Hi there, I’m Rowan Beard and I’ve been a guide in North Korea for Young Pioneer Tours for five years now. In no particular order, here are five of the most common questions I’m asked by foreign tourists about or during my job.
Can North Koreans travel outside North Korea?
The moment I arrive in Dandong Railway Station (the Chinese border town to North Korea) or at Beijing Airport to board a flight to Pyongyang with my tour group you see a lot of North Koreans around which then springs the question to everyone’s mind. Can they travel outside? Yes, some can. However, they need to be sponsored and have the permits to travel before they are allowed to leave their own country. Why sponsored? Because the majority of Koreans do not have the money to cover travel expenses and need to be sponsored by either a school, college, sports institution, or business.
It’s very common to see students, amateur athletes, engineers and traders on the train between Beijing, Dandong and Pyongyang. Every day you’ll see at least a hundred of them without fail. How do you know? Their fashion stands out from the Chinese. Look closer and you may even see a pin of the leader over their heart. The train is a great way to travel in and out of North Korea because this gives you a chance to talk to the locals (most can speak foreign languages such as English, Chinese, German or French) and to have more of an insight to their country.
As for the airport, you’ll have more elite Koreans traveling as the flights with Air Koryo are a lot more expensive compared to the train. Professional athletes, or amateur teams who have just won an international tournament returning home, diplomats and high-end businessmen is a common sight. They’re a little harder to talk to because 1) they don’t care about you 2) unless you’re seated next to one it’s not very easy to exchange some chitchat.
Do they really believe it?
Do the North Koreans really believe in their government? Do they really believe that Kim Jong Un is a God? Do they think their government is the best? And so on. I can’t speak for every North Korean but from what I’ve seen and experienced in North Korea. Yes, the locals there are super keen on their leaders, believe in all the revolutionary stories and yes, a lot of them really support their government. However, they know they are a developing country and there is a lot of room for improvement. So whilst they are one of the most patriotic people I’ve ever met, they know they’re not perfect.
Can you have sexual relations with a North Korean?
Actually, I get this one the most. “Have you ever slept with a North Korean?” and so on. This is a question that’s asked by a good mix of male and female tourists. Unfortunately, the short answer is no. The North Koreans like to keep their bloodline pure and have no interest with foreigners who do silly things like belief in religion, have pre-marital sex, have access to dirty pornography, or.. wait for it.. are into interracial relations. Basically, they’re very friendly racists.
However, I have heard of some special cases. Not a lot.. just a very few.
Has it ever happened to a tourist before? Yes, but I’ll leave it at that 😉
BONUS Question! Are there homosexuals in North Korea? North Koreans are very traditional and have difficulty understanding why a woman would want to have a relationship with a woman or a man on man. They’re not disgusted, they’re not against it… they’re just… confused. Okay maybe some of the military men might be against it but that’s only because I think they’re a little guilty. Why not? Spending a few months on a freezing mountain with your platoon. Need to keep warm somehow.
Where are they going?
During your stay in North Korea, you’ll notice their cities have very big roads, with very wide apartment blocks with very few traffic. This makes the people who are walking on the streets or going to their daily tasks stand out quite distinctively. Whether they’re waiting for a bus, walking to pick their granddaughter up from kindergarten, on their way to work, trimming the grass in front of their shop with scissors or cycling to college.
The peak hour in Pyongyang begins in the morning from 7am and finishes around 10am and in the afternoon around 4pm to 7pm. The queue for the public buses are long, there’s a lot more cyclists on the path, more men holding briefcases while women hold their children’s hand. It’s busy.
In the countryside, you’ll see fewer office workers and more farmers cycling from their homes to the paddock for work. You’ll see soldiers hiking along highways saluting at busses driving past hoping for a pick up to go home, or to duty.
It’s not impossible to interact with locals but it is difficult. A lot of them feel it’s rude if we or they try to ask each other or intervene with what they’re doing. At first their shy, but once you burst that bubble they open up and it is possible to question them.
Are you a spy?
How would a spy answer that question?