Misconceptions about North Korea

Now for a little interlude…

Don’t worry, i’m not going to start a rant on how we should all be extolling the virtues of Juche and how North Korea is paradise on Earth – it’s anything but.

However I think the multitude of misconceptions about North Korea deserve a mention. I’m not going to list and debunk them all, but anyone interested in this country should know that most things you read should be taken with a pinch of salt and certainly not taken as gospel… and that’s including this travelogue!

There are of course the usual misconceptions – “How on earth did you get in??” etc. Which I don’t have a problem with. Then there’s the rumours spread by people who should probably know better, for example just before we landed in Pyongyang I heard a young man explaining to some shocked sounding Australians that the North Koreans WILL bug their phone while they’re in the country, and that they should get a new number after they leave. I wonder what his source was for this load of rubbish?!

Then there’s misconceptions arising from an understanding of how society functions in North Korea – depending on who you believe this ranges between the state providing absolutely everything you need, to mass starvation on the streets. My interpretation of the current state of affairs (from reading various up-to-date sources) is that around 30% of the population are provided with basic rations, while the rest of the people are required to look after themselves through private enterprise, backyard farming and trading on the black market. Before the early-90s the state provided everyone with their required rations, which was a major factor as to why so many people died in the famine when the governement could no longer provide: Nobody knew how to look after themselves. But I digress…

Perhaps one of the reasons for the mass of misinformation about the North is that people like to hear about weird places. The North is certainly a weird place but people can’t seem to help embellishing their stories to make it sound even stranger. One of the earliest blogs I read about a trip to the North (in 1998) was convinced that the Pyongyang Metro is a Potemkin-subway with only two stops and lots of actors. Something which is patently not true. Some people’s perceptions may be influenced by what they expect to encounter. The North Korean train carriages that we left the country on were pretty modern (with sealed windows and power points, i’d estimate less than 10 years old) and certainly didn’t look like they were from the 1950s as was suggested by someone on my tour.

Sorry for the rant – but to summarise, basically don’t believe what you’re told unless it’s backed up with evidence. There is a lot of material (from many different sources) on North Korea online if you are interested in researching further.


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