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"I studied in North Korea"

Grunge News interview with Louis de Gouyon Matignon


Can you introduce yourself for our readers ?

My name is Louis de Gouyon-Matignon. I am 28 years old and I am finishing my law studies and doing a doctoral thesis in space law (I am interested in the contractual aspects of rocket launches, satellites, ...) . I follow this educational route between Paris-Panthéon Sorbonne University and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.



You went to study in North Korea, why this specific destination ?

I left twice. The first time as a tourist in 2016 and then as a student from the winter of 2017. It is a country that interests me because it has remained different from the rest of the world, in separation from the world. We do not find everything that we can have in a market economy of the countries in the process of integration or already integrated. There are no big brands, not the same reflexes towards application technologies, Internet, ...It’s a deeply different worldview that is very politicized and that’s what I was interested in. I've always been interested in how we can approach the world differently, how to stay different in a world where there is more and more standardization.


How do you continue to see things differently ?

This is why I am very involved with minorities, especially with Travelers. I have also written linguistic works, dictionaries in the language of the Inuit, North Korea, Gypsies, ...I’ve always wanted to see and understand the world differently. I was first in contact with minorities and then I wanted to go to North Korea to discover the last country left out of the modern and urban world.


How do you go to study there ? What are the procedures to follow ?

Either we leave as a tourist and there we go on the web to find a travel agency or we contact a sort of embassy (near Montparnasse station in Paris). This puts us in touch with certain people to obtain a VISA and to be able to leave, to study, in my case, in North Korea.


What was your goal when going to North Korea ?

To be able to live in a country that has remained profoundly different in order to understand how the world was evolving and also to learn the history that was made there.


What did you do the first day you arrived in North Korea, to put your student bags there ?

We don't arrive in North Korea like in any other country with a crowded airport, a taxi, a hotel, ... The second time I left by train and when I arrived at Pyongyang station, there was a whole team of teachers waiting for me in a mini valve. It was early February, it was cold and there was little energy in the city, it was dimly lit. We did not go directly to the university because the rooms were under renovation but in a hotel where I had dinner in the evening with all the teachers.


Coming from Europe, what changed radically when you arrived in North Korea compared to the West ?

The fact that it's a different world, more slowed down. The atmosphere is close to the confinement we experienced in France even if there are more people on the Korean streets. There are few people, few activities, people are poor, political violence, slogans and propaganda are present on every street corner. The (economic) poverty of the inhabitants is felt in their clothes, in their physique, and in the general atmosphere. So it’s a very poor country that is operating in slow motion. It’s what strikes me the most when you arrive in North Korea.



How does the university work in North Korea ?

The university operates in the same way as a French university; there are opening hours, classes, amphitheatres, breaks, dining hall, ...I arrived at the university in the morning at 8:00 am and left at 1:00 pm, when I had some free time.


What is the typical day for a North Korean ? Were you following the same organization ?

There is not really a typical day, not everyone does the same activities, there are lots of different life patterns regardless of place of residence, age, type of profession, ...However, what reigns in North Korea is an important standardization, a great rigor. Society is very automated. Movements just like life seem automatic. We feel a rhythm imposed by the state, a rhythm that is the result of the forms of work that exist there. A society is therefore built which depends on the directives of a state which is authoritarian and harsh with its population. It is a country where there is a form of heaviness, poverty and automatism.


Can you tell us about something that impacted you there?

At the university I had a private teacher who helped me learn Korean. In addition, I also had to be separated from other North Korean students... to get used to the environment in which I was studying now.My teacher originally wanted to become a professional footballer, but he ended up teaching North Korean lessons to students. In North Korea you don't choose your job ; it is the state which imposes a choice between different professional activities according to the need for the country's workforce.


Can you tell us about your best memory of your time in North Korea ?

My best memory was when I went skiing in the south of the country. It was amazing to be able to ski in a totally crazy environment. Skiing in North Korea is the height of madness. The landscapes were splendid, the people were nice; there were North Koreans but also Chinese (some were studying with me at the university). I really enjoyed an evening where we all had dinner. We did karaoke. It was a great time.


What was your greatest fear when you lived there ?

I was experiencing more and more liberties, especially going running alone in Pyongyang without a supervisor. I was training for the Pyongyang marathon and one day after two hours of running and when I got back to the hotel, the student leader told me that I had made a big mistake by going alone and for so long. If I did it again I could be punished, he told me. What he told me struck me because I am a tourist, I come, I pay to study at the university, I do not represent a threat, I have no connection with the outside, I do not have a military / intelligence type profile, I am a student with a university program. If I was threatened with a warning, then something was clearly wrong. I told myself, I had to leave. I could no longer stay in a country where I felt oppressed in terms of security and surveillance. Life was like daily confinement without hot water except morning / noon / evening for only 30 minutes of use, with little food, no internet access, no TV, no access to the world outside. I slept with a supervisor who followed me in every detail and who had to report daily to the student team on my behavior to find out how the day went, ...

I could not bear this atmosphere any longer and so I also went regularly to see the French representative in North Korea. I was going to meet him in a place that would be similar to a French embassy but which is not one. Indeed, France is not recognized in terms of international law and it is therefore a "cooperation office" which replaces the embassy. So I spent some time with this representative and his family. These moments of my stay, I felt the most freedom.

Are there curfews during the day ? If so, how are they managed ?

There are no fire covers, people work normally.


Do the inhabitants of the country dream of being able to flee the country ? Do they easily talk to each other about these kinds of topics ?

Not entirely, it's hard to understand with a western outlook. The reality is not entirely exhausted living in this country. There is also pride and a connection to the country. Not knowing the outside world makes it difficult for the locals to project themselves or even to be frustrated by things they do not know. There is little frustration. They feel on one hand that there is far too much violence / pressure but on the other hand they are proud of their country, proud of their leader, proud to live in a country that resists the rest of the world and in particular, the United States of America. Some people want to leave, to look elsewhere but it is not for these reasons that they disparage their country or even that they want the system to change.


How do people perceive Kim Jung-un ?

The people are proud of their leader, they love him despite the fact that the inhabitants feel oppression and that some people would like it to change.


How do North Koreans see the world ?

There are them and the rest of the world. They don't really ask themselves that kind of question, everyone tries to get out of it as best they can.


The right to all public information is a right flouted by the dictatorial regime in place, how do the inhabitants live this prohibition ?

It’s hard to answer that question, they don’t live like that.


What is the difference between the date you left, and North Korea Now ?

The country hasn't really changed. It has evolved more in the last 20 years. In the days of Eternal President Kim Il-sung it was very hard, but it was even harder in the 90's - 2000's with Kim Jung-Un's father, Kim Jong-il. This period was the most difficult (famine, a lot of violence, ...). Now it’s a country that is more interested in opening up to the rest of the world. North Korea would even like to become the new workshop of the world like China. North Korea has even become in certain industries "the working class of China". It is a country that wants to enter the world gradually while keeping control over the people. Kim Jung-Un leaves more freedom than 10 years ago; locals can have cars, cell phones, ... People can even travel to the Chinese border.


How do you see North Korea evolving in the years to come ? Do you think there will be reunification with South Korea ?

I think that North Korea will enter the world, it will gradually adopt all the necessary aspects (we already notice this with mobile phones, ...). I think this opening will be done very slowly.


Can we hope to succeed in North Korea from the West ?

No, you will not be able to work on it. You would need a local contact to possibly hope to find a professional occupation. Living there is very hard, the country does not respect international laws vis-à-vis trade and all other exchanges. It’s almost impossible to be able to make a living in North Korea from the West.


Conclusion by Louis de Gouyon-Matignon :

North Korea is a violent, dictatorial, brutal country. It is a country which has remained outside the world but which is trying to get out of it and which seeks by all means and in more or less autonomous ways to open up. The life of the inhabitants is less hard than it was 10 years ago.

It’s a politically fascinating country because it is radically different, it’s the same for the people. This country is unique. When you go to North Korea, you are completely disoriented. However, it is not a destination that I recommend, it is not pleasant to live there despite the fact that it is built to integrate into the world.

I hope that within 15-20 years North Korea will be like China. People will live in a country where there is a much more dynamic economy, where people have much more freedom than today, ... The transition between the world before and the world today would not be as violent.


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