I Don’t Speak Korean

One evening, I had a very light, unusual conversation with the local project manager (visiting from Pyongyang) and my translator. Normally after dinner I am not allowed to wander outside the boundaries of my bungalow  and so are they. But that evening, we all decided to hang outside our houses – spring weather was really nice and talk about life in North Korea, how it is to be a translator and about why I am there, which was to work.

You see, North Korea is known for it being backwards, hermit and anything our country is not. Maybe the country is but not the people, especially those that knows better, those that had seen an alternative life(style). They are not behind, not hermit but secretive – yes.

When I had my orientation, I was told that I am not allowed to socialize with my handler (translator) and driver when out in the field. Including not inviting them to watch movies with me or share my books.(I think I talked a little bit about how is the life like in the Other Korea so go check it out) But when you’re with them all the time, you have no choice but to share a little bit of yourself, break the rules and not to expect anything in return.  Not in North Korea, they are very calculated – never share their feelings (not even smile), they report everything to the “higher powers”, they write everything and they have I think their own code.

Scary? yes but understandable. It was due to the kind of environment they have and the “propaganda” that bombards them everyday of their life. From the time they wake up to the time they sleep they have to relive everything in their Juche Principles even though I know some of them are rebelling (at least those that knows the difference) most have no choice, most it’s the only life they know.

That evening, we had fun. It was light moments of discussion, some laughter, and as the night progressed, I was surprised with a new topic Ro (the project manager) started talking about TRUST and their experience working with foreigners.

The main character in our discussion was my translator Yu. Lovely girl in her early twenties then (now she’s married and have a child). He was saying that I should trust my translator (maybe trying to convince me to put my guard down).  They talked about why it’s important to assign translator to us – there’s the sugar coated reasons and the most obvious one 나는 코란의 언어를 사용하지 않는 (I don’t speak Korean) and the real reason — we cannot be trusted! 😀 😀 😀 and the feeling was mutual (for the latter), at least in the beginning.

– we bring colonial ideals and we belong to the capitalist world (they are socialist for those who doesn’t know)

– we are bad influence (mainly evolving around our lifestyle choices — which I think was similar to theirs but they don’t want to admit to it)

– we watch movies, read books that gives bad influence (Gabriel Garcia Marquez a bad influence? K-pop maybe but they were not “in” yet that time)

– we are simply foreigners, we cannot be trusted (what can I do but at least I am not American)

The first 3 months (I only stayed for 7 months) I was paranoid with how I mingle with my local partners, including the cleaners in my house but overtime as the familiarity with each other becomes deeper it dissipated and I started to forget I am in North Korea and the two constant people in my life there are “spies”. I didn’t put my guard down  – I have no reason to be in the first place – guarded I mean. I am not there to be naughty only to be nice. I was there to be part of the foreign statistics who go there to help them (said without opening the mouth).

with my now friends -- Mr. Cha and Yu Sun at Bujon County. We are sitting on top of the remaining ice from the last winter

with my now friends — Mr. Cha and Yu Sun at Bujon County. We are sitting on top of the remaining ice from the last winter


The big revelation of the night was when they told me what they though of my boss, whose been there for a good 2 years when I arrived and I think stayed a total of 7 years (or maybe I am exaggerating).


“She’s like a submarine … she knows more than what she’s letting us know”

Hmmmm… what can I say? I didn’t know where that was that coming from but then again that was their opinion, I didn’t have to agree or disagree to it and in fact I didn’t discuss it with my boss — I think I forgot about it until now.

The last topic was forgotten (at least by me), we never talked about it again or had the chance to have a night out again :).

Life goes back to business as usual the following morning.

Towards the end of my stay, I stopped caring about their presence in my life, my translator Yu Sun and driver Mr. Cha became good friends and if she reported all my questions and all the things I said in my 7 months there, I am sure she would have completed several notebooks — I talk a lot and I am like a cat, always curious, the same for Mr. Cha.

I miss my time there and the people I met no doubt but whether I like working there again in the same situation maybe “I have to think about it”.

My take on my life there … I believe that everybody is free, you are free to do whatever you like, to think, to read what you fancy, to watch silly movies and express yourself. It is easy to be afraid of things you don’t know. The same for the people who have never been there – I don’t say I know any better, because 7 months of being there does not make me an expert but one thing I know they are no different than you and me, only the circumstances are. So no reason to be afraid.

Trust is all that matters next to LOVE of course!


The Other Korea

North Korea is synonymous to many things — hermit country, terrorist, reclusive, crazy and many more negative adjectives. I neither confirm nor deny the name calling but since I experienced life there for a least 6 months I want to remember it as a very nice country – un spoilt, lovely people, underrated, misunderstood  and maybe a little angry. If you knew the history of the country my last description may give you some insight on why.

Let me introduce you to the capital Pyongyang up to the east coast Hamhung, Wonsan and Sijung provinces where I work and a little further north Pujon county and trip down the DMZ in Panmunjon Province.

Open Sesame

To enter into NoKor you need to secure a visa from Beijing, China only they can give you official permit to enter and work in the country but before they do that you have to submit to them all your credentials for them to approve you and of course to do background check. Good thing  my organization has an office in China so the process went without a hitch, I just have to stay in Beijing for a  week – see a little bit of the capital before going to the so called “hermit country”.

Leaving on a jet plane


Taking the Air Koryo from the Beijing Capital International Airport seems like a blast from the past — I took similar small plane when I started working in Cambodia. It was a remnant of old Russian plane where everything inside was old and some were broken like the back of my seat. The travel was uneventfully short — 4 hours if I remember it right. So I arrived … passport checked and stamped for entry and during those time cellphones are asked to be interned in the airport for the duration of your stay — just take your sim card and battery and they give you a pink slip as your ticket to retrieve it back in the airport. That gives you an idea of how life was simple back then — we’re not allowed to have any gadget for communication except land phones that they control (and listen to) and not even short wave radio in cars were not allowed. Communication via internet is slow and telephone is paid in Euro and very expensive.

Arriving in Pyongyang – the Capital

Photo courtesy of MimiBond SAM_0040

Off we went to the diplomatic enclave — the place where you have everything you need if you’re a foreign worker from the diplomatic core to aid workers while private company employees are belitted in Yanggakdo Hotel in the heart of the city.


One of the few diplomatic compound

But that would be my monthly home … my real home was at the east coast of Hamhung province. A very strategic countryside province facing the Japan Sea.

Hamhung Province

This is the second largest city and my work is found in the city — rehabilitation center is part of one factory that produces rubber feet and wooden prosthesis before polypropylene were introduced to them in early 2000. My organization was one of the 2 organization working for people with physical disability in the country and both produce a better quality devices that the country knew. I lived in a resort residence — the Majon Bathing Resort.


Individual houses for the visitors — found in the inner part of the Majon Bathing Resort


I am staying on the upper floor and I have the balcony all to myself

Who wouldn’t want to wake up to this everyday … beautiful sunrise and sunset everyday for the duration of my stay in the country.


My view every morning — Majon Resort


Full moon in August

And full moon on some nights …

Then you’re off to work everyday same time in the morning unless there’s a big happenings in town that no foreigner should witness (like the arrival of the Dear Leader for example) or the parade of the workers.


The making of a brace — the mold


the polypropylene


the client


the gait training

Another place of work was in Sijung Province via Wonsan Province

Final Visit - Sijung 003

Wonsan sunset

Sijung trip Aug08 (8)

Sijung Beach


Sijung Lake – famous for its black mud believed to be medicinal

The treatment center is only open during spring and summer and closed during winter. People from all over the country come to the Sijung Center (Sanitarium) to have treatment for all types of ailments. The mud is collected from the lake and prepared to be used in many different ways including the very interesting mud bath — heated to a relaxing temperature and clients are immersed for several minutes. People come here as a retreat, it has complete facilities including medical and rehabilitation treatment.

When not working we also have fun

Watching the Arirang Festival which happens every year and all students participate

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Visit to the Botanical Garden to see beautiful flower creations by connoisseurs of flower arrangement

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Trip to the Stone River – Pujon County

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Trip to the border — Panmunjon Province — The infamous Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

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Until it’s time to go back home and leave this nice little country behind and find another adventure.

Many changes had happened since I was there in 2008, cellphones become normal — everybody’s on it, Won had devaluated further and the Dear Leader had passed away and his son took over and from what everybody know the country is still as they say — reclusive but not without threat.

But in spite of that, I only would like to share good memories to let you into one of the most misunderstood country in the world.

Visit my other blog to see more of my life in North Korea http://dhidhakjpbandalan.weebly.com/snaps/a-glimpse-of-the-hermit-country