Firstly, if you haven’t seen my other North Korea blogs yet- do have a read. This list is just some of the things I observed whilst I was in the country and not the whole story. I by no means support the harsh regime in North Korea but I have my reasons for visiting in 2015- you can read about that here.
This blog is not meant to trivialize the problems North Korea has. I just wanted to relay some things I noticed as a visitor to this elusive country. Most, but not all, of these observations are from Pyongyang – which is the ‘elite’ city. The everyday life of many North Koreans is very much hidden from tourists.
All the time. Everywhere. We visited in winter so the blackouts are pretty regular during this season. A lot of the generators use the flow of rivers to create power and the rivers were freezing over where it was so cold. This resulted in regular power cuts even in Pyongyang- the capital city.
2. Women take great care in their appearance
Almost all of the women I saw- apart from those doing manual labour work- were dressed very nicely with make up and hair always neatly done. This was especially evident in Pyongyang. It was extremely icy most of the days I was there but the women would still be wearing their heels and smart shoes that were completely inappropriate for the snowy conditions.
3. Everyone dresses the same
Men especially. I noticed that the guys must only have about 4 different coat designs to choose from- most were either dark green or black with a furry collar or hood. Shoes for men were usually black, fairly smart but also practical looking. Women seemed to have more choice in terms of colour but I did not see a single guy wearing a bright colour. Amongst the women I would see an occaisonal bright pink or orange coat but almost all of the styles were the same.
There is very little room for self expression through everyday clothing in North Korea since they only have a few different styles to choose from. They cannot buy clothes online of course, there’s no internet access for starters, so everything they buy would be from the shops in the cities and towns. When we walked around the department store in Pyongyang we could saw evidence of this lack of choice. No doubt they restrict what kind of clothing can be worn and sold in the country. This is the least of their problems though and probably not even an issue for most since they have grown up with it always being this way. I think it is just another sign of how the governement controls every aspect of their lives…even down to the clothes they wear.
4. No adverts
Such a unique and strange thing about North Korea is that there is NO advertising anywhere. Every city I’ve been to has billboards up for big brands and perhaps posters at bus/train stations. In fact, when you think about how much advertising there is everywhere you go in cities like London, Hong Kong, New York etc. it’s crazy ! But in North Korea there are only propaganda posters or murals dedicated to the leaders. There are no adverts for products on the TV either. It’s actually quite nice to get away from advertising for a while and not have products being sold to you every two seconds ! But instead I was being sold the North Korean ideaology- ”Look how brilliant our leaders are”, ”Look how the working people of this country make us strong” and ”Look how impressive our weapons are”. Having no advertising is another way of ensuring the local people only see what the government wants them to see. It is also meant to boost the belief that the country is great and powerful – how many truly believe this is unclear. I took a picture of this bus stop in Pyongyang where instead of a poster for the latest mobile phone it’s an image of missile launchers used to shoot down planes.
5. The shops all look the same
There aren’t really any shopfronts, merchandising or window displays. Most stores and restaurants will have some Korean writing above the door but it didn’t seem like there was much variation in the font or style. Nowhere seemed to have a logo or branding. You couldn’t always tell what a shop sold until you went inside.
6. Well dressed traffic wardens
There were male traffic wardens too but majority of the ones I saw were female. They had these great blue coats with fur collars and cuffs with a thick black waist belt and knee high black boots. The men wore similar coats which I didn’t think looked quite as good on them! I have read articles online that claim Kim Jong Un chooses these traffic wardens for their beauty (because beauty if what you need when directing traffic!). But I don’t know if it’s true. All of the traffic wardens I saw were certainly very pretty though. The photo below is from the Young Pioneer Tours Instagram page as I couldn’t get a photo myself.
7. There aren’t many cars
Considering Pyongyang has a population of around 3 million there are not huge amounts of cars on the road. Most people travel by public transport or push bike. The cars are for the ‘elite of the elite’ and we saw fewer and fewer as we got out of the city.
8. Everyone can sing
..and they LOVE karaoke. People are taught to sing from a young age and singing karaoke is a popular form of entertainment but they take it much more seriously than we do in the UK. I think singing is an example of something that they do genuinely enjoy and it’s not all for show (although they obviously do hope we are impressed by their talent). It was no suprise that many of the songs were about the leaders and how great they are. Whilst watching the propaganda channel one evening we even saw the army singing in what looked like a huge choir! Both of our tour guides could sing really well too and we were treated to a performance from both of them (basically every hotel and restaurant had a microphone and/or karaoke machine). However, everyone sings in the same style- there are no rock bands or anything like that but a girl band called Moranbong are a little different as they throw in a bit of bass and electric guitar (watch a video of them here). You can also check out a short video I took of two of the restaurant staff in Pyongyang singing some Karaoke for us:
9. Nobody knows how old Kim Jong Un is
They have not officially released Kim Jong Un’s birthday so none of the North Korean people know how old he is. I was surprised by this since they know all of this information about the two previous leaders and often base celebrations and monuments around their birthdays. This is what Wikipedia says in regards to Kim Jong Un’s birth date:
8 January 1982 (North Korean records) , 8 January 1983 (South Korean records), 8 January 1984 (American records) and 5 July 1984 (Swiss records)
*UPDATE Aug 2017* I’ve found a few articles from January 2017 that claim there were birthday celebrations for Kim Jong Un this year so perhaps it has now made made public. Although what age he really is we still don’t know for a fact.
10. Triplets are considered a sign of prosperity
As I’ve already mentioned in my blog about my visit to Wonsan Orphanage– triplets get “special” treatment in North Korea as Kim Il Sung once said that they are a sign of good prosperity. When the mother is pregnant with triplets she gets extra care in a designated triplets room in the hospital. Once they’re born gifts are given to the parents- a ring for girls and a silver dagger for boys. The state helps care for the children (I’ve read that it’s til they are about 11 years old). It all seemed a little odd to me though – the triplets we met at the orphanage did have parents but it didn’t seem like they were able to visit very often. Is the ”special” treatment only for the elite few? Quite possibly. Something about it did not sit right.
11. Almost all of the men smoke
But it is frowned upon for a woman to smoke.
12. They do know some western music
How much western music a person knows may depend on what they studied at university. Those that have taken music courses will know a bit more than others. Judging my those we spoke to on the subject some popular western artists/songs are:
The Beatles: Hey Jude (probably the favourite from those we spoke to. Our guide loved it so much she listened to it on loop on my iPod for about an hour)
Frank Sinatra: My Way
Michael Jackson: it was unclear exactly which songs were most popular but people had heard of him. Our tour guide said his music was ‘too loud’ for her taste. So she can’t have heard many of his songs!
Abba: I Have a Dream, Dancing Queen
Those we got to speak to about music were of course the Pyongyang ‘elites’ – so they just represent a fraction of the population. But I do think that foriegn music would have reached many around the country by now. Although they may not know much, fewer and fewer North Koreans are oblivious to the outside world. There is more prohibited material circulating around now especially because many have mobile phones and smart phones (they are unable to access the internet) but this does mean files can be shared.
13. There’s no internet but the Study House has its own intranet
There are some dated computers in the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang which has an intranet so people can search for information/books within the library.
14. They LOVE Kimchi
Kimchi is a hugely popular dish in North Korea (and South Korea too since it is an old Korean dish). This fact might be obvious to some, people have been eating Kimchi for thousands of years, but before my trip I knew very little about Korean cuisine. There are Korean restaurants in London but it is not as popular as our Chinese restaurants (which is actually a mix of various Asian foods and not officially Chinese!). If you were to ask people in the UK what Kimchi is, quite a lot of people would have no idea. So I am including it in this list to give those people a quick Kimchi lesson! It’s usually served as a side dish with a meal. There are different varieties but the most popular is made from fermented cabbage. We had it with every meal – it’s not that bad but I found it a little too spicy. I was a pretty sick of it by the end of the trip since it came with every single meal. For more detail on how Kimchi is made see here.
15. Pyongyang only has apartments- no houses
Some apartment buildings look plush and new but most of them look a little run down. People are given an unfurnished apartment for free by the government. What is unclear to me is who gets the good apartments and who gets the bad ones ? There definitely has to be a social hierarchy that determines who gets which. All of the professors at the university have a separate apartment block just for them and there’s also a newly built area that’s full of apartments for scientists.
16. The countryside and mountainous areas are so beautiful
I think some people may forget that North Korea has some great scenery and mountains as its not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the country. It was really beautiful, especially in the snow. My photos don’t really do it justice. It is sad that the countries problems overshadow it’s beauty because if things were different this would be a lovely spot for hiking and nature holidays. We were only in this area for a day to visit the Buddhist temple (which is definitely NOT in use by Buddhists now).
17. Kim Jong Il Has a Portrait of Himself Riding a Tiger
Whilst in Pyongyang we visited a gift exhibition where hundreds of gifts given to the leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il were put on display. It was such a bizarre collection of things. All of it another way of putting the leaders on a pedestal above everyone else and making out they were respected enough by other international leaders to recieve such gifts. There were plenty of sculptures made from precious stones and gold as well as some random stuff like a TV and some golf clubs. But the best thing on display was a two sided portrait painting given to Kim Jong Il that depicted him in shiny armour riding a tiger on one side and stood in front of the tiger, unbuttoning his military uniform whilst smoking a cigarette on the other. Sadly, I couldn’t take photos inside the museum but after searching on Google I found that somebody had managed to obtain an image of one side of the portrait. So here it is..
18. Anti USA propaganda is everywhere
Our guide would sometimes refer to America as the ‘US imperialists’ or ‘the enemy’ and there was always a tone of hate when talking about America’s role during the Korean War. I also have to remember that our guide is going to say what the government wants her to say. In many ways you can understand why there would be some bad feelings- many would have lost family during that war. But does this hatred of the USA actually run deep amongst the people of North Korea? It is hard to say. I’m sure all most people want is no more war and a good, peaceful relationship with the US.
I do think the amount of anti US propaganda everywhere must brainwash some . For the record, I am not trying to say the USA is totally innocent either. There are even violent cartoons in the schools (see here) making it seem like a good thing when violence is used against an American.
I hope that one day there can be peace between the two countries but right now it seems a long way off.
You could also have a read of my other posts on North Korea: