Startup trip to North Korea: “It feels like the Truman Show”

kim-jong-un
kim-jong-un

A few weeks ago a group of German founders, venture capital and private equity investors made a private tour of discovery through North Korea. The almost completely insular Socialist State between Russia, China and South Korea omnipresent in the international media because of regular war threats. The visit revealed that many myths are true – and others are completely fabricated. Gründerszene exclusively recorded the experiences of the travelers.

What is North Korea like?

The country looks like the Soviet Union in the 50s. The capital, Pyongyang, where 2.5 million of the 24 million inhabitants live, acts as a polished propaganda spearhead. Here, visitors are driven from one monument to the next. The soundtrack is monotonous: North Korea is a core culture, under pressure from the “Evil Imperialist”, the Americans, or the “Japanese aggressor”. It is necessary to defend against them, it is said. At bus stops you can see pictures of nuclear missiles ready for launching. If you drive 30 minutes out of town, fields are cultivated by cows. It’s like the Middle Ages.

And what of the prejudices?
In the Western Hemisphere there is surprisingly much nonsense – of the legally prescribed hairstyles to apostates that are served as dog food. These are certainly inevitable outgrowths of human mythmaking when positioning itself in world affairs as “Area 51”.

Examples:

  • Across the country, there should be only a handful of cars. In Pyongyang, however, traffic was like in Mannheim.
  • Whoever is filming will end up in a bunker. We were able to film everywhere without being asked about it.
  • Starving people with blank stares line the streets. In fact, we saw a lot of smiling, well-dressed and normally fed Koreans.

Although Pyongyang is a big stage, daily life appears credibly normal: There are beer halls, pubs, swimming pools, restaurants, amusement parks, museums, bowling, shooting ranges (five euros to shoot at live chickens), a Western coffee shop and a Ukrainian hot dog stand.

One difference, however, is that the city is a refuge for comparatively wealthy party members, while a significant portion of the population has no electricity, water or secure food supply. And they couldn’t ever leave the country. The theater bears fruit quickly: After a few days you find yourself more often at the thought that all is actually not so bad.

The subway is from Berlin
The martial monuments are bleak and breathtaking – you throw “V for Vendetta”, “1984”, “Star Wars” and “Hunger Games” in a blender. Plus a lot of steel, concrete and infinite attention to detail. Everywhere they celebrate the founding myth of the country, the party and especially the leaders. Although the country is completely dark (power saving mode) in the evening and famines have occurred, there are ultramodern bunkers as music schools, libraries, museums and science centers. The only international airport (four gates, barely one flight per day) is more modern than most European provincial airports.
Again and again we ask the question: Where does the money for this come from? An important lifeline of North Korea is China where, among other things, food and electronics are coming from. We saw supermarkets with “Gut & Günstig” products from Edeka, Pepsi, Coca Cola and German beer. The subway comes from the Berliner BVG. Apparently, it’s a second-hand bargain.

One of the last untapped billion dollar markets

There is no advertising, no internet, no cross-border mail. More detox for attention is not possible. North Korea is probably the last great, untapped nearly billion dollar market economy in the world in the midst of highly developed neighbors.

Curtain up for the “Truman Show”
Although it is always said that nothing was staged, you often felt as if in the “Truman Show”. The polished places that you can visit look like film sets from the 60s. Extremely preppy people walk through the scenery like extras. Everything is geared to show Western doubters that they possess technology, education and prosperity.

But the scenery is crumbling fast: For example, we’re led to a “technical room” with about 50 people who click around on computers and watch videos (for example about the separation of eggs). 45 minutes later in the same space, they are still clicking around on the same content.

In the State Library German books from the 1980s are proudly presented, which were dispensed via a fully automated assembly line transport system within a few seconds. In fact, it was a hole in a wall, and somebody shoved a prepared box through it. Even books on programming languages like C ++ or JavaScript were lying around. Though to us these moments seemed very absurd the North Koreans seemed to act out of deep conviction. Maybe to serve as a pr-service for the press-torn country?

Laugh or cry?
The cult of the leader is grotesque. The newspaper, in which the “Dear Leader” is shown daily on the cover must not be creased. Everywhere you have to bow down to images of the family and lay flowers. There was an entire exhibition for the flower “kimilsungia” that was especially bred for the state founder Kim Il-Sung. On every major road there are giant posters of Il-Sung, who is holding either plants, animals or children in his arms. He is said to have written the first revolutionary writings at the age of three years old.

The Kims are also said to have later invented all sorts of stuff, such as height-adjustable school desks, and written thousands of books and flown airplanes. Our favorite: “Selfless service to the masses is the mode of existence of North Korea and the source of its invincible force.” Upon entering the North Korean air space there’s an announcement that extols the “Supreme Commander” who exerts himself for reunification. Many sentences begin with “Under the wise leadership of our great leader …”. Items that the leaders have touched are forever marked with red signs (Here sat Kim Jong-un on XX.XX.2015). As inevitably biased visitors we often didn’t know whether to laugh or cry watching the credible fervor of the lecturing locals.

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200 minutes mobile service from the state
At the airport, we were surprised that North Korea offers mobile service: “Koryolink” is a joint venture of the state with the Egyptian conglomerate Orascom. The network was set up for a rumoured 400 million US dollars and had at the end of 2015 three million customers and reached 90 percent of the population. Many people on the street are engrossed in their Chinese and North Korean handsets similar to Android phones of the first generation. At the airport, our group observed individual officials with iPhones. There are state-owned apps, such as a messenger. But an “app store”, however, can only be accessed in physical stores, where applications can be installed and monitored.

It’s also an interesting fact that the networks for North Koreans and the few foreigners living in the country are separated. North Koreans get 200 minutes talk time per month by the state. Foreigners need to purchase prepaid cards which also allow internet connection. Other than that there is no free internet access possible: North Koreans have to be content with a kind of “state intranet”, which is accessible through libraries and universities.

Citizens have no way to privately communicate with other countries, be it via email, letter or phone. If you want to send souvenir photos to your North Korean guides you will have to send them to the Chinese tour operators. They will print them and deliver them in person on one of their forthcoming tours.
This goes beyond any power of the imagination

We were also struck by the fact that the North Korean border city of Kaesong (in the evening you would need to light your way with flashlights) is only 70 kilometers away from Seoul which is one of the biggest consumer nations in the world with 5G in the subways. What remains in between is a distance of 70 years of development and a 250-kilometer demilitarized border zone (“DMZ”).

On the South Korean side of the “DMZ” there are outlet centers, restaurants and a considerable infrastructure for the event of sudden reunification. We have learned from “the German situation,” they say. Less than four kilometers further north there is a state of war between military checkpoints and barren fields where people pick vegetables with their bare hands.

Please do not insult the leader
That any misconduct will land you right in the Gulag is a fairy tale. Although there is much military (after all, the fifth largest standing army in the world is present) you will be left alone as long as you follow the rules. The two most dangerous offenses: offending the leaders or smuggling in a Bible. Both have happened several times before: A US student tore a poster from a hotel a few months ago and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Another had hidden a bible in his hotel room, probably in the hopes to convert the housekeeping.

Can we recommend the trip?

We can recommend this trip, provided you have a good tour group. Ours was great! Tourism has been in North Korea since 1953 – but nobody knows about it. There are between 1,500 to 10,000 Westerners traveling per year depending on the source. And 100,000 nostalgic Chinese. People are constantly accompanied by local guides and you cannot leave the 50-storey hotel which lies on an island. Sometimes we were probably the only guests. However, that sounds worse than it is.

Conclusion
We had incredibly exciting and grotesque five days on one of the last white spots on earth. Any longer would have been hard since from day three one slowly feels the brain softening from the propaganda hammer. That such a parallel world may exist in 2016 is beyond any imagination. Only on the return flight do you realize the fact that the leaders has closed off 24 million apparently friendly and peace-loving people systematically from modern civilization.

However, the conclusion that they want to be saved from the white man is only an allegation: What you do not know, you can not miss. We are sure that many North Koreans are living in satisfaction.

Note: The travelers wanted to remain anonymous. The editor knows their identity.

This article was originally published on Gründerszene.

Images: VCG, Private