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. Patricksday

    I always wondered what it was like to live in the Asian Stone Age.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • fadetoblack

      Not like Asian Stone Age, but the most oppressed society to have ever existed perhaps. We do nothing about the state of North Korea and we claim to be in other countries for humanitarian purposes. A dark time is coming for us all.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • yourmom

      ya well some of also cry "we shouldnt be in other nations they should take care of their own problems" and then turn around and whine about what north koreans have to deal with.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:52 pm | Report abuse |
  2. loathstheright

    ....no fun....no life....no future....no food.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • echerriejr

      Not defending them, but: no outrageous underwater mortgages, no excessive car payments causing social violence, no kids getting kidnapped and killed, etc.
      Think well you idiot!

      December 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  3. yourmom

    you would figure that after wars with mutliple countries, food courts, and even grade school that people would realize that there are different cultures in the world. Who are we to judge these people?

    December 19, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • pay attention

      who are we to judge?

      This guy is only a few steps away from Pol Pot, and you don't have a problem with it? You're probably OK with Mao, Hitler, Stalin and Che also.

      Value Relativism gone wild.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Adam

      We're human, capable of sympathy to the millions of people who are oppressed for the benefit of a few elite

      December 19, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Report abuse |
  4. roxanne.white74

    My best frie'nd ,she just has announced her wedding with a RICH young man Ronald,who is the CEO of a MNC, right before the Christmas! You wanna find your lover to have this wonderful time together? They met via BillionaireFriends.COMit's the largest and best club for wealthy people and their admirers to chat online. …you don’t have to be rich there ,but you may meet one .

    December 19, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
  5. zionismsucks

    sounds like a very environmentally sustainable, healthy and moral lifestyle to me!

    December 19, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • sonic10158

      but you don't get freedoms such as want you want to do, where you want to go, etc. They can only do/go where the government says you can.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • mtns

      Yep, starving and no food sure sounds healthy to me too.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. sonic10158

    since you are able to take an iPad, does that mean you can use the camera or use facebook?

    December 19, 2011 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. David

    30 second commercials for every video? Com on CNN

    December 19, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ricky Suavez

      1. Mute them and do something else for those thirty seconds – like sending text messages.
      2. Make it a point not to buy anything from the advertisers.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Craig

    No pollution? Seriously? There are 3 or 4 factories in downtown Pyongyang churning out toxic smog daily. That city is eternally wrapped in gray skies and a cloud of smoke.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • situationalawareness

      NO POLLUTION! TURN THE OTHER WAY! They know best.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  9. ....

    Dear leader
    ‘’Onsite guidance tour ‘’The successor’’
    be working at the company guidance from father to son

    December 19, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Report abuse |
  10. ....

    1889 –1945=-56 /1945-2001 =-56

    December 19, 2011 at 10:34 pm | Report abuse |
  11. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    BON JOVI DIED, CARTIAC ARREST AMAGINE THAT.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • situationalawareness

      What are you talking about?

      December 19, 2011 at 10:54 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Jedna

    Strange! But to my mind, the world would have been a better place without the Vanities and distractions of life! With all the Kids in school and everybody busy doing one thing or the other, North Korea is heading to the right direction and it will soon be the envy of its critics!

    December 19, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Report abuse |
    • BD

      WORD???? You can't really believe that.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Danny

      Well you see.. If you were in North Korea and you stated your opinions in public, as you did here, if you're lucky you would be shot then and there, but most likely they would put you and your entire family in a labor camp where you all work 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the privilege of one cup of soup a day until you fall over dead. Who exactly do you think will envy you?

      December 19, 2011 at 10:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • situationalawareness

      Living without having your own life is not living at all. It's only existence.
      I don't care what culture you're from, the very essence of humanity is that.

      December 19, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mico

    I don't admire this style of living, it appear a bit retrograde and archane, but to have the cojones to stand up and say, this is the way it is here and we don't allow foreign intervention here that is different. No pandering there.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    BON JOVI DIED

    December 19, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Report abuse |
  15. THE ONE AND ONLY DRAKOREX1

    HEY BON JOVI DIED OF CARDIAC ARREST

    December 19, 2011 at 10:43 pm | Report abuse |
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