (will, and medicine, since i'm not really a fan of traditional medicine)

Our group could not leave campus with a 'guide'. There were a pool of them who stayed on campus and managed our group, and we could make requests to arrange travel off campus.

odor1278 karma

What was the eating situation like? Was the food distributed by the government? Did you eat at the school cafeteria?

ttocslliw192 karma

Oh, and I forgot - the students got beer distributed to their dorms a couple times a month because it was part of their ration that they didn't get in the cafeteria

lgbteaparty189 karma

That's it you've sold me! I'm going to North Korea for grad school!

ttocslliw129 karma

Kim Il Sung university offers a summer program in Chosunmal - the North Korean dialect of korean :)

ttocslliw88 karma

Essentially the ration for the students / staff went to the cafeteria, and we could eat there whenever we wanted - and I ate there most meals. Edit: Our university paid for a lot of the food, I'm not really sure what the division was between government and university support of the cafeteria.

The meals were the same pretty much: rice, soup, kim chi, and two side dishes like potatos, bean sprouts, or radishes. Essentially vegetarian. A couple times a week we would get bread as well.

There were supermarkets in town that our group went to twice a week, and a local market (tongil market) that we went to twice a week as well. Many of the professors wanted more meat, or different food than what was in the cafeteria, and you could get a reasonable variety of food in town at not too unreasonable prices, depending on whether it had to be imported or not.

geronimo2000109 karma

Did the US Government know that you were there? Did you have any trouble getting back across the boarder when you returned?

ttocslliw287 karma

I registered with the safe travelers program on :) They sent emails a couple times saying they weren't responsible for my safety. I also met the swedish ambassador who's responsible for my safety edit: the guy who would get to see me if i got sent to jail (Sweden is the US protectorate in the DPRK) a couple times. No problem or interview at the border.

samdr107 karma

How were you treated, and how many English speakers were you interacting with daily?

ttocslliw216 karma

The students all spoke english - actually quite well, and instruction was in english.

Everyone on campus spoke enough english to make myself understood, but off campus it was pretty much non-existant. Some tour guides might, but in general it wasn't wide spread.

spooky98188 karma

Do these people comprehend their situation being trapped in a dictatorship country? Or has it been completely hidden from them? Do they know how much better life could be elsewhere?

ttocslliw134 karma

There's nationalism there, like everywhere. I don't know if it's been fully hidden, people know about the rest of the world, but there is certainly not the feeling that life is worse in Pyongyang than in the rest of the world. That being said, for the relatively privileged citizenry of pyongyang, well - you could do worse.

hmsimha87 karma

I have several questions:

  • Did you have 'handlers' like visitors on organized trips?
  • Were there people ensuring you didn't talk to students about things they weren't supposed to know about, like perhaps the internet or technological advances that north koreans don't have access to as a result of being cut off from the rest of the world?
  • Are you worried about your students being forced by the DPRK to use things they learned from you for the creation of weapons or tools for maintaining control of the citizens of North Korea?

ttocslliw140 karma

'handlers': We called them 'guides', but yeah, the campus had a pool of representatives from the ministry of education. Foreigners in our group had to be accompanied by one of those guides when we were off campus.

monitoring: No, not really. I mean the internet and technical information was all fair game and stuff the students were interested in. The stuff we said did get reported though, so if you start talking about how great the US is or trying to argue with their government policies, that would probably get reported by the students to the administration and someone would talk to you to and tell you to tone it down.

co-opting: I think the use of linux and mysql are a bit far away from that. I mean, software will certainly be used by the government but it would anyway. I'm more interested in whether the country will be able to make more contacts internationally, and if the guys who control the telecommunications infrastructure already have had contact internationally and know that we're decent people, that seems like a good place to be in.

Firepower0111 karma

That's really interesting, were you ever reported? If yes what did you say exactly that got you reported? Did anyone you work with get in any trouble beyond a simple reprimand?

ttocslliw28 karma

There were initially students who said I spoke to fast, and one of the DPRK professors came to one of my early classes to listen, and then afterwards asked me to speak a bit slower. Other than that there was nothing that came back to me.

ConstruKction82 karma

Interesting! How did you learn about the position, and what was the hiring process like?

ttocslliw149 karma

I knew that the university wanted at least masters qualifications to work there, so after I passed that point in my graduate program I got in touch with the CS department chair. We met for an interview while he was in the states, and then I emailed paperwork to him.

One of the really weird parts of the process is that until you get to the airport in beijing for your flight you don't know if your visa has been approved and if you're actually going to get in.

ConstruKction57 karma

The first part sounds so...rational. It's easy to forget that not everyone in NK is a total ideologue.

ttocslliw137 karma

The department chair / dean is also american, although many of the DPRK counterparts and administrators were also rational - just rational within the system they found themselves in.

Essentially it's become a very risk averse culture, because if you do something that gets noticed too much, you could end up being the one who gets in trouble.

dick_wool72 karma

Is North Korean toilet paper harsh?

ttocslliw42 karma

No worse than Russia or China

rdmbradshaw765 karma

How much were you allowed to access outside DPRK? Ie. to talk to those at home etc.? How does the DPRK differ in reality to the way it is portrayed in the western media?

ttocslliw119 karma

The professors and graduate students at the university had access to the internet, which was unfiltered but monitored.

It was somewhat slow, but generally workable. The main issue was that it felt like power was only on about 2/3rds of the time, and there was no internet when the power was off :)

AliquamFan48 karma

How good was the computer literacy of the students you were teaching? Did they know more or less than an American student?

ttocslliw101 karma

It varied quite a bit between students. The guys who really liked CS and did it in their spare time would compare reasonably with CS students anywhere.

There were many who had ended up in CS and weren't particularly interested, and did just enough to get by. Their knowledge probably wouldn't have stacked up very well against a normal CS student.

When they came into the university a lot of them seemed to be most familiar with visual basic, which I took to be a bad sign about their previous exposure to computers :)

Nic_ctd44 karma

How was this funded through the University of Washington with the strict financial sanctions placed on the dprk by the United States?

ttocslliw69 karma

I was on leave from the university and went with my own money - although it was not a huge expense for me.

themeatbridge22 karma

If you don't mind, how much was the flight, and where did you stop? Did you fly into the country, or land in China and drive across the border?

ttocslliw46 karma

Flew from beijing. Flight varies ~$275-$350, which is overpriced. Train is about $30, if you're allowed to take it. Left via vladivostok and Russia, by plane for a similar price.

teddit_reddit26 karma

This is a great AMA.

  1. While you weren't able to meet many 'ordinary' people outside of Pyongyang, did the students you taught travel outside of the capital city and see what life was like for the less privileged? Did they have a real understanding of difficulties of their less fortunate compatriots? Did they ever comment on the state of rural NK?

  2. While I can understand it not being said in open conversation, did any of your students privately confide in you their disillusionment with the NK state, or express a desire to escape?


ttocslliw41 karma

  1. A reasonable number of the students were from other cities than Pyongyang. I think they did understand a lot of the difficulty, but it's not the image they're supposed to give of the country, so we generally avoided the topic so they wouldn't have to lie.

  2. Nobody expressed desire to escape, certainly. There were plenty who wanted to study abroad.

odor1221 karma

What advice would you give to an American who wants to work in North Korea specifically in agricultural development? Are there ways to work for organizations (governmental or non) long term in North Korea?

ttocslliw24 karma

PUST has an agricultural program and finding good foreign professors to teach that stuff is hard! (I'm happy to point you to the dean of that if you're interested) You could also check with the UN world food program, which has a good handle on the foreign agricultural contacts in the country from what I could see.

maninthesky17 karma

after you came home, did anyone (government rep, CIA, NSA) debrief you about your experience to gain any insights?

ttocslliw22 karma


HeAVeN01218 karma

Hmm, this is your only one word response in this entire AMA. I call shenanigans.

ttocslliw17 karma

No, seriously. I came back part way through the semester to SFO and it was the fastest I've gotten back into the country ever - 20 minutes from touchdown to the bart.

Came back a couple days ago through vegas and didn't have any trouble there either.

wagninho_pau16 karma

How similar was your experience to that of what has been shown through Vice's media outlets? Namely, the Vice Guide to North Korea??

ttocslliw33 karma

The vice guide is extremely sensationalized.

I hear this is a good book about life in pyongyang by a british guy who lived there for a while:

idrinkirnbru14 karma

There are a few sources which state North Korea's government is more of a Nazi regime than a Communist one. Would you say that ultra-nationalism is apparent when you live there?

Edit: I feel like I should clarify - is it apparent when the regime is looking the other way?

ttocslliw24 karma

I guess it feels almost as much like a reverence for the leaders as it does like nationalism - the two are so closely connected. The state was everywhere, in the form of quotes from the leaders on the walls, or pictures of them, or the pins that every citizen wears in public.

There is certainly some class-division in the country as well, and a very strict age/position-based social structure which seemed to stray away from the communism thing. They follow the Juche Ideology, not communism :)

Doublethunk10 karma

Do you think that it would benefit the country to "liberate" the people by bringing down the government? I've heard that it would be incredibly difficult to integrate North Koreans into any new system because they would view it as invasion rather than liberation.

ttocslliw12 karma

I've heard that as well. I don't claim to or have any idea of how you move forward from the current situation.

MacDaddyPDawg6 karma

What are attitudes to weed like over there, I've heard they're very liberal about it but did you have any experience it ?

ttocslliw21 karma

I heard about that too, but really didn't see any evidence of weed in pyongyang. I smelled it at one of the pharmacies at one point, but they weren't willing to sell it to me :)

qedb5 karma

would you mind telling us how much you got paid?

ttocslliw7 karma

I got paid with free room & board - as much kim chi as I could eat!

It's all volunteer at the moment :)

qedb2 karma

googled kim chi, looks delicious.

ttocslliw14 karma

It's pretty okay. The Cucumber kim chi is the best in my opinion.

Raiden_Gekkou5 karma

Have you been to South Korea? If so, how are the people in the south compared to the north?

ttocslliw13 karma

I've only been to South Korea for about 5 minutes at the DMZ :)

There seems to be a lot of cultural similarities from what I understand, and the government representatives we met with gave the korean-americans in our group slightly better treatment because there was a feeling that they were related by blood and the same people.

okibubm3 karma

When you went to the DMZ was their a tour on South Korean side too? If so, was it group of foreigners? When I taught in Korea, our 5th grade "promotion to middle school" trip was to the DMZ. I have been on that tour about 7 times and have seen tours on the North Korean side about 4 of those times. It was always crazy to see foreigners on the other side and I always wondered where they were from and what their stories were.

ttocslliw4 karma

No, in fact the southern guards were off on their lunch break when we visited!

nachumama4 karma

i don't know if teaching north Koreans about networked systems is a good idea. how is it that our government allows this.... not trolling but you can see how they can use this knowledge to their advantage.

ttocslliw2 karma

My research is in networks, I was teaching standard undergraduate information out of textbooks already available in the country. There wasn't release of any embargoed information as far as I'm aware. The university has stayed away from offering a security class for that very reason.

i_eatProstitutes2 karma

What is the best experience you had there which you believe that you couldn't have had if you weren't doing what you were doing?

ttocslliw9 karma

I think getting to interact socially with the North Korean students is something that very few foreigners get to do. We talked with some foreign language professors at Kim Il Sung university and they didn't get any social time with their students.

I spent a lot of evenings in the computer science lab with my students just getting to talk and play games with them (They like tetris, some tablet racing games (like this one and counterstrike)

Elvis_Maximus3 karma

You played Counterstrike with North Koreans? That's awesome.

ttocslliw5 karma

Tetris was more fun, tbh. They've got their own 2-player competitive tetris version that's a DOS boot loader (no windows under it), and they're really fast at it.

Beevee30301 karma

North Korea has computers? I thought they might have a single one from the 70s or something.

ttocslliw3 karma

They do!

They have their own tablets & phones, so they've also people who know how to program them.

ThePinkPokemon1 karma

How did you obtain this opportunity to teach in North Korea? How did the process work; did they interview you, request certain information, etc?

ttocslliw2 karma

The university first decides it want to have you, and then submits the visa application on your behalf. That goes through a bunch of government agencies that I didn't really have much insight into who try to make sure you're not a spy and such.

goodkareem1 karma

Did they have any popular mainstream video games in NK? I know in SK Starcraft is pretty much the national sport. I saw you mentioned Tetris and CSS.

ttocslliw2 karma

Not really. Most of the current games need internet, which made them less playable. Angry birds, bejeweled, and that type of casual game were pretty common.

usmcplz1 karma

Were you exposed to or hear about the massive meth problem North Korea has?

ttocslliw1 karma

I was not.

DdCno11 karma

Great AMA!

Got quite a lot of questions, if you don't mind:

What was the quality of the university and dorm buildings like? I remember seeing videos of North Koreans wearing their coats indoors due to a lack of central heating. Did your dorm room have warm and cold water and was it separated from the other ones, notably better equipped than normal ones for North Koreans? How stable was the power supply during your visit?

One thing I recently read about North Korea was that compared to other nations, children remain children for longer and - partly due to nutritional problems - puberty sets on much later or isn't even recognized by society as a thing. Did the undergrad students appear somewhat childish or behind in developmental terms? Did they display some unexpected behavior? I know they are representing the very elite of North Korea, but I'm sure even they are somehow affected by general societal trends in this country.

Lastly, do you think some kind of notable export oriented software development industry could develop in this country in the near future? Do you think the potential in terms of education and resources is there?

ttocslliw2 karma

The youtube video has some pictures of construction. The construction was done by chinese workers in a fairly short time, and the quality is a bit sub par, but everything is staying up :). There's in-floor heating that worked well, but didn't get turned on until later in the fall so there were a few weeks that were a bit chilly.

The dorm room had hot and cold water, the faculty dorms were better than the student dorms though. The students had cold water in the dorms, and went to the bath house for warm showers. power seemed to be available most of the time, but for cost / rationing reasons it would be off a fair amount. Like, not announced, but we knew if it went out at 2pm it would be back on around 5pm because that was the normal schedule. Overall it was probably on 80-90% of the time, but out for at least a few hours many days.

There is an image of sort of Kim Il Sung being a father figure and the population being the children, and there's also a naiveté and childlike look (no facial hair) that goes along with that. Nobody had cracking voices or other signs of puberty though. They were like 18-22, college age, and had all been through puberty (and were all in shape for the army)

They already have some software export. Look for "korea communication center" and you'll see offices in thailand, europe, and elsewhere.

Photographent1 karma

Did you meet or see anyone who was a critic of the government, questioned what they were being told at all?

ttocslliw4 karma

To some extent this happens. When I'd get into discussions about the country with students, they would say that they'd heard that reunification would be simple if only the US wasn't obstructing it, but then were pretty understanding when I told them that the issue didn't seem that simple to me.

I think that willingness to hear other views is about as close as you'll see in that slice of the population.

rogabadu221 karma

Why did you go? Also go huskies

ttocslliw2 karma

No single reason. I've posted a lot of the motivation throughout this AMA.

odor12-1 karma

Are you Christian? Are most of the professors Christian?

ttocslliw3 karma

Most of the professors were christian. A few of us were not. I do not consider myself religious. We weren't allowed to talk about religion with the students, so it ended up being a non-issue for the most part.

available_username2-3 karma

So you're teaching our enemies how to build weapons to attack us in cyberspace? Am I missing something here...

ttocslliw7 karma

I'm teaching basic CS, stuff that's in textbooks and on Google. For me, the opportunity to interact and show a privileged class a slice of western culture seemed more positive than the mischief they might be able to cause because they learned how to run linux from me rather than on their own.

kxfuzed-8 karma

Hows it feel to be a trader?

ttocslliw2 karma

I consider myself an american, and appreciate that it is only because of the freedom that I have been given as such that I've been able to do this. I think that in the same way that we use the peace corps to export american values around the world, spending time in hostile countries to export those values is equally if not more valuable.

Redmoons-9 karma

Let me get this straight.

You knowingly, and willfully went to a country to teach young adults skills that they will use in preparing for war with the US, or it's allies?

I hope you weren't eager for a job that ever requires a security clearance.

ttocslliw7 karma

Motivation is a hard thing to explain succinctly.

I guess at the core, the undergraduate classes I was teaching is all stuff that's in text books and available online, so I didn't feel like I was providing any secret information that would be unavilable.

At the same time, I was getting the chance to have personal interactions with a subset of the population that will hold relatively high positions in the country in a generation and show that Americans aren't all bad. I strongly believe that it's that contact that's going to be the way we move past the current situation.