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. Ron

    Does anyone on these sites ever make an intelligent comment? After reading, I guess not!!

    December 20, 2011 at 1:00 am | Report abuse |
    • terminallychill

      youre new here...arentcha?

      December 20, 2011 at 1:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      And by the way, my gay lover just fisted me.

      December 20, 2011 at 1:40 am | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      And he milked my colon dry

      December 20, 2011 at 2:30 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike Finley


      You are a SICK puppy. I know you will think I am sick for saying so myself, but you need spiritual help.

      BTW, as far as an intelligent comment goes, I don't think I have heard one especially since you chimed in.


      December 20, 2011 at 2:43 am | Report abuse |
  2. factualfact

    I would like to visit N. Korea to see firsthand how it really is.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:10 am | Report abuse |
  3. mike taylor

    Only god can judge people I hope ole KIM JONG ILL or what ever his name is knows god , And tried to right all his wrong but I doubt he did any of that so tell Saddam and Bin Laden and Uday and Qusay to scoot the hell over it's your turn to tickle satan's balls !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 20, 2011 at 1:12 am | Report abuse |
    • terminallychill

      Well, according to the N Korean culture, he is god, or and extension of God himself aka hey ssus

      December 20, 2011 at 1:39 am | Report abuse |
    • bam

      so god is the one that declared the Mayans and Incas heretics in the 1550's killing all those that refused to not convert to christianity destroying all their literature and heritage??? it is good to be the top religion massacre all the heretics then point the finger at the next group of non beleivers

      December 20, 2011 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
  4. ERR

    North Korea is a country that badly needs mass protests. It's amazing that none of have taken place so far. It shows the intense brainwashing and fear of government by the North Korean citizens. If any country has citizens with a valid reason to protest their government, it's surely North Korea. I wonder if we shall ever see such protests in that country. That country desperately needs to change for the better.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:20 am | Report abuse |
    • pyongq

      for protests people need to think and they r already brainwashed zombies

      December 20, 2011 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
  5. tinyprof

    These boards are awful. Full of trolls and ignorant, racist comments that have nothing to do with any kind of intelligent discussion.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:23 am | Report abuse |
    • edheres

      Hate to say it, but it's not a problem of the "boards." You're reading a sampling of people.

      December 20, 2011 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
    • bam

      thus u have the ignorance that religion introduces..... poor Aisha Khan of Kansas was recently murdered due to she 'LOOKED' muslim...... Yeah cuz Khan is not Indian decent.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:03 am | Report abuse |
  6. sam

    That's how US will look like after they get control of everything. That's the plan atleast. Huge prison cell!!

    December 20, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
  7. kelly king

    Their spirit is high,&people are willing to work for their country.No regions' people cry for their leader like this. NO pollution ,i think the N K can be a resort for some people.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. Jacob K

    If this is the best reporting CNN has on the "mysteries" of N. Korea, that's pathetic.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:34 am | Report abuse |
  9. per

    seen this film? 🙂

    December 20, 2011 at 1:49 am | Report abuse |
  10. jess caxmann

    They have been doing these organized tours for years in north korea, they bring people to their showcase capital and to various exibits, and then to the airang games.. you can believe they won't bring you where the people are starving and where most of the population is living. Its called propaganda for a reason. The worst thing is that you have supposedly serious news services like cnn that goes to one of those tours and then they put a headline like LIFE INSIDE THE SECRET NATION and put up the propaganda as fact.. thats not LIFE INSIDE the north korean regime at all.. it is what they want people to believe outside the country. Its really pathetic. People believe in that too just read some of the comments above. CNN is supposed to be somewhat of a serious news agency, i can't believe they would post that crap and claim its fact..

    December 20, 2011 at 1:51 am | Report abuse |
  11. James M

    If the country could get over itself, there could be untold opportunities for eco-tourism. The dark skies alone give them an a tremendous opportunity for land based astronomy. The things that stand out to a western eye as depravity seem to be valued among the North Koreans. No consumerism. No billboards, people not trying to out-do one another on some kind of upward mobility treadmill. To Americans it probably seems like they are deprived of everything that is valued. The fact that North Koreans embrace this as a path to utopia means they must be "brainwashed" or enslaved or something. It does not occur to many that the culture embraces this stuff - or that the problem is so much bigger than Kim Jong Il that they cannot even conceive of it.

    December 20, 2011 at 1:53 am | Report abuse |
    • jess caxmann

      theres no pollution or consumerism because the entire country has been in deadlock since the fall of the soviet union. all the country's infrastructures have been in total decline since then. the only thing they will maintain over there is the army and the propaganda.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
  12. pyongq

    I wonder what will happen to Kims ray ban ?

    December 20, 2011 at 2:01 am | Report abuse |
    • bam

      they r on ebay

      December 20, 2011 at 2:04 am | Report abuse |
  13. pyongq

    Kims son looks like fat Bhuddha. i wont be surprised he will have heart also before 30

    December 20, 2011 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
  14. Bob

    Sadly, N. Korea is one giant brainwashed prison, except for those that orchestrate the brainwashing.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:05 am | Report abuse |
    • jess caxmann

      actually the person that writes the propaganda is probably as brainwashed as anyone else. You can sum this up in the way they post their guards at the Panmunjom DMZ Border. Where they have the 2 armies face to face and you can see the north korean soldiers. They have 3 guards at the border, one guard is guarding the other guard, that is guarding another guard and they all guard each other from defecting to the other side, and guard the border at the same time.

      December 20, 2011 at 2:10 am | Report abuse |
  15. Robert

    Having spent my life in advertising and marketing, I often wonder if a world without billboards, annoying commercials and ads on anything that can be covered with some insidious manipulation of the truth would be a relief. Our view of what is important to a quality life is a twisted, narcissistic display of our core values. You think it is freedom, but take a look at Times Square and ask yourself if this is what John Adams had in mind? Capitalism has burst its seams in this country and has created a society of people who simply crave stuff. Not because the stuff has value, but because people believe the stuff shows how successful they have become. When you get to the end of your life, you will surely look around and wonder what you have really accomplished with your life and was it worth it. Imagine if there was a limit on the size, volume and location of ads. What a beautiful world that would be.

    December 20, 2011 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
    • jess caxmann

      right. replace those billboards with pictures of kim il sung, put up radios in people's homes, (radios which you can't turn off BTW) and one single TV channel for the entire country, both blaring propaganda 24/7 .. that way we can be really free like the north koreans..

      December 20, 2011 at 3:04 am | Report abuse |
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