North Korea - In Talk with Rüdiger Frank

As North Korea is a highly interesting and actual topic the International Institute for Peace (IIP) was very happy to host this event all around the new book of Rüdiger Frank – “Unterwegs in Nordkorea – Eine Gratwanderung”. Rüdiger Frank is North Korea expert and works as lecturer at the University of Vienna at the department of Eastern Asian studies.

After Hannes Swoboda, president of the IIP and former M.E.P., gave some welcoming words, this evening’s moderator Angela Kane, former high UN commissioner for disarmament and vice-president of the IIP and Rüdiger Frank start their discussion.

Rüdiger Frank explains how he found his continuing passion for this country after he went for his language studies to Pyongyang in 1990/91. His newly released book mainly focuses on travelling, the challenges one have to face during a North Korea trip but also the adventures and fascinating things one can expect on a journey like this. Even Rüdiger Frank himself, as an expert and North Korea scientist has to travel to North Korea within an organised tourist group. It is almost impossible to go inside this country anyhow else. Of course it would be possible to go alone, but still you would have to have one driver and two guides. Frank recommends visiting this country with an organized travel agency as these agencies always have a really tight program and you can see a lot of aspects of this country that way. So basically a trip to North Korea is always planned and never spontaneous. Frank recommends when going to North Korea the first time to visit the capital and the hinterland but there is also the possibility to go skiing in the mountains.

Preparation and planning the journey

He also mentions how important enough preparation before a trip of this kind is, as situations, even as trivial they seem to us, can escalate quickly and lead to a conflict during the trip. Most of the tourists, according to his point of view, go to North Korea because of curiosity. They want to see a political system like this from the inside and get an idea themselves of how the living reality in North Korea is and not just go on holiday there.

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To go on a trip like that can be insofar problematic, as just by visiting this country you are supporting directly or indirectly the North Korean regime. As a tourist there you are also exposed to the North Korean citizens as admirer of the regime.

On the question of security issues Frank explains that it is safe to go to North Korea as long as you follow the requested guidelines. Of course there are individual cases like the case of Otto Warmbier, which are very dramatic but should not be an obstacle when it comes to visiting this country. Usually negotiations about arrested tourists – mostly never from Europe – end peacefully without any bigger incidents and moreover with a solution.

Usually travel agencies take care of the accommodation, visa and anything important that is required to start your journey. Even in context with the big issues between the U.S and North Korea it is actually no problem to travel inside the U.S. with a North Korean visa inside your passport.

Dos and Don’ts

The most beautiful time to see North Koreas nature is during autumn. In winter floods can really affect the planned trip in a bad way.

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According on the topic of communication Frank explains that it is possible to even make phone calls to Europe, as it is possible to use the local “intranet” – both of these options are only for tourists feasible and also very expensive.

As a tourist speaking Korean is the only way of communicating. Conversations in English would be very limited.

Taking photos in North Korea is also determined by strict guidelines: taking photos of people sitting on the floor or pictures of poverty aren’t allowed. It is more wanted that tourists take pictures of impressing monuments or exemplary workers.

Frank points out that except from water and electricity issues you can travel very comfortable in North Korea mostly by tourist busses.

Further information

There is even an automobile industry in North Korea. Of course the pieces of the cars are being bought in South Korea, but they are built inside the country. Cars are still viewed as luxury goods and so bikes are the main means of transport by the North Koreans.

About shopping Frank explains that it is very common in North Korea that you can buy basic things at little market stands on the street. Interesting is that even a mall has developed in Pyongyang where North Koreas new middle class does their shopping. Frank sees this social group of North Koreas society as very interesting. An approach could be that a force to start a regime change could emerge out of this social class.

The upper class doesn’t use the just described commercial ways and has its own ways.

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Seeing North Koreas reality or just a façade?

As a tourist you acknowledge that you get to see things that the government wants you to see. For example big culture events and public dances where tourists are even asked to participate. It’s very difficult to see (hints of) the real living reality of people living within this country – but it’s not impossible. Frank explains how important attention to the little things during a trip in this country is, as there are a lot of little anormalities and meanderings from the official narration which can give your point of view more depth looking at a country like that from the inside.

How are the gender roles in North Korea?

On the question about the current gender roles in North Korea Frank explains that although North Korea is a socialist country and the law of equality between the sexes has already been implemented in 1946 – the reality differs. Women are still inferior to men. There are of course exceptions like women in male dominated job fields – just like bus drivers – but women still act majoritarian within their classical roles. Frank describes that we shouldn’t forget that things are changing quickly and also the state is enforcing political actions to integrate women more into various working fields. Of course one have to ask oneself if this is because of the believe that women should be as equal and independent just like men or simply because of the reason the workers on the labour market are needed.

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What are ways to get out of poverty within the North Korean regime?

In North Korea there still exists a kind of caste system – so the opportunities are limited. But as things have changed there is a lot more social mobility within society, also because money has become more important and lead to accumulation. North Korea is also way more achievement-orientated as you think at first. Military schools seem a big option for a lot of peoples, because the job opportunities after schools like these offer the option of a membership inside of Kim Jong-un’s party.

Interesting is that the North Korean regime is making Pyongyang to the place where everybody wants to go. Whereas in the DDR everyone wanted to go to New York – a far away almost unreachable illusion - Pyongyang is inside the countries borders and therefore not out of reach. To go to the capital has become a goal and especially an achievable goal. So social mobility also get used as an incentive to reinforce accordant behavior in North Korea. 

How total is this total compartmentalization in North Korea?

Frank explains that realistically there does not such a thing like the total compartmentalization exist. China provides a lot of alternative information. But although people are getting slightly more informed there still is not going to happen a revolution because there is no possibility to organize and find other like-minded people.

Frank draws out that we have to acknowledge that many people support the system in North Korea. To violently “democratise” a country – as we see in historical examples – has never been that fruitful and sustainable.  

In North just like in South Korea historically there are still very patriotic and even nationalist roots because of the never reprocessed colonialism of Japan. Kim Jung-il achieved it that the population thinks he was the one that freed the country of the Japanese colonial power. Being against the North Korean leader would implicate being against the country, which is inacceptable. Also the concept of a reunion of North and South Korea plays a big role. A lot of people accept living in this system because Kim Jung-un offers them future perspectives and people hold on to that thought. This mentality also implements stability in North Koreas society and strengthens Kim Jong-uns authority.

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