Saturday, October 24, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #520] Even hermits have lives

My favourite part of our trip to North Korea was the (limited) brush with normal life that we were allowed.  North Korea is called the Hermit Kingdom because it's so secretive and cut-off from the world, and consequently we know so little about life in the country, other than how it's portrayed in the media.  It's so silly, but I remember the first time I saw someone entering the stairs down to the subway in Pyongyang - it was so jarring, almost like a revelation.  You don't think about the North Koreans as people commuting to work, as having friends and families, doing the normal things in life within their own reality.  It was so odd to see someone just being.

As the days went on, our guides got to know us better and seemed to understand our respectful curiosity about their country, and they began to open up to us.  We got to know about husbands, sons, boyfriends, favourite Western books, which British pop band was best (Westlife), ambitions in life, hopes for travel; and we were increasingly peppered with questions about our lives, our pasts, our countries and their politics.  It was structured and in a controlled setting, but the sentiment was real.  Our guide acknowledged that Westerners like to visit North Korea because it is such a "unique" country, but we also got the sense that there's a desire in North Korea to be more engaged with the world, but also a desire to be respected.  Regardless of our views of the country and the personality cult around the Leaders, the affection is genuine and North Koreans, like most other nationalities, are a proud people.

Lottie commented towards the end of the trip that it's not very often you travel somewhere that makes you put up a mirror to your own country and reality.  There were many times in North Korea that I was reminded of America with its strident patriotism, chants of "USA!  USA!  USA!" and the unquestioning belief that America is the greatest country in the world.  Now I'm not saying America is North Korea, where you are never far away from the watchful eye of a soldier or policeman, as I got to grow up and hear competing viewpoints, travel around the world to see things for myself, and I never had to worry about being thrown into a gulag for speaking my mind.  But I think of how many people there don't question what they see around them or try to learn about the world outside their borders, even though they can, and it's a bit easier to understand the North Korean condition.

I've been back almost two weeks now, and though my mind is not spinning the way it was at the end of the trip, I couldn't honestly say that I've got a grip on North Korea.  I can say it was one of the best trips I've ever taken, life-changing, or at least life-questioning, on some levels.  I've often said that everyone should have to be a waiter for three months, because if they did, they would be a lot more respectful to anyone in a service position.  Similarly, I would love for everyone to visit North Korea.  There's something about going to a country that is so monolithically portrayed and seeing an unexpected reality that makes you go "Huh.  I wonder what else I've got wrong."  And I think the world would be a lot better of a place if people asked themselves that more often.

The morning rush hour on the highway near our hotel.

Flats in Pyongyang <3

More flats - these were built for the professors at a nearby university.

After getting back, I looked at Google maps and noticed that in our travels around Pyongyang we never encountered any neighbourhoods like this, which look suspiciously like the slums of Mumbai in satellite view.

Signs celebrating the 70th anniversary were all around the city.

Lottie and I with hotpots - we cooked!

Pyongyang's version of Ampelm√§nnchen, the "human traffic lights"

Pyongyang's got a leg up on TfL when it comes to tube stations.

But possibly not when it comes to breadth: our guide, Kim, shows us where we're going on the helpful interactive map.

I thought this was a great idea, giving people the newspaper to read while they wait.  Lottie pointed out that if the government want you to read the newspaper, it's a great way to get it out there.

Lottie and her fair hair were quite the head-turners in North Korea.  These two girls took a pause from sweeping the street (we saw lots of people sweeping streets) to look at her as she passed.

Two ladies in a park.

On Kim Il-sung Square.  I asked our guide what it was, and she told me it was a sign letting people know about the portraits available in the establishment it fronted.  I believe this is what we in the West would call an "advertisement".

Lottie taking in the view along the Taedong River.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~
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