Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Anna Fifield, the Financial Times’ correspondent in Seoul, has recently returned from her two-week trip to North Korea and has written the final entry of her online journal about her visit to and life in the isolated hermit state. Click here to launch her interactive diary with pictures.

When westerners travel to North Korea, whom do we support more - its regime or its people? Should we travel to North Korea at all?

Zeno Geisseler

Schaffhausen, Switzerland

Anna Fifield: The answer depends on your definition of “support”. Financially, visitors obviously contribute to the regime in that we have to stay at state-run hotels, use state-run transport and usually eat in state-run restaurants. We can pay only in hard currency - euros these days, although dollars are still somewhat begrudingly accepted - and prices are high. I was charged E10 to visit the museums of gifts presented to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il - that’s about 10 months of the average wage.

But I think we “support” ordinary North Koreans in another, and ultimately more important, way. The increasing numbers of foreigners - western or otherwise - bring in products and ideas and news and glimpses of the outside world generally. I think these glimpses will show North Koreans that people who don’t live in the “socialist paradise” have a better, richer, healthier and freer life than they do. If that empowers them to push for more change in their own country, surely that is an invaluable source of support.

Do you feel that North Korea will ever re-unite with the South?

Charles Ashworth

AF: Yes I do think there will be reunification one day. Imagine if there was a heavily mined 4km no man’s land across the middle of England, so Mr Jones in Birmingham could never visit or call or write to his brother in Manchester? Or between New York and Washington, or Paris and Calais. Despite the horrors of the Korean war, families want to be able to be together, just like anywhere else in the world. South Koreans want to be able to hike up Mount Paekdu, where Tangun, the legendary father of the Korean people, was born. North Koreans would no doubt enjoy swimming at the beaches of Jeju, the southern “honeymoon island”.

The question is how and when reunification will happen. While both administrations say they want to be reunited, neither wants to be absorbed by the other. That probably means that they will either have to go through a long, slow agreed process to join together in some form, or through the sudden implosion of the system in one of the Koreas. But there is no apparent sign of collapse in North Korea, or in the South for that matter.

East Germany reunified with West Germany, meaning East Germany’s socialist culture and economy was replaced by West Germany’s capitalism. You observed that North Korean people talk about reunification but are they thinking or concerned about which culture/economy will overcome the other?

Claudio Gutiérrez


AF: Yes North Koreans are very concerned about which half of the peninsula would prevail if it was reunified - they are taught to be worried. Several North Koreans I spoke to said they feared for the future of their communist system, and I did not hesitate to tell them that many of their much richer southern brothers similarly feared for their capitalist-induced wealth, which enables them to buy mobile phones with televisions and MP3 players, and would fall dramatically if the South had to suddenly prop up the North.

To deal with this clash, North Koreans reminded me that Kim Il-sung, their “Eternal President”, proposed a confederation under which the two systems would co-exist and continue to manage their domestic affairs, but a federal administration would deal with international affairs. History tells us how such a solution is likely to pan out.

How much awareness of events, debates, people outside the country do North Koreans have?

Pip Symington

AF: The state television news features international events during its Saturday and Sunday night bulletins, but this is highly politicised. For example, anything that shows the US in a bad light is a guaranteed shoe-in, and most North Koreans will be relatively well versed on the events in Iraq. Foreigners who live in Pyongyang told me that there has been a lot of coverage of natural disasters and hardship in other countries recently - they interpreted this as an attempt to prepare North Koreans for the possibility of a bad harvest this autumn by showing that other places were also suffering.

Apparently the North Korean football team’s defeat at the hands of former imperialist agressor Japan several months ago failed to make it into the papers, and the re-election of George W Bush was not reported for some time either.

As for culture, North Korea is a few decades behind. I was told Gone With the Wind is the most popular film these days, and while you’d be hard-pressed to find someone familiar with Tom Cruise, many people would be able to list the stars of Soviet films.

Do North Koreans live in fear of an invasion by the all powerful US and has the invasion of Iraq has confirmed that fear?

Michael O’Sullivan

AF: When I asked North Koreans why they needed nuclear weapons, every single one of them cited Iraq. Indeed, the regime has held up Iraq as an example of what would happen if it didn’t have atomic bombs to fend off the Bush administration. Fear is employed by the regime to keep the populace under control - it’s their way of saying “look what would happen if we weren’t here to protect you”. Billboards and broadcasts and other propaganda whip up this fear, constantly suggesting to North Koreans that the US could “invade again” at any time.

Did you see any western company presence when you were there and do North Korean locals assist with relief efforts?

Mark Parr


AF: There are many western companies now operating in North Korea, almost always through joint ventures with state companies. For example, the Daedong Credit Bank is a 70/30 joint venture between a private foreign consortium and a state-owned bank, while a German investor is providing the internet through a tie-up with the information ministry.

There are many North Koreans working for and with western companies - including at the Pyolmuri Cafe, a European restaurant run by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, where North Koreans cook pizza and pasta for their varied customers. North Koreans also work for the United Nations’ World Food Programme and other such agencies.

What were the people like? The ordinary citizens?

Alexander Kiss

AF: Well it’s difficult to comment on “ordinary” citizens because almost everyone I talked to was extraordinary in that they were having contact with a foreigner. Almost all of the people who were arranged for me - tour guides, the colonel who showed me around the Panmunjeom truce village - and shop assistants and waiters were very friendly and happy to chat (obviously I didn’t ask them highly sensitive questions that could have got them in trouble).

When I was walking around on the streets people tended to look away but when I smiled or said hello they usually reciprocated, and groups of curious school children followed at a distance in public places like art galleries. One day when I said “annyeong” (hi) to a couple of kids who were about seven, they fell about laughing and I could hear them repeating “annyeong, annyeong” all the way down the street.

The reaction changed suddenly, however, whenever I got out my camera. People would scurry away or hide their faces to avoid being caught on film. I wondered whether this was to avoid somehow incriminating themselves, even if they were just walking down the street.

Do you get the impression that the regime in North Korea will collapse like East Germany or, will it just run and run for another 10-20-50 years, or will they try and implement a Chinese style approach ? Or is there a fourth option.....

Edward Campbell-Harris

UBS AG, Wealth Management, London

I have not seen or heard any evidence to suggest the regime is hanging on by a thread, although there is always speculation about that. But there are plenty of reasons to think that the current system is unsustainable, and they generally relate to your third option.

The regime is introducing Chinese-style economic reforms and while these have been successful in some areas - such as encouraging state factory managers to make profits - they have also introduced Chinese-style social inequalities. The gap between poor and poorer is widening. Whether this leads to popular unrest really depends on how the “loyal” citizens in Pyongyang fare.

If the regime can keep the army and the Workers’ Party members happy, with enough rice for their families and adequate electricity for their DVD players, it can probably maintain its grip on power for some time to come. But if these privileged people, who have more time to spare because they are not working in the fields and also have better means to spread a message, become disgruntled that could lead towards change.

I think the regime will press ahead with economic reforms - simply because there is no other option, they need foreign capital and to try to increase supply and curb inflation.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.