Hong Kong students headed to North Korea to see if it really was as Orwellian as the media make it out to be, writes Rebecca Tsui
The reclusive Communist dictatorship of North Korea is a puzzle to its neighbours and the rest of the world. Tourism is organised by the government, and tourists are always accompanied by at least one 'tour guide'. Nevertheless, a group of 24 students from the New Youth Forum went to Pyongyang in August to see for themselves whether or not North Korea lived up to its Orwellian reputation.
Alice Lai Shuk-yung felt the place looked like the mainland in the 50s and 60s. The 19-year-old from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) said she knew too little about North Korea so she decided she would like to see for herself. 'In general, we only know about North Korea through the media, and the messages are always negative.'
Charles Chong Chak-kuen, 19, also from CUHK, went there for the same reason.
'I found there was too much negative information and there might be some bias,' he explains.
However, their expedition was not much of a success. 'I felt like the whole tour was arranged to show their brightest side. I'm not sure how much I saw there was true,' he says.
The first thing every tourist has to do when they enter the country is to pay their respects to the former president and founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung. Then, they have to stay in a tourist-specific hotel and can only go to the designated tourist attractions. Photo-taking and video-shooting are not allowed outside these areas. Moreover, the tourists are not allowed to just chat with the locals.
The students visited some museums and libraries which show the history and development of North Korea. They also took the metro, visited schools and talked to some of the young students. They were also very fortunate to watch the grand mass gymnastics and artistic performance, Arirang. This cultural event is recognised by Guinness World Records as it involves more than 100,000 performers. Tourists seldom get to see it.
Charles says the students felt as if they were under constant surveillance. 'We were only allowed to go to the designated zones. At night, we had to stay inside the hotel,' he says. Form Seven student Magdelena Tang Ho-yan from Heep Yunn School adds: 'One night, we wanted to go star gazing right in front of our hotel. We found there were some people sitting nearby watching us.'
Tourists are not allowed to take mobile phones into the country. Hongkongers would normally find this a terrible inconvenience, but the students saw it as a good chance to go low-tech for a while. 'Living without the mobile phone was much easier than we thought,' says Magdelena.
Although the students' activities were severely curtailed, they don't regret going. 'At least I found out some of the reporting on North Korea was not true. For example, before I went on the trip, I read in newspapers that Korean women can only wear skirts or dresses, but I found out that they can actually wear trousers,' Charles says.
Magdelena says her feelings towards North Koreans changed. 'Although we were not allowed to talk to the Koreans on the street, I could feel that they were nice when they smiled at us. People who served and guided us did their best.'
'I wish North Korea would open up more to outsiders and become a better place for their people to live in,' Alice says.
The North Korea tour was part of the New Youth Forum's political learning programme. The next trip to Taiwan is now open for applications.
For more details, visit www.nyforum.org