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IamA american who spent the fall teaching Computer Science in Pyongyang, North korea. AMA!

Jan 3rd 2014 by ttocslliw • 58 Questions • 2185 Points

My short bio: I am a Computer Science Graduate student studying networking and distributed systems at the University of Washington. This fall, I took a quarter off to teach at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. I taught two classes: Operating Systems to the CS seniors, and Databases to the CS juniors.

It was a really interesting experience to live in the DPRK, and one that very few americans have. We interacted somewhat regularly with the diplomatic community in Pyongyang, because they are essentially the only other other long-term english speaking residents there.

The university I taught at is unique in the country in a lot of ways: Instruction is in english, and mainly from foreign professors. There were 50-60 professors there this fall, with maybe 20 of them Caucasians (like me). The majority of professors were Korean-American.

The university's website is down at the moment (normally http://pust.kr), but some information is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Yo31Zokl9Q https://yustpust.org/

We got a lot of time to interact with the students, which was awesome, and also did a fair amount of tourism. I'm happy to talk more about the (admittedly fairly privileged slice) of life that I saw in pyongyang!

My Proof: Instagram: http://instagram.com/ttocslliw Twitter:https://twitter.com/willscott Links will be posted from both shortly linking to this ama.

Edit: woah, so many questions! I'm trying to get through them but it's going to take a while. There are a lot of posts accusing me of being a traitor / aiding the enemy. For me, teaching undergrad CS feels like a humanitarian aid similar to providing food maybe, where it's something they desperately need for a functioning economy in the modern world. That combined with the chance to add some humanity of what americans are to the students who will one day be reasonably powerful seemed like a net positive to be. Both for the US, and for the eventual state of North Korea.

Edit 2: Thanks for the response! I'm going to go to bed pretty soon. Apologies if I don't get to your question

Q:

Could you talk about the supreme leader with anyone? Is their stereotypical love for him as displayed in the western media real? Do you think better or worse of North Korea after having been there? Thanks!

essentially: to what extent is the stereotypical image of north korea realistic?

A:

People live normal lives for the most part, maybe 5-10% is the stereotype?

Like, before meals the students would march to the cafeteria while singing patriotic songs. That's the stereotype that you'll see in the media, but then they eat meals and chat normally, and play basketball, and go to class, and none of those things are the stereotype.

The leader is certainly loved and revered.


Q:

And were the koreans as excited to have the opportunity to be around a westerner as you undoubtedly have been being around koreans? is the cultural curiosity mutual? Thanks for your answer!

A:

Yes. Many of the students were at the university more for the chance to get to interact with foreigners than for the specific major they were in. You could tell sometimes when they would get really excited to sit with you at meal times, or when they got really excited about things like soccer or other sports.


Q:

but I understand it was impossible or not allowed to actually discus politics, possible famines outside of pyongyang and other troubles in daily life, (perceived) military aggression/provocation on either side, or other sensitive topics?

Thanks for keeping answering questions!

A:

Military stuff did get talked about some, as did some other topics. Food distribution was not something that I really talked about, maybe it came up more for the agriculture students, though.

For instance, in the spring the understand was that they were at war with the US, there were cars driving around with netting to prevent detection from satellites, and the media reported that there was a US intrusion into the country that the army repelled. The students would ask the professors why they were still there when their countries were actively at war.


Q:

Did you / were you allowed to correct them?

A:

Yeah. but unclear how much they believed us :)


Q:

interesting. We know US and north korea actually weren't at war, because that is what other governments told us... So were people you interacted with ever unfriendly / hostile because of your nationality? were you considered "the enemy" ever (by students or by "normal people")?

A:

Yeah. Saying you were american was a good conversation ender :) This was largely in the context of interacting with waitresses or other service people who would assume you were probably european.


Q:

Did you accidentally say "Just Google it" and then realise...

A:

Yeah! a lot of CS education really breaks down without access to the internet. A lot of the debugging process and figuring things out and being self sufficient boils down to googling and finding stuff online. it made a lot of the assignments ending up feeling like I was spelling everything out and still having to answer a bunch of questions.


Q:

This really made me reflect. I'm a third-year CS/Physics major in the US. I've had 3 programming-centered jobs, and informally taught several groups of students various CS topics. Heck, I'm even working on writing a guide to LaTeX and Mathematica. I can't begin to imagine how I would survive without Google and StackOverflow - and I know what I'm doing most of the time. All the little intricacies of weird APIs, or differences between versions of a language. I'd probably have to spend 50% more time without internet to accomplish things.

Do you have an indication of how CS topics get applied post-graduation there? As in, what a workplace based on coding looks like? I presume it's mostly for the government? After they leave the environment where you can spell out what they need to know, are there any obvious effects on productivity, efficiency (of the code) or creativity?

Really interesting AMA!

A:

The general impression is that once they're working they do get internet. You do see a lot of copying / plagiarism / whatever you want to call it. Lots of things are pretty clearly adapted from existing software by someone with just enough grasp to make minor language changes.


Q:

How were you treated, and how many English speakers were you interacting with daily?

A:

The students all spoke english - actually quite well, and instruction was in english.

Everyone on campus spoke enough english to make myself understood, but off campus it was pretty much non-existant. Some tour guides might, but in general it wasn't wide spread.


Q:

What was the scariest thing to happen to you while there?

A:

One event, one generally lingering fear:

When we went to the coast a couple of us walked back up the road to take pictures of the main dam (this thing: http://www.koryogroup.com/pictures/galleryImages/around/lg/Nampo-West-sea-barrage.jpg) and got yelled at by some policemen and told to delete the pictures. Basically, that's the sort of situation where you could get in to trouble, and you just don't have a good sense of how serious it is. Luckily it was minor.

The lingering fear was worrying if any of my internet actions were going to draw the ire of someone looking at them. I'm a networking student so I was poking around to see how stuff was connected and was always on edge that it was going to get me in trouble.


Q:

How restricted were you from leaving the 'nice' areas of NK? Thanks for the AMA!

A:

We could basically only go to places that are approved for foreigners / tourists. Those are basically the same places.

The two trips I took out of pyongyang were to Nampo and myoyang mountain. Nampo is on the coast south of the city, where a big 'west sea barrage' blocks the delta for the taedong river. Myoyang mountain is north, and is where a big museum of gifts to the leaders is, along with hiking and a big cave group.

So, we weren't in any of the super poor provinces of the country, but you end up getting a reasonable sense of what life is probably like in Pyongyang at least by living there for a few months.


Q:

Did you leave a gift for our glorious leader?

A:

We went to the main statues in the city a couple times, and the group left a flower basket as was customary, but I personally did not leave a gift :)


Q:

You have been banned from /r/pyongyang.

A:

That was appropriate. If the group visits, the group leaves a gift. The statues area is too crowded during the holidays for each individual to leave gifts.


Q:

Why did you decide to teach there, of all places?

Not judging, but it sounds like a weird choice.

A:

It felt like a place I had no understanding of at all. What I had heard of the country from the media it sounded like a box with just Kim Jong Il / Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman in it. I guess I wanted to convince myself that it was another country where people lived and wasn't that different from anywhere else.

From a computer networks perspective, it's interesting because it's one of a few places that has it's own national internet that nobody knows anything about. it was really interesting to talk with the students about what design choices were made for that network.


Q:

So how did your family/friends/SO react when you told them that?

A:

Maybe 3 different reactions:

  • That sounds like an awesome adventure!
  • Are you sure you're going to be safe? Are you going to be allowed to leave?
  • Oh, korea, cool.

Q:

As someone who's about to take his CCNA cert...what's the deal with NK's network? Anything odd or standoutish about it?

A:

They've got an air-gapped internal network with their own DNS system and web pages.


Q:

Interesting! How did you learn about the position, and what was the hiring process like?

A:

I knew that the university wanted at least masters qualifications to work there, so after I passed that point in my graduate program I got in touch with the CS department chair. We met for an interview while he was in the states, and then I emailed paperwork to him.

One of the really weird parts of the process is that until you get to the airport in beijing for your flight you don't know if your visa has been approved and if you're actually going to get in.


Q:

The first part sounds so...rational. It's easy to forget that not everyone in NK is a total ideologue.

A:

The department chair / dean is also american, although many of the DPRK counterparts and administrators were also rational - just rational within the system they found themselves in.

Essentially it's become a very risk averse culture, because if you do something that gets noticed too much, you could end up being the one who gets in trouble.


Q:

What was the craziest thing you saw while you were there?

A:

The first thing that comes to mind is that when I was leaving at 6am after a snow storm there were tons of people out in the streets shoveling snow and sweeping the street. Seemed really weird since it was still snowing.

Lots of snakes in alcohol bottles. Lots of random traffic stops and social structure that felt controlling.

The children's palace is pretty depressing. It's a building for developing talent in students, but it ends up feeling like a showcase of the kids who spend their lives performing one trick every week and not getting time to actually grow up - like just repeating the same show over and over again for foreigners.


Q:

Did you feel most people were happy living there? Or did they seem scared or depressed?

A:

This is a question that I've been getting on instragram as well: http://instagram.com/p/h68v9TLMuN/

I mean, it's a hard thing to answer in the general sense, but I think people conform happiness to whatever situation they're in.


Q:

Seemed really weird since it was still snowing.

Not much experience with snow? If it is going to snow a foot and you shovel every 2-3in, you only have to shovel up 2-3in instead of a foot.

A:

I guess so. There was a lot of time spent doing maintenance that seemed more a way to take up peoples time than actually valuable to the appearance of the place.


Q:

Did people clean the streets, or were there plows from the city/government?

A:

People. By hand.


Q:

Wow, here have some gold!

A:

Thanks!

Edit: wait... :)


Q:

I've seen some documentaries where the North Korean people have a very strong antipathy towards American people. So it is always interesting to see Korea allowing their "enemies" into their country. Did you feel this among any of the students or the other instructors?

A:

Yeah, that's true. At the same time, it's pretty hard to resist the offer of essentially free education.

The students had mostly gotten that cognitive dissonance settled by placing their hate towards the government, and saying they were okay with us individually. Some of them admitted to having nightmares when they first came trying to get to terms with that point though.

In the rest of the country americans are definitely more hated. We got told that the reason we couldn't do some things, like leave by train, was because they were worried about our safety.


Q:

Have you ever encountered a situation or heard of one where someone you knew "went to the mountains"? AKA the prison camps, and how much, if ever, are they spoken about by North Koreans?

A:

Nope. Not talked about.

The execution of the uncle was in the news and got talked about, though.


Q:

Could you elaborate on what that news was like in NK vs the US?

A:

There are 3 TV stations, Newspaper, and Radio as primary means of media distribution.

Newspapers got delivered to the campus every morning, and were at the reception desk, and the students when they were free would stop by and you would see huddles of them reading the news.

Radio didn't get used much on campus as far as I could tell, but seemed more used elsewhere in the country. You'd hear it sometimes in the car, or in shops.

There's the famous TV host, and she's there. I didn't watch much of the TV, but the general schedule seems pretty straight forwards. Saturday evenings a western movie often gets played, dubbed to korean. Sunday evenings there's a foreign section, where individual segments taken from other countries news media are played. They learn about foreign affairs largely from this - the selection ranges from almost immediate on items that are good news to up to a 6 month delay on things that are neutral or negative. Things like the economic issues in Greece took a long time to hit the news here (only this fall) while the satellite reaching the edge of the solar system got reported the same week. The rest ends up being a combination of rebroadcasts of sports games, some Chinese dramas, and local news segments.


Q:

By "western movie" do you mean a Hollywood movie?

A:

Yeah, pixar, disney, etc.


Q:

I can't imagine experiencing the huge contrasts between North Korean and American culture. What was the most shocking/strange aspect of their country?

A:

I think part of it was that the way you deal with requests is totally different. There was an aversion to saying no, so I would request things and wouldn't get told no, but they would just not happen and if you asked about it there would be some temporary excuse, but you'd get told it would still happen - when really for whatever reason your request wasn't going to happen.

It was really frustrating for me to not be able to get a straight answer and know if, for instance, I would be able to go out to dinner on a specific evening.

The other thing was that there was a lot of status given to age. I'd helped arrange a trip to the railroad museum, and that morning the guides told us that the trip was canceled because the museum was closed. After me trying to work with them for a bit to figure out what to do, one of the older korean american professors showed up and asked about it, and then suddenly the museum became open again after the guides made some calls.


Q:

one of the older korean american professors showed up and asked about it, and then suddenly the museum became open again

This is really interesting.

A:

That was one of the more frustrating experiences (which I think says something about how totally livable the experience was)

Because I didn't have status: young, american. The guides weren't going to put in the effort to call the museum for me. When someone with more status asked, they were willing to arrange the trip. It was just that they needed to go, and would have preferred to stay on campus.


Q:

I think part of it was that the way you deal with requests is totally different. There was an aversion to saying no, so I would request things and wouldn't get told no, but they would just not happen and if you asked about it there would be some temporary excuse, but you'd get told it would still happen - when really for whatever reason your request wasn't going to happen.

This is very similar to Japan. Nothing is ever a flat "no" - they have the word, but it's not used much. Excuses and evasions are far more common.

A:

I hear it's not dissimilar from South Korea either. One of the other professors who has spent time there said that the culture was pretty similar in that regard, and that there's a class of problem that you just ignore until the lsat moment and then switch to making excuses for.


Q:

Did you meet supreme leader? What was your salary like?

A:

We were not important enough to meet the leader, although there are pictures of him visiting the campus when it was first constructed.


Q:

What kind of salary did you make? Thanks for the first response!

A:

Posted elsewhere, but it was a volunteer position. No pay, but free room & food. All you can eat Kim Chi!


Q:

I have several questions:

  • Did you have 'handlers' like visitors on organized trips?
  • Were there people ensuring you didn't talk to students about things they weren't supposed to know about, like perhaps the internet or technological advances that north koreans don't have access to as a result of being cut off from the rest of the world?
  • Are you worried about your students being forced by the DPRK to use things they learned from you for the creation of weapons or tools for maintaining control of the citizens of North Korea?
A:

'handlers': We called them 'guides', but yeah, the campus had a pool of representatives from the ministry of education. Foreigners in our group had to be accompanied by one of those guides when we were off campus.

monitoring: No, not really. I mean the internet and technical information was all fair game and stuff the students were interested in. The stuff we said did get reported though, so if you start talking about how great the US is or trying to argue with their government policies, that would probably get reported by the students to the administration and someone would talk to you to and tell you to tone it down.

co-opting: I think the use of linux and mysql are a bit far away from that. I mean, software will certainly be used by the government but it would anyway. I'm more interested in whether the country will be able to make more contacts internationally, and if the guys who control the telecommunications infrastructure already have had contact internationally and know that we're decent people, that seems like a good place to be in.


Q:

In photos I see of Pyongyang (mostly @dguttenfelder), one of the things I notice the most is how clean and relatively empty it seems. I especially notice very little car or pedestrian traffic. What was the atmosphere of the city like? Was it unnerving? Or just a relatively quiet city?

A:

There's been a ton of new cars in the city in the last year.

Everyone is responsible for keeping the public areas in front of their home / work clean, and a lot of time gets spent on that. Whenever you drive through the city you'll see people cleaning the public areas - they like to dig up stretches of grass, sift the dirt, set it on fire to kill any weeds growing in it, and then re-plant it. That activity seems to take up a huge amount of time in the summers.

The city felt like a city for the most part. The construction was very 'soviet' for the most part, and the streets were super wide for the amount of cars. Lots of public areas (parks, playgrounds) which is hard to complain about.


Q:

Did you hook up with any ladies over there?

Edit: or dudes if that's what you're into

A:

Nope :-/

It's illegal for North Korean Citizens to marry foreigners.

My students were all male, so I didn't get much chance to interact socially with any north korean women my age.


Q:

Was this because it was an all male program or was that just random that it was all male students?

A:

The current program is all-male. The university is working on opening a nursing school that will have women, but it hasn't happened yet.


Q:

Is it uncommon for people to have pre-marriage sex over there? Just because the way you worded that heavily suggested it...and if it's not, is it illegal to have sex with a foreigner? I'm curious because they seem REALLY strict with sex over there....since, you know, the whole "PORN IS DEATH" thing.

A:

premarital sex didn't seem entirely uncommon - there was a grad. student who when asked what he was going to do over the break said he was going to have lots of sex.

Relations with foreigners seemed to be discouraged / a way to get in trouble though.

Edit: also lots of them were really socially awkward and asking us how to show girls they liked them and the like.


Q:

Socially awkward computer programmers? Only on North Korea!

A:

But they're all in good shape at least! You've never seen a CS class that likes playing soccer more than that one :)


Q:

Any idea how they are about 'teh gayz"?

A:

There are students who are probably gay, although they're not allowed to say it. I believe I heard that the official stance is that there is not homosexuality in the country.


Q:

Did the US Government know that you were there? Did you have any trouble getting back across the boarder when you returned?

A:

I registered with the safe travelers program on state.gov :) They sent emails a couple times saying they weren't responsible for my safety. I also met the swedish ambassador who's responsible for my safety edit: the guy who would get to see me if i got sent to jail (Sweden is the US protectorate in the DPRK) a couple times. No problem or interview at the border.


Q:

what kind of computer they have in NK?? i mean old computers (win98!) new computers (win7/8),macs, NASA computers :D

A:

Our university had a bunch of Dell core-duos. Mostly running WinXP - there was one newer one with win7 on it.

The graduate students had laptops that dual booted windows xp and Red Star, the DPRK's proprietary redhat-linux-based OS.


Q:

Did you check out the north Korean tablet? Thoughts?

A:

Yeah, I have one :)

The built-in analog TV is kind-of cool, although locked to the specific frequencies in the country. I figured out how to get it into recovery mode and download the disk image. I want to modify some of the APKs so that they're self contained and able to run on other devices and get them posted online, they're really cool in a weird sort of way.


Q:

post it on reddit

A:

I'll let you know when I get there - the APKs that come on the tablet are in a really rigid format where all the data is on a '/sdcard2' partition separate from the APK. It should be possible to get that moved to somewhere that is general to more devices.


Q:

Were they (or you) able to access the North Korean Internet? Could you access global internet?

A:

The two (intranet and internet) are airgapped. Since my university had access to the global internet (for professors and graduate students) we did not have access to the intranet.

The intranet as I understand it is at Kim Il Sung University, Kim Chaek University, a couple other technical universities, some companies, and many of the government agencies.


Q:

Is the Internet filtered, and to what extent do you think Internet activity is monitored?

Are you aware of any instances where a student was thoroughly indoctrinated in the regime's message, and access to the Internet has changed their opinion?

What do the students really think of the West, etc?

A:

Internet is not filtered, because access is controlled at the physical rather than technical level.

That being said, at our university we had a squid HTTP proxy between us and the internet connection that kept a log of everything visited (and generally breaks mobile device which don't generally expect an HTTP proxy)

Our undergraduate students do not have access to the internet. The graduate students who had a much better grasp on the outside world, although that's a generalization and there was certainly crossover.

Much of the west is okay, the hatred is very directed - it's specifically at the US and Japan. Canada, UK, Europe, those are all fine. They also know about the companies, and don't seem to harbor any particular grudge against Google / Microsoft / Apple / etc. They support Snowden :)


Q:

Do you have any examples of the crossover?

From what I understand in reading defector stories, people know to an extent, even if they can't express it. I'm just wondering how deep this indoctrination really is on an individual level. I do understand you're working with the creme de la creme of NK society, so you have to at least pretend to hate those American bastards and the whole lot.

Oh, and have citizens of Pyongyang started to embrace the Western foods like burgers and pizza?

A:

There is a fast food restaurant with burgers, and an italian joint-venture restaurant that has reasonable bulgogi pizza :)

Both seem to get a reasonable amount of traffics with the locals, as well as us foreigners.

There's also a pub that's pretty good (and the beer in general!)


Q:

Did you go to that pub with the microbrew near the Workers Party Monument? I had beer #2 which was quite good.

A:

Beer #6 is the best. All the times we went they only had beers #1,2,5,6. The other three are less popular and generally not available :)


Q:

I heard a rumor that in Red Star, whenever one of the leader's names is displayed, it will make the name appear slightly larger than the text around it. Can you verify that?

A:

There are certainly places where you see that. It's implemented in javascript on several websites. I don't think it's in the OS of red star, though.


Q:

proprietary redhat

That's like, two levels of proprietary.

A:

There's a chinese distribution called 'red flag linux', and the DPRK version is modeled off of that.


Q:

How good was the computer literacy of the students you were teaching? Did they know more or less than an American student?

A:

It varied quite a bit between students. The guys who really liked CS and did it in their spare time would compare reasonably with CS students anywhere.

There were many who had ended up in CS and weren't particularly interested, and did just enough to get by. Their knowledge probably wouldn't have stacked up very well against a normal CS student.

When they came into the university a lot of them seemed to be most familiar with visual basic, which I took to be a bad sign about their previous exposure to computers :)


Q:

Do these people comprehend their situation being trapped in a dictatorship country? Or has it been completely hidden from them? Do they know how much better life could be elsewhere?

A:

There's nationalism there, like everywhere. I don't know if it's been fully hidden, people know about the rest of the world, but there is certainly not the feeling that life is worse in Pyongyang than in the rest of the world. That being said, for the relatively privileged citizenry of pyongyang, well - you could do worse.


Q:

How much were you allowed to access outside DPRK? Ie. to talk to those at home etc.? How does the DPRK differ in reality to the way it is portrayed in the western media?

A:

The professors and graduate students at the university had access to the internet, which was unfiltered but monitored.

It was somewhat slow, but generally workable. The main issue was that it felt like power was only on about 2/3rds of the time, and there was no internet when the power was off :)


Q:

wow! that's so awesome! How much did the authoritarian regime encroach on to day-to-day life?

A:

I guess the top-level bit is that people in Pyongyang have relatively decent lives, probably not much worse than a 2nd teir city in China. I have much less insight about life out of that city.

Everyone is really fairly rational as long as you stay away from politics / government / foreign policy (will, and medicine, since i'm not really a fan of traditional medicine)

Our group could not leave campus with a 'guide'. There were a pool of them who stayed on campus and managed our group, and we could make requests to arrange travel off campus.


Q:

What was the eating situation like? Was the food distributed by the government? Did you eat at the school cafeteria?

A:

Oh, and I forgot - the students got beer distributed to their dorms a couple times a month because it was part of their ration that they didn't get in the cafeteria


Q:

That's it you've sold me! I'm going to North Korea for grad school!

A:

Kim Il Sung university offers a summer program in Chosunmal - the North Korean dialect of korean :)


Q:

How was this funded through the University of Washington with the strict financial sanctions placed on the dprk by the United States?

A:

I was on leave from the university and went with my own money - although it was not a huge expense for me.


Q:

If you don't mind, how much was the flight, and where did you stop? Did you fly into the country, or land in China and drive across the border?

A:

Flew from beijing. Flight varies ~$275-$350, which is overpriced. Train is about $30, if you're allowed to take it. Left via vladivostok and Russia, by plane for a similar price.


Q:

This is a great AMA.

  1. While you weren't able to meet many 'ordinary' people outside of Pyongyang, did the students you taught travel outside of the capital city and see what life was like for the less privileged? Did they have a real understanding of difficulties of their less fortunate compatriots? Did they ever comment on the state of rural NK?

  2. While I can understand it not being said in open conversation, did any of your students privately confide in you their disillusionment with the NK state, or express a desire to escape?

Thanks.

A:
  1. A reasonable number of the students were from other cities than Pyongyang. I think they did understand a lot of the difficulty, but it's not the image they're supposed to give of the country, so we generally avoided the topic so they wouldn't have to lie.

  2. Nobody expressed desire to escape, certainly. There were plenty who wanted to study abroad.


Q:

How similar was your experience to that of what has been shown through Vice's media outlets? Namely, the Vice Guide to North Korea??

A:

The vice guide is extremely sensationalized.

I hear this is a good book about life in pyongyang by a british guy who lived there for a while: http://www.amazon.com/Comrades-Strangers-Behind-Closed-Doors/dp/0470869763