Unless you’ve got a few basketball superstars on your speed dial, chances are you don’t know anyone who has been to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, otherwise known as as North Korea.
Then there’s Will Scott, one of the few Americans who can actually say that he’s been there.
A former Google employee and current graduate student at the University of Washington, Will spent last fall teaching courses on Databases and Operating Systems at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
In a recent AMA (that’s short for “Ask Me Anything”) post on Reddit, he answered a number of questions about his time in the country.
Below, we’ve pulled out the best answers and worked in a few that we asked Scott via email. He recalls a number if interesting anecdotes, ranging from the ways their Internet is constructed — which he would occasionally try to look at, as a Networks researcher — to what people he encountered thought of the country’s “Supreme Leader.”
Business Insider: How did you discover the opportunity in the first place? Did you seek it out or did you hear about it from another interested person?
Scott: I learned about it online, from a YouTube video given when the university was under construction. This one.
Did the U.S. Government know that you were there? Did you have any trouble getting back across the boarder when you returned? – geronimo2000
Scott: I registered with the safe travellers program on State.gov. They sent emails a couple times saying they weren’t responsible for my safety. I also met the Swedish [consular officer]who would get to see me if I got sent to jail (Sweden is the U.S. protectorate in the DPRK) a couple times. No problem or interview at the border.
BI: What went through your mind when you got the emails from the U.S. State Department saying that they weren’t responsible for your safety?
Scott: The emails said very similar things to what had been on their website previously. I was never worried about by safety, or that there would be issues, because of a confidence that it was more valuable to the government for use to continue teaching than to use us politically and lose that value.
Could you talk about the “Supreme Leader” with anyone? Is their stereotypical love for him as displayed in the western media real? – Reddit
Scott: People live normal lives for the most part, maybe 5-10% is the stereotype?
Like, before meals the students would march to the cafeteria while singing patriotic songs. That’s the stereotype that you’ll see in the media, but then they eat meals and chat normally, and play basketball, and go to class, and none of those things are the stereotype.
The leader is certainly loved and revered.
Was it possible to discuss politics or other sensitive topics? – Reddit
Scott: Military stuff did get talked about some, as did some other topics. Food distribution was not something that I really talked about, maybe it came up more for the agriculture students, though.
For instance, in the spring the understand was that they were at war with the US, there were cars driving around with netting to prevent detection from satellites, and the media reported that there was a US intrusion into the country that the army repelled. The students would ask the professors why they were still there when their countries were actively at war.
Were there formal rules for what you were allowed to talk about? I know that it’s pretty common for foreigners teaching in China to have formal restrictions on what is and is not appropriate for conversation with students. Did anyone tell you at the outset that you are not allowed to talk about religion, politics, etc.? – Xelif
Scott: We basically got told to be cautious – talk about your major subject, and it’s ok to answer questions and talk about topics the students bring up. Sports and Dating were safe topics if you needed to start a conversation.
Did you have ‘handlers’ like visitors on organised trips? – hmsimha
Scott: We called them ‘guides’, but yeah, the campus had a pool of representatives from the ministry of education. Foreigners in our group had to be accompanied by one of those guides when we were off campus.
Are you worried about your students being forced by the DPRK to use things they learned from you for the creation of weapons or tools for maintaining control of the citizens of North Korea? – hmsimha
Scott: I think the use of Linux and MySQL are a bit far away from that. I mean, software will certainly be used by the government but it would anyway. I’m more interested in whether the country will be able to make more contacts internationally, and if the guys who control the telecommunications infrastructure already have had contact internationally and know that we’re decent people, that seems like a good place to be in.
Could you elaborate on what that news was like in North Korea compared to the US? – pantherquest
Scott: There are 3 TV stations, newspaper, and radio as primary means of media distribution.
Newspapers got delivered to the campus every morning, and were at the reception desk, and the students when they were free would stop by and you would see huddles of them reading the news.
Radio didn’t get used much on campus as far as I could tell, but seemed more used elsewhere in the country. You’d hear it sometimes in the car, or in shops.
There’s the famous TV host, and she’s there. I didn’t watch much of the TV, but the general schedule seems pretty straight forwards. Saturday evenings a western movie often gets played, dubbed to Korean. Sunday evenings there’s a foreign section, where individual segments taken from other countries news media are played. They learn about foreign affairs largely from this – the selection ranges from almost immediate on items that are good news to up to a 6 month delay on things that are neutral or negative. Things like the economic issues in Greece took a long time to hit the news here (only this fall) while the satellite reaching the edge of the solar system got reported the same week. The rest ends up being a combination of rebroadcasts of sports games, some Chinese dramas, and local news segments.
Did you accidentally say “Just Google it,” and then realise that it wasn’t available to your students? – Cerveza87
Scott: Yeah! A lot of CS education really breaks down without access to the Internet. A lot of the debugging process and figuring things out and being self sufficient boils down to Googling and finding stuff online. It made a lot of the assignments end up feeling like I was spelling everything out and still having to answer a bunch of questions.
Why did you decide to teach there, of all places? – Morlaak
Scott: It felt like a place I had no understanding of at all. What I had heard of the country from the media it sounded like a box with just Kim Jong Il/Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman in it. I guess I wanted to convince myself that it was another country where people lived and wasn’t that different from anywhere else.
From a computer networks perspective, it’s interesting because it’s one of a few places that has it’s own national internet that nobody knows anything about. it was really interesting to talk with the students about what design choices were made for that network.
What was the craziest thing you saw while you were there? – staytrill77
Scott: The first thing that comes to mind is that when I was leaving at 6 a.m. after a snow storm there were tons of people out in the streets shoveling snow and sweeping the street. Seemed really weird since it was still snowing.
Lots of snakes in alcohol bottles. Lots of random traffic stops and social structure that felt controlling.
The Children’s Palace is pretty depressing. It’s a building for developing talent in students, but it ends up feeling like a showcase of the kids who spend their lives performing one trick every week and not getting time to actually grow up – like just repeating the same show over and over again for foreigners.
In photos I see of Pyongyang, one of the things I notice the most is how clean and relatively empty it seems. I especially notice very little car or pedestrian traffic. What was the atmosphere of the city like? Was it unnerving? Or just a relatively quiet city? – yulis
Scott: There’s been a ton of new cars in the city in the last year.
Everyone is responsible for keeping the public areas in front of their home and work clean, and a lot of time gets spent on that. Whenever you drive through the city you’ll see people cleaning the public areas – they like to dig up stretches of grass, sift the dirt, set it on fire to kill any weeds growing in it, and then re-plant it. That activity seems to take up a huge amount of time in the summers.
The city felt like a city for the most part. The construction was very ‘soviet’ for the most part, and the streets were super wide for the amount of cars. Lots of public areas (parks, playgrounds) which is hard to complain about.
BI: How did people get around? Is there reliable public transit available for your average person? Could someone with a decent job afford a car?
Scott: There are several forms of public transportation in the city: Buses, street cars (on tracks), and a subway. All of them were heavily used.
You also would see lots of people riding around in the back of trucks. The presidents and some vice presidents at our university had cars, but the professors did not as far as I know.
What kinds of computers do they have in North Korea? – jimanri
Scott: Our university had a bunch of Dell Core-Duos. Mostly running Windows XP – there was one newer one with Windows 7 on it.
The graduate students had laptops that dual-booted Windows XP and Red Star, the DPRK’s proprietary Red Hat Linux-based OS.
BI: You mention in the Reddit AMA that you ran ChromeOS while you were there. Which Chromebook did you bring with you? What made you decide to go with Chrome OS over a more traditional Linux distribution?
Scott: I brought a Chromebook Pixel with me. I went with the Chromebook because I believed it would be very difficult for the machine to be compromised. It uses a trusted platform module – a hardware component that verifies there aren’t viruses running on the machine.
Did you check out the North Korean tablet? Thoughts? – odor12
Scott: Yeah, I have one.
The built-in analogue TV is kind-of cool, although locked to the specific frequencies in the country. I figured out how to get it into recovery mode and download the disk image. I want to modify some of the APKs so that they’re self contained and able to run on other devices and get them posted online, they’re really cool in a weird sort of way.
How good was the computer literacy of the students you were teaching? Did they know more or less than an American student? – AliquamFan
Scott: It varied quite a bit between students. The guys who really liked CS and did it in their spare time would compare reasonably with CS students anywhere.
There were many who had ended up in CS and weren’t particularly interested, and did just enough to get by. Their knowledge probably wouldn’t have stacked up very well against a normal CS student.
When they came into the university a lot of them seemed to be most familiar with Visual Basic, which I took to be a bad sign about their previous exposure to computers.