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. Sinthia

    @Drakorex:
    That's a rumor, big guy,
    JBJ is still kicking, and amused by it all, same as when everyone said paul was dead in 68.
    Relax.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • puckles

      Yeah, and I just saw Elvis at the gas station down the street from me.

      December 20, 2011 at 12:07 am | Report abuse |
  2. CDaeda

    This new North Korean leader will out live all his enemies.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bill Duke

      Unless the North Korean Army decides that he has also "worked himself to death."

      December 20, 2011 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
  3. Dan

    Wait, I thought they had no cell phone service there....

    December 19, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Billy

      They recently started allowing some cell phone service, and I do mean some, like 500,000 out of a population of 23 million.

      December 20, 2011 at 12:20 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeremiah

      SO basically just the higher up leaders in the communist party have cell phones then

      December 20, 2011 at 12:26 am | Report abuse |
  4. paul1121

    This is the best video regarding North Korea I've have seen...http://www.vice.com/video.

    As a child of East Germany, it brings back so much memories. Watch it and think again you spoiled anti-American brats.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      Busted, troll! Oh no you didn't!

      December 19, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • paul1121

      Oh, Yes I did. You wouldnt know the truth zion if it spit you in the face.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      Cat fight!

      December 19, 2011 at 11:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • paul1121

      Watch the vid and learn something for a change.

      December 20, 2011 at 12:08 am | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      Well, you're a stern taskmaster! Wanna play "submarine"? I'll load YOUR torpedo tube!

      December 20, 2011 at 12:15 am | Report abuse |
    • paul1121

      So getting back to topic, http://www.vice.com/video is the best video on North Korea I have seen. Watch and learn.

      December 20, 2011 at 12:23 am | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      Fine, Paul! But don't come crawling back to me!

      December 20, 2011 at 12:27 am | Report abuse |
    • Jeremiah

      So basically everyone in the country from infant to elder are treated like they are in the military with a regimented daily schedule and very little freedom of movement. If they step out of line or question any authority figure they disappear?

      December 20, 2011 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
    • scir91onYouTube

      the video was excellent

      December 20, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO

      Don't waste your time with that troll, Paul. He has picked a screen name that says both "I am a bigot" and "I am a foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist."

      December 20, 2011 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Chuckles

      paul1121, I watched this video a while ago and it's outstanding. NK it truly bizarre.

      December 20, 2011 at 12:40 am | Report abuse |
    • paul1121

      I have been to Korea and love the people and the land. Again, I think that this is the best video series I have seen. Thank you for watching.

      December 20, 2011 at 1:59 am | Report abuse |
  5. BIGGEDD666

    Hey, schlong hung low, say "Hi" to osama & hussein down there from all of U.S.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Ron Grimes

    IT sounds like the little town in the south I grew up in. Kinda boring.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      I grew up in the same town. It wasn't always boring. Hi, Ronny! Don't pretend you don't know me, Mr. "It was just one night; I'm not really gay."

      December 19, 2011 at 11:54 pm | Report abuse |
  7. SabreDC

    "Most of the buildings in Pyongyang are boxy and dully designed. The city is dotted with oddly placed gigantic monuments to the government."

    Sounds a lot like Washington, DC. Look at all the brutalist architecture of the government buildings. Add in the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, FDR Memorial, etc. The only difference is that the DC monuments aren't oddly placed.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      I've got the cutest photo of me sitting on Lincoln's lap!

      December 20, 2011 at 12:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Sanj

      Stupid comment! I live in DC and the pictures of Pyongyang look nothing like DC!

      December 20, 2011 at 12:24 am | Report abuse |
  8. Sinthia

    He said phone, not cell phone...what, you don't think there are any landlines there?

    December 19, 2011 at 11:52 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Sinthia

    @SabreDC: sure, except allof the monuments don't have just one stupid man's face one it.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:55 pm | Report abuse |
  10. laff

    What's with the ridiculous headline? And all of these stupid news pieces? A dictator in an isolated nation died, sweet. They're trying to make Kim Jong Il more sympathetic than Moammar Gadhafi

    December 20, 2011 at 12:13 am | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      OK, who's cuter: Kim Jong Il or Moammar Gadhafi?

      December 20, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  11. Robert Johnson

    Meaningless drivel. No pollution = no industry. No traffic = no cars, except for the elite. No crowding = fewer people, due to starvation. No night life = no money and no joy. Enjoy touring the home of Dear Leader's 23 million slaves.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:30 am | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      23 million slaves? You can count me in!

      December 20, 2011 at 12:33 am | Report abuse |
  12. Rey

    Go little drummer girl!

    December 20, 2011 at 12:41 am | Report abuse |
  13. zionismsucks

    Poo on all of you!

    December 20, 2011 at 12:44 am | Report abuse |
  14. keb carerra

    North Korea is like here in the US but without corrupt politicians and banks. I know the media keeps telling us how bad it is there but try looking around here once in a while.

    December 20, 2011 at 12:45 am | Report abuse |
    • tyler

      Sounds pretty grim. Do you really believe we are that oppressed?

      December 20, 2011 at 12:50 am | Report abuse |
  15. North Korea People

    Mubarak, Osama Bin Laden, Gadafi, and Kim Jong Il, who next? the world step by step extirpate Evil

    December 20, 2011 at 12:49 am | Report abuse |
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