When most people think of gap years abroad, they think of South East Asia, Africa or Australia. For Alessandro Ford – who is starting his Philosophy degree at Bristol University this September – his gap year took place in the most isolated country in the world.
He was enrolled as a student at the Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang between August and December 2014 to learn Korean. Although the university admits foreign students from China and Russia, he was the first ‘western’ student ever to study there.
The visit was organised by his father, Glyn Ford, a former Labour Party MEP who has been on multiple diplomatic trips to North Korea. Ford argues for diplomatic engagement with North Korea in order to improve the country’s relations with the rest of the world.
Unsurprisingly, Ford’s behaviour and movements were monitored everywhere he went. He claims he spent hours discussing Juche ideology (that’s the political ideology of North Korea) and how it is superior to American imperialism. The only contact he had with the outside world was a phone call to his mother for a maximum of 10 minutes per week. Adjusting his adapted behaviour to more conventional western-style mannerisms would have undoubtedly been dangerous and risky – if he had defied North Korean rules, he could have disappeared completely and his family might never have known.
Ford, originally from Brussels, said that while planning his gap year his father joked ‘If you don’t make up your mind I’ll ship you off to North Korea’, but the more he thought about going the more he thought it could be quite interesting.
He admits that he had a privileged level of access to the secretive and controversial country. When he was 15 years old he spent two weeks in the country on a summer holiday, during which he was hospitalised with food poisoning. Keen to return, he had to pay £3,000 for four months tuition including food and accommodation.
Ford’s North Korean peers are also the children of an affluent elite within their society. The domestic students at Kim Il-sung University had parents who are party members, high ranking officials, or serving in the military. Ford did meet one student there who had been to London, as his father worked in the embassy, but most had little idea of the world outside North Korea and were from the comfortable confines of Pyongyang.
Ford described the facilities at the campus as ‘rather spartan, squat toilets, no showers’. They had regular saunas that are ‘popular with Koreans’, and while accommodation was clean and comfortable, it was very basic. Hot water ran out for two weeks during the winter, and temperatures reached as low as -20°c.
Despite his near-constant surveillance and limited freedom, he was however free to mix with all students on campus but had to carry out conversations in the context of his host nation. Despite this, Ford doesn’t seem to think that his North Korean peers are brainwashed, saying:
I genuinely think they all believed what they were saying, that North Korea was an impoverished country that had been persecuted by the Americans.
According to Ford, language was a common barrier in communication with the other students, but there were a few North Korean students who spoke English that were placed in Ford’s dormitory to help and talk to him.
Ford described North Korean culture and attitudes as more ‘puritan’ with a strong opposition to sex before marriage. Even students who had girlfriends or boyfriends aged between 20 and 25 were never seen kissing, and said they showed their affection in other ways. When he played songs by American rapper Eminem, North Korean students asked why he raps about sex and drugs rather than his family and country.
It is important, he feels, for others to go to North Korea, as he believes future student exchanges would ‘help with human rights violations by opening up the country’, and would allow others first hand to see North Korean education and politics. Some believe these international interactions with North Korea can only be positive for the progression of the military state, as information from the outside world would slowly influence North Korean culture.
Others feel that visits, especially ones where North Koreans may profit, would only legitimise the regime accused of systematic human rights abuses against its own people. Even Ford seems to concede that constant monitoring and isolation from the wider world is not good for North Korea: ‘I am pro-communication and pro-interaction. I don’t see how it could work with isolationism.’