My short bio: Seeing the AMA from a tourist who visited North Korea (something that you absolutely should not do if you want to help the people of North Korea), I thought I'd do this again. I've done a couple of AMAs a long while ago. About me:

I'm in my mid-thirties with a Ph.d. in English literature.

I was a tenure-track professor of literature at a South Korean university until leaving the country in 2012.

During my time in South Korea, I tutored some North Koreans and befriended a couple defectors who told me a lot about life in North Korea, in the military, and so on. I admit my information is dated (I haven't spoken to any North Koreans since 2012), but I'm happy to answer any questions if there's interest.

If you want to help the people of North Korea, please consider donating to one of the many groups out there whose mission is to provide assistance to those trying to leave the country. The nonprofit group PSCORE is, in my opinion, the best group that is actually helping people to get out of North Korea while also helping those people within North Korea try to change their country.

My Proof: I've messaged the mods. You can read more about me here: (paywall) and here: (non-paywall).

Comments: 184 • Responses: 45  • Date: 

RandomOilMan33 karma

How much does the average North Korean know of the "outside world"? Do any of them actually believe some of the seemingly ridiculous things we hear about Jim Jong Il and Un?

michaelfosterfromku86 karma

How much does the average North Korean know of the "outside world"?

A lot more than you'd think. While they don't have the internet, there is a flourishing underground railroad that smuggles in DVDs and movie files on USB drives from South Korea. Most of these are of South Korean soap operas--so at least some North Koreans have access to knowledge of the wealth disparity between the two nations. I remember a morbidly amusing anecdote where a North Korean was watching a soap opera and saw the characters go to a buffet--he said, "how ridiculous--no one is that rich."

Do any of them actually believe some seemingly ridiculous things we hear about Jim Jong Il and Un?

That is very hard to know. One defector who I taught told me that, when he was young, he believed in the ideas and principles of North Korea--but when his father was sent by the government to work in Russia for six years only to come back in physical pain and no reward for his work (he didn't get more food, a better house, or any cash), he says that's when he realized the nation was run by thieves.

fomorian3 karma

That is very hard to know. One defector who I taught told me that, when he was young, he believed in the ideas and principles of North Korea--but when his father was sent by the government to work in Russia for six years only to come back in physical pain and no reward for his work (he didn't get more food, a better house, or any cash), he says that's when he realized the nation was run by thieves.

From what I heard, people are afraid to vocalize any criticism to the regime, even among friends and family, for fear that they will be punished. Can the regime really be that far reaching? Would this defector that you taught have expressed his view about the regime to his family, or would he have kept it to himself?

michaelfosterfromku13 karma

Would this defector that you taught have expressed his view about the regime to his family, or would he have kept it to himself?

One person I knew used to have long conversations about the regime with his father in North Korea--his father would constantly criticize it, and he would defend it. Some families might be less close-knit, of course.

nayahs21 karma

What was the general opinion about the Kim family? Was there a lot of resentment?

michaelfosterfromku51 karma

The people I spoke to took the long view of Korean history, which makes the Kims less significant.

In the Chosun period, you had a tremendous amount of high-level corruption and profiteering from the yangban class in Korea. During the Japan occupation, the Japanese stripped the nation of as much wealth as they could. So from their perspective, the Kim family is just the most recent of a number of rulers who have been stealing from the masses to enrich themselves.

Korean history is very sad.

TooSmooth921 karma

Obviously North Korea is in a bad state, but are there any positive characteristics of the North Koreans that you taught that are lacking in South Korean society?

michaelfosterfromku49 karma

It's important to distinguish between the North Korean people and the North Korean state.

It's also important to remember that the people who have left North Korea will tend to be the most intelligent (thus they see through the propaganda), the most courageous (thus they are willing to face the dangers of escaping that await in China, which often sends North Korean defectors to their death), and the most desperate (few of the citizens of Pyongyang defect, and those that do have often fallen out of favor with the elites).

So I think the defectors are in many ways a self-selected group that aren't indicative of any larger characteristic that defines North Korean society or government.

That being said, I did not like South Korean culture at all and was very eager to leave.

samuraiseoul3 karma

What didn't you like about the south Koreans? I studied there for a year in 2010-2011 and I loved it! Did you learn the language? That makes a huge difference.

michaelfosterfromku20 karma

I answered this elsewhere but I disliked the corruption, the racism, the sexism, and the lack of personal hygiene. I learned rudimentary Korean, and I'm also married to a Korean who helped translate a lot for me.

Experiencing Korea as a student and as an employee is of course quite different.

samuraiseoul2 karma

Of course. :) I didn't have too many racist experiences, I think I just noticed it because I'd never experienced racism before. Also never really felt the hygiene thing myself. But the rest I can see where you're coming from.

michaelfosterfromku14 karma

I should emphasize that I don't think that I personally was the victim of racism (xenophobia, certainly, but that's different). However, I saw many cases of job announcements saying "no blacks allowed", people telling me black people are dangerous, people insisting that Asians are genetically different from whites, and nonsense of that sort.

samuraiseoul-3 karma

Really? I had no experience of that sort. The worst I had was an old guy telling me if you can't speak korean, get of the country. That was when I was still pretty bad at the language.

michaelfosterfromku23 karma

Well, you were a student, so you wouldn't really have much opportunity to see such discrimination, would you? I was on hiring committees, being hired myself, consulting for unions, meeting with politicians, and similar tasks that brought me up close with this kind of behavior, much of which is behind closed doors.

samuraiseoul8 karma

I see. Well, maybe one day when I graduate I'll get to know the world better.

michaelfosterfromku35 karma

Good luck to you--just always be critical of everything you see and hear, because everyone is telling you a story to get you to think a certain way. This includes me.

postreparasite18 karma

Were there certain things that they could not get used to living in South Korea? What was something you were the most surprised about?

michaelfosterfromku53 karma

In my experience, the hardest thing for North Korean defectors to accept was that a lot of people in South Korea don't really care that much about North Korea, and aren't really interested in reunification (largely because the economic cost South Korea would have to bear would be so great).

What I was most surprised about, and which I'm still a bit confused about, was how often the North Korean defectors could communicate with friends and family members still in North Korea. I'd assumed all of their families would have been shipped off to the gulags, but some told me they still could contact people they knew in North Korea by mobile phone, and they would often call to catch up and exchange information.

DiaNine4 karma

they still could contact people they knew in North Korea by mobile phone, and they would often call to catch up and exchange information.

Call me ignorant but... I thought only the elite would have cell phones... Is it normal for people in North Korea to have them?

michaelfosterfromku4 karma

It isn't just the elites nowadays--a lot of them have been smuggled into China. It's also important to remember that a slim band of wealthy villages is building up on the border with China, because these people are helping smuggle products in and out of China in the black market. So while they're not technically elite, they often have more money than you'd expect a North Korean peasant to have.

Illyria2316 karma

Could you please describe what you don't like about SK culture? Thank you!

michaelfosterfromku33 karma

The corruption, sexism, racism, and lack of personal hygiene bothered me the most.

capsulet17 karma

Lack of personal hygiene-- how so?

n00dleb00tz19 karma

I lived in South Korea for some time as an educator. From what I experienced and from what I think he's talking about is either the stench or lack of certain respects we are accustomed to in the West. I found it common for one man to vomit his guts out after a "dinner meeting", find a place to pass out and continue on to work the next day. Another might be the constant loogies, sneezing and coughing all over the place with no regard to other passengers. But then again, this is just my experience.

michaelfosterfromku20 karma

The constant spitting was what bothered me the most. I even wrote a letter to one of the English-language newspapers in Korea about this.

It might seem like a trifling matter, but it depressed the hell out of me constantly hearing middle aged men hacking and spitting all the time.

Ninnux10 karma

Same in China. My wife is Shanghaiese, and every time we go back to visit relatives, it grosses me the fuck out.

michaelfosterfromku5 karma

I refuse to visit China again for this very reason.

CisternaChyli5 karma

that's the best way that Tuberculosis and other droplet borne diseases spread :(.

michaelfosterfromku12 karma

Last I checked, the TB infection rate in South Korea was about 19 times higher than in the U.S.

AndyKSul2 karma

Don't forget the pride that S.Koreans have too

michaelfosterfromku4 karma

Yes, that was irksome as well.

yukw77711 karma

I guess the South Korean pride in me is leaking out again, but here it goes:

Yes, sometimes the nationalistic pride South Korean people have is "irksome" as you described. Even South Koreans are aware of this and it always sparks heated debates among them also. However, I believe we need to try to understand the root of the "irksome" pride, rather than dismissing it as some sort of backward nationalism that can only be found in developing countries.

As you mentioned in one of your comments, Korea's history is a very "sad" one. As a nation in a peninsula, it has constantly been surrounded by powerful nations that have tried to dominate Far East Asia. In order to preserve its national identity, Korea naturally has gravitated toward a strong, and sometimes extreme, nationalism. This has helped to protect the national identity, and without it, Korea would have been just another region in China or Japan.

Korean nationalism has become even stronger after the Japanese occupation during which the Japanese imperial government quite literally tried to eradicate Korean culture and identity. After WWII, in order to correct the colonial history forced upon by Japan, Korea decided to swing the opposite way and started to promote a Korean history with nationalistic fervor. Many say this is quite similar to the nationalism that can be found in many nations of the Balkan peninsula, which has had a similar history of a series of invasions by other powerful countries.

Now on to your point of personal hygiene. As you are probably aware, every culture has a different idea of what is proper personal hygiene, and it is true that some cultures have a weaker sense of personal hygiene than others, even objectively, but it is quite arrogant to dismiss a culture as inferior as you did when you "refuse to visit China again for this very reason." As a person who grew up in Seoul and is currently living in NYC, I actually find the hygiene situation in NYC worse than that of Seoul. I wonder how a New Yorker would feel if I said, "I refuse to visit NYC because of their dreadfully unhygienic subway stations."

Let's try to dig in deeper into why some Koreans have "bad" personal hygiene according to the Western standard. As you described, it is usually the "middle aged men hacking and spitting all the time," and this is part of a large problem experienced by a number of countries with fast-growing economies: the generation gap. These "unhygienic" middle aged South Korean men and women either lived through the awful Japanese occupation and the Korean War or were born during the antebellum devastation. They grew up in a country with $64 per capita income and watched it grow to become the 12th biggest economy in the world in 60 years. Unfortunately, due to the fast economic growth, some of the aspects of their lives, including personal hygiene, lagged behind at the post-war level. However, for the people who have been born after the 70's, it is a totally different story as they never really experienced the extreme poverty of their parents' generation. This new generation of Koreans has a more "Westernized" culture with a number of aspects a typical Westerner would expect including the modern sense of personal hygiene.

You mentioned in the article you wrote that you decided to give South Korea a try for a few years, because you had "an open mind," and it is truly tragic that you now have closed your mind mainly due to the bad experience you had with your employer. I sincerely hope in the future you will have more positive experiences abroad, including South Korea, so that you can open up your mind to the world again. In the meantime, I highly recommend that you, and other interested Reditors such as /u/AndyKSul, read this book by a respected correspondent to Korea from the Economist: This is one of the best books I have read on Korea, and it accurately explains how modern South Korea became a country as it is today. I believe this book will help you clean up many of the misconceptions you have about Korea.

Thank you, and sorry for the long post.

michaelfosterfromku15 karma

it is truly tragic that you now have closed your mind

If someone spends several years in a place, makes observations based on those years of experience, is one then still close minded?

If the spitting were restricted to just the middle aged, you'd have a point. But since I once saw a student at KU, a university you admit is one of Korea's most prestigious, spitting a total of 6 times in 2 minutes (yes, I counted and timed) outside of my office, I'd say you don't.

yukw777-8 karma

For my comment on your mind being closed, I was referring more to your comment about China than Korea. Have you spent a long time in China also?

Sure, good point. I thought about mentioning that too as a lot of young smokers do spit, but I thought I should focus on the bigger issue, not just spitting.

But I hope you really pick that book up and read it. I also hope you understood my point of Korean nationalism and your "irksome" feeling is a bit less now.

michaelfosterfromku12 karma

I find Daniel's point of view is a bit myopic, but not very unsurprising since his job involves dealing largely with the upper-middle and upper classes in South Korea, so his generalizations shed little light on the less affluent in Korea--and he fails to really engage the issues of nepotism and corruption that plague Korea. But I imagine upper middle class Koreans and kyopos alike find it very flattering and appealing.

yukw777-5 karma

Personal hygiene? what?

[edit] I believe Mr. Michael Foster, the OP, had some conflicts with his employer, the prestigious Korea University. Please read the article he attached above:

michaelfosterfromku15 karma

Yes, I did--I did attach that article for it to be read, after all.

I'm not sure how my comments on personal hygiene relate at all to conflicts I had with my former employer. Why do you mention them in tandem?

yukw777-8 karma

I mentioned them in tandem, because I believe your negative opinion on Korean culture has largely been shaped by your extremely negative experience with your employer. As others mentioned, your point on the lack of personal hygiene of South Koreans is not a common criticism, and I believe it has been caused and amplified by your negative experience with your employer.

michaelfosterfromku10 karma

My problems with Koreans' hygiene predates the problems I had with KU.

yukw777-8 karma

Sure, but amplified right?

michaelfosterfromku19 karma

Not at all. My problems with KU began well after I decided I was going to leave Korea. There were three things that made me leave:

  1. The spitting.

  2. The culling of infected pigs by buying them alive.

  3. I was sick of my wife working 6 days a week for a fraction of what she can earn in America, and I didn't appreciate the degrading tasks women routinely were supposed to perform in the workplace (peeling their bosses' fruit, being told to wear a certain amount of makeup or certain clothes, etc.).

These things made me decide Korea was not for me.

mojave9553 karma

The culling of infected pigs by burying them alive.

This seems to be a standard procedure in many countries when there is a widespread infection

michaelfosterfromku3 karma

I didn't know this was standard procedure--do you have a link to a writeup on this? I'd like to read more.

TcFir315 karma

What are some cultural differences that you noticed between the "former" North Koreans and South Koreans?

michaelfosterfromku48 karma

The most interesting and counterintuitive to me were twofold:

  1. In South Korea it is common for teachers to hit, strike, and beat children in school (this was recently outlawed in Seoul and the neighboring area). Some South Koreans think hitting students is necessary. In North Korea, it's illegal for teachers to hit children, and the North Koreans I knew were shocked that South Koreans did this.

  2. Likewise, South Korea is very hierarchical--there are specific terms and linguistic forms used if addressing someone older or younger. None of this exists in North Korea.

yukw77722 karma

As a South Korean (I grew up there but live in the US now, Korean is my native language), 2 is simply not true. North Koreans still speak Korean and they still use "specific terms and linguistic forms" to address someone older or younger. They may have simplified a lot of titles to "동무" (comrade) (I think you may have misunderstood this point as North Koreans not having any honorific form of speech), but they still use "specific terms and linguistic forms."

michaelfosterfromku11 karma

Thanks for the correction--I may have overestimated the case; he may have meant that they use the older/younger terms less often than South Koreans.

grimmymac0 karma

You said that it is illegal for teachers to hit children in north korea. Do you actually believe that?

The book "Escape from camp 14" would describe in detail how some children were beaten to DEATH from overzealous beating.

michaelfosterfromku7 karma

It's illegal for teachers in schools to hit children; those places in the concentration camps where children are kept are hardly "schools", and anyway laws in North Korea are capriciously enforced.

omq9-1 karma

Likewise, South Korea is very hierarchical--there are specific terms and linguistic forms used if addressing someone older or younger. None of this exists in North Korea.

fucking bothers me that someone will read this response and because it's an AMA that they will take this for a fact, despite that the OP plainly admits to not being able to speak Korean. it's inconceivable that North Koreans don't use these same terms. it's ingrained in the language itself. if you actually had the faintest idea, you'd know that it'd be a stunningly ridiculous concept that somehow in 50~60 years North Koreans have completely abandoned this aspect of the language.

michaelfosterfromku3 karma

As I say in another comment, I overstated the case.

synivex1 karma

As someone who has been surrounded by the Cantonese and Vietnamese language all their life, I can say the whole idea of addressing people according to their age is a common thing amongst Asian culture. It wasn't designed to be a hierarchical thing. Rather, it's just a way of presenting respect.

michaelfosterfromku5 karma

Respect is by its very nature hierarchical.

slot_tech11 karma

Do you believe the level of oppression in North Korea rises to that of a humanitarian crisis?

michaelfosterfromku32 karma

Absolutely, and anyone who visits North Korea is complicit in that crisis (by giving the government hard currency that they use to live in relative luxury).

Unfortunately, after North Korea developed nuclear weapons, solving this crisis has become a lot harder.

Frogetta10 karma

I've heard many North Koreans experience a great deal of culture shock after leaving. Have any of your students have difficulty adjusting to modern society? What do you do as a teacher to help them?

michaelfosterfromku20 karma

In my experience, the students experienced little culture shock. Remember that they get to South Korea through rural and then urban China, so they are exposed to the richer outside world gradually, going from slightly richer to slightly richer area until they finally get to Seoul's near first-world wealth.

Ninnux6 karma

Some say that if NK was liberated by the west, the subsequent humanitarian crises and ensuing depression, heartbreak, and identity crises would trump any happiness of being reunited with SK families. It would be like nothing the modern world has ever seen. Do you agree?

michaelfosterfromku14 karma

It's a difficult call for sure, and really brings up some interesting questions about how dependent we are on Utilitarianism when making these kinds of decisions.

Honestly, I don't know. The things I've heard of (generational imprisonment, torture, mass starvation) are horrific and I think need to be stopped at all costs. On the other hand, I do not understand why the North Koreans have not themselves revolted. B. R. Myers has written a great book on this--The Cleanest Race. I'd ask Myers what we should do, but he's very pessimistic.

Morbanth5 karma

Was there anything positive from North Korea that people missed even years after defecting?

michaelfosterfromku7 karma

A lot of them said they wanted to go home.

Leking95 karma

Why is it bad to do an IAma on North Koreans? How would this affect them?

mouseyes17 karma

It's visiting as a tourist that OP thinks is bad, not posting about it on reddit. It gives the government more money and you're only seeing what they want you to see.

michaelfosterfromku8 karma

That's right.

TIT_PAN5 karma

What was the most difficult subject or thing to teach them? Why?

michaelfosterfromku5 karma

The real problem was that they had absolutely no real fundamentals in English, although a lot could speak some Chinese or Russian (or both). Since all of the defectors I taught were already in their 20s or older, it was hard to start from scratch.

yhyhyhs1 karma


michaelfosterfromku8 karma

English from scratch.

turtlewong3 karma


michaelfosterfromku9 karma

Absolutely not. A lot of them are frustrated that the rest of the world, and South Korea, have turned their backs on North Korea, but none of them wanted to go back to the regime. Political gridlock is more desirable than starvation.

EmpororPenguin4 karma

In another comment you said "A lot of them said they wanted to go home." Huh

michaelfosterfromku4 karma

They want to go home but they do not want to go back to the regime. They cannot go home because the regime has seized power over their home.

Napol3onDynamite2 karma

How did most of your students defect and how long did it take them to adjust to a free country were there any habits signifying that they were from a communist nation?

michaelfosterfromku2 karma

All of the ones I spoke to walked across the border into north China. I was surprised to learn that they all seemed to adjust pretty quickly, or so they told me.

matrix20022 karma

I was an English teacher in Japan (definitely not a professor), I really enjoyed my time there, but the career options were limited so I left.

It seems like teaching at a University would be a pretty good job, is that true? Was it a good job?

michaelfosterfromku5 karma

It was horrible and I was miserable almost every minute I was there.

FalconFonz2 karma

Can you expand on this?

Andromeda3212 karma

Wow- as an academic but in a different field, I can't say I blame you much. I hope you're feeling better.

So, did they ever agree to accept your resignation?

michaelfosterfromku2 karma

No--I'm still technically their employee!

BizarroCullen2 karma

Do you think a North Korean spring will happen someday? and if you think so, how do you think it will start (from your experience with the people there)?

Thanks in advance

michaelfosterfromku6 karma

I don't think it will happen in the foreseeable future. If Jong-Un doesn't have a child and dies, there will be a big power vacuum that could cause chaos and an eventual revolt of some type, but it could just be the replacement of one despotic family with another. It's very hard to see the North Koreans starting a revolution considering their value system and sense of history.

mandrewting2 karma

Are there any stories the North Koreans have told you that have completely shocked you? If so, do you mind sharing?

michaelfosterfromku3 karma

The stories in the public from this defector and about these orphans are the most horrific I've heard. Remember that the people who got out are the lucky ones.

Smarty_McPants2 karma

How difficult did you find the difference in accent to be to understand? How long did it take to adapt to it?

michaelfosterfromku2 karma

I'd spent many years working with non-native English speakers by the time I arrived in Seoul, and I'd spent a year working with South Koreans before I started tutoring North Koreans, so it wasn't very difficult for me. However, the accents are of course very thick, but the biggest problem was their lack of fundamental knowledge of grammar or vocabulary.

sambravers1 karma

When you taught these people, though I assume they were more up tyo date on current situations than normal North Koreans, did they react with denial to anything you taught them?

michaelfosterfromku2 karma

I was only teaching them grammar, and they had already lived in South Korea for months or years by the time I met them.

IrishBuckles1 karma

How old are the students and what did they think of South Korea when they firsts arrived?

michaelfosterfromku3 karma

The defectors were all ages, but I was teaching people in their early 20s to late 30s. Their first impressions of South Korea were varied, but I think they felt more relief to escape than anything else.


How does a North Korean person choose his profession? What jobs are available to the average working class North Korean?

michaelfosterfromku2 karma

Connections are the most important thing, it seems.