A Western student went to North Korea to study and he describes what it was like

A culture very few Westerners get to experience first hand.
A culture very few Westerners get to experience first hand.
Image: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E
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Alessandro Ford, the first Westerner allowed to study in North Korea, is opening up about his experience living in the totalitarian dictatorship.

From August to December 2014, Ford was enrolled at Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung University where he stayed in a dorm with about 90 foreign students, most of them from China. His father, Glyn Ford, who previously was a member of the European Parliament and has been on diplomatic trips to the country, helped arrange his study abroad.

University life in Pyongyang was different, to say the least. Ford was closely monitored throughout his time there, and he said the university placed some local students in his dormitory so he would have someone to talk to. The facilities were bare, with squat toilets and no showers (they bathed communally “like the Romans,” he said). The dorm also ran out of hot water for two weeks during the winter, which dipped down to -20 degree Celsius. And there was absolutely no sex among the unmarried students.

In interviews with the BBC and Guardian, the 18-year-old talked about his unique gap year experience and provided a glimpse into what his classmates thought about their country and the outside world. Here are some of the most interesting insights:

  • North Koreans hate the American government, but the Americans are all right: “The people, the students, they hated the American government, and there was no apology about that,” said Ford. “They straight up said, ‘We detest the American government. We think they’re vermin. We think they’re evil imperialist dogs.'” But that hatred doesn’t extend to its citizens, who they believe “are merely misled” by their government.
  • On what North Koreans know about prison camps: Ford tiptoed around political issues, but when he asked about North Korea’s prison camps, a female friend clarified they were re-education camps. “Those are camps for when someone doesn’t understand the great leader’s political thoughts, and they simply need to be instructed,” he recalled her explaining. “She made it sound as if someone was simply ignorant about their maths homework and had to have extra classes afterward.”
  • North Koreans are fascinated by the mundane in Western society: Many of Ford’s classmates were curious about the Western world. One friend of his spent hours asking about army life—most questions Ford didn’t have the answer to—and was surprised to learn some countries don’t have compulsory military service. “He was absolutely baffled,” Ford told the BBC. Others also asked about home prices and what the process is like to buy a house, a concept foreign to them because the state assigns housing to its residents.