North Koreans are human beings. Contrary to popular mythology, they are not brainwashed or deceived “robots” in blind service or fear to their government. These stereotypes are based on strong misunderstandings of the country’s history, society, politics and of course culture. Although they are shy of foreigners, like all Koreans, nevertheless locals are increasingly curious about the outside world. During your visit North Korea, it is possible to build a meaningful relationship with your guides and other locals you encounter. Thus, there are ways to break the ice and make these people more comfortable with you and trust you more, which massively improves your experience. Most of this, as will be shown below, revolves around treating them in the mindset of Korean culture, rather than in the hyperbole imagery of the “regime”.
1. Bring Gifts
Korean culture is about gift giving, in both North and South. Korean people express courtesy and respect to the people they meet and befriend through giving them gifts. When my girlfriend came from South Korea to meet my family, she bought everyone gifts, because that is what Korean formality requires. Therefore in North Korea, it is strongly recommended you have gifts for your guides and if you wish, others. Such gifts do not have to be lavish or ridiculously expensive. As emphasized in our travel guide, some cigarettes for men and chocolates for women will suffice. This goes a long way in how the course of your tour will progress.
2. Learn some Korean
My experiences in North Korea have taught me that when you use Korean, locals warm up to you quite quickly. It comes across as a pleasant surprise to them, one which they appreciate. One time, when the guard boarded the train, I greeted him with “An-yeong-ha-se-yo” (hello) and he immediately stuck his hand out to shake mine. On another occasion, a guard on a train sat down to chat with me after I spoke to him in some Korean, he was very interested in learning about my life and despite the intimidating imagery of North Korean soldiers, he came across quite softly because of that. Similarly, this really helped me with my guides too. They were really impressed that I could read Hangeul and brought me into their conversation with the guide at the war museum. Korean helps, learn some! Express gratitude by saying “Com-sah-ni-da” (thank you) and do it as frequently as possible. Any ability to read and understand the propaganda signs or slogans will also impress locals.
3. Bowing and handshakes
Although Koreans don’t do it as frequently as the Japanese do, a light bow represents a symbol of respect, gratitude or apology expressed to seniors. When in North Korea your guides technically are “your seniors” because you are their foreign guests. Thus, bowing is best done on occasions where you express thanks to your guide or others. You should do this to your guides whilst saying the Korean above. It will leave a very good impression. For men, make sure you softly shake hands as well, but do not do it tightly.
4. Brush up on your basic knowledge
Along with the above, seek to understand and come with a general knowledge of North Korea and Korea as simply Korea. Make sure you know the very basic things such as “Kim Chi“, “Han Bok“, (Cho-Bok in the North) but also brush up on all the terminologies that will be used around you such as “Son-gun“, “Ju-che“, “Mount Paektu” “Su-ryong“, “Worker’s Party” etc. Whilst nobody is asking you to support the regime, try to conceptualise North Korea on its own terms, concepts and understandings. As you do this, your personal understanding and experience of the country will be radically enhanced. Understanding a culture and country on its terms will allow you to relate to the people better, and you will learn more in the process.
The result? An enhanced experience
Throughout my time in North Korea, I’ve been lucky to connect with the locals in ways others haven’t. With shows of gratitude, interest, respect, use of Korean and courtesy to the locals, I got to glimpse at North Korean life beyond the “regime” itself. I was able to connect with people, as people. It shattered the crude stereotypes that “everything is fake” and “everything is propaganda”. I’ve talked about some surprising things with North Koreans. Thus, when we take a step backwards from allowing these western discourses from dictating how we think, we see North Korea isn’t quite how it is portrayed to be.