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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.

Those with a passing interest in North Korea no doubt have their own expectations on what it would like to visit. These assumptions often include surveillance, political indoctrination and streets filled with actors choreographing scenes of normality. They’re partly right; travel is restricted in North Korea, and two guides escort the group at all times. However, against a backdrop of anti-American propaganda murals and shrines to the leadership, daily life goes on in the DPRK in spite of the difficulties.

Being a tour guide is a highly desired job. Attaining it depends on language proficiency, which is of a very impressive standard considering many tour guides have never left the DPRK. The guides are usually aged in their 20s, professional, personable and fun. They dress smartly and always wear a badge of the leader. The women carry Western handbags and love singing. My Heart Will Go On is a clear favourite, with the men being more My Way inclined.

Foreigners are naturally an object of fascination for the shy but curious North Koreans. Mothers encourage their children to say hello to visitors in English, and the Pyongyang marathon, which tourists can now participate in, allows amateur runners to take off from the 50,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium alongside Koreans and run freely throughout the capital, with locals coming out to cheer and high-five runners from the track’s sidelines. There are also moments when the interest in foreigners can become a little overwhelming, with the change rooms of the pools at Mansu Water Park being a case in point.

Witnessing long lines of collective work groups pruning sidewalk gardens by hand gives a sense of North Korea belonging to a different time, rather than a different place. Yet there are also glimpses of a new affluent generation wearing Western clothing, singing karaoke in restaurants or texting on their smartphones before catching recently imported Chinese taxis around streets more vibrant than one expects.

There are a variety of tours on offer, including bird-watching and marathon tours. While tours are bound to authorised sites, contact with locals does occur, and spontaneous street football games with teenagers, which gather large, curious and friendly crowds, are not uncommon. Picnicking locals invite tourists to drink with them, and during a road trip to Mt Chilbo last summer our group was invited to dance on the beach with a bunch of elderly women in paper mache pig masks.

The lasting impression for tourists is the interaction with the local guides, who have become personal friends of mine. They are first to acknowledge the uniqueness of the DPRK. If tourists wish to discuss nuclear weapons, leaders and other “sensitive topics”, guides are trained in rote answers. For example, when asked on the prospects of a unified Korea, the guides refer to the DPRK’s proposal of a federal structure of two systems within one country. When asked of the famine of the 1990s, or “arduous march”, guides will remark at the tragic timing of how drought and flooding came within a few years of the Soviet market collapse, which isolated the economy significantly.

However, if you avoid politics, guides will openly discuss social aspects of life in the DPRK, such as relationships, the pressure applied by parents for them to marry and how asking of a potential mate’s blood type is a vital question on a first date.

Catching a glimpse through apartment windows of the evening, all living rooms are adorned with identical portraits of the leaders. For North Koreans, politics is indeed a major part of life. It is impossible to truly empathise with a citizenry raised collectively by a single political entity. After visiting the DPRK several times over the past year, it remains mysterious and I have more questions than answers. However, witnessing a human face of the DPRK does help gain insight into daily life beyond the headlines.


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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 w@nkery 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).

  10. AR

    re Mammon worshipping – the purity won’t last long once control is loosened.
    Remember when the Wall came down, “they came, they saw, they did a LOT of shopping”

  11. David Sanderson

    Pretty annoying to see this anodyne stuff published. Just because you did not see horrors around every corner does not entitle you to present North Korea as a normal society that just happens to be different from ours.

    The North Korean state is a monstrosity and any attempt to normalise it is shamelessly ignorant and naive.

  12. james scullin

    Hey David, thanks for your comment. I feel when talking about the North Korean state it’s important to distinguish between the regime and society. I think the west predominantly views North Korean people as belligerent anti-American drones and I just wanted to convey that there is more to the citizens’ lives beyond political ideology and it is more complex than seeing the entire state, and everything that falls under it (I.e. Normal people) as ‘monstrous’.

  13. David Sanderson

    In 1938 naive foreigners could, and did, visit N*zi Germany and came away telling the world how friendly and hospitable the German people are. The locals liked to play football, they said, they love to picnic in the forest and elderly women might even invite you to dance! The Hitl*r Youth are charming and so well-behaved compared to the brats back at home. And on it went. North Korean society is even more deeply and thoroughly warped by its totalitarian dictatorship than was N*zi Germany and your vapid notes about normality are as discreditable as those spouted back in 1938.
    There is no claim made by a credible figure that North Koreans always behave like choreographed automatons – that is a straw man. However, your brushing away, in the same sentence, of the extraordinary levels of surveillance and indoctrination that permeate North Korean life ignore the well-established facts. The North Korean people and society are deeply damaged by the paranoid, racist assumptions that underlie its ideology. Is that their fault? Maybe not but in the end they will have to be the ones who end it.

    To begin to understand this I suggest you to start to read. “The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters” by BR Myers would be a good place to start.

  14. stephen lawrence

    James why is asking about blood type important on a first date?

  15. Chris Hartwell

    Stephen, a number of Asian cultures view blood type compatibility as a necessary component of a successful relationship. Almost akin to shared interests or shared views on children.

  16. james scullin

    Hi Stephen. North Koreans take a lot of pride in their racial purity and I believe it flows over to discussing blood types in the hope of procreating the perfect child.

    David, I have read Myers and am well versed on relevant DPRK scholars such as Lankov Demick and Martin. I don’t intend to substitute the way people perceive the DPRK with my look at daily life. The story of the DPRK is undoubtedly a tragic one. I’ve tried to add to this narrative with a glimpse of daily life from my experiences, albeit as a foreigner being led on an authorised tour.

    I think the images of North Koreans portrayed in the west is predominantly stock footage of them bayonetting American dummies or grieving over the loss of a leader. I know North Koreans on a personal level and I don’t believe these images are anything close to encapsulating what is a very complex citizenry. Naturally, we’re both entitled to our opinions and there are different schools of thought on a number of DPRK related issues such as tourism, business and engagement/isolation.

  17. David Sanderson

    I accept that you have read these books however there is little sign of that in your article as none of them would be so unwise as to extrapolate from anecdotal data as you have done.

    There may be an ignorant section of the Western public who’s knowledge of North Korea resembles the stereotype you present. But, so what? That kind of ignorance is widespread about many countries and subjects.

    My objection is to your attempt to normalise North Korean society on the basis that North Koreans do not usually behave like choreographed automatons. Examples of normal behaviour occur in all societies but are meaningless as a gauge of pathology and dysfunction.


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