Carly Sharples


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What Is It Like To Live In North Korea As An Outsider?

What Is It Like To Live In North Korea As An Outsider?

James Warren, globetrotting British diplomat

James Warren, globetrotting British diplomat

You could say that James Warren has always had a thirst for adventure and travel. From 12 years old, he travelled by steam train on his own from Scotland down to London, circumnavigating the Tube en route to Suffolk whilst dressed in his immaculately pressed boarding school's naval uniform, carting his trunk along with him.

He narrowly escaped being packed off to work in the fur trade in the Canadian Arctic with the Hudson Bay Company by his parents in the mid-1960s and not long after joined the RAF, to work as a linguist in both Russian and German at the Cold War hub of intelligence gathering: Teufelsberg in Berlin.

Having already set the path for living a life less ordinary from childhood, upon leaving the RAF James embarked on a second career with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as a British diplomat. He became renowned for volunteering for the posts and locations around the globe that his colleagues avoided, in sensitive and conflicted countries.

James became the only British diplomat to have served in all three of President Bush's proclaimed Axis of Evil states {North Korea / Iraq / Iran}.

DPRK flag

I was intrigued to learn more about ordinary life in North Korea, but from the perspective of an expat.

Somebody who actually chose to live and work in the country.

Map of North Korea DPRK

James became the first accredited British diplomat to North Korea in 2001, responsible for establishing the British Embassy from scratch in Pyongyang and forging ties with the North Korean secret state on behalf of the British Government.

He spent three years in this isolated and ostracised country, making him ideally placed to comment on what life was like, as an outsider - but with the unique perspective of being more inside than the rest of us will ever be likely to experience (if we were so inclined...!).

You might think it might be a tad intimidating for me, a lowly International Relations graduate and blogger, to interview such a successful and highly respected arbiter of international affairs?

Well, no. 

This man, rich with unique and extraordinary tales to tell, just so happens to be my father. And so, I made us both a steaming brew and we settled down at my kitchen table to have a good ol' chinwag about his adventures in North Korea.

Out and About in Pyongyang

Pyongyang Kim Il Sung Square

I asked Dad if he was able to go out freely whilst living and working in North Korea. 

"Surprisingly, yes", he replied. "We could walk and drive quite freely throughout Pyongyang by ourselves without an official escort. Obviously we were conspicuous as Westerners, but we had no problems going into shops or just strolling around the city taking photographs of the hundreds of monuments that abounded, or visiting museums."

Pyongyang Arc de Triomphe

But what about just living a normal life? Going out to eat or popping to the shop? 

"There were a handful of shops that catered for foreigners. All transactions had to be in Euros as possession of the local currency by foreigners was forbidden. A lot of the items were imported from China and from time to time, local fresh produce would make a rare appearance. Meat was always in short supply."

"Many of us made regular diplomatic courier trips to Beijing where we would stock up with goodies from local supermarkets and embassy shops."

"Every 3 or 4 months, all the foreigners would get together and order food and other items from Justesen, a Danish mail order company that specialised in the sale of Scandinavian foodstuffs, who would then despatch the ordered goods in a container. This was always an occasion for much feasting and merriment!"

I told Dad that I'd heard Pyongyang had a fancy coffee shop these days. Did he ever go out to eat or drink in Pyongyang?

"There were a small number of restaurants that foreigners were allowed to use, but the range and quality that was on offer on the menu was very limited and some of the meat dishes (meat was extremely hard to come by at that time) were definitely suspect! As for bars, apart from the small number of hotels that catered for foreigners, there were none."

Pyongyang cold noodles

"That doesn't sound like a thriving social life, Dad", I mused.

"Well," he said, "the social life of an expat was pretty much home made: dinner parties, games nights and so forth. The World Food Programme had a makeshift club for expats called the Random Access Club (why I do not know) that opened up every Friday night. It had a bar and a music sound system, so it was a regular haunt to let your hair down and have a boogie."

Fun in the DPRK 

I quizzed Dad on what there was to do for fun outside of the confines of the diplomatic compound.

"Not much!" he answered. "Strangely enough, though, North Korea was the place where I learned to play golf. One of the hotels approved for foreigners had a small 9-hole course and just outside Pyongyang was a full, beautifully maintained 18-hole course (why they had this course, nobody knew) that we were allowed to use. Needless to say, because there were so few leisure opportunities, we all had ample time to learn, develop and become quite proficient at the game." 

I was dumbfounded by this. Golf seems such a bourgeois, leisurely pursuit and isn't the first activity that springs to mind when thinking about what to do in North Korea!

I pressed the subject further, with Dad confirming that "as usual with North Korea, nothing was simple and straightforward. You were not allowed to play a round of golf without having - and paying outrageously for - a caddy. The were always very polite, well groomed young ladies who had a smattering of English and who were all surprisingly knowledgeable and well versed in the rules of the game. They were excellent golfers in their own right, when given the opportunity to display their skills."

Golf in DPRK

In sickness and in health

One thing that always worried me about Dad being in North Korea was what would happen if he fell ill. It was the one place in the world where, rather refreshingly, I didn't have to worry about his personal safety. Besides a trip to Hong Kong to have an operation on his back after an unfortunate accident on the aforementioned golf course, fortunately Dad didn't have to experience healthcare North Korean style. I didn't ask him about dentists, but they must have been dire too as I distinctly remember him telling me how, after a severe bout of toothache, he pulled his own tooth out whilst armed with some pliers and a bottle of Bacardi (to numb the pain!). I was eager to investigate further:

"One thing you tried to avoid in North Korea was getting ill. In the diplomatic quarter there was a hospital for foreigners that was fully staffed… yet, always empty! The medical equipment was ancient and every machine was covered with cute little doilies. Not very hygienic, at all! They had a pharmacy that dispensed a veritable cornucopia of Chinese lotions and potions, all way past their expiry date, plus an assortment of local medications straight out of the “this medication can seriously damage your health” handbook."

I giggled at this. There's a reason to stay fit and healthy, if I've ever heard one!

Dad continued on: "Ambassadors were not allowed to use this hospital. They had their own specific hospital boasting the grand title “For Ambassadors and their Madams” in downtown Pyongyang."

So what was the alternative then? 

"Anyone who had the misfortune to become ill, was immediately flown out to Beijing. Our embassy there had its very own British nurse who was brilliant."

Highway to the Danger Zone - travelling in, out and around North Korea

Pyongyang traffic police

"As a lifelong compulsive buyer (even in North Korea where there was nothing to buy!) I could not resist it one day when a friend who worked for the World Food Programme was packing up prior to being posted. He had the only Western owned motorbike in the whole country.  He had somehow managed to buy it in Beijing and get it shipped into the DPRK; he never told me how he managed this rare feat. He could not take it with him, so he decided to sell it… and I bought it."

"Are we talking superbike style, Dad?" I enquired, trying to reconcile the image of my father as North Korea's answer to Valentino Rossi.

"No, it was a complete rip off of a Harley Davidson. It even had leather saddlebags, of all things, draped behind the seat. I called it my Chinese Chopper and it was totally inappropriate on so many levels."

I snorted at this - my Dad, the rebel!

"I only used it during the summer months to beetle around Pyongyang, which raised a lot of eyebrows amongst the locals. Every so often, I would take it on a burn up along the vast wide and always virtually deserted highway that ran from Pyongyang to the port city of Nampo which was about 55km from Pyongyang.  Unfortunately, it may have looked like a Harley Davidson, but it was no Harley when it came to speed. It could never top 70mph but at least it never conked out once the whole time I had it."

I asked him how he managed to refuel it, after all wasn't petrol a scarce commodity and I doubted that there was a Shell garage on every street corner?

"Petrol was obtained from the one filling station we were allowed to use to fill up our official diplomatic cars," he said, before adding wistfully "It was the only diplomatic motorbike I ever came across in all my travels." 

"What became of it?" I asked.

"When I left Pyongyang for good on posting, I sold it to a newly arrived German diplomat," Dad replied, then paused. "Actually, another weird fact puzzled me. The city was criss-crossed with an extensive network of wide roads and boulevards - nothing unusual about that - but the strange thing was that apart from official and military vehicles, there was virtually no other traffic. Because of this, there were no traffic lights and instead you would have immaculately groomed and uniformed policewomen at virtually every intersection acting as traffic police. It had to be one of the most boring jobs in North Korea waiting for a vehicle to direct every 30 minutes!"

Adventures on Air Koryo

"I bet you enjoyed the R&R of a trip to Beijing every now and then, Dad. It must have been quite the culture shock after a spell in the DPRK!" 

"Yes, definitely. Our main stress buster was the regular trips to Beijing to take and bring back diplomatic bags. You would fly out on a Saturday morning from Pyongyang, deliver the bag to our Beijing embassy and fly back on Monday afternoon with a return bag. Therefore, you had a wonderful long weekend in a plush hotel and plenty of bars and restaurants to explore. It was a great morale booster."

I asked Dad how he managed to fly to Beijing; after all, it's not like Pyongyang is a hub for commercial airlines! And friends I've had that have travelled to the hermetically sealed country have always made the journey via train.

"It meant flying the North Korean airline Air Koryo, which at that time was ranked the worst and most dangerous airline in the world. Every single journey filled me with apprehension and foreboding. They did not have a modern fleet of aircraft, indeed the fleet comprised of ageing Soviet era passenger aircraft that had definitely seen better days. I mean, everybody was smoking in the cabin!"

"These flights were, in my mind, always a gamble. I must have flown at least fifty times with Air Koryo. But as this was the only way to travel in and out of the country with the diplomatic bag there really was no other option."

He paused, then with a wry chuckle added, "but I am still here. I survived. So I guess that the power of prayer really does work!"

Surely life in Pyongyang was different to the rest of the country?

Yalu River, DPRK

"Certainly. In my 3 years in North Korea, I did get to travel extensively internally. I cheekily managed to pass myself off early in my tour to the North Koreans as the embassy trade spokesman." 

Hang on a minute, Dad. I thought there wasn't any trade?

"There wasn't!" he said with a wink. "But they were delighted and rolled out the red carpet for me. In this capacity, I managed to travel all over the country visiting coal, graphite and zinc mines on the west coast as far north as the Russian border.  I also visited numerous textile factories and steel mills. In addition, I got permission to take our embassy vehicles up the east coast and across the border into the Chinese city of Dandong to get our vehicles serviced there. So I probably saw vast areas of the country that many foreigners had not seen before." 

DPRK military North Korea

Pyongyang is a very different kettle of fish to the rest of the country though, isn't it?

"Absolutely. You have to remember that the population of the capital city, Pyongyang, was made up exclusively of Party faithful, the military and trusted political supporters of the regime and their families. They were relatively well fed, healthy, well dressed, had reasonable accommodation with access to electricity (haphazard, even in the capital!), public transport and jobs. Everything from food, clothes, housing and transport was heavily subsidised by the Government for the benefit of the faithful."

North Korea

He continued: "As a condition of my ‘trade fact-finding” trips into the interior, I was not allowed to take a camera or mobile phone. Not surprising as outside the capital, it was a different story. Travelling throughout the country, you saw the stark contrasts." 

I was intrigued to learn more about these contrasts between the capital city and the rest of the DPRK...

"The roads were appalling. Driving through endless villages and shabby towns with no electricity, poor water supplies, decrepit and run-down buildings and factories, non-existent sanitation and again virtually no road traffic was a depressing experience. The people I saw were thin, drab and poorly dressed, indeed many had no shoes, wearing instead some sort of flip flops made out of old tyres, even in winter. Looking at my well-fed Pyongyang based minders to try and gauge their reactions to what we were seeing was a pointless exercise. There was never even a flicker of emotion or acknowledgement on their faces. Sad!"

North Koreans as a people

I asked Dad if he had been able to get to know any locals whilst working in Pyongyang.

Parade DPRK

"You never got close enough to know them. There was absolutely no social interaction and we learnt quite quickly to avoid trying to get to know them. This was more for their safety than ours. Pyongyang, the capital where we were based, teemed with informers and roving squads of Party activists. If they saw any local with a foreigner, no matter how innocent, it did not bode well for the local or their families. Of course, we did have day to day contact with our North Korean local staff (who we could not sack no matter how incompetent they were… and they were!) who were suspect and who spent more time at their bureau no doubt writing reports on us than they did actually working at the embassy."

Fair enough. 

This led nicely onto my next section of questioning, of what it was like to work in North Korea. I mean, it's not like there were hordes of Brits living in, or indeed even visiting, the DPRK. And as for trade, because of the sanctions there was zero to none. So what exactly was the purpose of a British Embassy in Pyongyang? What did we seek to gain by having a presence there?

I popped the kettle on to make another cuppa, and then settled back down to business. You'll have to come back next week to find out the answers to this line of questioning...

Carly xo

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What is it like to live in North Korea as an outsider





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