Many people believe that all interactions and social engagements with North Koreans are at best, superficial. Whilst undoubtedly the political context of the country does curb some of the opportunities for locals to engage with others, critics of travel to the country go further by arguing all interactions that do occur with foreigners are subject to strict approval and therefore, inherently superficial. Thus, so it is claimed, travel to North Korea offers no factual or empirical value in understanding the real life of the people themselves. Certainly there are some things to be mindful of, such as it being impossible to discuss certain topics, as well as perhaps the more privileged status of those within Pyongyang. Still through my long experience in travelling to North Korea, I cannot agree with these conclusions. I have had some incredible experiences with locals, ones that people would normally assume were not possible. This leads to my series what I am now introducing, “Tales from Pyongyang”, which sets out my experiences of North Korea not through “tourist sites” such as statues, but through my encounters with the people themselves. I aim for this work to be insightful, informative and useful.
The first experience I want to share is one which is dear to me, which took place in April this year (2018). It is not set in North Korea itself, but in fact on the train back to Beijing. One particular night I was looking to find the restaurant cart of the k27 train. To do this, you have to wander through the carriages to the very middle. They are crowded with a small place to maneuver through. On the way, I passed a delegation of North Koreans travelling to Beijing. Naturally as North Koreans, they were apprehensive at first on seeing me go by. But with one of the men standing in the way, I had apologized to them in Korean by saying “Mianhaeyo“. Upon hearing this term, they sprung to life. Suddenly they were not distant or oblivious, but interested and curious. They were surprised and laughed, repeating the word amongst themselves in a humorous way. Rather than just letting me proceed onwards, a man who was notably the oldest amongst them invited me to sit and chat.
Herein began basic Conversation. They were very interested in me and with limited Korean, as well as Chinese, I began to chat about various things with them. He said they were on an academic delegation to a Beijing University and were also bringing some ballet dancers with them. However, owing to the context of sanctions and North Korean openness in general, I am not sure how legitimate that story was, as it is the norm for locals to give limited disclosure about things even to each other. This was made a bit suspect as a Chinese businessman was also present with them, who joined in the conversation.
There are a lot of things discussed, it was lighthearted and liked to have a laugh. Obviously it still couldn’t be too controversial, but this did not mean we didn’t come to close to what might have otherwise been “red lines” for the DPRK. I was able to tell them about my life, that I am dating a South Korean woman and I was able to show them photos, as well as my various travels around the world and life back home. I also shown them some items from South Korea, which they had never seen before. In exchange, the leader of the group let me see his DPRK passport, an incredibly rare item. Although I cannot repeat his name, he lived in South Pyong’an province, which is the rural area just north of Pyongyang itself. He was 52 years old.
What really touched me however, was that the group then generously shared with me snacks and drinks. This included a dried shrimp snack, a dried fish, tangerines and soft drinks that they actually bought me. Given what we know about life in North Korea, the gratitude I felt in receiving these offerings was unbelievable. The feeling was moving. We can say the group was somewhat privileged compared to others, but they were by no means prosperous. Some of the men amongst them still looked very thin.
The exchange continued well until after 10pm, in which point it was the expectation of the train staff for everyone to go to sleep. As a result, the doors were locked between the carriages, leaving me stranded from my stuff. Recognizing this, one of the North Korean men offered me a spare bunk. Although luckily, the train staff had since opened the doors to move through and helped me get back. It was sad nonetheless to have to leave them.
The next morning as the train pulled into railway station. I made my way back to say my goodbyes to the group. They were pleased to see me again. Whilst it was nonetheless obvious that I wouldn’t be able to communicate with them again, it was nevertheless an incredible experience. This was an open ended conversation and several hours spent with North Korean men without any serious supervision. When you experience things like this and get to know these people on a personal level, you are took away from the world of newspaper headlines which focus on depicting the country as a menacing pantomime villain and an adversary. You realize in many senses, there is much more to it than that. As a result, my views on dealing with the country differ enormously from the mainstream, but only through tangible and powerful encounters like this.
What the experience also teaches us is that an interest in Korean language and culture is a powerful tool to engage with North Koreans. The application of Korean turns locals from apprehension and weariness to warmness and curiousity very quickly. Throughout the meeting I also found an understanding of Korean cultural icons, tidbits and history was also influential in breaking the ice. It impresses them, because it is not what they have come to expect from foreigners.
Stay tuned on this blog for more stories from the DPRK in the coming days.