Jun 27, 2014

Songs, impromptu dancing and the Dear Leader: life inside North Korea

North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world, and Westerners sometimes envision a dystopia with armed soldiers in lockstep. But North Korea tour guide James Scullin says the reality is much different.

The first thing heard in the morning is the faint sound of music from outside, which wakes you at 7am. Outside the hotel window, operatic revolutionary anthems can be heard from megaphones along the streets throughout the city, rallying residents to wake up, clean their apartments and prepare for another day. So begins the day in Pyongyang, North Korea.

I first travelled to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in April 2013, then found myself a job as a tour guide there. Before each group travels to DPRK, I brief everyone at a pre-departure dinner at one of Beijing’s 11 North Korean restaurants, over a soundtrack of saxophone and bass guitar from the resident all-girl Korean band. I tell them of the need to be “respectful and diplomatic” regarding political topics such as Korean leaders and Korean war.

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18 thoughts on “Songs, impromptu dancing and the Dear Leader: life inside North Korea

  1. Suziekue

    I’m guessing the experience you have had in North Korea has been stage managed for the tourists. For a reality check, please refer to Michael Kirby’s article on The Drum, and the Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

  2. zut alors

    How unfortunate that, despite their tight cultural and political boundaries, the North Koreans have fallen victim to the Western [email protected] of the high five.

  3. james scullin

    Thanks for your comment Suziekue. I am well aware of the Kirby Commission and for obvious reasons tourists are kept far away from this. However, that is not to say that there is not a level of ‘normal / daily life’ that exists, especially in a large, privileged city like Pyongyang where the upper echelons of society require a permit to live there.

    Yes, the tours are taken to authorized zones but the notion that glimpses of everyday life of Koreans you come across relaxing in a park, buying their children a gift or catching a subway with friends are simply choreographed for the benefit of a small group of western tourists is far fetched. Admittedly, those in major cities are privileged compared to other regions of the country but that does not mean that seeing them live their lives is fraudulent

  4. Gavin Moodie

    Thanx for this most interesting account. Is religion important to the North Koreans you spoke to? Are religious places and symbols prominent?

  5. james scullin

    Hey Gavin. Well, most North Koreans claim to be agnostic but there are 3 churches in Pyongyang and religious freedom is proclaimed but I assume the set is quite involved in how they run. I would claim that the political ideology of juche acts as a brand of religion in the dprk context.

  6. james scullin

    Set = state

  7. AR

    James – nice snapshot. I would be interested in further dispatches from behind the kumshi bowl.

  8. james scullin

    Cheers AR!

  9. MJPC

    James, fascinating report, thank you. In some ways it is good to know that there is one country on this earth that hasn’t fallen prostrate to the god of mammon, and consumer culture (despite the high 5’s).

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