December 19th, 2011
03:18 PM ET

North Korea: What it's like inside secretive nation

Editor's note: After Kim Jong Il's death brought tears in North Korea and caused concern for South Korea, we're taking a look at the secretive nation from the view of those who have traveled there.

The first time that Brit Simon Cockerell visited North Korea, he noticed how clean it seemed. The air was not polluted like in Beijing, where he has lived since 2000. Another curiosity also struck him: In the capital of Pyongyang, there were no advertisements or billboards, and there was no traffic.

One of the rare times one might see North Koreans out and about during the day is when co-workers are doing aerobics with their "work unit" in the morning, he said. Around lunchtime, workers might venture outside again, perhaps stringing up a net or marking a line in the street to play a quick match of volleyball before returning to the grind.

"It's a place that can seem very dead during the week. There are a few bars in Pyongyang, but they close around 10 p.m. There are no crowds. And this is odd, because there are 3 million who live in that city," said Cockerell, who has visited North Korea more than 100 times.

"There isn't any hustle or bustle. Everything is a five-minute drive away. You wind up, typically, on your first day saying to yourself, 'Bloody hell, I'm in North Korea, where is everyone?' "

North Korea's is a working society, he said. The workweek is six days, and children are often in school. "On the weekends, you might see people in parks, though," Cockerell said.

But all that work does not equal advancement or personal riches.

"It's an exceptionally poor country," he said. "People don't spend money because they don't have it, and there's not much to buy anyway."

Cockerell works for the China-based tourism company Koryo Group. British ex-pat Nicholas Bonner, who also lives in Beijing, co-founded the company, which offers tours ranging from two-day visits to Pyongyang to 16-night trips across the country. The typical Koryo client is highly adventurous and well-traveled. North Korea is a much-desired passport stamp for many travelers, the company  says.

"There are people who go to North Korea expecting to be spied on, and they make up their minds that it's going to be dramatic," Cockerell said. "I hate to spoil someone's sexy story, but there's no way to tell if that's happening. Visitors experience the place the way they want to experience it. So you see an odd-looking man across the street whose gaze is lingering a bit too long. Is he a spy? Would it be more interesting if he were? There's really no way to know. You can't ask someone and get an answer, which, of course, to some people heightens the mystery."

One reason there are very few cars is because fuel is imported and, consequently, very expensive. Leisure, drinking and dancing are not forbidden, but most people spend time at home with friends and family, he said. And the lack of pollution isn't indicative of a government that's cooperating with air quality regulations.

"It means that there's no industry and that the economy is suffering," he said.

In recent years, Cockerell has noticed that Chinese wholesalers are selling clothes to North Koreans. "The clothes are cheaply made, but they have some element of style. People will hang a bit of bling off their cell phones," he said.

Tourists can't accessorize their mobile phones because they must surrender them before entering the country and get them back when they're leaving, Cockerell said. But iPads, computers and digital reading devices like Kindles are allowed. "This policy doesn't make sense, but it's been around for many years," he said.

Koryo gives tours of North Korea to about 1,500 tourists every year, including a two-day visit for about 700 euros. A 16-night adventure is available for many thousands more. During a longer trip, Koryo can charter a private plane to fly to the west coast and along the DMZ, then head to the northeast coast, where tourists can stay with a North Korean family in a structure built for tourists.

Most of the buildings in Pyongyang are boxy and dully designed. The city is dotted with oddly placed gigantic monuments to the government. Pictures of leader Kim Jong Il are tacked everywhere.

While there is no organized religion in North Korea, there are a few churches in Pyongyang, Cockerell said.

The closest element to a religion was devotion to Kim, whose death was announced Sunday.

"I'm sure the devastation that people feel today is tremendous," Cockerell said.

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Filed under: North Korea
soundoff (268 Responses)
  1. Crap your hands now!

    If you ronery and you know it, crap your hands!

    December 20, 2011 at 2:39 am | Report abuse |
  2. Hey you

    That's messed up.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:45 am | Report abuse |
  3. Chris

    Oh the irony of paying thousands of dollars to go see some of the most impoverished and controlled people on Earth.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:48 am | Report abuse |
  4. sam

    Man!..Our Government is the best!! I love our Government, they help us they protect us, they want us all to be safe and happy here in America!! Thank you guys! Keep up the Good Work!!!

    December 20, 2011 at 5:31 am | Report abuse |
  5. yannaes

    Hey, all you U.S. haters come and live in North Korea and join the 99% that are starving. Enjoy your time in the parks and streets protesting, you will be loved and happy to be there. Oh, by the way, when you leave the U.S. resign from your citizenry and give your passports over to the U.S. Government, you hate so much!

    December 20, 2011 at 7:37 am | Report abuse |
    • jess caxmann

      damn right.. anyone on youtube and various boards posting crap like LONG LIVE KIM JONG IL !! nK IS BEST bla bla bla.. all of these people don't live there. they live in north america or europe, in their mother's basements, and they enjoy freedom and liberty and the cushy life. i guarantee you they wouldnt last a day over there.

      December 20, 2011 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jim Cernole

    That little girl with the drums is kicking serious ass..

    December 20, 2011 at 7:59 am | Report abuse |
  7. sam

    I agree Jim. So ya'all should go try living in some other place if you all America Haters hated here that much(taking from personal experience) my family and I moved from Ukraine 11 years, US Welcome us like family gave us a place to stay, money to start off with, all the support that we needed, until we could get on our feet. Now I own a small business here in beautiful Spokane Washington all thanks to our wonderful supportive Government.(They care!,,they really do! And its really beautiful here in America!..whoever think otherwise, get Off your lazy ass and go see for yourself, I personally Love to travel around the US soooo much to see!...People ask me sometimes if I want to go back to Ukraine or if I went back for a visit. I say WHY?!..I got my education here I love it here, My whole family is here!! Got my American citizenship a year ago and I'm Proud to be an American! God Bless America!!

    December 20, 2011 at 10:44 am | Report abuse |
  8. Kris

    What a dismal existence the North Koreans live, and I think a small percentage have a clue that life is better elsewhere. Few people are aware of the major famine in the 90's, when over a million (perhaps millions) of North Koreans starved to death when the Cold War ended. The Soviet Union was a main supplier of goods to North Korea and that stopped when the Soviet Union became divided. Most North Koreans born in the 90s are of smaller stature and had 'big heads' to due niacin deficiency. I can't imagine a population being so brainwashed that they worship their leader. I would be interested in hearing defectors from North Korea talk about life there- I know there are a couple of books on about living conditions, school, and hospitals. I try not to complain about our government since the North Koreans have it pretty bad.

    December 20, 2011 at 4:41 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Peter

    The first billboard (for a car !!!) has now appeared in Pyongyang. Contact me if you'd like a photo ... Change is coming to the DPRK, and we must all seize the opportunity to assist and support, rather than vilify and keep the status quo (or worse).

    December 22, 2011 at 7:56 am | Report abuse |
  10. out of usa today

    you !korea bashers are all brainwashed, north korea is the greatest place in the world to live.!!!!! . i plan on defecting there someday. i do not want, nor will accept my pension medicaid or social security that i've worked years for. i can't stand breathing the air in this country.!!

    September 21, 2012 at 3:26 am | Report abuse |
  11. Dan

    Way to be proactive and forward thinking 2nd amendment gun don't be surprised when the new laws roll out. And roll out they will. You don't mow down children without repercussions.

    December 14, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Bob

    poor north korea

    February 2, 2013 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
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