18-year old Alessandro Ford from Great Britain spent four months in North Korea’s capital city Pyongyang as part of his gap year. He talks to DW about his experiences in the isolated East Asian nation.
From August to December last year, Alessandro Ford was enrolled as a student at the Kim Il-sung University in the North Korean capital. The 18-year-old is thought to be the first western student who ever went to college there.
Back in Europe now, Ford reflects on his time abroad. In a DW interview, he speaks about his everyday life on campus in Pyongyang, making friends, and being monitored all the time. He also talks about the do’s and don’ts in North Korea.
DW: Many young people spend a semester abroad. They go to places like the United States, Australia and maybe China – but not North Korea. What are the reasons for your decision to go to university there?
Alessandro Ford: I had visited North Korea in 2011 with my father, who is an expert on North Korea. For him it was a business trip, but for me it was an adventure into what I saw as an exotic, unexplored land.
The trip itself was rather boring for me: long meetings and hot stuffy car rides. Yet a tingling of excitement occasionally surfaced from beneath this boredom, an excitement that reminded me of how exotic this country was, how strange, how different.
Fast forward 2 years, I began planning my gap year in early 2013. I couldn’t figure out where to go or what to do. I knew it had to be big and bold, something daring. I thought about backpacking in Vietnam, volunteering in Colombia and interrailing across Europe, among other things. But none seemed challenging enough.
Then my father started getting impatient, tired of my indecisiveness. ‘If you don’t make a choice, I’ll just send you to North Korea,’ he said. It was a joke – a hint to make my mind up.
Instead, it became the beginning of the most memorable months of my life. I asked my father if he could actually send me back for a long period of time. He was surprised, but agreed to at least ask if such a thing were possible.
How difficult was it to realize this plan?
The North Koreans took several months to agree to it but eventually they accepted. The only condition was that I learn some basic Korean before going, which I did. They wanted to promote student exchanges between North Korean universities and Western ones, including Cambridge University.
They had needed a first student to visit so as to pave the way for future exchanges with European universities. A British student with prior experience and knowledge of the country was perfect.
Once you were there – what was life on campus like?
It was very different to what I’d known back home; the culture was different, the people behaved differently and even the atmosphere was different. Yet at the same time, one simply got used to it after a while.
We played football and basketball, we played cards, we drank beer together, we watched films; after a while life became routine, much like it does anywhere else. One aspect I definitely took longer getting used to was the fact that North Koreans are workaholics by nature, and keeping up with their workload in school and in sports was nigh impossible.
How big was the cultural shock that you experienced?
The cultural shock was an enormous chasm that I spent the best part of two months trying to bridge. Everyone washed together, everyone relaxed in the sauna together, everyone ate together, everyone played sports together, and everyone did everything together.
Privacy was not a thing they understood very much. There was also the “political” side of culture, where all the students bowed to the statue of “The Great Leader” every morning, where the pictures of the great leaders were in every room and where a government van would drive past our dormitory every morning playing songs about the glories of socialism from a loudspeaker. This was all quite hard to get used to but eventually I did.
To what extent were you able to stay in touch with your family in Europe?
I didn’t have any Internet access, nor did anyone else. I had my mobile phone with which I could call outside of North Korea. I could phone as much as I wanted and my phone calls were, as far as I know, not regulated at all. I only phoned once a week, though: this was an issue of price (an international call from Pyongyang costs $2.2/minute) not of restrictions. If I had wanted, I could have phoned everyday.
What did you miss the most in North Korea?
Conceptually, I missed my individualism, I missed being able to walk through Brussels at night, nobody staring at me or walking with me. I missed being able to go where I wanted, when I wanted, without another person.
Materially, I missed Western food; we ate exclusively Korean or Chinese food for my whole four months. I, especially, missed peanut butter, of which I am almost addicted! The North Koreans got very tired of hearing how they should really import peanut butter, as it was the greatest thing ever.
Besides your life on campus – did you witness any “everyday life” in Pyongyang and in other cities?
I witnessed everyday life quite often when walking to school or walking through Pyongyang; little children going to school, tired looking men going to work, people just going about their day as usual. Everyday life wasn’t something that struck me very much since it was so mundane. It was nice to see something other than marching soldiers and guided tours, but it was nothing special.
I went on trips to Myohyang Mountain and Kumgang Mountain with the other foreign students. These trips brought us to beautiful locations but the bus rides there were an opportunity to see the countryside. It was much poorer than the relatively affluent and sophisticated capital; the roads were run down and the buildings were derelict. I didn’t see any famine but of course this doesn’t mean there wasn’t any.
How did you cope with this feeling of constantly being monitored?
Very badly, at first. I felt stifled and emotionally claustrophobic; I could never get a moment alone. It was very hard to adapt to the all-encompassing community that was the foreign dormitory. It was even harder to have to “request” to go for walks. Eventually I adapted to this as well and it became normal to walk with my friends everywhere. I didn’t like it but it no longer felt quite so constraining.
How would you describe the interaction with your North Korean classmates?
The people I met fell in two very distinct camps: those that were hungry for knowledge and those that had no interest in anything outside North Korea. Most people fell in the first camp and wanted to know as much as possible about life outside Korea, life in Europe and life in the UK.
The others were a minority; these were people who were very polite but simply didn’t care about life outside of North Korea. They were happy in their bubble and had no wish to think about life outside the bubble no matter how brief the look.
Did you ever talk about politics or was that a taboo topic and strictly forbidden?
We never discussed politics in the sense of which political theory was best, but we did discuss international relations, how China supported North Korea while America supported South Korea, for example. On the whole, however, we tended to steer clear of politics most of the time.
I remember when I was being shown around the foreign dormitory by a North Korean student, he showed me the two washing machines and said we could only use one of them. When I asked why, he explained that the other one belonged to the Chinese students who had bought it in the market.
Seeing a chance to test the boundaries, I joked about how I thought I had come to the Korean Workers Paradise and instead here were foreign devils infiltrating our socialist paradise with their devious capitalist ways. He immediately got tight-lipped and tense.
I continued; how could these Chinese students “own” their own washing machine, this was bourgeois nonsense; a Trojan horse set to pollute the purity of Korean socialism. At this point the student got very stern and said “Stop making jokes about Socialism.” We could talk about socialism and capitalism but we drew the line at criticism.
North Korea is often referred to as a hermit kingdom. Is it still like that nowadays? How much did your classmates know about the outside world?
North Korea is currently undergoing a dramatic cultural change, with Chinese and, dare I say it, South Korean music, films and TV shows flooding across the border. Several of my North Korean friends had Chinese laptops and Chinese computer games that they would play for hours on end.
Chinese music was listened to occasionally from some students and Chinese films were for sale in kiosks on the streets. Russian films with Korean subtitles were also to be found in most markets and kiosks, as was Russian music. The elite of Pyongyang are also rumored to watch illegal South Korean TV shows and films behind closed doors.
So culture is definitely permeating from outside, albeit at a slow pace. As for information, North Koreans are mostly still in the dark about the outside world. The state news channel gave information about the outside world, but none of it was particularly relevant politically.
We learnt about Spanish oranges going rotten, Vietnam receiving many tourists this year and particularly hot weather in some parts of Africa, but nothing of any real relevance. The information we did get of any relevance was rather unsubstantiated or skewed; such as the CIA creating Ebola and losing control of it in East Africa or the American and EU aggressions in Crimea against the peaceful Russians.
We did hear about the killings of black youths in the US by white policemen but as you might imagine, this news was pointed at as clear evidence of the American government’s treatment of minorities and inadequacy as a state.
My teachers were symbolic of the lack of outside knowledge; one professor was explaining how to say the four seasons in Korean and stopped to ask if we also had four seasons in the West. Another professor spent five minutes explaining to me what a banana was because he didn’t think I’d ever seen one. These might seem rather trivial things but it was indicative of the widespread lack of basic information about the outside world.
Did you make actual friends – or would you say that this is not possible under such circumstances?
I did make actual friends, friends I hope to see again one day. Regardless of our differences and my annoyance at the lack of alone time, the fact remains that I spent almost every waking moment with these people, people who didn’t see me as the personification of my country’s politics. They saw me as I saw them; as individuals who were very different to me, yet possessed the same fundamental virtues and vices, the same fundamental dreams and fears, the same fundamental emotions, as you or I.
They did not wake up thinking “Death to America” or “Long live the Korean Workers Paradise,” just like we do not wake up thinking “Must make money to fund my capitalist lifestyle” or “Up with Imperialism.” We were not manifestations of capitalism or socialism, or West and East, we were just young students studying in the same university, living the same lifestyle. And this led to real and trusted friendships.
Of course, I don’t want to romanticize my friends either, they occasionally infuriated me and I infuriated them. It’s inevitable that our vastly different backgrounds meant I couldn’t connect with them as strongly as with someone of my own background or nationalities.
Nor did I see them as shining angels of tolerance, they believed things that I certainly did not, yet people tend to see much more of the black in North Korea than the white. Just like back home, there were few people who were totally black or totally white, most of them were grey; good and bad, and it was with these people that I became friends.