What I've Learned as an Australian Tour Guide in North Korea

Rollerskating, sex jokes, and Leo in "Titanic." This is what young people in DPRK love.

by Maddison Connaughton
24 January 2018, 9:00am

Rollerskating, sex jokes, and Titanic. This, Alek Sigley says, is what the young people he's met in North Korea love.

Since 2013, Alek has been running tours to the notoriously cagey nation with Tongil Tours—ferrying groups of (mostly) Australian tourists to Pyongyang via China. "That either involves getting the plane, which most of the time is North Korea's domestic airline, Air Koryo (고려항공)," he says. "Or you get the train, which is probably the more interesting one because you get a 22-hour trip. It's kind of an epic journey through northeast China, and then you cross the Yalu River... and then you're in North Korea."

Alek says his time in North Korea as a tour guide and exchange student—he was the first Australian to ever go there on exchange—showed him there are many misconceptions about the country. Especially about its people. "The more I started to get into it, the more I started to realized I had to treat everything I'd heard previous with a bit of critical distance," he says. "You see the image in the media when it comes to North Korea and it's snarling, glaring people in military uniforms and stuff like that. But when you go there... it's different.”

In no sense does this mean North Korea is the worker's paradise its leaders claim it to be. Investigations by international groups, such as Amnesty International, have found the Kim regime is still actively investing in prison camps, known as kwanliso. Both starvation and malnutrition remain huge issues, according to the World Food Program. As with the country's upcoming appearance at the winter games, there is a version of North Korea its government wants the world to see—one of strapping, well-fed athletes, cheerleaders, and pop stars.

But the way the media paints the country's young people as soulless drones, Alek says, is overly simplistic.

"There's this idea that all North Korean people are automatons, who live in this super isolated, paranoid state. That they treat everyone with a kind of distrust, and maybe a bit of aggression," he says. "They are just like everyone else, really. They are quiet, welcoming, kind—curious as well, they want more exchange, interaction with the outside. They love to have fun and they love to party."

A couple on a date at the Korea Central Zoo in Pyongyang. Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours

On Sundays, Alek says a lot of people in Pyongyang will head to parks in the city, which tourists are allowed to visit as well. "They are basically just all out picnicking and getting pissed. They love to drink shōchū, and the shōchū in North Korea is strong... maybe about 25 percent even."

Technically, university students are not supposed to drink. In fact, life for young people in North Korea is governed by a strict set of rules, at least on the surface. "For the girls you’re supposed to have shorter hair, and you’re not allowed to date on campus," Alek says. "You have this thing called 'organizational life,' which is kind of like the driving belt—you need this group of people with the right ideology, and fostering a sense of solidarity.

"But I think, when they get off campus, they do whatever they want.”

A date at the People's Outdoor Ice Skating Rink in Pyongyang. Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours

For the young North Koreans that Alek meets on tour, dating and relationships are a favourite topic of conversation. Of course, without the internet, dating remains fairly traditional. Most people are set up with their significant other by friends or parents. Tinder hasn't yet made it to North Korea's domestic intranet, which itself is only accessible by a small but growing group of young people with smartphones.

"Do you have a girlfriend?" is usually the first question Alek gets when young North Koreans realize he can speak the language. "I say, 'I do' and they want to see photos," he says. "They start showing me photos of their boyfriends. They have these really cute photos of them together with all these Photoshop effects and things on them."

"They like to joke about sex as well. That’s something they really like," Alek says. "There’s this cave in North Korea, it’s a tourist attraction and it’s got all these stalagmites. [When we visit] the local guide just spends the whole time talking about how they look like genitalia. He even starts mucking around with some tourists being like, 'I bet yours looks like that.’”

Outside the the Taedongmun Cinema in central Pyongyang. Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours
Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours

Alek says he's seen an emerging "youth culture" during the time he's been traveling to North Korea. "Sometimes you do see some young people on the streets of Pyongyang, and they almost look like—in the way they are dressing—they could be from Japan or South Korea," he says. "But there’s a line still... You’re not going to see anyone with a green mohawk and a studded leather jacket... I've never seen a goth in North Korea, yet."

Fragments of western culture have slipped through the borders though. Titanic and Leonardo DiCaprio are very popular, as is Harry Potter, and Disney movies, which you can buy on DVD in local stores dubbed into Korean. "I met a girl who told me she was into Hilary Duff," Alek says. He has a friend who's a fan of Metallica, and knows who Eminem is.

In terms of popularity though, local celebrities still reign supreme, such as the Moranbong Band. The girl group, which is currently leading North Korea's cultural delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, have "a lead guitarist who even shreds sometimes," Alek says. "Not quite Hendrix level but she’s okay." Although, they also have a lead singer who was reportedly Kim Jong-Un's ex-lover, and was feared executed by him a few years ago.

Some students from the Australian National University (ANU) with their guide on a tour of Pyongyang. Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours

Sport and exercise is another big part of life for young people in Pyongyang. "It’s tied in with nationalist ideology... because you’ve got to be fit to build a prosperous future for the fatherland," Alek says. Since basketball diehard Kim Jong-Un succeeded his father, courts have popped up around the country. As have roller skating parks. "Among kids they are really popular now... and not just in Pyongyang but also in the regional cities," Alek says.

A young man in military fatigues on a Razor RipStick. Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours
A roller skating park in Pyongyang. Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours
A kid blades at a roller skating park in Pyongyang. Image supplied by Alek Sigley/Tongil Tours

On the whole though, life for young North Koreans remains very isolated from the outside world. It's a regimented existence, filled with ideological study and rigorous training for public events. "They talk about 'unification' because it’s a very important part of the propaganda but it’s a more abstract thing for them," Alek says. While there is this desire to engage more with the outside world, deep distrust remains. "They believe that the US invaded them in the Korean War," Alek says simply. "And it’s always kind of been like that."

On July 4 last year, Alek's business partner was in Pyongyang when the Kim regime launched a successful nuclear test over Japan—the date, America's Independence Day, likely no coincidence. "There were massive amounts of celebration... people celebrating in the streets," Alek recalls. "There was something going on in [Kim Il-Sung] Square... My business partner got to join in some of that. There was no feeling of tension or anything like that—it was quite the opposite really."

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This article originally appeared on VICE AU.