1:46 pm - 01/28/2013

On a visit to North Korea: "Nothing I'd read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw"

A few weeks ago, there was a post mentioning that Google's former CEO and current Executive Chariman Eric Schmidt was headed over to North Korea. Huh? Well the story gets weirder: he invited his grad-school-aged daughter Sophie on the trip

Sophie published an awkwardly formatted review of the journey. It's difficult to read: it's one giant page, but there are two columns, and everything is sort of mixed up.

But it's worth the effort. There are a TON of pictures and a lot of personal commentary. It's an interesting read on how one of our peers (I'm generalizing here) experienced North Korea.

Here is her commentary: Sophie in North Korea

(the slideshow linked below is embedded at the bottom of the page, but there are more pictures interspersed that aren't in the slideshow)

Here is a direct link to her pictures: 44 pictures on Picasa/Google

(I haven't seen her pictures embedded anywhere else so I would prefer not to do so here. PLEASE CLICK either her website or the slideshow to see them!)

kottke.org posted these few choice sentences from Sophie's page....  I posted some longer portions under the next cut.

Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.

The longer I think about what we saw and heard, the less sure I am about what any of it actually meant.

Nothing I'd read or heard beforehand really prepared me for what we saw.

Most of the buildings they visited -- offices, libraries, etc. -- were not heated:

They're proudly showing you their latest technology or best library, and you can see your breath

They weren't allowed to have mobile phones, there were no alarm clocks, and they were told their rooms were probably bugged:

One person suggested announcing "I'm awake" to the room, and then waiting until someone came to fetch you.

It's like The Truman Show, at country scale.

Very little in North Korea, it seemed to us, was built to be inviting.

You could almost forget you were in North Korea in this city, until you noticed little things, like the lack of commercial storefronts.

There is only revolutionary art. There is only revolutionary music.

I was delighted to learn that [Kim Jong Il] and I shared a taste in laptops: 15" Macbook Pro.

No one was actually doing anything.

They're building products for a market that doesn't exist.

And here are some longer sections that might better entice you to click over to Sophie's summary:

It's impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like.

Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments. We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).

It was a nine-person delegation in total. We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.

Lodgings:

Since we didn't have cellphones or alarm clocks, the question of how we'd wake up on time in the morning was legitimate. One person suggested announcing "I'm awake" to the room, and then waiting until someone came to fetch you.

My father's reaction to staying in a bugged luxury socialist guesthouse was to simply leave his door open.

Pyongyang:

Trucks equipped with loudspeakers roam the streets. "For the propaganda," Minder 2 told me, with a tone that suggested You idiot.

People there walk very long distances (miles and miles) in sub-zero temperatures, often in the middle of the road. (Not a problem because there are almost no cars outside the city center.) Conclusion: these people are really, really tough.

You could almost forget you were in North Korea in this city, until you noticed little things, like the lack of commercial storefronts. No street-level commerce, either. I didn't realize that I hadn't seen any plastic bags yet until I saw one person with a bag of apples and thought it looked out of place.

The subway:

Our best shot at seeing a non-staged group of ordinary North Koreans. In a fantastic bit of timing, as we exited the train, the station's power cut out (above right). The commuters around us immediately pulled out flashlights, which they presumably carry all the time.

The Kim Il Sung University e-Library:

Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in--a noisy bunch, with media in tow--not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.

On technology:

Their mobile network, Koryolink, has between 1-2 million subscribers. No data service, but international calls were possible on the phones we rented. Realistically, even basic service is prohibitively expensive, much like every other consumption good (fuel, cars, etc.). The officials we interacted with, and a fair number of people we saw in Pyongyang, had mobiles (but not smart phones).

North Korea has a national intranet, a walled garden of scrubbed content taken from the real Internet.  Our understanding is that some university students have access to this.  

On tour at the Korea Computer Center (a deranged version of the Consumer Electronics Show), they demo'd their latest invention: a tablet, running on Android, that had access to the real Internet.  Whether anyone, beyond very select students, high-ranking officials or occasional American delegation tourists, actually gets to use it is unknowable.  

What's so odd about the whole thing is that no one in North Korea can even hope to afford the things they showed us. And it's not like they're going to export this technology.  They're building products for a market that doesn't exist.  

Those in the know are savvier than you'd expect. Exhibit A: Eric fielded questions like, "When is the next version of Android coming out?" and "Can you help us with e-Settlement so that we can put North Korean apps on Android Market?"  Answers: soon, and No, silly North Koreans, you're under international bank sanctions

I really recommend clicking over to her site to read the whole review. It's hard to decide which words are representative of such an unusual visit.

Source: Sophie Schmidt via kottke
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baroness 28th-Jan-2013 09:05 pm (UTC)
this is fascinating and freaky, thanks for posting!
sonicphotonic 28th-Jan-2013 09:11 pm (UTC)
It's always interesting to read about people's visits to NK. But wow her site is confusing.
markthatcoin 28th-Jan-2013 09:28 pm (UTC)
OT but it really pissed me off because google owns blogger (i was vehemently in the blogger camp vs lj/xanga/et al circa 2005) and she has the audacity to complain about a particularly useless layout option in google sites instead of using anything else google could provide to share her story
SMDH
benihime99 28th-Jan-2013 09:14 pm (UTC)
very interesting read, very sad too
Thanks OP
honeebs 28th-Jan-2013 09:16 pm (UTC)
This is very interesting.
The slide show, she has great photos.
markthatcoin 28th-Jan-2013 09:35 pm (UTC)
i was amazed at how many photos she took. "Only rarely were we told we couldn't take photos of something, and no one ever checked our cameras."
ealanor 28th-Jan-2013 09:25 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this OP, will read the whole thing when I got more time!

shanny_w 28th-Jan-2013 09:26 pm (UTC)
They took her to pay respect to Kim Il Sung's and Kim Jong Il's embalmed bodies? :O

Her gallery is great. Traffic cop unnie is workin it in those heels.
markthatcoin 28th-Jan-2013 09:36 pm (UTC)
i couldn't believe their bodies are not only embalmed but shown off O.O
toshi830 28th-Jan-2013 09:43 pm (UTC)
Can anyone ever actually be prepared for seeing North Korea
teukiesu 28th-Jan-2013 09:53 pm (UTC)
to be honest

i dont think all the stories and pictures in the world could prepare you for the fact that it actually exists and the terror and horror we hear of is real
dalpaengee 28th-Jan-2013 09:48 pm (UTC)
We left our phones and laptops behind in China, since we were warned they'd be confiscated in NK, and probably infected with lord knows what malware.
really? when i went they took my phone away at the airport but i got it back in perfect condition on my way out

i also definitely remember music other than propaganda, with people in a kitchen listening to celine dion and one of our minders loved borrowing our ipods on the bus to listen to new american music. of course, that only means that the most well off people have access to those sorts of things, but even so.

i was also really surprised about the technology they had in a university i visited while there. i went summer 2011 and they had all these fancy touch screen library systems, which was unexpected for me, at least.

i havent looked at her site yet but some of these quotes seem pretty interesting and accurate, while others (like the phone and computer one i copied) seem over the top and too conspiracy-minded
markthatcoin 28th-Jan-2013 09:57 pm (UTC)
may i ask the circumstances of your visit? it's rare to hear of someone who has been there!

personally, i think part of the fear with their digital possessions is the potential loss of trade secrets or any other Google-related or USA-government-related information that could have been on a device brought in by someone in their delegation. with my company we can't take our work laptop or in some cases even our blackberry when traveling overseas.

Edited at 2013-01-28 09:58 pm (UTC)
djlancerock 28th-Jan-2013 10:02 pm (UTC)
beds aren't hard because NK is uninviting, they're hard because we're used to soft ass beds in this side of the world
dalpaengee 28th-Jan-2013 10:59 pm (UTC)
lol this is so true, most beds in china, south korea, etc. are gonna be hard too just because thats what they're used to
lee_chikin 28th-Jan-2013 10:39 pm (UTC)
Since we didn't have cellphones or alarm clocks, the question of how we'd wake up on time in the morning was legitimate. One person suggested announcing "I'm awake" to the room, and then waiting until someone came to fetch you.
It's quite tragic, but I laughed so much.
Interesting read, thanks OP!
lightframes 29th-Jan-2013 01:08 am (UTC)
Yeah that part freaked me out.
milkandmolasses 28th-Jan-2013 10:48 pm (UTC)
Anyone interested in North Korean life from people who have escaped the country should check out a book called Nothing to Envy, I couldn't put it down it's such an interesting read
sayhitoforever 28th-Jan-2013 10:52 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the rec :)
45s 28th-Jan-2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
Lol. Sounds close to the vice travel video
unofficialdear 28th-Jan-2013 11:13 pm (UTC)
wow her site is really badly laid out.
pon_pon_pink 28th-Jan-2013 11:24 pm (UTC)
i read this a few days ago and something bugged me about the way she wrote about NK. I have a very close friend who was in NK quite a few times because of work, she even brought me beer and maggeolli from there and her stories were always so interesting!
markthatcoin 29th-Jan-2013 12:07 am (UTC)
Her writing style comes off as kind of holier-than-thou, it's very off-putting. Not that I am a fabulous author but it was hard to take her seriously at times.
cuizy 28th-Jan-2013 11:28 pm (UTC)
The pictures are interesting..... A lot of the buildings look new and nice.

Also some of it reminds me of what china looked like in the 80s and early 90s
ashiva 28th-Jan-2013 11:40 pm (UTC)
Remember that their whole tour route there was planned by NK, so they were probably taken through their best looking places.

Edited at 2013-01-28 11:41 pm (UTC)
hadashi_no_eden 29th-Jan-2013 12:31 am (UTC)
The pictures were interesting. I couldn't really read her site. It's as mess.
miriamele 29th-Jan-2013 12:39 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for posting this, OP! Very fascinating read.
zui_circus 29th-Jan-2013 01:58 am (UTC)
the comments on the photos tho...
midnightland 29th-Jan-2013 04:33 am (UTC)
Haha, I came on omona to procrastinate on my NK culture class to find this. Thanks for sharing though, it's all really interesting!
markthatcoin 29th-Jan-2013 03:58 pm (UTC)
hehe that's omona for you ^^;
if you come across interesting things that are cross referenced online you should post them here! people asked for more NK info when they did a sitewide poll a few weeks ago
cherrypop 29th-Jan-2013 07:39 am (UTC)
I know it's coming from her perspective so I can't fault her on that and it's pretty cut and dry (gets to the point), but I actually feel this is a very inaccurate portrayal of North Korea BECAUSE of the privileged perspective it's coming from.

Nothing to Envy paints the picture of North Korea that I felt was the most accurate. It's definitely a more eye opening read than what she's saying. If you're interested in North Korea, read that. Mind blown.

Edited at 2013-01-29 07:43 am (UTC)
b1gay4 29th-Jan-2013 08:00 am (UTC)
im scared 2 read this????
achan123 29th-Jan-2013 09:12 am (UTC)
its ok D.O, baby dont cry... tonight...
achan123 29th-Jan-2013 09:11 am (UTC)
http://www.wimp.com/teagirl/

a documentary on a tea girl in North Korea that has had only 1 customer in the past n amount of years...
balloons 29th-Jan-2013 11:42 am (UTC)
that's actually only one part of a full account of a trip to NK. the first part, of three, is here, and the second and third parts are in the related videos.

Edited at 2013-01-29 11:42 am (UTC)
bunica1990 29th-Jan-2013 03:30 pm (UTC)
I'm getting some serious 1984 vibes. The part about the rooms scared me.
modestgoddess79 29th-Jan-2013 07:59 pm (UTC)
fascinating and horrifying

weerainbow 29th-Jan-2013 11:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this, it was such an interesting read and yet so sad too. The part about the people in the library seemed the most sad to me, to think that people could be so controlled so as to not react to anyone like that...and I wonder how long they have to just sit there pretty much static and hardly more than breathing alone ;___;
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