North Korea is known by many as the world’s most isolated country. Many people are surprised to learn that travelling to North Korea is actually possible, let alone working or even investing in the socialist state. And even fewer know that there is indeed a small community of foreigners in the country whom we have met over the years during our trips to North Korea. They are:
It is common knowledge that the United States and South Korea are the “enemies” of North Korea, but a little-known fact is that the country maintains diplomatic relations with more than 165 states in the world, which leads to the establishments of over 20 foreign embassies in Pyongyang, some very predictable – China, Cuba, Russia, Viet Nam, but some are quite unexpected – the United Kingdom, Iran and Palestine!
The majority of these embassies are situated in the Munsu-dong Diplomatic Compound in Pyongyang city, which is home to hundreds of foreign diplomats.
(picture of the Iran embassy in Pyongyang)
Interestingly, embassies are allowed to install wifi in their offices, and some of them do not set a password on purpose to allow their Korean neighbours to gain access to the long lost world wide web. Such opportunity to “get connected” has driven up the housing prices in the nearby areas as Pyongyang citizens want to have a taste of wifi signals.
From time to time, we have conversations with the foreign diplomats stationing in Pyongyang – like recently we met with a couple of diplomats from Poland who were cycling around the city without Korean guides’ following, clearly one of the diplomats’ privileges.
(our encounter with the two Polish diplomats)
A number of non-governmental organisations have been active in North Korea in providing humanitarian support to the local communities – distributing food, providing animal husbandry, agricultural training, as well as basic medical support. These NGOs include Oxfam, Red Cross, Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, and Canadian Food Grains Bank. It has always been difficult for them to reach those in need, especially in the more remote and poorer parts of the country. There are certainly limitations, such organisations nonetheless are important forces to assist North Korean people and prevent them from entering yet another humanitarian crisis.
Sometimes, we would greet the NGOs representatives in different parts of the country and in July we partnered up with the Pyongyang Representative of World Federation of the Deaf to arrange a voluntary service session at the Pyongyang Deaf Children Kindergarten.
[Eastern Vision’s visit to the Pyongyang Deaf Children kindergarten]
Despite North Korea remains a “No-fly zone” for foreign investors, there are still small numbers of foreign companies investing in industries such as telecom, software, construction (i.e. of shopping malls), shipping and mining. Some entrepreneurs even published books about their experiences of running businesses in North Korea, and revealed that trust building is most crucial when working with business partners in the Hermit Kingdom.
To no one’s surprise, China is the largest trading partner of North Korea, occupying around 90% of trade volume. Today, more and more Chinese traders and businessmen frequently set foot on the North Korean soil. On the train from Dandong, the bordering Chinese city, to Pyongyang, you will likely bump into few of them and the long journey is always a great time to share stories.
4. Tour Agents
Of course, with tourism being the only viable means for standard foreigners to enter North Korea, the roles of travel agencies have become substantial. Reportedly there are around 100,000 tourists in 2014 in which only several thousands of them are from countries other than China.
Tour guides and staff from tour agencies are those who bridge visitors and North Korean counterparts, they will be the most common foreigners other than Chinese you will see in North Korea, possibly at every hotel lobby.
[our tour leader discussing with North Korean counterpart]
5. Exchange Students
There has been a small circle of Chinese University students to do an exchange semester in one of the famous North Korean Universities – Kim Il Sung University (the Harvard equivalent in the country), Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies, or the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
However, the most unprecedented case in recent years must be Alessandro Ford, the son of a Belgian diplomat and the first Western student to ever study in North Korea. He was surprised to find out that his fellow Korean classmates are all virgins and never kissed in the public. And he would never forget the college dorm run out of hot water during the minus -20C winter.
6. Lastly… DHL
And yes, DHL delivers, even in North Korea.