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I just got back from North Korea and am now living in South Korea--AMA!

Oct 12th 2014 by ayofosho • 54 Questions • 375 Points

I went on a four day trip to the DPRK through a tour company and spent most of my time in Pyongyang. I visited during Liberation Day and saw some amazing and surreal things, including the DMZ, the Palace of the Sun (Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il's mausoleum), the Korean War Museum, and even got to drink some beers with locals. I'm now in South Korea for a couple months and most people are totally shocked when I say I just got back from the North. The big news here (as you can see in my proof below), is that Kim Jung Un is missing and there are plenty of rumors about what happened to him.

Here are links to two recent papers, one from Pyongyang, North Korea, and one from Seoul, South Korea: http://imgur.com/WRDIz0O http://imgur.com/Pl8lp3R

EDIT: Heading off to bed, as it's 5am in Seoul right now. Thank you so much for all your questions, this was a really amazing experience for my first AMA! I'll definitely come back to answer any more questions if there are any!

Q:

Did you have any frightening moments while in North Korea?

A:

Yeah, I did actually. A member of our tour group was an artist and he took off his shoes and started dancing at the DMZ. It lasted about 20 seconds before the tour guides flocked over and started telling him to put his shoes back on. They questioned him aggressively about what it all meant and separated him from the group for a while. The Western tour guide that was with us had to intervene on his behalf and said it was merely a sign of "respect". It was really nerve-wracking for the rest of our group. A few days later, the same person took his shoe off and held it in front of a statue of Kim Il Sung and took a photo. The news was filming because it was Liberation Day, so our tour guides had a fucking fit. They made him delete the photos and I'm not sure how he was able to leave the country unscathed...


Q:

This artist is a moron. I'm glad you weren't hurt.

A:

Thanks, me too :)


Q:

What the fuck is with that guy and taking his shoes off?

A:

It might be helpful to have a little more info on the artist's dance. His idea was to mimic touchdown dances, (like Tewbowing, etc.) when he arrived at the DMZ. It's actually a pretty funny idea if you think about it, though TOTALLY ill-advised. Some of us on the trip knew he was going to do this, but we didn't know he was going to take his shoes off. Taking your shoes off before entering a sacred space, like your home, is a widely practiced custom in Korea. Perhaps it had something to do with that? I couldn't even begin to explain the shoe photo next to the monuments.


Q:

Did he really delete them all? I don't know if this is the same guy who posted photos in the internet. He showed us one with a guy bathing in the river.

A:

I know for a fact he deleted all the photos. Except for one with his watch next to Kim Jong Il's face. Can you link to the photos you mentioned?


Q:

Sorry. My bad. The photos were published 2 years ago. I just saw them few days ago. By the way, whenever I see something from North Korea, I always think it is gloomy and eerily quiet. How do you see this country after visiting them?

How do North Koreans humor or entertain themselves? And is there a funny moment with them? Sorry LOL

A:

I'd still like to see them if you can share!

Yeah, I have so many photos of public areas where there is just no one around. It is totally eerie. I just posted a weird photo of my tour group dancing in a crowd of people at the park, so there's one that isn't totally gloomy. This is also a great example of North Koreans entertaining themselves!

EDIT: oops sorry just took a look at the photos. It's funny, they are suppose to be the photos that North Korea didn't want you to see, but I took a lot of the same photos.


Q:

And you were able to get out without hassle?

What is your first impression of the North Koreans? Are they loud? Aloof?

A:

Yeah, we had a lot of freedom with our photography. No one even checked my camera on the way out of the country. I think they are starting to relax a lot with the restrictions on photography. One of a few things that has changed for tourists in the DPRK.

Everyone I met in North Korea initially stared at us, but then were incredibly gracious and willing to interact with us.


Q:

Did the locals have anything to say about the status of KJU?

A:

When I was there he was still considered to be in good health and in power. I did ask our tour guide where he might be while we were in the country and he avoided my question for a while. Finally he said, "no one knows where he is or where he lives." And that was that.


Q:

Ho Chi Minh is in a same condition in Hanoi, but I didn't find that to be particularly creepy. It's an interesting experience visiting him actually, I recommend it.

I'll hijack this question with one of my own: I have a four day trip booked to visit DPRK over Christmas this year. Is there any advice you can give me that I won't be given by the tour company? (YPT).

I have a tradition of getting a small tattoo in each new country I visit. I am 99.9% sure this won't be possible in Pyongyang, but I would settle for commissioning an artist to draw up a simple design and to have that inked elsewhere. Can you comment on whether you expect either of those will be possible? I know you were accompanied everywhere, but were you able to visit random parts of the city for purposes like this?

Also, were you able to make international phone calls at any point? I'll be fine if not, but it would be nice to call my family on Christmas morning :)

A:

Wow, what an awesome idea! My instincts say that you will not be able to pull this off, buuuut I've been told that you can ask your guides for special things like this, so I would recommend asking at least. I've been told it's even illegal to get a tattoo in South Korea, but I can't confirm...

Yes, you can make international calls from the hotel! It's something like 5 euros a minute. Have a wonderful trip--I'm so excited for you!


Q:

I can't exactly put into words exactly why this response was so chilling, but it's left me with goosebumps and I'm quite certain that I'll never go to NK.

Is there any cannabis consumption in NK? What is the art like?

A:

Sorry to creep you out so much!

Much like in South Korea, the consumption of drugs is a huge, punishable offense in the DPRK. So no cannabis consumption. (I heard a rumor about some weird food or chemical they people are getting high from--can anyone chime in here?).

All the art I saw was traditional calligraphy-style painting or ceramics. It was pretty generic and I think most artists are state-appointed. If anyone is making contemporary art I did not get to see any of it.


Q:

Actually, there's no law against marijuana consumption in NK!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/marijuana-in-north-korea_n_4067341.html

A:

Oh wow! Maybe they meant other illicit drugs. Thanks for the clarification :)


Q:

Do you think that abundance of food was just in the touristy areas? For political purposes?

A:

We talked about this a lot in my tour group. All our meals were pre-planned at were held at tourist restaurants or at the hotel, so it was entirely possible for them to make these meals as opulent as possible. And we were always served too much food at these meals. Some of us felt guilty because we know that much of the country has to deal with rationing. I think a lot of what we experienced was a show for political purposes, not just the food. It was hard to tell what was part of the charade and what wasn't though.


Q:

That reminds me of this Vice documentary.

A:

If I had to be totally honest, it was this documentary that sealed the deal for me. I've always wanted to visit the DPRK, but it wasn't until I watched this doc that I realized it was totally doable. So, thanks Vice?


Q:

That's awesome. Now I'm compelled to take a trip just to see what it's like with my own eyes.

A:

One thing I would suggest before you make the decision is to consider where your money is going when you purchase the trip. It's something that came up in a couple threads on this AMA, actually. Ultimately, your money is added to the coffers of a supremely brutal regime. I wish I gave this more thought before I made my decision, but ultimately, I think I've made peace with my decision. If you do decide to go I think it will be totally fascinating and I hope you enjoy it!


Q:

Not sure if you're still answering questions but

Were there any Korean people with US/Canadian citizenship that were also a part of the tour? Or I suppose, South Korean people in general (though I think one of the questions you replied to stated that South Korea is the only country that can't enter the DPRK with a visa?).

I'd imagine the DPRK would refuse citizen/tourist entry for any South Korean... though I have absolutely no idea.

A:

Still here! No Korean people on my trip, but it really would have been interesting to get their perspective. Yep, South Koreans can't visit the DPRK.


Q:

How was the food in north korea like?

A:

It was pretty mediocre, though there was lots of it. We had some good Korean BBQ one night, and I even got to try dog soup. Here's a semi-offensive photo of me eating dog soup: http://imgur.com/oUKUJWq


Q:

Did not expect to see doge. :(

A:

Sorry, should have posted a NSFD :(


Q:

What kind of beer did you drink there? Do they have breweries in NK?

A:

We actually went to a brewery! The funny thing is the beer didn't have a name it was just "light," "regular," and "dark." The dark was pretty good actually. It reminded me of Guinness. We were told that the men in the DPRK get a ration of free beer every month, I'll try to find out how much it is. The brewery was really fun because it was one of the few times we got to hang with the locals.


Q:

1.Is there any way to differentiate people of north from south just by looks? 2.Why did you do the trip? Thank you .

A:

Other than dress, I couldn't discern a difference. The thing is, I only interacted with privileged people who live in Pyongyang. I am told that people who live in the countryside are much thinner and shorter due to malnutrition. My pat answer for why I wanted to go is because I can't time travel, so visiting North Korea was one of my few chances to take a step back in time. Also, I just find the culture so fascinating. The cult of personality around the Kim family is unlike any other government on the planet right now. Thank you!


Q:

You might want to try Cuba too. I want to.

A:

Yes, forgot that one! I was looking through a friend's photos from Cuba and I noticed some superficial similarities between the two countries actually. Namely the concrete buildings and their washed out paint jobs, and the old cars.


Q:

And the propaganda. Saw a lot of it when I was in Cuba too.

A:

Yes, that too, duhh :)


Q:

Are any alcoholic beverages allowed there? What do NK people do to have fun?

A:

There was sooooo much alcohol comsumption. We drank beer and soju every single night. Many of us on the tour felt like it was used to sort of normalize the situation, like if we had a good time at the bar we would remember the trip as a really fun experience. When we visited the brewery we were surprised to see that both women and men were getting drunk together.


Q:

soju

Soju doesn't fuck around.

A:

No, no it does not.


Q:

This may seem a little odd, but I'm curious if the NK'ers at the bar were allowed to socialize. As in, would it be possible for someone to fool around with a girl or guy from NK?

A:

Not odd at all, we had the same question. I didn't see any PDA among the North Korean citizens whatsoever. I did, however, see a Westerner get really drunk and start to put his hands all over a North Korean woman at a karaoke bar. She seemed to be interested in his attention, but maybe she was just putting up with it. Someone told me that same night that it would be highly punishable if she slept with the man. I have no idea how that would have happened, though; we were constantly being watched by the chaperones.


Q:

Was there something you weren't expecting to see on the tour (ignoring the DMZ incident you mentioned) that you did?

Bonus question: did you notice any air traffic in the tourist areas?

A:

I forgot to mention that I was really surprised to see people using cell phones and tablets. There is no wifi though, so I think they were just glorified digital cameras...


Q:

Were they looking for a bribe of some sort? The same deal happened to me going into Vietnam. They claimed that my ears looked different, but that magically changed when I slipped them a five.

A:

What! That is nuts. No I don't think so, there wasn't really any chance for me to offer a bribe, they barely even talked to me.


Q:

Did you get to see, hear, smell anything cannabis related?

A:

None whatsoever! I didn't know that it was legal there until I started this AMA. Whoops.


Q:

What do you believe has happened to Kim Jong Un?

A:

Well, this is pure speculation on my part but I think he's been deposed. I think this because some top officials have been meeting with Japan and China, and a few made a surprise visit to the Incheon Asian Games a week ago. Some news outlets here in South Korea have the same suspicions.


Q:

Is it true that people in North Korea worship there leader? Also is there really a statue that you have to bow to?

A:

It is the truest truth of all truths. I saw people weeping at the mausoleum. We were asked to bow several times at several monuments and were even encouraged to buy flowers for them.


Q:

I have another question. What kind of military presence was there in the DPRK, if any?

A:

Actually much less of a presence than I expected. There were only four guards standing on the actual border, and about five soldiers traveling with our group (one per tour bus).


Q:

Did you see any stationed around town?

A:

Good question. Outside of the DMZ they were a constant presence. If I had to generalize I would say we saw about five or six soldiers every two blocks.


Q:

If you could, would you choose to go back again? Why?

A:

I would want to go back in about 20 years to see how it has changed. I assume that by then they will have opened up its borders and things will have changed for the better. I wouldn't go back before then. The trip was really restricted due to the organized tour format. I don't think I would see anything new the 2nd time around.


Q:

On what are you basing your assumption regarding the opening of N. Korea?

A:

Good question. I wish I had some solid evidence of this, but it's really just a feeling I have. I saw people using cell phones and tablets in North Korea. I am constantly talking to people in South Korea who have high hopes for reunification. North Korean officials have been having meetings with China and Japan recently, and a few came to the closing ceremony of the Asian Games a week ago. Small things, I know.


Q:

It would be nice. They've had high hopes for years though...my FIL would love to see the brothers he was separated from.

A:

That's true, too. I've also spoken to people who are extremely skeptical. Please give your FIL my good wishes; I know that it was a real privilege for me to have visited the country when so many people would give so much to see their relatives there. If you haven't heard it already, there was a great podcast about a Korean woman and her father going to visit family in the DPRK. I believe it was on Snap Judgement.


Q:

Which Korea is best Korea?

A:

The Korea that discovered the world's last remaining unicorn lair


Q:

Are you the one who provoked the "artillery shelling" the other day?

A:

haha, not that I know of!


Q:

How are your living conditions now, compared to your living conditions in the North?

A:

So we stayed in this crazy hotel that was just for foreigners. It was situated on an island and we weren't allowed to leave without chaperones. Honestly, it was awesome. There was a sauna, a pool hall, a bowling alley, a karaoke bar, and tons of restaurants. And as I mention in other comments we were given an abundance of food. So my quality of life was excellent in North Korea, though I know that it was not at all representative of how DPRK citizens actually live. Here in South Korea I live in a major city, so the quality of life is excellent, too. The big difference is that I can have a cell phone and the internet here. And for most people that is make or break.


Q:

were there other tourists at this hotel and restaurants you visited? Or was it just your group?

A:

Yes, there were a lot of other tourists with us. Usually, we would run into the same four or five groups because the itineraries were pretty similar. There were also some other visitors supposedly volunteering at a children's summer camp on the coast. I would have loved to talked to them about their experience.


Q:

I'm guessing that the government of NK tries to make the country look better than it is when there are tourists around..

A:

Yes, this definitely was the case. There were a lot of times when the tour guides would say, "this is the tallest building in the world," or, "this is the biggest water park in the world," and it was blatantly false. I have seen much taller buildings and much bigger water parks in my home town alone. That being said, I do think our guides had extreme pride in their country and were genuinely proud to show us how "modern" and "rich in resources" North Korea is.


Q:

Did people come up to you and ask what it was like abroad? And if so, what questions did you recieve and how did you answer them?

A:

One of my tour guides found out that I am a music producer and she asked me, in all seriousness, if I wrote the theme song to Titanic. It was so ludicrous but I thiiiink the reasoning is something like this: North Korea only has one legal outlet for music and that is the government. They put out state-approved propaganda every so often. So maybe she thought my government also only has one outlet for music and I was it?


Q:

Haha thats insane. Also,

  • what movies do people watch there, and how does censorship work when/if they screen western movies?

  • Did you speak Korean with people or were you with a translator?

  • Please say you told that lady that you were in fact Celine Dion?

A:

So it turns out that a lot of students see clips from Disney movies to learn English. One of our tour guides even asked me about a confusing saying that the Genie uses in Aladdin (I am WRACKING MY BRAIN trying to remember which one). Otherwise a lot of the movies available were written and directed by Kim Jong Il.

Most of our interactions with people were translated by our guides. There were a few people who could say a few things in English.

I really fucked up by not telling that lady that I am Celine Dion.


Q:

I saw a TV special with Diane Sawyer a few years ago where she went into a children's classroom and asked them if they have seen any American movies. They said no. She then asked what movies they have seen and they said Toy Story and Shrek and all that. Really flippin' weird.

A:

Holy cow, that IS weird. Well, all the people I spoke to knew that the Disney movies came from the U.S.


Q:

I remember there's a 3G internet carrier. Are you allowed to use?

A:

None of us were able to connect, unfortunately :(

However, the hotel offered international calls for about 5 euro a minute...


Q:

How was the food?

A:

I answer this question above :)


Q:

If you could change one thing about North Korea, what would it be?

A:

I wish they weren't governed by a brutal dictatorship :(


Q:

What rules did the North Korean government impose on you during your stay?

A:

Most rules were in effort to control North Korea's image outside its borders: No photos of people working, no photos of the military, no photos of checkpoints, do not mimic the leaders in photos with their statues, no photos of people without their permission, do not leave religious materials in the hotel or in public, do not fold or tear images of the leaders.


Q:

What is/was the most positive aspect of your trip to North Korea? I know that the country is messed up and all, but there must be some good and positive things about it.

A:

Good question, it's something I've been trying to answer for myself. Of course getting to meet people is a sure-fire way to humanize a people that is so sensationalized in the media. But I think talking about their culture is a more interesting answer to your question. Since there is no free market, there is literally zero advertising (save for one Italian car company, but I never saw their ads). That was something I have never witnessed in my entire life.


Q:

Is there TV there?

A:

Yep, we saw a lot of TV, though it seems that everything that broadcasts is state controlled. We watched the news which mainly consisted of footage of Kim Jong Un touring factories. We also watched a channel that played the same music video (a woman in military regalia singing a ballad about the "dear leader") over and over again. I was surprised to find that I could watch the BBC in my hotel, however.


Q:

That's kind of sad, that some citizens might not even know what's going on in the world. Do they know about ISIS and the Ebola virus? Is it on the news?

A:

I read one of the newspapers on display in the subway (it was in Hangul), and I was surprised to find reports on both of these things. My guess is that there's no real limit on negative news from other parts of the world because it only bolsters the DPRK's reputation among their people.


Q:

Do you think it would be safe for an American? Did you get the impression that the "regular" people you met really actually believe everything, or are they just pretending so they don't end up dead? Do they know how bad they have it or are they blissfully ignorant?

A:

It was a safe trip in the sense that it's unlike a typical metropolitan area. You will never get pick-pocketed, mugged, or scammed. I am an American and I felt totally at ease. You just have to use your head and don't do anything against the rules. It was actually much more relaxed than I expected.

I can't really say if people really believe everything, it was so hard to tell. I did see women sobbing in front of Kim Jong Il's embalmed body and that seemed really fucking real.

To be fair, the only people I met were living in Pyongyang which means they were incredibly privileged. They probably have a good sense of what the rest of the world is like, especially now that so much information is getting in illegally.


Q:

I guess you speak Korean then, if you're living in South Korea now?

What differences are there between language in the North and the South?

How much English is spoken, both by powerful people in Pyongyang, and the average person - the locals at the brewery for example?

Is there anything you wanted to see on the tour but didn't? Where else did you go, apart from Pyongyang itself?

Thanks for doing the AMA!

A:

Thanks for asking a question! I actually speak and read very little Korean so I couldn't notice a difference between the two. I will say that North Koreans had this crazy cadence when they spoke with us in Korean. It's hard to explain, but it was like really formal orating, like a proud general addressing his troops. Sorry that is a bad analogy...

Most people could not speak English in Pyongyang, but we had some translators with us. People at the beer hall knew enough English to sort of joke around with us, but it was very, very limited.

I really wanted to see mass dancing or a military parade, which is why I went during Liberation Day. Unfortunately for me, they are no longer doing the Mass Games...

We went south about two hours to see the DMZ (the border with South Korea), where we also saw a smaller city. The city was pretty similar to Pyongyang in terms of modernity, etc.


Q:

they are no longer doing the Mass Games...

you mean they're finished for this year? or you mean they have permanently stopped this annual event because it's too expensive/whatever?

A:

I was told that they're cancelled indefinitely


Q:

Was it difficult crawling under the DMZ fence at night to escape North Korea?

A:

There IS no fence at the DMZ


Q:

so it was easy you're saying

A:

super


Q:

Is it really as bad as people say? The death camps and everything? Do people suffer as much as media portrays they do? Thanks for this AMA btw.

A:

Thanks for asking a question!

The thing is I was shown a very small percentage of the country, and I know that the experiences I had do not reflect what the majority of North Koreans experience on a day-to-day basis. I know only from reading the news that there are labor camps and other horrific things going on in the country. The evidence seems to be overwhelming, however. As an American, I was not allowed to enter the country by train, but another tourist told me he saw a little boy get on the train who looked like he was starving. Apparently, the little boy started eating food off the ground. I don't know if this is representative of the entire countryside, but it exists for at least one little boy and that is really, really sad.