North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shut down the country’s border at the beginning of this year to keep out COVID-19. He is expected to keep the doors shut for a while, having rejected even offers of aid to avoid importing the virus.
But before the hermit kingdom further isolated itself with a “tight blocking wall” – as it is known in state media – the country had sought to promote tourism. It had allowed thousands of travelers each year to visit the country under the careful watch of government minders.
The 34-year-old Polish-Australian man told VICE World News that he visited North Korea over 60 times. Here’s what he saw and experienced.
VICE World News: What were your responsibilities when you were a tour guide in North Korea?
Matt Kulesza: For those not familiar, it’s impossible to just rock up to North Korea as a solo or independent traveler. All tourists, whether traveling independently or as part of a group tour, must have two Korean guides escorting them around. As the foreign tour leader, my job was basically the link between the North Korea tour guides and the tourists.
Another job involved negotiating any changes to the itinerary with the Koreans, making sure everything on the itinerary runs smoothly and that everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. You’re generally the last to go to bed and the first to wake up in the morning, dealing with any issues that spring up with tourists and acting as a fixer, translator, teacher, etc.
What inspired you to work as a tour guide in North Korea?
I have been fascinated with North Korea for years. I guess I’m what you would call a “North Korea watcher.” As a Polish-Australian, I grew up listening to stories of my family in communist Poland that I think possibly planted the seeds of this interest. I was studying Korean Language and International Relations at university back in 2014 when I first visited North Korea as a tourist and truly had a mind-bending experience there.
What was your most impressive experience in North Korea?
My craziest and most special memory is probably singing the song “We Will Go To Mt Paektu” to about a thousand of North Koreans celebrating the Day of the Foundation of the Republic on Sept. 9 in Moran Hill of the capital city Pyongyang last year. During national holidays Moran Hill is always a good time - thousands of locals are out drinking and BBQing out in the park with their family and friends enjoying the holiday.
We would regularly visit a pagoda where groups of generally older folks would go to do folk dancing and singing. On this particular day the park police were being very strict on people standing or walking on the grass. Eventually due to the sheer number of people, the police instructed an old lady operating the music from a boombox to shut the whole thing down.
There were genuine shouts of protest from some fiery older folk about shutting the party down and after a few moments of awkward silence, a moment of mild insanity and a bit of soju courage came over me and I stood up in the crowd and started singing one of the most popular North Korean pop songs called “반갑습니다” or “Nice To Meet You.”
Eventually everyone started singing along, with hundreds of locals swarming the grass to sing and watch the freak show of some weird foreigner singing in Korean. I was mildly worried I would get in trouble from the police but as I left the park and walked through the crowds, countless old men began to shake my hand and old ladies gave me hugs.
What was the most memorable thing that you’ve heard there?
While no North Koreans will say anything negatively about their political system and leaders past and present, I would always try to relate to them and build friendships based on non-political conversations.
Any of the late night conversations about life, love, world politics, and general shit-talking I would have with the guides over bottles of soju while chain smoking packets of North Korean cigarettes late into the night.
Had you run into some constraints while working in North Korea?
While there’s still a lot of constraints that are a bit strange to most people, such as not being able to freely wander around, I still think it’s more open to tourists than most people think. The North Koreans really want to build their tourism industry and they’re generally pretty receptive to suggestions. If a foreign tour company has an idea for a tour, we put it forward to them with an itinerary and they say yes or no.
Generally if it’s something they’re able to do, they will do their best to accommodate our tour ideas. Every so often there would be issues with sites being taken off itineraries for no apparent reason or places such as Mansudae Grand Monument (the big bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il) being off limits to tourists. There were a bunch of documentaries and articles whereby tourists claimed that they were “forced to visit the statues as soon as they arrived in Pyongyang.”
This simply isn’t true and started to piss the North Koreans off, so to prove a point they banned all tourists from visiting to show “hey, we don’t actually care if you visit or not.” So our job as foreign tour guides was to then negotiate the opening of it again. Stuff like that.
Had your guide work experience changed any preconceived notions you might have had about North Korea and its people?
Most people view North Koreans as being “brain-washed automatons” due to the fairly unfavorable documentaries. I always make sure to separate people and politics, although this can be quite difficult sometimes in the context of North Korea as politics is so deeply woven into daily life.
While the people I had friendships with seem to genuinely be on board with their political system and leadership, I certainly noticed differing attitudes and extremely unique personality traits between them all. But in earnest, the friendships I built with the North Koreans I worked with over the years are truly some of the genuinely coolest individuals I’ve met.
It bums me out that I’m not able to keep in touch with them and by the time I eventually go back most of them will have likely moved onto other positions. Hopefully one day in the decades to come I’ll receive a bunch of emails from random “.kp” addresses (the North Korean email extension).
What had you learned while working as a tour guide?
The world is a complicated place. What really surprised me was despite how different my life is in Australia, North Korea would eventually become extremely normalized to me the more time I would spend there.
Politics aside, we’re all products of our environment, people are people anywhere you go and North Koreans are no exception in wanting the best possible lives for themselves, their families, friends, and loved ones.
Would you like to work as a guide again after the pandemic?
For sure, I would like to go back and lead tours again in a heartbeat. Seeing the changes over the last seven years has been fascinating and I hope to be able to catch up with old work friends over there.
Below are photos from when he worked as a tour guide in North Korea: