IamAn American who ran a marathon in North Korea last month, AMA
I'm a 27 year old American guy who ran the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea on April 12th. The marathon began and finished in front of 50,000 North Koreans in Kim Il Sung Stadium.
This was only the second year it was open to international amateurs and there were hundreds who ran this year (mostly Chinese, but many Western runners too) including myself.
North Korea was surprising in many respects, and its really not quite the place western media/VICE portrays. The marathon was a unique and rare opportunity to interact with actual North Koreans and not just those the government allows you to interact with. AMA...
For the marathon I teamed up on it with a UK-based charity called Love North Korean Children which builds self-sustaining bakeries that feed malnourished North Korean kids. They're one of the few charities doing work INSIDE the country (mostly because they stay non-political, and non-denominational) and don't support the regime.
PROOF: http://imgur.com/hyp1ESi http://i.imgur.com/TRGDJ2X http://imgur.com/fnbiVbA
Some videos: https://youtu.be/tAmPJKKiijc - inside a sold-out (rationed out?) Kim Il Sung Stadium before the marathon. https://youtu.be/V0HdaXaFRPY - Along the way, high-fiving locals.
Some pics: http://imgur.com/ij4830Y - Hanging with some school kids in Sariwon City http://imgur.com/Ra59B8x - dancing with a local GRANNY!
Heaps more on my instagram: instagram.com/ryanbiegen
I wouldn't really call it "shooting the shit," but the marathon took us through the streets of Pyongyang-- mostly unsupervised for large portions, a freedom which is not afforded to most visitors. This is a country where you can't leave your hotel at night.
The North Koreans on the route were really supportive and friendly. The first lap (it was 4, 6 mile laps) they were shy, and sort of just stared as we went by; they don't see very many westerners. By lap 2 they opened up a bit and it was high fives and cheers all around for everyone.
I'd highly recommend you visit! I reckon it won't be the same in a few years. Now is the time to see it before it opens up (relatively).
What was the one thing that surprised you the most about north Korea that you did not expect?
I was expecting these big, 4 lane highways completely desolate with no cars and a traffic lady directing no traffic at all. I mean, its not LA traffic but our tour bus actually got in a mini-traffic jam.
I was also surprised with just how many people had cell phones. 40% I'd say. And they'd whip them out and snap photos all the time. Our guide told us that 5 years ago you wouldn't have seen any mobile phones, and even still the government monitors EVERYTHING. For example, we heard a story (I can't confirm this of course) that one of the western guides from the tour company I went with a while back streamed some porn, thinking it was hilarious that he was looking at porn in North Korea, and the company got into some trouble and ended up with a rather stern warning from the powers that be.
Overall, the citizens lives are very obviously very dictated by the government, but I was surprised that they actually have quite a bit more free will than I thought.
I'll look for a source, but wasn't it confirmed that the govt gives citizens phones and modern clothes etc and orders them to act happy and free.
Maybe, but considering it's a communist system the government is distributing everything anyway, I'm not sure how that's surprising really. And it's the important people in Pyongyang and elite that get the cell phones and modern clothes.
I do think theres some of that stuff going on but I don't buy that everyones in the whole city is an actor like its the Truman Show or something. Its a city of 2.5 million, thats a lot of people to pay to act happy and free for a poor country. I do think the government made sure the stadium was packed out and what not, but its still a place with business, and people have jobs and what not. And cell phones.
Did an international win the marathon? Just from my very tiny knowledge on N.Korea I've heard stories of their media portraying them to win at everything - just seems a contrast to visibly show, the N.Korean public, a N.Korea losing at something (if they did).
No, Kim Jong Un won with a time of 1 hour. New world record!
Kidding aside, they break it down into 2 separate marathons probably to avoid this very possibility. Basically, the internationals start an hour before and theres a whole separate award ceremony for the international runners. A guy from Denmark won it.
Then the North Koreans run it. It’s the same course (4, 6.5 mile loops around the city), but they start an hour later. I thought I was doing pretty good at mile 13 and then about a hundred North Korean runners past me, and they were on mile 13 too, only they had started an hour later. Ha.
I think the winning North Korean time was around 2 hours 13 minutes. They were fast as hell, had unfortunately ragged shoes/clothes and I got the sense there was a lot more on the line for them (and their families probably) than for us.
2:13?!!?? That's a world class time, even many East Africans struggle to hit that time. That's pretty incredible if its true. You'd think poor nutrition and lack of access to training information would prevent times like that.
This guy won supposedly.
Athletes in North Korea train their whole life and probably get the best nutrition in the country to bring glory to the nation.
Is it ok to think that when you say "more on the line for them" you're talking about money/food/glory? Or should I just join the rest of Reddit and assume their whole family will be executed if they don't finish fast enough.
Bring glory to the country and you're a hero, disappoint and you're a pariah. I mean, I don't know for sure, but North Korea takes sports incredibly seriously. Their coach was never heard from again after they lost all 3 games in the World Cup in 2010. I don't think their whole families are executed if they were slow but there's probably more consequence to everything they do.
Are the typical North Korea stereo-types true? Did it look like the people there were starving? Did you see anything that surprised you?
This is a good question, but a tough one to answer.
Some are, some aren’t, but then again, besides the marathon we mostly only get to see what the government allows/wants us to see, and they’re doing their best to dispel the stereotypes.
Things like propaganda are everywhere. The moment you get on the State-run airplane from Beijing, its just propaganda music, all in the same, high pitched tone, always a female singing. Hotel lobby, propaganda music. Go down the escalator to the metro, propaganda music. At first its funny, by day 4 you wanna tear your hair out.
Things like them spying on you, bugging your hotel room, confiscating your cameras. BS. They count how many phones/cameras you have when you enter, and then count them when you leave, mostly to make sure you have the same amount as when you entered so you're not distributing phones with anti-propoganda or bibles or something to locals but they don't really care what you photograph mostly, with a few exceptions being don't cut the frame off at the head/limbs/anything at images and statues of the Great Leaders, and no photos of military checkpoints (fair enough, plenty of places in the US you can't photograph either).
But, I’d say the most fucked up thing about the country is that you’re never really sure what is real, and what isn’t. When what you’re seeing is what actually happens, and what is an elaborate illusion created by the government to make it seem something that its not. For example, before the marathon in Kim Il Sung stadium, it was filled with North Koreans. 50,000 of them. It looked as if they were walking to the stadium on their own accord before hand, but then we entered and they had all these choreographed routines and what not in the stands, and you wonder… You get the sense that they had to be there, though we were told by our Korean guides that it was a “reward” actually. For good work, or whatever.
Another example is this. During the marathon we ran past 2 or three amusement and water parks. There was no one in sight and it was a weekend, and all the rides weren’t running. Completely empty. You’d think, prime time and weather for an amusement park, why is it closed? Then a few days later our Korean tour guide told us we’d be going to the amusement park. I was expecting an empty amusement park with just us, but actually it was filled with North Koreans, seemingly to make it seem “look! our people get to enjoy the amusement park too, and they’re having fun!”. Then you wonder again, the park wasn’t running a few days ago, but the day they bring the foreigners its all of a sudden booming and full. All westerners of course got to skip the line, which was kind of depressing actually.
You go to these restaurants, and they seemingly haven't been visited by anyone else in weeks, and they're just sort of waiting for us. And theres no locals in there, and dozens of empty tables and the tour group is just sort of eating alone. It's creepy, and you find yourself asking a lot "where IS everyone?!" throughout the trip.
But then you're at the park, and you get pulled into a dance circle, and have a dance with a local granny (see photo above) or you have a moment on the subway, and you’re sitting next to a North Korean, and they smile at you and grab their phone for a photo and you think that they're just going about their daily lives.
Another thing to consider, Pyongyang is a city for the elite. Its considered a privilege to live there (kind of a caste system) and the punishment if you fuck up is you actually have to leave the city. So we mostly got to see the best off North Koreans. And even when we did leave Pyongyang city limits to go to the DMZ and to a smaller town, you don’t stray from the road and it seems that everything you see is mostly put there to make it seem like an alright place. But then you think that another mile further, and out of sight from the one highway, and yea, theres probably people starving, and what not.
It was weird seeing a car maybe every 15 miles on the "main highway" which is 2 lanes wide on each side and has these massive stone pillars every half mile that they can knock onto the road in case of an invasion. But in Pyongyang theres more cars and buses.
But, I’d say the most fucked up thing about the country is that you’re never really sure what is real, and what isn’t. When what you’re seeing is what actually happens, and what is an elaborate illusion created by the government to make it seem something that its not.
If this is the case, how are you so sure that N. Korea is any different than what the Western media portrays?
This answer seems to contradict his other answer. This answer is very much in line with what was shown in the VICE documentaries, but in his other answer he says it's nothing like what VICE shows.
Well, the confusion about what's real and what's not is somewhat accurate.
What isn't is when they go on for 10 minutes about how hard it is to enter the country. Anyone can go, and Koryo Tours has been doing tours since 1989. Everything Shane Smith saw is on EVERY itinerary of all the tour groups. Everything he went to, I went to, and everyone goes to. He wasn't on some unprecedented, exclusive access trip into the country. Him "trying to get in for a year a half" was actually him not being able to get a journalist visa, which yea, they don't grant very often at all, and then giving up and joining a tour like everyone else. Except he pieced his photos and videos together and made a documentary about it.
They also make it seem like "if you bring in these things (telephoto lenses, bibles, etc.) you're in deep shit." You're really not. They're actually pretty polite and yes, will confiscate them if anything at the border but they're not out to get you and throw you in a prison camp. They mostly want to make sure you're not distributing information, cameras, phones, etc.
In all, I think VICE wanted to make it seem their lives were really on the line the whole time they were there, and its just not the vibe at all.
For one, it certainly is not this incredibly dangerous place that you should not visit. You're at pretty much no risk if you're on one of the tours, which are the only legitimate way to enter the country. If you try to cross illegally, or rip up your passport and demand asylum like that one guy, then yea, you're asking for trouble...
I also think the Western media adds to the confusion. We're told that everything there is actually an elaborate show, so we're kind of expecting that going in. Then you get there, and some things just seem normal, and some things not, but you're sort of left guessing, and second-guessing which parts are real and which are fake.
Every night, after the tours the groups kind of have impromptu debriefings over some beers. Some people are convinced everything is fake, but most others, including my Western guide who's been something like 40 times, believe that its not everything its cracked up to be. I think like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle...
Man that sounds messed up. What would the risks for you be if you tried to help the locals? like if you tried to give them a newspaper from america?
It's a foolish thing to even try to do, and I think the consequences would be serious but I don't know what would happen.
Is it possible to do? Probably. They ask what books/literature you have with you and then check them, but it's not really an extensive search through your bag upon entering. But yea, probably not worth finding out.
what inspired you to do this? its not every day someone says, "hey, i'm going to run a marathon in Pyongyang"
I've always had a fascination with the country and I wanted to see it for myself. Turns out, we hear a much distorted picture from western media. The VICE documentary especially (which after seeing NK for myself, a lot of that is sensationalized BS, entertaining but not really accurate).
Also, I've traveled extensively, all over, all 7 continents (even lived on Antarctica). North Korea is pretty much the last place that really seemed challenging to me (Besides maybe ISIS territory but I don't have a sure-fire death wish). To get there, and to be there and then to add a marathon on top of it seemed thrilling.
Thirdly, I wanted to do some good in the country. So I ran it for a charity and raised some money for malnourished kids in the country. Theres many charities doing work for people who've FLED North Korea, but few for those who are still there. Political tension between NK and the west has largely halted humanitarian aid. Kids don't get to choose their government or where they're born and I wanted to help.
How were the people?
Friendly, and curious for one, and not the robotic, completely brainwashed drones that everyone thinks.
As an American I was expecting a lot of spite, but I wasn't really treated any different than the other westerners.
During the marathon they were fantastic-- cheering and high-fiving, even holding flowers for everyone, though it was unclear on whether they were there because they wanted to be, or because it was "encouraged" or something they had to do.
I took some video with my iPhone of the marathon route, if theres any way I can upload it.
Oh yea! I even got a dance with a local GRANNY!
Upload it to YouTube and post it here?
Uploaded a couple the original post!
Do you like margaritas?
Love 'em. Kim Jong Il invented them.
Were you initially nervous about going over there?
I was a bit nervous. Mostly, I had no idea how they'd react to me being American, and also wasn't sure about the marathon itself. I was actually most worried that they may not have any water stations along the path.
The truth is though, unless you do something really stupid like the American student who just illegally crossed from China, or smuggle bibles in or something, it's pretty safe to travel to.
I've travelled in Asia quite a bit and I also am an avid runner. I don't run when I travel because I find the air quality there awful. How was the air in Pyonyang? Any respiratory issues? How about hydration stations, is the water safe? Also, what did you eat before and after the race?
Well, the problem is you have to fly into and out of Beijing. And Beijing is pretty much the last place on earth you want to be the days leading up to a marathon. Worst air quality in the world, and I have asthma. I was feeling pretty horrible after 72 hours in Beijing and then arriving in Pyongyang and having to run a marathon the next morning, not ideal...
The air in Pyongyang itself isn't good, but isn't as bad as Beijing.
They had some water stations, but not nearly at an acceptable interval. Maybe every 3 miles, and I think its suppose to be every 1 mile. They were running out pretty much by the end too. Bottled water, not tap. You don't drink the tap water.
We were also given stern warnings against peeing whilst running (this is a very common thing for marathoners) or peeing on the Great Leaders great highway. So there were very inconvenient bathroom locations in designated buildings, often 50 meters from the path. One of them was even on the second floor! Ha.
I was worried about the food, but it was pretty OK, and plenty to carb load before. Rice and bread for breakfast and some fruit. After the marathon we went to a restaurant and ate well and chugged victory beers.
I know they started an hour after you, but how many times were you lapped by Kim Jong Un?
lapped 14 times, and the race was only 4 laps.
How was the food?
Other than the propaganda they were force feeding me non-stop, pretty good!
Some places it was really damn good. I really like Korean spices and Kimchi. If it were available in my city I'd eat at a lot of the places we went to, regularly.
They took us to some restaurant that served "dog meat soup" some people ate it but I was repulsed and sad and sat that meal out.
We went to a KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) restaurant the last night, and quite a few of us got pretty sick. That was an awful plane ride the next morning.
You do feel a little guilty eating these large portions of good food when you think that the rest of the country hasn't a hope of ever seeing a meal like that though...
Wait do you have a picture of the KFC.
It wasn't actually a KFC, or a chain. Just some restaurant serving Korean Fried Chicken. It's a thing.
are you nervous about traveling to other countries (South Korea, first off; but also Japan, SE Asia, etc) in the future when you have a North Korea visa stamped in your passport?
They didn't stamp my passport, luckily. You get a paper visa which you don't get to keep.
I was nervous lying on my customs form though. I omitted North Korea but then had a LOT of North Korean sujo, propaganda posters, pins and what not in my bag on the way in. I got lucky and they were lax that day and they didn't even put my bag through the Xray machine.
What kind of visa did you have for China? I had the 72 hour transit visa and was then questioned about where I went when I came back to the US. At first I said Korea, then he pried it out of me that I went to North Korea. That's pretty much the only reason they thought to question me and check my stuff.
Yea. I had the same. 72 hour. That sucks you got stopped.
On the way in I had some trouble. So few people go to North Korea that when I checked in at the airport from Melbourne, none of the airline clerks had ever seen my NK visa and they gave me a lot of trouble. I don't think it was even in the computers as an option for a destination or something.
I think I just got lucky on the way back into the US. They didn't even check, or ask where I'd been.
If you don't mind me asking, after all was said and done what was you're grand total in expenses?
Roughly $1100 for the VISA/Tour/Hotel/Meals/Flights in and out of Beijing. You pay a Chinese tour company and they handle all this.
$110 for the marathon fee, and about $300 for expenses (beer, snacks, souvenirs, tips to Korean guides, ticket to the circus).
So roughly $1500 for 5 days. Worth every penny. I would have happily paid more.
beer? North Korean beer? how was it?
Eh. OK, but not great. Better than Chinese beer though, not as good as Beer Lao. I'm a beer snob though.
They actually have some microbreweries. We went but they were sold out of everything but the one or two beers we'd been drinking the whole trip anyway.
What, specifically, did VICE get wrong? If you're going to make a claim be specific please.
Shane Smith makes it seem like he got some sort of unprecedented access into the country, and starts the documentary saying that he tried for a year and a half to get a visa and that he couldn't get in because "North Korea doesn't want ANYONE to come into their country." Actually, they REALLY want foreigners to come because they're desperate for their business.
The truth is, and the western guides who all pretty much loathe the documentary, tell you this is that its because he applied for a journalism VISA, which true, they hardly ever grant. The reality is they eventually gave up, and he joined a tour like anyone else can do. So it's not like he snuck into the country with hidden cameras, or he needed to do any of that. Anyone can go pretty much. Got $1500 handy? You can go. Its not this completely forbidden place that the documentary tries so hard to make it seem.
He goes on about how his room is bugged because of some static on the radio. I stayed at the same hotel. All the rooms have these old, dinky radios, and they have static because there's no radio stations. I can't say unequivocally that the rooms are NOT bugged, but it just seems highly unlikely. I mean, the elevators don't work and there's frequent power outages. I just doubt that all the rooms are wired and theres a team of North Koreans listening to hundreds of visitors showering and talking shit about their country.
He makes it seem like he had sneak in cameras and on the sly take photos and videos of everything. You can pretty much take photos of whatever you want, so long as you A. don't cut off the frame of the Great Leaders bodies/heads in photos of portraits or statues or B. take photos of military checkpoints (fair enough).
You're also not forced to bow at the monuments. It's encouraged, but its not like if you don't bow you get in trouble. Our Korean guide explained why they bow, (because the leaders are literally seen as Gods), and then asked if anyone feels uncomfortable about bowing, they can refrain.
There's more stuff, but I'd have to go back and re-watch the documentary to refresh my memory.
After seeing N. Korea in it's current state, do you think the rest of the world should let it go about its business, or is there a drastic need for a regime change?
I mean, I’m generally a pacifist, so I don’t think the world should intervene. I do think its incredibly sad and unfortunate that the regime that is running the country is in place though. It’s tricky.
I do have a feeling that in our generation there will be some upheaval and some change. It seems like there’s cracks forming in the foundation and slowly more outside information is getting into the country. Kim Jong Un has been particularly brutal lately, assassinating a lot of political dissenters (even killed an architect because he wanted to keep some building in a octagon shape, and not turn it into the shape of Kim Il Sungs flower. Yes Kim Il Sung has his own flower.) which is usually a sign that he's maybe losing his grip a little and over-compensating.
Do you feel that how you answer the questions on this thread could jeapordize your chances of seeing North Korea again?
Hmmm... Maybe but I doubt it. Someone on our tour got a strange call in the middle of the night 2 weeks prior to going to the DPRK. It was a NYC number but they said in broken english that they were part of the "North Korean mission" or something in New York and asked him questions about his job. So they probably Google/background everyone before processing the visas.
I'd go and run the marathon again, because they didn't let me do my final lap (long story) so I had to run the final 400m myself, but once was enough as for going anyway. Unless the country really opens up and they start letting people visit places other than the ones we visited.
Could you at least give a TL;DR version of your "long story" about not doing the final lap? I'm interested...
When I signed up we were told we'd have 5 hours to complete the race. That was no problem for me, my training was going well and I was pacing at around 2:00 for my half marathon so I figured about 4:10-15 was realistic.
The day of the event, we were told that the time to finish was actually 4 hours, and then they'd close the gate to the stadium as thats when the closing ceremony began. You're supposed to do the final 400m in the stadium, but closed gate means no finishing. This was seriously concerning news, and I was worried because I was just hoping for a finish and now I needed to do a very ambitious 4 hours. It was my first marathon and I'd only really been training 4 months instead of the recommended 8.
Well, I was doing well, then hit a wall at about 20 miles and slowed down. I passed mile 25.5 at around 3:59. I turned the corner, ran towards the stadium, saw the gate open but with lots of North Korean soldiers/security around it. I figured I was fine, and saw the runners about 100 meters in front of me get let in.
I got closer, and closer, and the soldiers started converging on the gate. Then one put his hand up in a stop motion. I ducked him, then there was about 15 others and In my marathon haze remembered I was in North Korea, and there was no fucking around in North Korea. So I was the last runner shut out of the stadium to do the final lap. I was distraught, pleaded with them but they wouldn't relent. I resigned myself to it, and thought, I came here to run a damn marathon, I've done 25.8 miles, and so I did the only thing I could think of and turned around and ran my own, final 400meters, then entered the stadium as a spectator for the final ceremony.
Would you recommend anyone to go there?
I've traveled the world for the better part of the past 5 years, and North Korea stands out as the best/most bizarre/coolest place I've ever been. Definitely go, and go soon before it's completely different once Seth Rogen takes down Kim Jong Un.
Where people shocked to see a tourist?
Yes and no.
Some places, yes. We went to a smaller city on the way back from the DMZ and there they mostly just stare because they have very little experience with foreigners, and if they do have access to North Korean propaganda movies, the westerners are always depicted as evil imperialists. Some kids did run up to me and want to practice their english and have their photo taken (I'll upload it and put it on the original post) but then they got scolded by some adult.
Along the designated tour path, less so. The whole thing is very linear and rigid. You can not go off on your own and explore. You're mostly interacting with people (shop clerks, waitresses, etc.) who are trained by the government on how to interact, and if they fuck up, they're probably in trouble.
Along the marathon path, yes to an extent. Some of the locals were wary/curious at first but they seemed to warm up as the race went on.
Were you worried at any point they were just waiting for you to get tired to kidnap you for dennis to have someone to play with?
Dennis Rodman is a basketball plater who is famous for defending North Korea and Kim Jong-Un.
Oh yea! of course! I actually gave him a shoutout on Instagram to see if he'd run it with me but he never responded. Fucking Worm...
This sounds like an awesome experience so thanks for sharing! I'm a runner too and love to run in different cities. I'm planning on running the Bangkok marathon this year. Would you be able to share the name of the tour guide group you used? And would you recommend them? Any chance for a photo of the medal?
I went through Young Pioneer Tours. Most people go through Koryo, but I did YPT because they were cheaper. I'd highly recommend them, they're essentially the same tour and YPT groups seemed smaller too. Troy, the western partner from New Zealand and also our western guide is a good dude with interesting insights. He's been going for years and has been there tons of times.
I don't have a photo of the medal because I didn't win. There's a photo of my certificate above though.
What entertainment options did you have when you were there? Were there TVs? Did they look old (tube) or were they flat screen? Movie theatres? Professional sports?
There were TVs in the rooms. Old, shitty ones. With like 3 propaganda channels and BBC (which is supposedly only available in the hotel and not for anyone else outside of it).
There's a karaoke bar in the hotel. Kind of funny seeing your Korean guide singing Tom Petty.
There was a professional soccer match during the 4 hours of the marathon's beginning and end in the stadium. I didn't go because I was um, kind of busy...
We also had the option to go to the circus one day, which was completely amazing and bizarre in its own right. North Koreans doing crazy acrobatics with propaganda backdrops. Here's a picture of that: https://instagram.com/p/1lOUTmQKQu/?taken-by=ryanbiegen
We also went to an indoor water park that Kim Jong Un built. It was actually incredibly impressive. Slides, pools, the whole 9 yards. Nicest water park I've ever seen. We were surrounded by the kids of the North Korean elite there, and it didn't seem like just anyone could go.
If you've ever recorded it; what is your top running speed?
Maybe even your longest time running consecutively?
I'm pretty slow. This was my first marathon, and my time was an unofficial 4:04ish.
Please dispel a couple of myths. Is it really completely dark at night? There has been a meme going around for a few years that says the entire country blacks out at night and it is one of the few places on earth where there is no outside street lighting. Second question, did you see the World's Tallest Hotel Building, Ryugyong Hotel, that was never completed? I've read that they have started to work on it again.
It is really dark at night. And there are A LOT of blackouts and issues with power in general. When we arrived there were about 8 elevators in the whole hotel, and 2 of them worked, and they got stuck a lot. You'd be eating in a restaurant and the lights will just turn off for a minute, pitch black. Strange.
The one thing that is always on at night is the lights that light the monuments and portraits of the Great Leaders.
I did see the Ryugyong Hotel, it's insane looking. The facade is complete but the interior isn't. Someone asked the Korean guide why it was taking so long and she got a little sheepish. I think its a source of embarrassment.
Was your tour group from a variety of countries? Did you notice any difference in how people viewed North Korea based on where they were from? How prevalent was English in North Korea?
Yes. All over. There's a couple of tour companies, each with a couple of groups, with about 8-12 people each. Lots of Europeans, Aussies, etc., not so many Americans...
I didn't feel like I was treated much differently from everyone else even though I was American. My Korean guides were very decent.
Not very prevalent at all. Some kids know "hi" and what not but that's about it. Our Korean guides spoke English well, and we had a young language "student" (I put that in quotes because I wasn't really sure if she was a student or a spy, ha) who was there to "practice her english" with foreigners too.
Did you see any of the work camps? Or are you in one right now?
Yea, redditing from my gulag as we speak. There's wifi so it's not so bad.
Did you get any pictures of any propaganda in the country, or can you explain it?
Lots of photos of it. I even scored a hand-painted propaganda poster. I can't explain it because I can't read Korean. (help someone?!)
What do you do for a living, if you don't mind me asking? The freedom to travel so much at will is a goal I'm trying to reach.
Depends on the time of year/place I am. I bartend mostly, I've taught english in Colombia, I've washed dishes in Antarctica. I go with the seasons. I have few expenses and no real vices (don't smoke, don't do drugs, etc.)
Travel is actually pretty cheap if you do it right. This trip however, was by far the most expensive I've ever done.
From what I understand North Koreans are raised to hate Americans.
Did the North Koreans know you were American?
If so did you experience any hostility?
Well, the marathon had one strict rule we were warned rather sternly about. No American flags, and no American brands (oops, Nike running shorts...) Luckily they don't know what Nike is.
The North Korean guides I had, 3 of them and a student, knew I was American. They were very decent to me and I didn't feel like they treated me much different than the others. I even bought the student her first beer and taught her what "YOLO" meant.
We went to the park one day, and all the locals were drunk and dancing for Eternal Leader Kim Il Sungs birthday celebration. We were dancing with the locals, and then one guy came up to me rather aggressively and said "American? American?" I was taken aback because most don't speak english. Anyways, I lied to diffuse the situation and said I was coming from Australia (kind of true, I was living in Melbourne) and then he sort of nodded like "OK, ok, cool then."
Other than that, I reckon most didn't know I was American or didn't care. I think the idea that all North Koreans are bred to hate America is a creation of western media, fear-mongering. Theres propaganda that says "The EVIL American imperialists" and the like, but they're not like "KILL ALL AMERICANS." I felt pretty safe...
I didn't go because I was um, kind of busy... I even bought the student her first beer and taught her what "YOLO" meant. Coincidence, I think not!
Marathon! I was busy running the marathon...
If it weren't punishable by death (for her) I think I'd have had a shot with the student...
I heard a rumor that you are not allowed to bring North Korean currency outside of the country, that they will search you for it if they thing you are trying to smuggle it out. Is this true? If you did get some out, what does it look like?
Well part of it's true. You're not allowed to handle North Korean currency at all, and all transactions are made with USD, Euros or Chinese RMB. It is kind of amusing that they don't see the irony in ranting about American imperialism but then are perfectly cool, and actually prefer to accept USD. All the stores that Westerner visitors are allowed to go to probably don't even have Korean currency as a safeguard for this.
The whole searching thing wasn't really my experience. They don't riffle through your bags at any point, and their customs check when you leave the country is no different than any other place, in fact, it's probably more lax.
How do North Koreans feel about minimalist vs. traditional running shoes?
Ha. Funny you ask... I run with Vibram 5-fingers (the "barefoot" shoes). I think I was the only one. I got some looks...
You say you interacted with regular North Koreans. What did you guys shoot the shit about?
I'm in China at the moment, and I'd love to make a trip to North Korea.
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