Behind the North Korean Curtain, Part I

North Korea is far different from the way it is usually portrayed, according to a seasoned international traveler who has spent a fair amount of time there. From Joel Bowman at

Joel Bowman talks to Kolja Spöri

Joel Bowman: Good day, Kolja. Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with International Man today. Where in the world do we find you right now?

Kolja Spöri: Merhaba, Joel! I am just in Istanbul at the airport, in transit to Munich, coming from Baghdad.

JB: Having literally written the book “I’ve Been Everywhere” (in German: Ich war überall), you certainly fit the bill as a true International Man. I imagine our conversation could go in many directions today, but I wanted to start with a particular trip you embarked on earlier this year that must have been quite eye-opening, even by your own standards.

When most people think of taking a vacation, they might imagine heading down to Florida, or the Bahamas, or maybe nipping over to Hawaii. You decided, instead, to opt for the decidedly cooler climes of Pyongyang, capital of North Korea. What inspired you to set off on an adventure to one of the so-called “Axis of Evil” countries?

KS: There’s actually warm weather and good surfing in North Korea in the summer! But yes, I have been a world traveler for a long time, both privately and on business trips. My goal became to visit every country in the world. It was just a natural thing that I would also visit North Korea on the way. North Korea is a good example where I learned that our Western view on the world does not always hold true, or at least the narratives that we are spoon fed from our Western media and our Western education system.

Fifteen years ago, I was in South Korea visiting the demilitarized zone in Panmunjom, from the south. And at that time, already 15 years ago, I had a feeling that something was wrong about the way I was taught to look at things. Now that I’ve seen the border from the other side, from the north, I have a much clearer picture of where I was wrong, and where maybe many of us are wrong in the West.

I want to make clear that I don’t defend the North Korean system. After all, I am an Austrian School Libertarian. But I use the small case study of North Korea to build a strong case against our Western regime.

JB: You mention this disconnect in a blog post you wrote about the trip, concerning the West’s general drift towards collectivism and cultural-Marxism. I definitely want to get into all that but, before we do, I imagine our readers have similar questions to the ones that are at the fore of my mind right now, and that is… how does one go about, from a purely logistical perspective, getting into and around North Korea? We’re told that it’s a total hermit kingdom, more or less impenetrable. No one goes in, no one gets out. How does one even begin planning for a trip like this?

KS: In fact, the idea that it’s impossible to get to North Korea is already propaganda. Western propaganda. In reality, it is very easy to get to North Korea. There are three or four travel agencies in Beijing with whom you can communicate via e-mail, and you get your visa from them online. Then, you simply travel there, usually via Beijing. There’s a daily flight to North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. There’s also a daily train from Dandong, China, to Pyongyang. And there are two flights a week from Vladivostok, Russia. This is all totally easy. Certainly no reason to be afraid.

JB: That definitely runs counter to the Western narrative. So you took the plane from Beijing, is that right? Can you tell us about that?

KS: Yes, I went on Koryo Airlines, the national airline of North Korea, which is purported to be the worst airline in the world. It is the only airline that has only one star on SKYTRAX. Now, I would ask people not to think badly of Koryo Airlines. Rather, one should think poorly of SKYTRAX, because this is pure propaganda. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Koryo Airline. Actually there are lots of airlines that are far worse in Europe and in America too.

I am happy to encourage people to fly on Koryo Airlines. They offer decent food, the airhostesses are young and friendly, there are regular television screens, a complimentary English newspaper, the Pyongyang Times. And, believe it or not, they offer a business class cabin, contrary to many of the Western no-frills cattle transport planes.

JB: So what were your first impressions? Getting off the plane… the airport… the trip out to your hotel… actually arriving in the capital. Was it a hotel that you arranged through the travel agency? I’m sure people are interested in a real, behind-the-scenes perspective.

KS: First of all, the propaganda in the West says that there are terrible airport immigration controls, where you spend hours getting a complete shakedown. Sort of TSA-style atrocities. That’s just not true. In my case, immigration was a breeze, very friendly. The only thing they really want to ensure is that you have no data storage possibilities where you can take data in or out; computer programs, movies, et cetera. So no small computer chips or USB sticks that can be exchanged for a warm beer on the personnel floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel. The other thing is, they don’t want you to allow Internet access for the locals, so Internet routers are usually also taken away.

Now, I should point out here that “taken away” actually means the tour guides keep the goods in a safe box, and you get them back when you exit the country. As a tourist, it is true that you have these sorts of restrictions, and you are always traveling with two tour guides, and the driver, who undoubtedly spy on each other as much as on their foreign guest.

JB: I imagine most people would still find that environment a little intimidating, even if, unlike most other states, they do return your confiscated goods. Were you at all unnerved by the experience?

KS: Let’s not forget that our Western governments confiscate property all the time, under pretexts like money laundering, war on drugs, custom duties, taxation, etc. especially at airports, and they don’t return it. In North Korea there is a strong sense of the surveillance system for sure, and while I am obviously not happy about it, I can understand that they want to safeguard their internal security. North Korea was viciously attacked by the US in 1950 in the Korean War. And they are still under attack. There’s still no peace agreement. And they suffered enormous destruction and a staggering death toll.

Most people don’t realize this but, in fact, the Korean War was already decided on at the Yalta Conference, in 1945, where the division of the Korean Peninsula was agreed upon between Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill. There it was decided to split Korea at the 38th parallel. The war was just designed to make money for the US military industrial complex, to have a US military presence in that strategic corner of the world, and to have a showcase for the Cold War of two systems, with a regional hot war, contained in a defined area. Similar to the Donbass today.

The war was brutal. The U.S. dropped more than 10 million bombs on North Korea, which is more than one 500 kg bomb per inhabitant of North Korea.

Now, 500 kg is a big bomb. It’s half a car. Every inch of land in the north was destroyed. A quarter of North Korea’s population – roughly 2.5 million people, mostly civilians – was killed in a short time. Imagine 80 million U.S. civilians wiped out in an air attack. That’s the proportions.

The U.S. also used chemical and biological weapons like napalm barrel bombs and anthrax.

Therefore the Koreans have kept a siege mentality, which leads to these sorts of restrictions for outsiders traveling to the country. But it’s not this dark kingdom of evil that I did occasionally see when the Iron Curtain was still up, when I was in Bulgaria, or East Germany. That was a lot worse. North Korea is actually quite tourist friendly, that’s why it also had the biggest hotel building in the world from 1987 until the Burj al Arab was opened in Dubai in 1999.

JB: Well that’s certainly counter to the narrative presented by the talking heads in the Western media. Interestingly, you mention in your travel writings that you think North Korea is moving, in general, towards a more open, freer society. Of course, it’s a long, long way from the libertarian kind of society we might wish to see, but it’s at least moving in the right direction, is that your impression?

KS: Yes. In North Korea there is a good momentum, whereas in the West the totalitarian surveillance, tax theft and social control is getting worse. To be absolutely clear, I don’t want to defend a communist system at all. On the contrary, I’m an Austrian school libertarian. The Juche philosophy of national autarky that the Kim family has introduced to North Korea is not only a socialist system, it is even a national socialist system. I’m not going to defend it at all. I merely want to expose the Western propaganda that we are fed against North Korea, in order to expose the holes in the matrix, the wrong narratives and the contradictions that we have to suffer in the West.

JB: Indeed, sometimes the best perspective is from the outside looking in. So let’s explore that a little bit. How did you see reality on the ground there as juxtaposed to the narrative that we’re typically presented?

KS: Traveling there I found many, many examples where the accepted narrative of the West broke down, ranging from little, every day occurrences, to very obvious holes in the whole storyline.

We spoke about the immigration process a bit before, but let me say that the narrative already began breaking down before we even landed, when I met a foreign expat worker on the plane. He was actually a Norwegian, a former Bundesliga football star who is now the national trainer of the North Korean football team. So this Norwegian, along with his German wife, actually works in North Korea as an expat. Who would have thought that? I also learned later on the trip that there is quite a number of businessmen, even European businessmen, doing business in North Korea, traveling there just like I did. So there are possibilities and opportunities. There are foreign expat teachers there just like everywhere else in the world, teaching English and other languages in Korean schools or universities. There are even Christian missionaries. So people can and do travel to North Korea, and work there. They are under restrictions, of course, but it does happen.

And to my surprise, I found that it worked the other way around, too. North Koreans do, in fact, travel to the outside world. One of our tour guides, a very friendly and intelligent woman, was the daughter of a North Korean businessman. To be sure, he may not own a company or the means of production per se, but through a separate company he was able to do international trade. I think that’s mostly with Chinese businessmen. There is a certain element of enterprise, and private business people in North Korea. Before my trip, I did not know that.

JB: Do you recall any more about him, the father?

KS: He is now an artist after having retired some time ago. He actually sent his daughter, our tour guide, to Poland to study in the 2000s. Remember, we’re not talking about the Cold War, during the 1970s and 80s, when this would have been standard between communist countries. Nowadays, too, it is possible that a North Korean girl studies in the West, in Poland.

Then there are so-called “export workers,” consisting of about 100,000 North Koreans currently working abroad. One typical export good is gastronomy. North Korea has two famous brands, Pyongyang Restaurants, and Okryu Restaurants, which have about 65,000 people living and working abroad in restaurant chains that serve the national North Korean dish, the “cold noodle”.

JB: That’s some no-nonsense marketing…

KS: Right. And the other big business abroad is construction. There is a company that specializes in constructing monuments, called Mansudae. They typically build these big, socialist style statues and monuments in other countries that like this sort of thing. I think Zimbabwe is a big client, but also Qatar, Egypt, Namibia, and others.

What I’m trying to say is that, contrary to popular belief, a lot of North Koreans do work abroad. And, of course, they want to send money home, but one part of the sanctions that the West has imposed on North Korea is that their expats are not allowed to transfer their money back home. The West blocks the banking system access for North Koreans, similar as they do with sanctions against some Russians, and all Syrians, Iraqis, Palestinians, or other good folks who are blacklisted for money transactions by the Western regime. Those on the blacklist can’t even use Moneygram or Western Union. So much for “free markets” in the West.

JB: Who knew there was such a market for “socialist realism,” or that the North Koreans were the ones meeting that demand? So what about their transaction channels? I assume this has something to do with their international communications restrictions?

KS: We’re told there is no Internet, no mobile phone network in North Korea. Actually, there is. The Egyptian Swiss billionaire, Sami Sawiris, owner of Orascom telecommunications, built their Internet and mobile phone system. It is divided into a sort of “intranet” for the North Koreans, where they always stay inside their country and cannot call outsiders. And as a foreigner you can use the Internet just as you want, along with their mobile phone network, but you cannot connect with the North Koreans. They are completely closed off in that regard. So that part is true, but the technology is there nevertheless.

While communication is difficult enough, the big problem currently is the energy sanctions. People are freezing in the winter in North Korea because they do not have coal or gas or oil. They are completely cut off by the West. They are simply not allowed to buy energy, due to the Western sanctions. That is a big problem, a crime against the people, committed by the West. Letting people starve or freeze or die for lack of medication is a typical trademark strategy of the Anglo-Saxon empires over the last century, be it against Germany, India, Ukraine. Madeleine Albright famously admitted it on CNN when she said that killing 500,000 children in Iran due to the U.S. sanctions was a high price, but it was ok.

JB: Which leads us to that other “hot button” topic, that of nuclear energy on the peninsular.

KS: Yes, I actually wondered about that while I stayed there. Something doesn’t quite add up. Let us believe, for an instance, that they have nuclear technology for military purposes. This is what we are told. And that is, in fact, what they say themselves. I’m not 100% convinced. Why? I asked our tour guides, “Why are you freezing here in the winter due to lack of energy when you have atomic energy, this huge atomic weapons program. Why is there no civilian nuclear energy program?”

Apparently they have their own uranium in the country. Now, I’m certainly no expert in nuclear power, but I would imagine mastering their civilian technology would be a lot easier than building out their military nuclear capabilities. I don’t have a good answer to that. There is room for speculation. Maybe there is not only fake news, but also fake nukes. With the U.S. secretly complicit in North Korea’s atomic bomb propaganda, fake or real. After all, dangerous bogeymen like Castro or Kim are in continuous demand to justify the U.S. military doctrine.

JB: Perhaps one of our International Man readers is a nuclear physicist who might like to comment. [If that’s you, feel free to help us get a fuller picture of the situation. Write in here.]

Getting back to what you said then about the manufacture and export of socialist style statues, it would be the ultimate irony if, sometime in the future, North Korean private businesses began exporting socialist style statues to the EU and to the United States, which seem to be heading in that general direction.

KS: You know, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. That would indeed be the ultimate irony, and not a happy one for those in the West.

Editor’s Note: Tune in this time next week for Part II of Joel’s exclusive conversation with Kolja, when they’ll discuss Orwellian vs. Huxleyan dystopias, the Fabian Society’s slow and methodical path to collectivism and plenty more from Kolja’s journey to North Korea.


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