05:28 GMT +321 September 2018
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    Pivot to Asia

    What is North Korea Actually Like?

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    John Harrison
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    Very few westerners have had the opportunity to travel to North Korea, so we really do not really know what the country is like. What is it like now? An Australian scholar who has recently visited the country talks about what is going on there.

    Jay Tharappel, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Sydney joins the programme.

    The 9-day-trip that Jay undertook to N. Korea was nothing to do with his university program, and was privately financed. Jay talks in the first person, as the program is a collection of personal experiences rather than an academic analysis. The first topic that Jay speaks about is arriving in the country. On the customs clearance procedure, Jays says: “They are very thorough, on the plane they give you three pieces of paper to fill out and they ask you to list all of your major belongings, and the amount of hard currency you are bringing into the country. And you write down how much you have left when you leave. This gives them a good idea of how much hard currency enters the country as they don’t have ATMs, and they do check your baggage.”

    Most people see N. Korea as being a militarised state. Jay confirms this: “it’s one of the most militarise states on earth, they have a standing army of over 1.1 million. On a personal level, I was challenged to round of push ups with our guide, who served in the army. I managed I think 30, which I guess is acceptable. He reached 60, which is pretty good for a 42 year old…”

    We know very little about ‘ordinary’ Korean people, and host John Harrison asks what they are like. “Many people think that visitors are barred from speaking to ordinary people. That’s not a hard rule, if you know Korean it is very easy to interact with foreigners, based on the close proximity of the two Koreas. The trouble is, without knowledge of the language, all my interactions either required a translator, however N. Koreans do interact with you if they think you are interesting, I guess. …I definitely did not find N. Koreans to be shy or timid. Actually quite the opposite, you get the impression that they do not have a slavish attitude towards foreigners, in the sense that when you travel to low income countries, you find an entire division of labour dedicated to serving primarily foreigners. And there are entire regions that depend on tourist dollars to stay afloat. …Compared to that kind of norm which we are unfortunately used to in the rest of the world, N. Koreans strike you as people who are very self-confident, very proud, and they keep their heads up. …We went out without our guide for three nights, …it is different from what you hear. They usually say it is so regimented that that sort of thing wouldn’t happen, but that was the level of freedom afforded to us I guess.”

    Another popular stereotype about N. Korea is that people are hungry. Jay comments: “If I was to answer that question and say that I didn’t see any poverty; I would be called a madman spreading propaganda, which I more or less already have done in Australia. …We got to see a fair bit of Pyongyang, and we also made long trips through the countryside. The country appears to give its people a pretty dignified standard of living, relative to their income level. N. Korea has a similar income level to India, but what is different about PRK is that according to their system, people who work in physically strenuous industries get higher pay, and people involved in ‘arduous’ trades are entitled to shorter working hours. We wanted to know what the gap is between the richest and the poorest in N. Korea. Obviously you’ll never get a full picture in 9 days, however we talked to some farmers who remembered the arduous past that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Their house was small, it had a low ceiling, they sat on the floor, I could see that to a westerner who has been influenced by the standard image of N. Korea, the house looked like an example of terrible poverty, but to me it reminded me of my mother’s house in India, as it was in the 1990s. It would look poor by western standards, but the real question is: what the broader social safety net provides. …I got the impression that N. Korea is trying to strike a balance between an egalitarian safety net and meritocratic incentives… The elite consisted of school teachers, scientists, engineers, people whose ingenuity played a role in providing the brain power for the State’s drive towards economic self-sufficiency.”

    Jay talks about other popular western perceptions about N. Korea such as the prison population, which is supposed to consist of a large number of political prisoners.  He also gives his opinion on the 30,000 dissidents which are supposed to have resettled in South Korea, and hints that there may have been some financial incentives arranged for this, with the goal of painting a negative image of N. Korea.

    Jay talks about the attention that N. Korea is paying to children, to education and culture, and illustrates his views with descriptions of visits to schools, sports facilities and public spaces. “We sat down to ask questions to the headmaster of a school for orphans. He talked to us about how Kim Jong-un himself instructed them that orphans should not feel that they have been discarded, and there is the hope that the orphanages will foster people who go on to become doctors and engineers. When you compare how N. Korea deals with these every real social problems as compared to the rest of the Third World, you develop an appreciation for what they have achieved for their people. Pyongyang is one of the most beautiful capital cities that I have ever seen, one of the reasons that I liked it, was because there was no advertising constantly beaming down at you telling you that you are inadequate and you need to buy more things.  …I’ve never seen such a concentration of high density housing as I saw in N. Korea. Housing is distributed on an administrative basis, it’s not a commercial arrangement. If you need a bigger apartment because your family has grown, then you can apply for one, and the State will endeavour to make the transfer happen.” Jay says he saw a lot of amazing shows put on by children, sporting activities and other events. “The question was, of course, was it all a show, to fool me into thinking about their country positively? Visitors these days see a lot of different places, and speak to a lot of different people both in the cities and the countryside. So how many top-notch facilities would they have to build to pull off the illusion? That becomes an important question, one that raises scepticism in the west.” 

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    Tags:
    Koreans, people, education, culture, Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK)
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