Life inside the North Korean bubble


Senior Member
Nov 25, 2009
As we arrived at Pyongyang's airport our mobile phones were confiscated and throughout our stay in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea there was no access to the internet.

At the hotel our government minders had booked rooms alongside ours, and on the one occasion that we tried to leave without them we were reported and reprimanded.

From exchanges with our minders, we also learned that our rooms were bugged.

But then we were not being singled out, the entire country lives in a bubble of unreality, cut off from the outside world and watched by an army of informers.

There are only two mobile phone networks. The diplomatic corps and NGO workers use one of them to contact one another.

A relatively small elite of North Koreans use the other system, but this still denies them access to foreigners inside the country and to anyone outside.

Breakneck speed

Newsnight had been invited to North Korea for the celebrations marking the birthday of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the country.

But the invite came with a catch - we were only allowed to film model farms, model villages, model schools and model homes.

We were instructed to film statues of the Great Leader, who although dead is still president, and portraits of his son the current Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il.

We were never allowed to film anything off the official programme or speak to anyone unscripted.

When we headed into the countryside we were driven at breakneck speed past towns and villages in various stages of dilapidation and not allowed to stop.

In Pyongyang anyone who came near to the camera who did not fit the image the North Koreans want to project - particularly anyone who appeared to be returning from one of the private markets which are an embarrassment to the Communist regime - was shooed away.

Meddling minders

Initially I was simply irritated by our minders who seemed to have no concept of the expectations of a television film crew.

But my irritation slowly gave way to a realisation that their expectations of us were because they simply did not know any different.

North Korean TV only broadcasts hagiographies of the two leaders and pictures celebrating the country's army, model farms, model villages etc.

Our minders had probably never seen any other kinds of news item or documentary about their country or the rest of the world.

They were not allowed to, and they could not, because no-one has access to the internet in North Korea.

Instead, the North Koreans have a special internal intranet which I was shown at Pyongyang University.

A postgraduate metallurgy student who spoke good English explained that he could not compare his research with a fellow student in say, London or Los Angeles, because the system would not let him.

But, he added brightly, "the Dear leader has kindly put all we need to know on our intranet system".

At the university's foreign language department I asked the students how they had managed to learn such good English.

"Thanks to the Great Leader," one young man replied, "we are allowed to watch English and American films, like The Sound of Music."

'No secrets'

When asked which world leaders - other than the Dear Leader - he admired, he quickly answered "Stalin and Mao Zedong!"

However, the students had not heard of Nelson Mandela.

No wonder the 3,000 or so North Koreans who escape this, the most isolated and secretive country in the world, and arrive in South Korea every year feel as though they have landed on another planet.

South Koreans can use their mobile phones to pay in the supermarket, there are more and faster broadband connections per person than in any other country in the world and, if you are feeling frivolous, there are cameras and touch screen key boards along the main shopping streets to allow you to send a photo to a friend!

All new arrivals from North Korea spend months in special government schools to learn how to cope with the 21st Century.

I met Sena, who arrived just five months ago, in a computer and mobile phone shop in Seoul.

"I love the internet," she said to me, "because there are no secrets. Everyone can know everything!"

She loves her mobile phone, she said, because she no longer has to walk miles simply to give a message to a friend.

Her friend, Garam, is most struck by the food: "In South Korea, you can eat anything anytime you want. In the North, you can never find anything you would want to eat."

But many defectors from the North complain about how they are treated in the South.

"People look down on us here," another recent arrival told me. "They treat us like poor, badly educated cousins with funny accents. It is hard for us to get work here."

People in the North tell you that they long for the two countries to be united again.

"It has been 60 years since the country was divided by the civil war. Unification is our dream", a university student in Pyongyang told me. "It must happen one day".

A bit like the attitude of West Germans towards East Germans prior to unification, the South Koreans are not too keen of the thought of 23 million hungry and badly educated cousins pouring across the border.

And the sinking of the South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, by North Korea has brought relations between the two enemy countries to one of the most dangerous points since the end of the war.

The chances of unification have never looked so remote.

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