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View from abroad... Stephanie van den Akker visits North Korea

'If a local dares to speak to you, do interact, but mind what you say.' This was the advice given to Stephanie van den Akker, second-year student of International Studies, during her visit to North Korea. And yes, one local did actually speak to her, leaving her completely speechless.

Why did you choose to go to North Korea?

'In my bachelor's programme, International Studies, you have to choose a region to focus on. I chose East Asia, so over the past two years I have spent a significant amount of time learning about the economy and politics of China, Japan and South and North Korea. There is an abundance of information available about the first three of these countries, but North Korea remains a mystery. I'm not sure if it was out of fascination for the country, or frustration for the fact that I knew so little about a place where so much happens, but I had to see it with my own eyes.'

What did you do there?

'To visit North Korea, your only option is to travel with an organised tour, and there are specific weeks in the year that you can enter the country. I attended the February tour during which the birthday of Kim Jong Il was celebrated. The trip, which was centred mainly in Pyongyang, with one day in Kaesong, lasted five days in total. We went there by plane and left by train.'

What differences struck you between North Korea and the Netherlands?

'Where should I start? The two countries are incomparable; they really are different worlds. If you ignore the 30-degree temperature difference (it was -15 degrees in North Korea) and the other physical things, you can feel the differences in the mood that hung in the air. Everyone did as they were told - the level of precision and organisation were incredible; everyone crossed the road at the zebra crossing, even through there were no cars in sight. Why? Because that was the way it had to be done. In Leiden, everyone quickly sprints between the honking buses and the students rushing past on their bikes, rather than two minutes.'

Any special experiences?

‘We were warned that locals would probably not dare to speak to us, but that if they did, we should interact, but mind what we said. So, when I visited the Kimjongilia flower show in Pyongyang, I was really taken aback when a young local man did actually speak to me. ‘Aren’t they beautiful,’ he said. I was flabbergasted. ‘You know, it has been proven that this is the most beautiful flower in the whole world,’ he went on. Once I had got over the surprise, we had a brief conversation. I learned that he was a student at the Foreign Language University in Pyongyang, although he wasn’t willing to tell me his name.’

What did you bring back with you?

'Having experienced such a different culture, I have finally come to the full realisation of how different and varied our world really is. No two countries are the same, and they never will be.’

( 15 May 2014 / Stephanie van den Akker / MLH)

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