Life in North Korea

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

Life in North Korea

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This is the website of travel writer, Michael Turtle. After working in broadcast journalism for a decade in Australia, Michael left Sydney to travel the world indefinitely and write about his discoveries.

Life in North Korea

Trying to find out what life is like in North Korea is a bit like trying to find out if the light turns off when you close the fridge door. You can never truly look inside and discover anything with certainty, but by talking with people and keeping your eyes open, you can start to get a basic sense of things.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

For citizens in the Pyongyang, life is certainly better than in the countryside. North Koreans need permission to live in the capital (there are roadblocks on the country’s streets that stop you moving around without permission) and the city is generally made up of people loyal to the party and those who have a higher position in society. At some special events we went to like a funfair and a FIFA soccer game, it wasn’t unusual to see people with mobile phones and digital cameras. But this certainly wasn’t a common sight on the streets, presumably because technology like that is too expensive for most people.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

On the streets of North Korea’s capital themselves, there’s an eerie feeling of vacuity – an emptiness evident by the lack of vehicles, sounds of traffic or crowds of pedestrians. In theory there are 3 million people in Pyongyang but it seemed quieter than a small country town. It felt a bit like one of those post-apocalyptic movies, with the irony being that the world thinks it will be North Korea that will wreak the apocalypse.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

There is a sense on normalcy, though, on the public transport. The old buses and trams are full of people (obviously they don’t own cars) and the subway was packed at peak hour when we took a ride. The average North Korean isn’t commuting from home to the office, though. Many are employed in construction, manufacturing or the military. None of this is easy work, by the way, and the construction teams we saw were doing a lot more by hand than you would expect in any developed economy.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

A department store on a main street was deserted every time we drove by it, just a lonely attendant standing behind a counter. Unlike a normal capital city, there weren’t restaurants, cafes, bars or shops lining the streets. The Pyongyang skyline was filled with the grey concrete apartment buildings that house the population, where they presumably spend a lot of their time. At night, though, many of the windows were dark (either because of power shortages or because they were uninhabited) and it felt like a city designed with the promise of a metropolis but without the ability to deliver. Glimpses inside some of the lit apartments revealed simple, bare abodes with prominent photos of the leaders on the wall.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

Being in North Korea

While most people seem to live in these rudimentary apartments, there is still a lot of grandeur in the public buildings and it’s hard to know whether the residents see the contrast as an insult or a source of pride. One of the more impressive buildings is the Children’s Palace, which we were told is a place where schoolchildren come after class to learn music, sport and arts. Inside is a massive marble foyer, which seems a bit excessive for some young kids. We were treated to a concert, which was extremely impressive, though. In keeping with the ideals of the regime (and The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il’s artistic bent), children spend a lot of their spare time practicing singing, dancing and gymnastics.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

Outside of the capital, any buildings of grandeur quickly disappear, save for the large bronze statues of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung. Green fields of corn and rice stretch from the road to the mountains on the horizon. The countryside is lush and green but this belies the poverty and rustic lifestyles of the citizens.

Everywhere we look there is hard manual labour. This is not a region with cars, let alone any machinery to tend to the land. Old women, backs bent, work in the rice paddies; young boys carry large sacks in the arms along the side of the road; a man cycles past with a dead pig strapped to the back of his bike.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

It looked like extremely basic living, the kind of life that may not have changed for decades, and it was similar to a lot of the simple farming in South-East Asian countries. Except, of course, for the large signs in the fields and on the mountains, the messages of affirmation from Kim Jong Il in red and white, inspiring everyone to work harder for the good of the fatherland.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

As I mentioned earlier, there are military checkpoints on the main roads to stop people leaving their area without permission. As we passed through the small cities along the way you could see they remained true to the communist architectural style of concrete with concrete. The larger apartment buildings looked like housing commission of yesteryear, while the small houses seemed to be in a constant state of construction.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

In the regional cities, like most places, there was a noticeable lack of cars. But people didn’t gather on the streets to socialise, they walked the footpaths with purpose but without determination. Military personnel strolled through the cities, while schoolchildren travelled in small groups. It also struck us that everyone outside the capital, regardless of rank or position, is thin. It was hard not to notice how gaunt each person is, still easily noticeable even under their drab pragmatic outfits.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

We stopped at a small factory in one of the cities to see the ‘great industriousness’ of the North Korean people. It was a water bottling plant and was staffed exclusively by women. Clean and basic, it seemed effective but had a lot less automation than you would expect in 2011 (and you have to assume this was one of the better factories if tourists were allowed to see it).

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korean poverty and torture?

Stories from citizens who have escaped North Korea paint a picture of daily life as full of back-breaking work, with so little food that they scavenge in the bush, and with the constant fear of retribution from the government if they step out of line or dare question the conditions. With our tour guide minders controlling our accessibility, we certainly didn’t see anything along those lines. But, at the same time, you never got the sense that people were particularly joyous. There was rarely laughter on the street or spirited conversation between friends that you would expect in a normal country. To my eyes it seemed as though people were resigned to monotonous daily lives and were simply going through the motions because it was easier than challenging the situation.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

Having said that, the North Koreans were always happy to smile and wave at us as we passed by. When we were able to catch those moments, you could see the warmth in their hearts and realise that there was a lot more going in inside than their dispassionate expressions let on.

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

There were a few times in Pyongyang when we saw the locals relax and truly enjoy themselves. At the soccer game between North Korea and that other football powerhouse Tajikistan, for instance. Or at the funfair, for which there is a weeks-long waiting list. Our final day in Pyongyang was also National Day and there were celebrations of singing, dancing and games in the park (with a little too much alcohol for some of the locals) and the highlight – a mass dance with thousands of people in the square at dusk (which we all joined in).

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

North Korea, pyongyang, Kim Jong Il, Kim Il Sung, axis of evil, koryo tours, real life in North Korea, Juche

Regardless of what life has been forced upon these people – and we will probably never truly understand what that life is – they are still innately human. It was nice to see the moments when that came out, when their teeth flashed into a smile, when the rhythm of the dance came naturally and not from education, and when they found enjoyment in the simple things in life.

Interested in more about North Korea? Check out my North Korea Travel Guide!

* If you would like to visit North Korea, I recommend looking at Koryo Tours.

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34 Comments
  • Lisa | Sep 14, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    How do the people accept tourists? Smiles and waves?

    And are you taking all the photos in these blogs. They really are very good.

    x

    • Turtle | Sep 15, 2011 at 1:54 am

      The way people react to foreigners is fascinating. Only about 2000 white tourists are allowed in each year so they stared suspiciously at us like we were aliens but as soon as we waved or smiled they waved larger or smiled brighter than us. It was as if they didn’t believe we could be friendly until we proved it and then they were just ecstatic!

  • Fiona | Sep 15, 2011 at 4:14 am

    Hi Turtle,
    Have you approached newspapers or weekend magazines with this article? It would be a great read on a Sunday morning. Beautiful pics too.

  • Mark | Sep 15, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Hi Turtle

    So well written, annunciated and illustrated, I told you that you had the steely photographer pose down to an art! A truly unique trip with great people.

    Look forward to more musings as you travel. Mark

  • Fabio | Oct 1, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Wow Turtle, these blog posts are a true pageturner. What an incredibile experience — and how “devotedly” you reported it! :D Thumbs up, big time.

    • Turtle | Oct 1, 2011 at 5:53 pm

      Thanks Fabio – glad you liked them! Everyone ends up devoted after a trip to North Korea :)
      I checked out your blog but can’t tell where you are at the moment?

      • Fabio | Oct 2, 2011 at 5:51 pm

        Hi Turtle, haha glad to know the two “supervisors” to your stay properly indoctrinated you! :) Yesterday I was sitting at a café (in Amsterdam) and telling a friend about your story. She then pointed me to a “funny” story happened to a guy from the Netherlands.
        This guy was a post stamps collector, and took on a trip to North Corea to get some of those – I suppose their value is pretty high. Unfortunately, he was not on the plane that was meant to bring him back. The family tried to get news but a curtain of silence was around this thing. And then, on a newspaper in Pyongyang, an article appeared featuring an interview with this guy that was reportedly glowing in happiness and witnessing the North Corean elections, stating that he’d never seen a more democratic country.
        Turned out he was detained under suspicions of being a spy for a few weeks. You can find an article about it on the Huffington Post if you look for Willem van der Bijl!

  • JoAnna | Dec 18, 2011 at 7:58 am

    This is really interesting since so few people are able to visit and write about North Korea. I recently read the graphic novel Pyongyang, and it was eye-opening to learn about how sterile and scripted life is in the country. How did you end up in North Korea?

    • Turtle | Dec 18, 2011 at 8:08 am

      Yeah, it was fascinating to see it in person. You can actually go with a tour company – they just limit the numbers each year and place conditions on what you can do when you’re there. But you should look into it – I’d recommend going with Koryo Tours.

  • The Travel Fool | Dec 18, 2011 at 8:26 am

    Unfortunately for the people of North Korea not a lot will change for them until the regime changes. Most people there really know nothing of the outside world since everything is censored. At least now they are letting some people in. Several years ago the photos you took would probably have not been allowed. You did a great job documenting everything.
    The Travel Fool recently posted..No Time To Travel?My Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 18, 2011 at 8:31 am

      You’re right – the people there are very unaware of anything that the regime chooses not to tell them. But there are small signs that things are relaxing a bit… like allowing limited tourism, for instance.

  • Bret @ Green Global Travel | Dec 20, 2011 at 2:01 am

    Nice work, both on the writing and photos! We don’t know nearly enough about Korean culture. We were invited to meet with Korea’s Tourism Board folks in Atlanta last week, but ended up missing it. After reading this, I’m beginning to wish we’d gone!
    Bret @ Green Global Travel recently posted..INTERVIEW: Jeff Corwin On His New Show & Challenges Facing Wildlife ConservationMy Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 20, 2011 at 5:13 am

      Hopefully you’ll still get a chance to go sometime. It really is a fascinating place. But who knows how the new leadership will treat the idea of tourism…

  • Stephanie - The Travel Chica | Dec 20, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    I didn’t even realize they allowed limited tourism.
    Stephanie – The Travel Chica recently posted..How I Lived in Buenos Aires for $1000 a MonthMy Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 21, 2011 at 1:05 pm

      It’s tightly controlled and the numbers are limited but it’s not too hard to organise a trip through a tour group. Definitely worth the time!!

  • Laura | Dec 21, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    What a rare and unique opportunity! Thanks so much for sharing, it sounds a little eerie to see so few people out and about even in the capitol.
    Laura recently posted..Buzios Beach – Tuesday Travel PhotoMy Profile

    • Turtle | Dec 21, 2011 at 11:44 pm

      ‘Eerie’ would be an understatement. The whole country was like a time capsule. We could have been time-travellers, the way it felt!

  • Jess | GlobetrotterGirls | Jan 2, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    This is really fascinating! Thanks for writing this piece – I know next to nothing about North Korea, and this is the most ‘insider’ view I’ve had. really informative, great writing, fab pictures!
    Jess | GlobetrotterGirls recently posted..Goodbye 2011: Our year of travel in picturesMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 5, 2012 at 8:57 am

      Thanks for that! They announced just a few days ago that they’ll be continuing tours in 2012 despite Kim Jong Il’s death. So check it out if you can!

  • Red Hunt | Jan 4, 2012 at 10:35 am

    I’ve been fascinated by North Korea for years and these are some of the best ‘daily life’ type photos I’ve seen recently. Different than the typical cookie-cutter tour pictures. Nice post, love the countryside shots.
    Red Hunt recently posted..Hierapolis Roman Theatre at Pamukkale, TurkeyMy Profile

    • Turtle | Jan 5, 2012 at 8:45 am

      I think it’s too easy for the media to find images that fit the ‘stereotype’. In reality, the country looks very different.

  • Tony | Jan 31, 2012 at 6:26 am

    Excellent article Turtle, atleast i have an overview now on how people lives in North Korea. Indeed, very pragmatic and rudimentary.
    Tony recently posted..My First Solo TravelMy Profile

    • Turtle | Feb 2, 2012 at 2:44 am

      As I said, it’s hard to get a true sense of life there. But a trip like this definitely gives you a much more accurate view than much of the media.

  • Amer | Feb 8, 2012 at 9:48 pm

    Hey great article on North Korea. Really fascinating to see that you’re able to take photos whilst on a moving vehicle. Anyway, great post and photos of the most intriguing nation to date
    Amer recently posted..Inside Istanbul’s Blue Mosque – where artificial light and architecture convergesMy Profile

    • Turtle | Feb 9, 2012 at 12:09 am

      Thanks Amer. Technically you’re not supposed to take photos from a moving vehicle but our guides were fairly lenient with us as long as it was innocent stuff that we were shooting.

  • Travel can heal tracism, cultural differences in sports | Budget Travel Adventures | Mar 19, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    [...] Michael gives us a glimpse at life in North Korea and shows us how tough it can be to live and work in this country.  You can’t help but have [...]

  • Last Minute Travel Deals 24/7 | Travel can heal racism, cultural differences in sports Part III | Mar 20, 2012 at 12:00 am

    [...] Michael gives us a glimpse at life in North Korea and shows us how tough it can be to live and work in this country.  You can’t help but have [...]

  • rashmi | Mar 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    I have heard some stories about North Korea. And it is really refreshing to hear about North Korea from someone who has been there and experienced the life….the pics are great and the article is great. Thanks for sharing!
    rashmi recently posted..Hong Kong on the CheapMy Profile

    • Turtle | Mar 29, 2012 at 3:20 am

      Thanks. You definitely get a better appreciation of the country once you’ve seen it for yourself. But I think there are still a lot of mysteries about the place.

  • Wanderplex | Aug 21, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Really fascinating post and great photos as well! This is definitely one country I’d love to visit, but for now I’ll have to live vicariously.
    Wanderplex recently posted..What’s new ’round the web: week of 08/17/12My Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Aug 22, 2012 at 2:40 am

      Thanks. Going in there was one of the best experiences I’ve had on my travels. I’ve never seen a country like it before!

  • Noelfy | Jun 19, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    Wow! I must be the only person in the world who wasn’t aware that we can visit NK! Thanks for guide, very interesting, I also enjoyed reading the one in Paraguay :)
    Noelfy recently posted..Tubbataha, one of the best diving places of the worldMy Profile

    • Michael Turtle | Jun 23, 2013 at 1:20 am

      Neither of them are your typical tourist destinations – but that’s why I loved them both so much, I think!

  • Carol | Jan 4, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    Fascinating! Thank you!

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