5 essential principles to be a good North Korean guide

No place can be visited without a guide in North Korea, so you can imagine that I’ve seen a lot of them. Sometimes the explanation can be given by your central guide, the one that follows you everywhere during your whole stay, but very often sites have a ‘local guide’: someone who just works there.

There is a very common pattern that all local guides follow. I guess it must be part of the education given to guides. Maybe it was Kim Il-Sung’s idea, as anything in North Korea. I have entertained myself fantasizing about what I guess these instructions must have been.

Imagine now that you are about to graduate as a local guide in North Korea and study for the final oral exam.

Your study book is: 5 MUST-DO FOR LOCAL GUIDES IN NORTH KOREA

[As a good student, I inserted my notes in there.]

1. KEEP THE TIME

Visits in North Korea are chop, chop. Time is millimetre-exact. You didn’t waste your time at the army; it gave you the discipline you need for this. If we have 35 minutes allocated, it’s not 34, it’s not 36.
There are reasons for that.

One of them is that we want these foreigners to enjoy their visit and feel that they live a full experience; so they shouldn’t spend time waiting. If traffic was good and we arrive 10 minutes too early, don’t make them wait; find ways to fit in an impromptu 10-minute walk. Don’t give them a minute to think or reflect; they have plenty of time for this in the evening, as there is nothing to do after 9 in Pyongyang.

Another reason is that we have a strict schedule of tours. You do know that there is not so much allowed for a visit of foreigners in North Korea, so every group has the same planning, just with different times. The Germans will have to leave the museum for the restaurant at 7.15, because that’s when the Poles arrive. The restaurant has been booked for the Germans just after the British, and just before the Poles.

[We spent the whole week bumping into this group of Germans and this group of Poles. At some point, we didn’t see the Poles for 1,5 day. I was very worried! Finally they reappeared at a restaurant, where they just finished their dinner and it was our turn to get food and refreshments.]

North Korea - guide war museum
Our guide at the ‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’ was from the army. Note the pin showing the leaders she wears on her chest, like everyone in North Korea.

2. TELL THEM THE DIMENSIONS

Wherever you are, whatever there is to see, tell them the dimensions of everything. It will impress them.
This statue is 2.65 meter high. This mosaic is 4.3 meter high and 9.7 meter broad. Wow!

[Interesting fact: it seems that a distance of 13.5 meters is when your eye cannot make the difference anymore between 3-dimensions and 2-dimensions. So they have all these panoramas where everything between you and 13.5 metre far is sculptural, then at 13.5 metre distance a big flat painting; and you have the impression to be in the picture. I had seen this already at the excellent museum of the Stalingrad battle in Russia, but it was so overused in North Korea that I grew a bit bored of it.]

3. JUST FACTS, NO WHY

The purpose of the guided visit is not to give explanations; it is to impress these foreign tourists. So tell them as many facts as you can. This happened, that happened. The leader did this and then that. The people were very happy. Then they did this. Then someone did that. Fascinating.

Some foreign tourists might still ask you the ‘why’: “You said that everybody in the country supported the construction of the metro. What was the reason for this massive support?”. You probably don’t know the answer yourself, because you’ve just been told to say this, but are not allowed to admit it. There is an efficient way to get around, it’s something you need to practice, it’s called bullshitting them. Repeat after me: “Everybody supported the construction of the metro because it was important”. This should do the job.

[At some point of the journey, our trainee guide was holding a paper and trying to hide it from our sight. One of us asked her: “hey, what’s this?”. She said: “oh I’m not allowed to tell tourists about it”. She was clearly a trainee. Our experience guides would have found a much smarter way to bullshit their way out.]

North Korea - guide temple
All guides were female and most were wearing the traditional dress. Here at Pohyon Buddhist Temple.

4. TELL THEM WHEN THE LEADER(S) VISITED

This is the easiest thing to do, but don’t forget to do it. Every site has a sign showing when any of the leader(s) visited the place. You need to show the sign and tell your tourists about it: “Our Supreme leader visited this place on [insert date]. “

[This will always be displayed clearly at the entrance. Foreigners won’t ever visit a place that hasn’t been visited by at least one of the leaders, because places not visited by the leader(s) are not worth visiting. Interestingly, the value and interest of a site increases when it was amongst the latest visits of a leader before his death; also if a leader visited on several occasions. They will never miss mentioning these outstanding facts.]

North korea - leader visited
Every site displays when the leaders visited and the date. Note that before the (2006) year there is a 95. This year number is based on the Juche system that starts at the birth date of Kim Il-Sung. It’s Kim-Jong-Il who introduced this new year measurement system, after Kim Il-Sung’s death.

5. APPLY THE PROBLEM-SOLVING STORYLINE

The problem-solving storyline is the most efficient way to describe how incredibly smart our leaders are and how much we owe them.

This requires some practice. But every single explanation must follow this storyline.
– It must start with a “problem. There was always a problem, state clearly what it was. If you are unsure what the problem was, please refer to the leader’s official biography. Don’t bother explaining what the problem was caused by, just name it.
– Remind the audience that the leader was “very concerned” by this problem. You can explain why he was concerned – it’s because the problem was important.
– Tell them what the leader “proposed to solve the problem”.
– Explain that the whole nation “worked very hard” to apply the solution proposed by the leader.
– Celebrate how fantastic an “achievement” this was.

Example: when we started the construction of the metro, there was a problem: the tunnels were flooded by a lot of water. The leader was very concerned by this water, because it was an important problem! He proposed that we should put all our efforts into stopping the water. So everybody worked very hard with this objective in mind. Eventually we managed to stop the water and as a result, the metro was constructed.

[Beria, from Soviet Russia, was such a psychopath that I wouldn’t be surprised that he secretly also trained Kim Il-sung on how to do propaganda, as this all sounds just like the exact same thing as what he put together in the 30s to create Stalin’s cult.]

Practice by showing your friends around in your neighbourhood. Self-evaluate yourself: did you apply successfully all 5 principles?
Well done. You are ready to become a local North Korean guide.

PS. If you’re 8 years old and a High Potential Pioneer, these principles apply to you as well.

North korea - guide pinoeer
This Pioneer child was our enthusiastic guide for the visit of the Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace. This was a bit creepy.
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