In September 2015, I traveled to North Korea to see, first-hand, what life was like inside the Hermit Kingdom. Much of the country was what I had expected: strange, ersatz, thick with propaganda, and every so often, seriously unsettling.
And yet, the journey was also filled with some truly wonderful, completely unexpected surprises. One thing’s for sure: North Korea really is unlike any other place on Earth.
Since my return, I’ve had a lot of people, friends and strangers, ask me about my trip. There has been way more curiosity about North Korea than I would have imagined — so much so, that I thought I’d write down some of my experiences, and share them with you here.
Pictures and stories alone can’t do justice to what it’s really like being on the ground in North Korea. As a visitor, you’re watched 24/7, you have no freedom, and you’re constantly tense and on edge. But hopefully, this post will at least give you a glimpse into what life is like in one of the most restricted, enigmatic destinations in the world.
I was bringing a fair bit of photography equipment with me: two cameras, a portable hard drive, lens filters, a bunch of spare batteries, and lots of extra memory cards. Upon seeing all this camera gear, security guards pulled me out of line and escorted me to a walled off, secondary security area, where they closely examined all my equipment.
I also had a smartphone and tablet with me, and had to hand these over for inspection. North Korea now records the serial numbers for all smartphones brought into the country. I watched as a security guard entered my devices’ digits into a log book, before he handed them back to me.
The government is particularly paranoid about foreigners bringing in any kind of literature that could be used to influence their people (e.g., the Bible). Finding nothing offensive in my bags, or stored on my memory cards, I was finally permitted to enter the country.
As it turned out, a lot of what I had previously read about North Korea was true. You are assigned government-trained “minders” who are with you 24/7. They monitor your activities, manage your itinerary, and tell you what you can and cannot do. You are in their custody for the entirety of the trip. There are always at least 2 minders assigned to a group, because the minders also have to mind each other, making sure their comrades don’t succumb to the devious devilry of us American imperialists. No joke.
Before our shuttle had even left the airport parking lot, our minders were already beginning to walk us through all the rules we had to obey, including:
- We must always travel in a group. For the entire trip, we almost never got to walk around outside. Instead, we were bused from place to place, even if we were only traveling 4 blocks. You’re definitely not allowed to do things like leave the hotel at night or explore the city on your own.
- No photos of military sites or soldiers. This often proved to be difficult, given that nearly 40% of North Korea’s population serves in the military.
- No photos of construction sites or any people at work. The government wants the world to see their country represented only by pristine pictures of perfection. Photographs of half-finished buildings and sweaty laborers apparently don’t make the cut.
- If you take pictures of any of their Dear Leaders, you have to capture their whole figure. You can’t crop out any part of their bodies.
- If you have any printed materials depicting the Dear Leaders (e.g., newspapers, magazine), you can’t crease their images. You also can’t throw these materials in the garbage, or use them as wrapping paper.
- Whenever you visit a statue of a Dear Leader, your group will need to line up single-file in front of it, and bow. Your hands must be at your side; not in your pockets or behind your back.
The country has propaganda vans trolling the streets with giant megaphones perched on their rooftops.
Even the people themselves are part of the propaganda machine. Nearly every North Korean wears a red pin patriotically emblazoned with the faces of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I tried really hard to lay my hands on one of these pins, but tourists aren’t allowed to have them. They have to be earned through loyal servitude.
Our Gilded Prison
The Pyongyang Elite
If you’re living in Pyongyang, you are the 1%
And with this status comes privilege that you won’t find elsewhere in the country:
You’re given free housing in high-rise apartments in return for loyalty and service to the country.
You have access to grocery stores that are stocked with Nutella, Oreos, Absolut Vodka, and… jelly shoes. Some of these pictures are a bit blurry, because you’re not allowed to take pictures inside any of the country’s stores. So, I had to get creative with my photography.
You get to ride on Soviet subways.
You get to use a smartphone.
You even get to go to amusement parks and water parks on the weekend.
A Soviet Concrete Jungle.
Overall, Pyongyang was much more developed than what I had imagined.
The North Korean elites love revolving restaurants. They’re seen as a must-have for any high-end, luxury hotel. The top two hotels in Pyongyang — the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel — both have one. So, to ensure its supremacy in the world of hospitality, the Ryugyong Hotel was designed to have not one, not two, but FIVE revolving restaurants! You can see them in the cylindrical cone at the top of the tower in the photos below.
The dorm rooms were very basic. Women slept 7 to a room, and they were literally packed in like sardines, with their beds stacked side-by-side-by-side. The beaming portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il hung overhead.
They had prepared a model dorm room for us to see (the same one that Kim Jong Un was shown when he came to tour this factory, we were proudly told). When we were ushered inside, there was a woman fast asleep on one of the beds. This was pretty awkward, but our hosts didn’t seem to think so.
Our factory guide also proudly told us that Marshall Kim Jong Un himself personally picked out the paint color for the dorm walls (pink) and the wallpaper (some kind of a peach-taupe concoction).
The Car Dealership
And that’s when you can’t help but wonder:
They would only be showing us this place if this is the best they’ve got. So, if this is the best, what does the worst look like?
The Dear Leaders
President Kim Il Sung — The granddaddy of The Dear Leaders. Literally. Kim Il Sung was the founding Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and is referred to as the nation’s “Eternal President.”
General Kim Jong Il— Son of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il served as the DPRK’s Supreme Leader until he passed in 2011.
Amongst the North Koreans we were exposed to, the Dear Leaders are revered like Gods. Everywhere you turn, there are statues, paintings, mosaics, songs, and books dedicated to the greatness of these men.
On any given day, you’ll find North Koreans making pilgrimages to giant statues of their Dear Leaders, and paying their respects by bowing deeply and laying flowers at their feet.
Even newlyweds will visit these sites to take pictures, and to pay tribute.
Both of these school visits were simultaneously touching and disturbing
On one hand, the kids were truly adorable, and some of them were really impressively talented.
Internet vs Intranet
However, there did appear to be a national Intranet. It didn’t seem like most citizens had access to this either, but a couple institutions we went to did seem to be wired in.
The looming specter of war is ever-present in North Korea
The drive from Pyongyang to Panmunjom, the border city at the DMZ, is 3 hours long — placing Pyongyang twice as far from a potential border battle, compared to Seoul, which is less than a 90 minute drive away.
The drive down to Panmunjom was really interesting. The highway was 6 lanes wide, and yet the road was almost completely devoid of cars for the entire 3 hour drive. We mostly just saw people biking and walking along the edge of the asphalt. The only other vehicles we saw were military jeeps and an occasional bus or two.
As we got closer to the DMZ, the military checkpoints got more and more frequent, and the soldiers at these checkpoints looked more and more fierce. Each time we approached one, our minders would emphatically remind us not to take any pictures.
Our rather intimidating military tour guide at the Korean War Museum
On display outside was a wide collection of damaged US warplanes and tanks.
Battered US warplanes and tanks at the Korean War Museum
I suppose it’s not too surprising that children and teenagers were far friendlier and more curious, compared to the adults. Perhaps they hadn’t been fully-indoctrinated by propaganda yet. Perhaps the hardships of life hadn’t begun weighing down on their shoulders.
Whatever the reason, seeing this next generation of North Koreans gave me hope — hope that someday, change will come for the North Koreans. And when it does, their country, and the entire world, will be better for it.
What’s Special Today: November 10
Historically native to the Indian states of Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand and the southern part of Nepal, Chhath is one of those festivals that transcends the caste system that exists in the society. According to the Hindu calendar, it is celebrated on the sixth day of the lunar month of Kartik. The Chhath Puja is a 4-day long ritual specially offered to the solar deity, Surya, to show thankfulness for good health, good life and to request the granting of some certain wishes.
Day 1: On the first day, the devotees after bathing clean their house and eat the food that is offered to the god to protect the mind from the vengeful tendency.
Day 2: On the second day, the devotees are not allowed to drink even a single drop of water but, in the evening, they eat kheer made up of jaggery, fruits.
Day 3: The evening of the third day which is also known as sandhya ‘arghya’ day where a bamboo basket is decorated with various puja materials, fruits, thekuwa, and laddus which are offered as an ‘argya’ to the Sun. Also, the Chhathi Maiya is worshipped.
Day 4: On the last day of Chhath puja again an arghya is offered to the Sun God but this time in the morning. The devotees go to the riverbank to offer arghya to the rising sun and break their fast and conclude their four-day long worship.
Happy Chhath to everyone! Don’t forget to enjoy some thekuwas!!
World Keratoconus Day:
Every year on November 10, World Keratoconus Day is celebrated to focus global attention on keratoconus and ectatic corneal disorders. The day was first celebrated by National Keratoconus Foundation.
Keratoconus is a disease that causes the cornea to become weak, leading to the thinning and stretching of the cornea, which may result in the loss of vision. Keratoconus is degeneration of the structure of the cornea. The shape of the cornea slowly changes from the normal round shape to a cone shape which affects the vision. The keratoconus mainly develops in teenagers and young adults and the disease keeps on growing, if not diagnosed in time.
The disease has no prevention and no treatment. With early diagnosis, the disease can be managed and further damage can be protected. In Nepal, the prevalence of Keratoconus is 1 in 2000 according to the recent journal. So, this world keratoconus day, make a commitment to visit an eye doctor once a year for the early diagnosis of keratoconus as well as other eye diseases.
Best and Worst Bank in Nepal as per our survey
We had conducted an online survey to find out how banking services in Nepal are being used and perceived by their users. This article is entirely based on those responses. Thank you Muktinath Bikash Bank for supporting us in conducting this survey.
Over the years, Banks have become an integral part of our daily life and economy. With the shift to digitalization and modernization of the economy, banks have definitely made life easier for people to manage their cash and transactions. With these shifts and increasing dependency on banks more than ever, the use of banking services and users’ banking experience is one of the topics with the minimal amount of research done. Out of curiosity, we conducted an online survey to find out how people have been feeling about the banking services provided by the respective banks.
Respondents were mostly urban educated youth with access to the internet, in the age bracket of 18-40, mostly being from 22-26 age group. The data was collected through social media users, primarily from page followers of KMAG. In total, we got 219 responses out of which 160 were males and 59 were females.
In the list of questionnaires, one of the questions was “which is your favorite bank from Nepal as per your own experience,” and another being “which bank do you think is the worst.” Among 219, 27 respondents were undecided and 192 casted their votes for “best” and the “worst.” To build the conclusion on more strong foundation, we wanted to make sure respondents voice their opinion per their experience for which we had also asked them to reveal their primary bank.
Out of the total participants, a majority of 89.6% have multiple bank accounts though 19.5% of them just use one of those accounts. The remaining 10.4% claimed to have an only bank account. Out of all those banks, Nabil Bank is the primary bank for 36 participants (which was the highest no. of primary account holders in a particular bank). After Nabil, most of them were primary users of NIC Asia, Global IME, and Siddhartha Bank.
Nabil is voted as “Favorite Bank”
Nabil Bank seems to be the most favorite and popular among the respondents. With a total of 45 votes, it was voted the “most liked” bank. Among them, 29 were the primary account holders of the bank. Under “least liked,” it only got 4 votes.
To briefly talk about Nabil Bank, Nabil Bank is an ‘A’ class commercial bank which was founded in 1984 A.D. (2041 B.S.). It was established as Nepal’s first private sector bank incepted by multinational investors with the objective of providing modern, international-standard financial services. It was first established as Nepal Arab Bank Limited. In 1995, Dubai-government owned the majority of shares was bought by Binod Chaudhary.
NIC Asia is “least favourite”
With 76 votes for “worst bank,” NIC Asia seems like the “least liked” bank from Nepal as per the responses. Interestingly though, it has also been voted as “favorite bank” by 17 respondents.
After NIC Asia, Nepal Investment Bank seems like the second “least favorite” bank from Nepal with 23 votes against the bank.
On being asked the reason for disliking the bank, most of the participants seem to agree on the same point and that is “terrible” customer service of the bank. Similarly, other reasons were bad internet/mobile banking facilities, fraud-like business practices, and lack of important banking services/products being provided by the. Not to forget few were unhappy about the lack of branch/ATM services.
The detailed data are presented in the table below:
|Global IME Bank||25||17||10|
|NIC Asia Bank||29||17||76|
|Standard Chartered Bank||9||8||2|
|Bank of Kathmandu||5||6||1|
|Muktinath Bikash Bank||4||4||2|
|Century Commercial Bank||3||3||0|
|Kamana Sewa Bikas Bank||1||3||1|
|Prabhu Bank Limited||8||3||8|
|Rastriya Banijya Bank||3||3||9|
|Agriculture Development Bank||2||2||2|
|Nepal Bangladesh Bank||2||2||2|
|Nepal Investment Bank||15||2||23|
|Garima Bikash Bank||2||1||0|
|Nepal SBI Bank||2||1||11|
|Prime Commercial Bank||7||1||2|
|Manakamana Development Bank||0||0||1|
|Shangri-la Development Bank||1||0||0|
How to design a survey questionnaire
This article was originally designed for KMAG Online Writing Workshop and made available to public for knowledge-sharing purpose.
A survey is a list of questions aimed at extracting specific data from a particular group of people so that the surveyor can gain knowledge and insights into various topics of interest and then mostly generalize the result. How to design a survey questionnaire completely depends upon the purpose behind the survey. Depending on the purpose, questions are framed.
Let’s understand this way, surveyor seeks to know anything based on either of the following grounds:
- They don’t know anything, they are curious to find out, and they seek for answers. Example: I don’t know many people smoke and I want to find out by asking everyone out there.
- They think they know but they are not sure and they want to find out if what they think they know is actually true or false. Example: I think 50% of Nepalese do smoke but I am not sure yet and I want to validate my assumption by surveying.
- They strongly believe that what they know is the facts and now they want to interpret the world based on the “facts” they live by. Example: I strongly believe that smoking is bad and raising tax and making it expensive is the way to discourage people to smoke. I want to survey to find out how many Nepalese believe the same and agree with raising taxes and making it expensive would discouarge people to smoke.
Whatever grounds you are holding, you must frame your questionnaire according to that. So before working on the questionnaire ask yourself if you are trying to know the unknown or are you trying to validate or crosscheck what you think you know or you are trying to pass judgment or views based on your preset theory/hypothesis that your understanding is based upon.
This is how it goes:
You already have a theory and you want to analyze people based on the theory.
Let’s take for example “Job satisfaction Survey.” In this case, as per your theory/hypothesis, to be called “satisfied” one must be displaying so and so traits and views; if not, the person is not satisfied in his/her job. Based on that, you will be designing a questionnaire and see how many people meet the criteria to pass your judgment. If your theory says, highly satisfied people have flexible working hours, one of your questions will be something like “Can you come to your office at whatever time you want and can leave per your own wish as long as you are doing what you are paid for? Yes/No/Depends.” Likewise, there will be other questions set in a fashion to funnel your judgment regarding what percentage of people are satisfied with their job and work.
You have a theory or hypothesis that you want to validate or crosscheck
In this case, you have an assumption but you are not sure of and you want to crosscheck or validate by testing it on people. For example let’s say you think “Most arranged marriage people are unhappy,” and you want to validate your claim or crosscheck the truth in it by surveying among arranged marriage couples. Your questions will be something like “If you have to rate your marriage in terms of joy and happiness in it, how much will you rate on a 1 to 10 scale?” followed by questions like “if you have a time machine, would you go back right before the marriage and take your time to find out someone to have a love marriage? Yes/No/Maybe”
You don’t have any theory or hypothesis and you are only to find out unseen/unknown reality
In this case, you don’t have any preconceived thoughts or assumptions and you are plainly trying to learn or find out in an open-minded fashion. Like for example, You don’t know how many educated youth from Nepal actually do smoke, nor you know why they smoke despite its negative effect and you are set out to find out the answer by surveying. In such surveys, your questions will be like “do you smoke? Yes/No. “If you smoke, how many cigarettes do you smoke per day?” “despite its negative effect, why do you still smoke?”etc.
Sometimes, you can have a mixed approach, wherein the topic of your interest that you are surveying on, part of it is something you strongly believe being fact, part of it is something you are unsure about, and part of it is something you don’t know a thing about and you are willing to learn. Like for example, you strongly believe happy couples display so and so traits, and you think couples from love marriages are happier but you are not sure of, and you don’t know at all if personal happiness is valued more in marriage or responsibilities and social factors in the context of Nepal. So part of your questionnaires will be driven by your theory that you consider as being fact, part of it will be intended to cross-verify your assumption, and part of it will be purely seeking truth as it is without any deliberate attempt to frame your assumption.
Bottom line, you should know your ground, the purpose of surveying, what you intend to do afterward, based on which you should be working on your questionnaires. Your questionnaires will be designed according to your intention, so there is no hard and fast rule but make sure, in the end, you gather all the relevant information so put together to build a conclusion and for that, you need to think about what all needs to be asked to fill up the blocks and connect the dots.