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. Junior exec, heart condition, nursing an ulcer

    It sounds like a dream.

    December 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    There still exotic places I haven't seen.
    Lhasa is one. I always wanted to play the great organ at Riga. I've never been to Odessa, where two of my most important teachers were born.
    Why would I want to see North Korea? Communism is always bleak.
    There are places you want to see over and over: the Grand Canyon, the Blue Ridge Mountains...Roma...
    Keep your DMZ.

    December 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm | Report abuse |
  3. banasy©

    Is sounds like the most perfectly boring place ever.

    This most definitely won't be on my bucket list of places to see.

    December 19, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Report abuse |
  4. clearmind

    @this place sounds like one of those horror movies where everything looks one way on the outside, but really there is something very wrong going on. Scary!Cities have personalities, this one sounds like a Stepford City.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Report abuse |
  5. BOMBO

    Can I stay at the Ryugyong Hotel when I go?

    December 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • T. Jong

      What is Bombo?

      December 19, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO

      It is a 105 story hotel that was to be constructed in the late 1980's in Pyongyang, but construction was halted due to lack of raw materials when the USSR collapsed. An Egyptian company restarted construction a couple of years ago, and it will be done in 2012 or 2013. It's a pretty cool looking building. You can google the pictures.

      December 19, 2011 at 5:57 pm | Report abuse |
  6. whiterun gaurd

    I used to be an adventurer like you...until I took an arrow to the knee.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • DragonBorn

      Ha! You win the Internet!

      December 19, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • Morbo

      So, humans have easily injured knees. Morbo's people will find this information most interesting.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Report abuse |
    • DragonBorn

      Okay, now it is a tie.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:31 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Portland tony

    Hmmmmm. No pollution, no crime, clean streets, no cars, all kids in school! Americans spend millions to live in places like that

    December 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • jesse

      Soooo True!!!

      December 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Pretty soon BOMBO will go and report to us. He gets around.

    December 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Report abuse |
  9. freeman

    Imagine living in a country where the leader lives in opulence while over 50% of his citizens live hungry, where billions are stolen from the treasury and given to political friends, where the internet and mail is monitored, where government contracts are given out to party favorites, where the leaders family junkets to expensive destinations in multiple airliners with hundreds of friends and staff on the taxpayers dime ................oh…….. You are talking about Kim……….not Obama.

    December 19, 2011 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • knowno

      Hey... ummm o.ahh... haliberton?? wasn't that ummm bush I ah I mean President Bush.... or ah Mr... I mean Vice President... shoot a man in the face and he apologize to you... (godfather)Chaney... um respectfully.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. whiterun gaurd

    @ dragonborn

    🙂 awesome

    December 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
  11. KB

    What did you expect a skull lined road with black trenchcoated guards toting ak-47's wearing gas masks and helmets?

    December 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • beavis

      that would be cool

      December 19, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Report abuse |
  12. T. Jong

    I escape from North Korea. My family remains behind. When I come to America I study hard in school and now am electrical engineer. Life in North Korea cannot be described. You have to be there. You hope not! Everyone scared all of the time.

    December 19, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Tom

      Mr. Jong, I hope you can re-unite with your family soon.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Report abuse |
  13. conoclast

    One wonders how happy & content the average N. Korean citizen is? Have they adapted to "living small"? If so then maybe they'll turn out to be a good post-apocalyptic model for the rest of us.

    December 19, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • T. Jong

      They pretend to be happy like an abused wife. Stockholm complex.

      December 19, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
  14. SANTA CLAWS

    When SANTA CLAWS arrives there next week, things will be very different. VERY different.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:03 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    @ T. Jong:
    "BOMBO" is the nom de plume of a highly intelligent and personable male blogger who lives in Canada. I think that he adapted "BOMBO" from his previous nom de plume, "Bimbo the Circus Clown."
    T. Jong, I congratulate you on your successful escape from North Korea. I hope that you can bring your family here to be with you.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • T. Jong (Jim)

      Thank you, but I didn't exactly escape from North Korea and my name isn't exactly "T. Jong." My name is Jim; I'm a troll. Hey, BOMBO, remember: the kid with no arms? In our hearts, we all need to believe in T. Jong.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:12 pm | Report abuse |
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