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. bk

    Hey video guy: It's Kim JEONG Il, not Kim YOUNG Il. Do you have any idea what you're talking about? I guess it's hard to get to know NK on a deep level, but still, you could find that on the internet.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • video guy

      Oh, so solly. Me not mean to make man with velly small penis angry. So solly!

      December 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • dotdotdot

      Welp, I found no spelling of his name with "Joeng" but I did find "Jong". Considering the language is written in Hangul, the romanization of his name is just an interpretation. Pretty much a "write it how you think it sounds" kinda thing.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
  2. cindy

    I pass through there for a short stay once and it was depressing, dull, dreary and the people I came across were mean and rude.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Snoot

    I'd visit North Korea in a heartbeat – if I had the dough, that is. Besides, I've always wondered what pickled fetus tastes like.

    December 19, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  4. James Chie

    i've actually been on this tour back in 2007. It was really backwards at the time but i remember when my friend's grandfather died, and we were staying at the Yanggakdo hotel, the tall glassy hotel on an island which itself wasn't the best but ok. When he found out he made a 10 min phone call that cost around 357 USD and there was someone "listening" to the conversation. He didn't have all the USD on him, so we went to the casino that only foreigners could go to with Chinese dealers and all. They weren't so smart because i remember from an angle where i was sitting (at the edge of the table) his "hidden" card in blackjack. Eventually, my other friend and I won around 600 USD (yes they only use USD) and we paid for my friend's phone bill.

    Other than that, the country was pretty safe.. we walked as we pleased but couldn't interact with the locals. Koryo tours was really a good host taking us around and even the tomb of Kim Il Song, the "eternal leader" which was a "1st".. i remember we all had to put a tie on and bow at the casket. Seeing all the crying north korean soldiers was interesting. Finally, at the northern side at the DMZ, we could wave, and yell as we pleased at the southern side.., but of course on the southern side when i went months later, we had to behave.. like 2nd graders going to lunch..otherwise...

    December 19, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Charles Maina

    Leave the recluse alone. Go to Kenya in East Africa and enjoy pure unadulterated paradise as God intended it to be. Watch the Big Five in the Maasai Maara. Its a real tropical paradise.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
  6. mikey

    Sounds stifling. But the lack of organized religion is definitely a plus.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • sa

      You should move there.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • carlc

      Yes, lack of organized religion is a plus, but hardly the only reason to choose a place to live. Worse, they've replaced worship of an invisible man with worship of a visible, insane man.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:37 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dave

    I can't believe some of the comments being posted. This is a country where tens of thousands die every year in mines and slave labor camps. Where any word against the "beloved leader" is met with a lifetime spent in the aforementioned camps. Try to leave the country, and your whole family is sent to the labor camps. Due your research people! This article would make Nazi Germany look great because of the unity and cooperation of the Great Third Reich. Really people? A country where people are treated with barbaric inhumanity and all we focus on is how environmentally nice the place is?

    December 19, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Drew

    The little girl drumming is amazing. She would be a kick ass musician in a rock band in the U.S.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:01 pm | Report abuse |
  9. zionismsucks

    Do they have gay bars in North Korea? Here in San Francisco, "The White Swallow" is my favorite!

    December 19, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Report abuse |
  10. duckz86

    You can be executed for jay walking in North Korea.

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

      Yes, but can you get "nailed" in a gay bar?

      December 19, 2011 at 11:14 pm | Report abuse |
  11. EM

    "...most of the buildings in Pyongyang are boxy and dully designed..." - you sure you weren't in Des Plaines? This sounds like suburban Chicago.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
  12. jae kim

    the mind of this reporter is so distorted. everyone can see that.
    what a loser. Its a shame that CNN have reporters like this.

    December 19, 2011 at 11:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      You got that right, girlfriend! Is spitting really considered impolite in North Korea? I always swallow anyway.

      December 19, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rob

    There's your lowest carbon footprint... Rest of the world, do you REALLY wanna go there?

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

      Omagod! That's what I always say: "Do you REALLY wanna go there."

      December 19, 2011 at 11:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Joe

    poor lil kim jong ill..

    December 19, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Report abuse |
    • Yu suk Mee

      Our fearress reader has died! He rove us rong time! I must say my rast goodbye. Goodbye, fearress reader!

      December 19, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  15. us1776

    Well, at least the new guy likes basketball.


    December 19, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • zionismsucks

      I'd jump ten feet for a ball!

      December 20, 2011 at 12:11 am | Report abuse |
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