What is North Korea really like? The International Business Times spoke with Barbara Chen, an American woman who lives in Beijing, China, who recently participated in North Korea’s first 5K charity fun run.
While the main purpose of her trip was to participate in the run, which raised money to buy powdered milk formula for orphans in the North Korean city Nampo, she spent a good portion of time exploring Pyongyang with her tour group.
Below are some exclusive photos Chen took earlier this month that show how some Pyongyang residents may be a more modern than many Westerners previously perceived.
Holidays At The Park With Family
Here, Barbara sits with a family enjoying a picnic lunch during the May 1 Labor Day holiday.
There’s Nothing Like A Well-Kept Lawn
Nothing says America like a manicured lawn and a white picket fence. Millions of Americans spend an inordinate amount of time and money on their lawns, ensuring their gardens and yards look trimmed, neat and perfect.
Turns out, it’s the same in Pyongyang.
Chen snapped a picture of this man meticulously maintaining the public garden space. His tool of choice? A pair of tweezers.
They (Kind Of) Need Traffic Cops
No one likes gridlock traffic, not even in Draconian North Korea!
In the U.S.., traffic cops are generally helpful in managing vehicle traffic flow during particularly busy times, especially during rush hour. While they don’t always go appreciated, they are seen as a public safety necessity.Though North Korea’s traffic cops dress different from what you would see in most other places, sometimes even donning skirts and high-heels, they essentially serve the same purpose. In North Korea, traffic cops are likely used because the nation is still getting used to having large numbers of private vehicles on the road.
In this photo, a female traffic cop directs vehicles in central Pyongyang as a black Lexus SUV waits for the light to change. While luxury vehicles aren’t exactly newsworthy in the U.S., it’s hard to believe a lot of people in North Korea are rolling around in BMWs or Bentleys.
There’s Room For Improvement When It Comes To Wireless
Westerners and North Koreans both prize their Internet: In the West, we value it mostly because we find it hard to disconnect from and stay off it, and we take it for granted that it's always there. North Korea, however, is not as technologically advanced. It's most advanced networks use 3G technology, which is hardly state of the art by Western standards.
In early 2013, North Korea launched the nation’s first public 3G network, Koryolink, offering its service to anyone with a smartphone and willing to pay a steep fee. According to Xinhua, the sate state media outlet, 2GB of 3G Internet service can purchased for about $190. The wireless service was open to tourists in early 2013, but was it suddenly shut off to foreigners in late March.
Another two areas in which North Korea is like the West are technology and consumerism.
“It was surprising to see so much consumerism,” Chen said. “Many people had mobile phones, digital cameras, and were buying treats and snacks … I saw a girl wearing an FBI hat, a boy wearing a Seattle Mariners T-shirt, even a woman with a possibly fake Tory Burch purse.”
The encounters between the Pyongyang locals and Chen were quite pleasant.
“I’d describe the people I interacted with as cautiously friendly. They loved looking at photos I had on my phone. By the three Korean phrases I knew, they knew I was American.”
A Sweet Trade-Off
Every nation has its own sweet treat. In the U.S., one popular American snack during Easter season are Peep brand marshmallows. And perhaps for the first time ever, North Koreans got a taste of the sugary, animal-shaped treat recently.
Chen brought a stash of Peeps with her from Beijing, thinking it would be a nice, small taste of a uniquely American tradition. While interacting with some North Korean locals, she tried their local barbeque cuisine, among other foods, and in exchange, Chen offered Peeps.
“They shared their soju and kimchi, I shared my Peeps," she said. "You know, international diplomacy, one sugary Easter treat at a time!”
Many believe Pyongyang, the capital, is a menacing, gray city -- and perhaps parts of it are. But not everything in the nation is a potential nuclear threat -- sometimes, life in the capital is extremely mundane and normal.