The British student who wants you to study in North Korea
North Korea frightens the world with its missile tests and threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes. This is precisely why a British student thinks it’s time to try making friends with North Koreans – the people who live there – or at least to get to know them better, writes the BBC’s Eleanor Dunn.
“We’re so quick to label North Korea as ‘forbidden’, ‘closed’, ‘crazy’, ‘suffering’ – but I want to take away that barrier we’ve created, just for a minute, and shed light on North Korea at a human level,” says 24-year-old Benjamin Griffin.
Before his first visit four years ago his knowledge of the country had been limited to “one documentary and some YouTube clips”. So the package holiday with Juche Travel Services (JTS), an officially approved tourism agency, was an eye-opener.
“When I first saw Pyongyang in 2013, I was expecting an army of soldiers everywhere I went. It was as if I hadn’t seen them as real people,” he says.
In fact he saw people walking to work, shopping, eating, dancing in the park. Somehow normal life seemed surprising.
“The truth is, in the everyday life of a Pyongyang citizen, they’re not worried about how best to defeat US imperialism or how evil capitalism is. They care about, ‘Where am I going to go shopping today? Where am I in my job? Is my daughter going to get married?'”
The following year, as a 21-year-old, he went back to volunteer as an English teacher at Pyongyang’s tourism college.
Later he became a qualified JTS tour guide himself and has now created a no-frills “study tour” for people of any age or nationality to spend three weeks at Kim Il-sung university in July.
Participants will sleep in university dormitories and study Korean language for four hours per day. The rest of the time they will go on guided sightseeing tours, and take part in activities such as swimming, folk dancing and five-a-side football, when there will be a chance to meet North Koreans – albeit North Koreans carefully screened and chosen for this role.
“We should absolutely not forgive the glaring problems of North Korea, but we need some base level of mutual understanding. Educational tourism is a step towards that.
“I don’t want to stop being critical but it’s also vital to find what the country’s core is, and what people value there.
“Of course the politics exists – they have nuclear tests, unthinkable human rights abuses – but it’s important to focus on human-to-human interactions. There’s so much to be said for that exchange of information, however it happens.”
Griffin doesn’t deny the realities of North Korean life – the crippling poverty of the famished countryside and the cult of personality surrounding the supreme leader and his family. In Pyongyang, a city reserved for families of the elite, people usually work six days a week for 10 to 12 hours a day – with Sunday dedicated to “rest and voluntary work”, such as grass-cutting and rehearsals for mass dances.
“There isn’t a lot of time alone,” Griffin says.
But despite the relentless propaganda attacking Western imperialism, some North Koreans take an interest in Western culture, Griffin says. Clothing brands such as Nike and Adidas, both genuine and counterfeit, are finding their way into the country, and the students from privileged families Griffin taught in 2014 were knowledgeable about Western singers and films.
“I remember them asking me for gossip about Beyonce – about a dress she had worn to an award ceremony – I have no idea where they got that information. They had even watched some American and British films I hadn’t seen!” he says.
The class was not accustomed to seeing monsters on screen, however, and some hid under their desks when he played them a clip from the film, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Maintaining discipline was not a problem Griffin faced.
“At first they were so regimented – when I walked into the room they would immediately stop chatting and stand up. I would say, ‘Guys, you don’t need to do that.’ And they would all say, ‘Good morning, Professor Ben.’
“But that started to change after I bumped into a few of them around Pyongyang. They would tell me about their boyfriend dramas, or where they had lunch. They loved to get me to say English tongue-twisters, and would record me on their phones.”
Karaoke is popular among Griffin’s fellow tour guides. Sometimes they go out for an evening of singing in Pyongyang, but Griffin also recalls a long minibus journey when the guides he was travelling with declared it was karaoke time.
“They were two young women, and one of them had a genuinely beautiful, angelic voice. Then the other one stood up – and she had obviously watched Titanic recently. For about 10 minutes we were stuck in this minibus listening to the screechiest, most out-of-tune version of My Heart Will Go On you could ever imagine. She obviously wanted to embrace the opportunity to perform in front of foreigners.
“It was so hard not to laugh. In moments like that you’re really suspended out of the politics for a minute. It’s just a person – not a scary North Korean.”
Griffin rejects the idea that someone who pays for a visit to North Korea is effectively subsidising its nuclear programme, or propping up the regime. If the study tour he has helped to organise covers its costs, he says, any money left over will go to the host university, which will spend it on such things as teachers or maintenance.
And anyway, he argues, the need for dialogue and cultural exchange is of overriding importance.
To drive home his point he produces a viral satellite image of North Korea at night – a chillingly black hole sandwiched between the glaring city lights of Shenyang and Seoul.
“This is a great example of how we understand North Korea. It’s us and them, dark and light, good and evil. It’s dark, it’s unknown. We’re given all these reductive cliches – a lens through which to look at the DPRK. It’s too simplistic – if the country is only ‘evil’, can it ever do anything good?
“If this photo had been taken in the day, we couldn’t even see any visible division between the countries. North Korea does belong to our world.”