North Korea: I was 'monitored' while I studied there

By Thomas Gane
Newsbeat reporter

image copyrightAlessandro Ford

If you've been on a gap year then you'll surely have some tales. Be it hitchhiking, couch surfing or general sight seeing.

There are the obvious choices. Peru, Thailand, Australia, interrailing around Europe.

Alessandro Ford picked a gap year involving the world's most secretive and repressed country.

The 18-year-old studied in North Korea and he's thought to be the first westerner to study there.

image copyrightReuters

Kim Jong-un

Alessandro didn't get to meet Kim Jong-un, but one of his flatmates did, and it was a pretty big deal.

"At one point I was about four metres from the "Great Leader"… and we made eye contact," he says.

North Korean students

Alessandro lived with North Korean students who, he says, were told to keep an eye on him.

They wouldn't let him leave the university on his own but despite that they still got on.

"We played football together, drank together, ate together. I was on good terms with the people monitoring me so it was an odd relationship."

image copyrightAlessandro Ford

On the Great Leaders and the cult of personality

One thing Alessandro was very careful not to do was disrespect the Kim family.

They've ruled since 1948 and appear to be worshipped by the North Korean people.

"There were portraits of the two Great Leaders in every room, including mine, and my flatmate had to take them down each morning and polish them.

"One time I was throwing a tennis ball around the room and I threw it a bit too high and it went too close to a portrait of the Great Leader.

"He just grabbed the ball, threw it out the door and said, 'No, you can't do that'."

image copyrightAlessandro Ford

On Eminem, Linkin Park and Example

Entertainment is strictly state-run in North Korea and foreign products are prohibited.

Alessandro was allowed to share some of his music but his flatmates didn't really like it.

"They thought that someone rapping or singing about their lover, themselves, or their pursuit of money or fame was egotistical, and you should sing about something meaningful.

"They meant singing about the state, their country, or their family."

The news

The news is also run by the state. Alessandro could only find out what was going on in the world through a North Korean lens.

"Everyone in my dormitory seemed to believe the news when it said Ebola had been created by the CIA as a weapon to destroy some unnamed country and the CIA had lost control of it.

"I asked my friends if they believed this and they said, 'Yeah, the news said so, why would the news lie?'"

image copyrightAlessandro Ford

Alessandro's memories

image copyrightAlessandro Ford

He says the human rights of North Korean people are abused. He says the rest of the world should still try to communicate with North Korea because isolating them doesn't seem to be working.

"Here in Europe and in the west, our image of North Korea comes through satirical films like Team America or The Interview, and we never really get the other side of the story.

"When we've got this constant barrage of 'North Korea is evil' and then from North Korea we have no information or contact, that makes us see things from a very skewed perspective."

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