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. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    @ BOMBO:
    Well, I certainly messed up that introduction, didn't I.
    Thanks for the information!

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

      Well, I was just giving him the benefit of the doubt. I'm in a good enough mood today.

      Found the books I was planning to give the kids on the first try today, instead of going to 2 or 3 locations. That NEVER happens with Christmas shopping.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Rod C. Venger

    Ya'll would probably be right t home in San Fran

    December 19, 2011 at 6:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Are you a troll, too Rod? Or are you just a fool?

      December 19, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spiritwalker

      Just wanted to let you know Rod,
      anybody who uses the word "yall" in a conversation
      is considered a redneck moron.
      If you are proud a being a redneck, so be it.
      Most people dont like talking with morons.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • Hammer Of The Gods

      Standard procedure.
      Report all trolls.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • Redneckin'

      @Spiritwalker....sounds like a hippie redneck to me......y'all!

      December 19, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Kim jong il

    Dont look at me like I am a monster. Frown out of ur one face but with the other, stare like a junkie into the TV, stare like a zombie at the jewdish media's attempt 2 discredit any nation that refused 2 sign the NATO agreement along with other nations i.e. Iran, Afghanistan, etc.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • BOMBO

      So, the Jews get blamed for this too? It's Korea, for smeg's sake. You see this Thinker23? And people wonder why you're Israel's cheerleader. Somebody has to be.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • RICHARD FROM CANADA

      Most moronic response I have heard in a long time.Maybe hit spellcheck wizzo.

      December 19, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nice Try

      Nice attempt with the Tool lyrics there. Yeah. There's some of us here that are fans about here. While that song would make sense in a million other ways regarding North Korea, this is not one of them. You're not making sense at all really.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Goldstein

      just a heads up.

      its "Jewish" not jew dish you back woods gene toilet......

      December 19, 2011 at 11:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    @ Jim:
    Always go with your first instinct.
    At first, I thought that Jim was Philip creating a new Ahkmed.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Yeah, it can get pretty complicated. I was trolling last week and when I finally admitted to trolling, they didn't believe me. The virtual personas take on a reality of their own.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Silenzio...

    December 19, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Why do you troll?
    You're verbal and personable as Jim.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Good question. I'm fascinated by existential phenomenology. I enjoy creating worlds. Sometimes I'll troll just to tweak a reified phenomenological reality. I dislike fads and fashion, both material and ideological.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Plus, it gets boring setting at home alone thinking about why I am so lonely. So I generate these fake personas and make up words to annoy other people in the "webosphere" i.e: the only place I find meaning

      December 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Oh, using my name to troll? Poor form. Although I have done that to others.

      December 19, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
  7. silliness

    North Korea – paradise for statist central-planners.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:40 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Betty the Christmas cookie baker

    Remember to send all of your spare food this holiday season to the poor starving children in North Korea, like Jim with no arms.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      Oh, if you had been on line that night, you would have wept!

      December 19, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    That is a profound statement.
    I'm reviewing my life's experience with users of "y'all."

    December 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    @ Jim:
    Do you write (to sell)?
    Do you work in an art form like music?

    December 19, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      I'm perfecting my ideas before writing my magnum opus. Just last night I learned something I really needed to know. Arts? No, but I do have an excellent ear for music. I prefer Faure and other existentially prescient composers. I don't have to work, which is ideal since I do not play well with others. Most face-to-face interaction is nauseatingly artificial. It literally makes me want to vomit. I am probably one of the few people who could actually thrive as a Trappist monk, if only I believed. As a nihilist, I am somewhat limited.

      December 19, 2011 at 6:54 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    I seldom weep at performances.
    When a performance is really good–Horowitz, Heifetz–I generally laugh.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:52 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Redneckin'

    Y'all don't know what a redneck is. I say we storm the country and take it over....y'all!!!

    December 19, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Lisa

    Well, in some ways they may have an advantage over us if they get over their paranoia about freedom. Our country could use a dose of socialism and focus on family and friends instead of polluting in the name of buying more crap.

    December 19, 2011 at 6:53 pm | Report abuse |
  14. s kel

    JIF YOU KEEP SENDING ME INFO ON THE BEST CHEESECAKE ON NYC AND ILL LOVE U FOREVER, LOL AND JONG I HOPE AND PRAY FOR THE WELL BEING OF YOUR FAMILY STILL IN N.KOREA!

    December 19, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Joey Isotta-Fraschini

    Methylphenidate is good.
    @ s kel:
    Did you get the cheesecake?

    December 19, 2011 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
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