Notes on a Hermit Kingdom

I’d not yet settled into my Beijing hotel room before the push notifications began on news of the DPRK’s nuclear testing. Only hours earlier I had been aboard a train, crossing the Yalu River from the austere North Korean settlement of Sinuiju to the glitzy Chinese city of Dandong. The Yalu crossing concluded my week long stay in the DPRK, and meant my return to modernity and phone reception. The starkness of contrast between these two addresses, split by the Yalu, perfectly represents the isolation of the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’. Since visiting this mysterious nation, I can see the unfolding dismay of the international community over the DPRK’s nuclear program from a new perspective. While North Korea is under the brutal and heavy-handed control of a hereditary dictatorship, it is not entirely the maniacal state it’s often portrayed to be in western media. It’s when news stories like the nuclear testing arise that misrepresentations of the nation are propagated and North Korea is seen as an irrational state on the brink of self destruction. Though some misconceptions of North Korea are innocuous, such as the state imposing one approved haircut style, others can seriously cloud our understanding of international affairs. More importantly, if we too hastily dismiss North Korea as a land of lunacy, we risk missing important lessons about power structures in our own societies.


To understand the apparent paranoia of the DPRK one need only consult its history. The DPRK is nestled between the Republic of Korea to the south, and China and Russia to the north and historically it’s had a pretty raw deal. For almost forty years in the early twentieth century, the whole Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese. During this occupation, attempts were made to completely erase Korean culture and history. Following the end of the Second World War and liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese occupation, Korea was divided in two along the 38th parallel. The United States and Russia temporarily took control of the peninsula, the United States in the south and Russia in the north, however with the onset of the Cold War any hope for a unified Korea dwindled. Kim Il-Sung, a guerrilla soldier who fought against Japanese occupation and a founding member of the Korean Workers Party took control of North Korea with Soviet backing. Recognised nowadays as the Eternal and Supreme leader, he formed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and initiated the country’s descent into despotism and totalitarianism. With the backing of China and the Soviets Kim Il-Sung initiated conflict with a weakened South Korea, in the hope of unifying the peninsula by force. What followed is now known as the Korean War; to North Koreans, it is The Fatherland Liberation War.


To this day, Kim Il-Sung is revered for defending Korean independence against Japanese Imperialism and for his leadership through the Korean War, fending off American imperialism. Furthermore Kim Jong-Il, his son and subsequent leader, is honoured for his management of the country through the famine of the 1990s. Interestingly, there are no portraits of current leader, Kim Jong-Un, anywhere in North Korea. This is, I am told, because he is yet to prove himself worthy of such worship.


North Korea is perhaps the most culturally, technologically and socially isolated of countries. Access to the nation by journalists is nearly impossible, and when it does happen it’s very well controlled. There is some access to the country by the UN and foreign embassies, but these are largely limited to the capital city Pyongyang. Almost all truly unsavoury information about North Korea comes from testimonial accounts of defectors. Because of this shroud of secrecy, rumours and speculation about life in the DPRK abound. Having spent a week as a tourist in the hermit kingdom I found that many of the popular rumours about North Korean society are baseless. However, I did see evidence for the real problems effecting North Koreans. Afflictions such as abject poverty, absence of independent media, restrictions of speech, movement and association, human rights abuses, an absence of economic and civil liberties, and a flagrant squandering of national wealth and resources by those in power. These are by no means uniquely North Korean troubles and they unfortunately go underreported in western media. Instead we get sensational stories of the lunacy of Kim Jong-Un, or his brainwashed populace tend to take precedence. Perhaps there is a reason for avoiding reporting on the real problems of North Korea. If we focused too much on the afflictions affecting North Koreans, we might also be inclined to examine our own power structures and find similar elements of despotism, control, and poverty in our own societies. What a surprise that might be.



The best way to see North Korea is as a tourist. A condition of travel is that you be accompanied by at least two local North Korean guides. These guides are often thought of by outsiders as government spies or secret police. Some undercover journalists posing as tourists in the DPRK have even claimed to have been stalked by these local North Korean guides. In my case, a tour group of twenty people were accompanied by two local North Korean guides and one bus driver. Also with us was a Scottish staff member from a third party travel company, based in Beijing, who are responsible for all correspondence with authorities in the DPRK, including visa applications.

These local guides really were tour guides. They worked 16-hour days, regaled us with endless stories and facts about their homeland, organised our entry to venues, our lunches and dinners, and even joined us for drinks and karaoke at the end of the day. These guides have semblances of normal lives with families and holidays and aspirations beyond worship of any quasi-political figures. They are so ‘normal’, in fact, that on one occasion I joined my two Korean guides and Scottish tour leader for drinks in an otherwise empty bar in our hotel. Over the following hours we exchanged stories of our partners, our childhood memories, our education, our hobbies and even our domestic politics. At no stage were there dark shadows lurking around the corner, waiting for the moment our guides slipped up, to be sent to hard-labour camps for re-education. What I learnt from this was that North Koreans are, by and large, similar to any other of the world’s people. And apart from a strong devotion to their leadership, and ultra-nationalism, all the North Koreans I encountered were really nice and pleasant people. But of course, the next charge to be made against North Koreans by the outsider is that of staged tours.

Even in my tour group there were a few tourists cynical of the whole trip. Every monument, every destination, every streetscape and public gathering was, according to them, staged and carried out by actors. For the amount of North Korea we saw this would be simply impossible. At one stage we were left free to wander about Kim Il-Sung Square (the big one for all the military parades on television) and its surrounding streets. We were granted the freedom to generally wander in the vicinity of where our tour group was and much like any tour the only trouble arose if somebody went missing. Wandering near Kim Il-Sung Square I found myself standing on one of the main streets of Pyongyang as hundreds of locals went about their daily business, and not under direct supervision of our Korean guides. This is something thought unimaginable to most outsiders and it is something I’d never expected to do. I was, without a doubt, sharing a public space with real local North Koreans. On another occasion we took the Pyongyang metro during peak hour. Speculation that tourist visits to the Pyongyang metro are staged is so prevalent that our Korean guides joked ‘let’s go to the metro to meet some actors!’ Unfortunately the sarcasm was lost on our tour’s cynics and only went to reinforce their idea of the country as one big movie set.

On our trip to visit the Demilitarised Zone, dividing North and South Korea, we drove for at least 4 hours through the countryside on potholed roads that made rodeo events look like petting zoos. I saw poverty and austerity and the futility of rural live in the DPRK. Nobody drove motorised vehicles and everybody either walked or rode bicycles. Some lonesome individuals cycled across barren and frozen plains with no apparent origin or destination. In some spindly forested area I watched groups of men shovel snow into massive garbage bags; I’m not entirely why, but such is the futility of working life in the DPRK. To suppose that these hapless souls were planted along the highway as actors in an elaborate show is twaddle.

What I can say is that whilst North Korea and its guides only want tourists and journalists to see certain things, so does every other state. The Australian Government doesn’t allow journalists access to its offshore detention centres. No tour groups make a point of going to visit local rubbish dumps or prisons or rundown parts of town. Like any nation, North Korea just wants to show us their best. Unfortunately that meant endless visits to nationalistic monuments and far too many glorified depictions of war. Our Scottish tour leader did eventually get to our cynics by enquiring ‘what makes you think we’re so important that thousands of people’s daily lives would be interrupted just to impress us as tourists?’

Now despite there being many negative and far-fetched misconceptions of North Korea, and despite North Koreans being lovely people, their country and its ruling regime is repressive and totalitarian. All media is state owned. Only three television stations are available to locals, all state owned, and only one airs between Monday and Friday. There is no music scene in North Korea. Only state propaganda and folkloric tunes are ever heard. Public dissidents of the regime are interned in camps, be they labour, re-education or concentration. And there are no economic freedoms and very few social freedoms. Even for locals the freedom of movement between the 17 administrative districts of the DPRK requires permission, permits and specific reasons for travel.

These problems of freedom, poverty and oppression are by no means uniquely North Korean problems. Throughout the world oppressive regimes abound, the only difference is the illusion of openness and transparency. If the DPRK opened up its borders and economy enough to attract foreign companies and provide a new market for investment by multinationals, then I think the West would be inclined to overlook the problems of the DPRK.



What’s most interesting about the news of North Korea’s nuclear testing is the response of politicians and international media. The typical narrative casts Kim Jong-Un as a psychotic and irrational bad guy, hell bent on global calamity while the West and the UN are forever the good guys, maintaining global peace and stability through diplomacy and sanctions. The truth is probably somewhere in between.

From Kim Jong-Un’s perspective on the proliferation of nuclear weaponry is a rational measure. In an increasingly friendless world for North Korea, it makes sense to strengthen militarily. It is an effective way to ensure a continued stranglehold over his nation. Not only does the West not want to provoke a nuclear armed DPRK, the North Korean populace are consoled by their leader’s protection from the outside world.

While Kim Jong-Un can be assured of no real threat of foreign military aggression, his populace are rather less informed. To them the threat is very real. There are American Imperialists in the South ready to engage with the North at any given moment, and since the fall of the Soviet Union and opening up of China, North Koreans feel particularly vulnerable. A standard tactic of the wicked is to provide safety and hope for the broken and vulnerable.

It is fanciful to entertain the idea that Kim Jong-Un wants to use nuclear weapons for anything other than a display of strength and to bolster his domestic supremacy. There are no incentives for a nuclear North Korea to provoke conflict with the West. Kim Jong-Un might be despotic, but he isn’t stupid. Despite resembling a religious cult, the North Korean populace aren’t nihilistic either, and nor is their leadership. Kim Jong-Un is exactly where he wants to be and there is no reason for him to create international and domestic instability. Likewise, the West stands to gain nothing from provoking the DPRK to the point of armed conflict; not while they’re tinkering with nuclear weaponry, and especially as they have no valuable natural resource reserves and little strategic significance.

North Korea is a fascinating nation, full of charming and friendly people. Unfortunately it seldom makes news unless it involves some amusing story about the rambunctious happenings of its leader or its people. I think the most interesting lesson to be learnt from the DPRK is not how awful its current regime is, but rather how power structures function in our daily lives so we can guard ourselves against the ever-present threat of despotism and tyranny in today’s world.






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