Ask A North Korean: “I Would Brag About Meeting Foreigners at School”

October 5th, 2012

Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.

Jae-young grew up in North Korea but now lives in the South, and is happy to tell you all about her past. So if you have a burning question for her, get in touch and send us your questions. This week, Ashley L. of Australia asks the following:

We are told that North Koreans have no contact with the outside world, but what do average North Koreans think when they do see foreigners in their country?

It’s easy to forget how big a country North Korea is and people’s perception of foreigners differs dramatically depending on which part of the country they are from. In the past, propaganda efforts were extremely successful at brainwashing most North Koreans, creating mistrust and suspicion towards foreign visitors of the country. We were led to believe that foreigners were a real threat to national security, and most would never see a foreigner in their life. The lack of foreigners would seem like proof of the government’s ongoing protection of its people – the idea of meeting a foreigner would fill some people with fear! But growing up near the Chinese border, it didn’t take long for me to realize that all this information was wrong. Often Chinese people come into North Korea for business or other reasons, and I remember when I was little, meeting Chinese visitors amazed me. I would brag about it at school and my friends wouldn’t know what to say.

But in the inland areas it is a different story. One of my North Korean friends living in South Korea still feels awkward meeting foreigners and often perceives them to be a threat, because they were so isolated for so long. This way of thinking remains intact in some North Koreans due to the combined effect of intensive propaganda and a complete lack of contact with foreigners while growing up. Things like this go to show the brainwashing effect of the North Korean education system.

The ideological schooling tells us from a young age that foreign countries are the reason North Korea is so poor, due to sanctions – especially from the USA. As such, North Koreans who only had this kind of education and have never heard about the outside world feel a stronger repulsion of foreigners than those of us from the border areas.

How do you feel about the small but steadily-increasing international tourism industry in the DPRK?

I personally believe that increasing tourism in the DPRK is a very positive move. Frequent visits by foreigners will help improve the perception of North Korean people toward foreigners while promoting an opening and vitalization of the economy. North Koreans fully understand that the country is poor. They also know that foreigners are richer than themselves. So they hope to have better life by interacting with the outside world – and tourism is one way they can do this.

Many North Koreans know well that areas that have a lot of foreigners such as Mountain Kumgang (since tourism stopped in 2008), and Rason more recently, have a higher standard of living. Despite the effects of the propaganda, average North Koreans today don’t think there is any need to aggravate foreign visitors, despite the rumors some foreigners hear about. If I were still in North Korea, I would not think in that way. Rather, I would believe that increased tourism will help make my life better. Of course, tourism will not affect the general public directly, but it will affect them indirectly by increasing job opportunities and the total income of the country.

So you see, international tourism helps many North Koreans and promotes the opening of the country. I believe North Korean wants that as well. My personal opinion is that the expansion of the tourism industry will make the tough life of the North Korean people better.

Got A Question?

If you’ve got a question then you can find out how you can get it answered by visiting our “Ask a North Korean” page here.  We’re already sending the best of your questions to Jae-young who is hard at work responding to them all!

Artwork by The Morning Skyrail

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About the Author

Jae Young Kim