Inside looking In

A bird's eye view of the statue of the worker, peasant and working intellectual at the base of the Juche Tower.

Nearly three years in North Korea was not an experience I had planned for. It was an opportunity that simply presented itself to me. I did not intend to stay so long but it just ended up that way. Living as a foreigner in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not something that is easily explained. Looking back, it feels like my life was parceled in three, divided between my work, the social life among the expatriates living in the Diplomatic Compound, and the time spent trying to get to know the country. These divisions were not completely distinct and there was overlap, but they evoke different feelings when I think back.

Working as a water engineer and starting with a small, community level water supply, to over-extending my competence and designing large-scale water distribution systems with large pumps and motors was a passion. The final two water systems I worked on were a labor of love. Without the aid of the most up-to-date computer aided design packages or surveying equipment that was compatible with my laptop, without even a decent sized printer, I spent a lot of my spare time typing in thousands and thousands of coordinates into excel, making little errors that completely threw the design, and hours trying to figure out the mistake. Evenings were often spent taping together 60 A4 sheets of different versions of the designs together to get the complete picture. Google Earth would have saved me hours…

Expatriates in Korea live in the Diplomatic Compound, a small district/block of 3-5 storey apartments, isolated, though not sealed from the rest of Pyongyang. We could move in and out, but socializing was almost exclusively within those walls. I socialized mostly with the people I worked with directly, or other NGO workers who lived within the compound. When I arrived there were more than 100, of varying personalities. By the time I left, the government had encouraged the number down to about 40. It was like living in a small multicultural community. Everyone got on with each other, forced together by common experience. Lunch, dinner and beers were usually in one of about 3 places and everyone had their preference.

For a small-town country-boy from the west of Ireland, it was a learning experience.It was getting to know the people of North Korea though, that was the most interesting and challenging part. There were so few foreigners in the country, and many of those do not venture outside the walls of the Diplomatic Compound. For the average Korean in the countryside, over the last sixty years, seeing or encountering a foreigner must be a rare occurrence if it ever happens. Even in Pyongyang, face to face engagement has probably only been experienced by a few. Within Pyongyang, I worked with some of the nicest people I have met. Probably about 4 or 5 who were colleagues for most of the three years. There were a few who accompanied me outside Pyongyang on water business, most weeks for 3 or 4 days at a time.

I cannot say that I ever got to know them very well. There is a barrier there - cultural, systemic, and historical; it is hard to say. But I think, within the bounds allowed, we were not strangers. There were one or two, outside work, that I always feel I could consider friends - but friends that are not contactable anymore.

One of the daily challenges I set for myself was to get outside the Diplomatic Compound, to see and be seen. I would go for long runs around the city, often in the oppressive humid heat, in the midst of a tropical downpour, or in the freezing midwinter, when people were making their way home from work, to see and observe; to get to know the traffic ladies from a distance.

During my intermittent bouts of smoking heavily, asking strangers for a light was the most innocuous way to interact. My adopted fluffy white dog was a cipher for following into unknown shops, down streets or among apartment blocks, not explicitly for foreigners. Restaurants that only operated in local currency were no-go places in theory, but being as unobtrusive as possible, reading a book, meant that there were some that did not turn me away - and some that did. Running around Kim Il Sung Square and the MayDay Stadium when thousands of teenagers were practicing for the Mass Games allowed for a laugh and a smile with the less reticent in the crowds.

I cannot say that I know what the North Korean people think, or are supposed to think about foreigners in their country, but I hope the impression I gave of the guest of the Hermit Kingdom, was not a negative one.

By Dualta Roughneen, the author of the book, "On the Inside, Looking In."


*Dualta Roughneen is a Chartered Civil Engineer who has spent 10 years working in humanitarian contexts across the globe. He has worked in Ethiopia, Afghanistan, North Korea, Sudan, Liberia, Cameroon, Niger, and most recently in the Philippines, in conflict, post-conflict, and man-made or natural disasters. With a MSc in Human Rights from University College Dublin, Dualta has been published previously by CSP (2010) ‘The Right to Roam: Travellers and Human Rights in the Modern Nation State.'