North Korea: The side of secretive country most don’t see
IAN Collins has travelled to far flung countries including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Libya.
So when the opportunity came up for the intrepid Aussie to visit one of the most secretive places on Earth, he got his passport ready.
The Perth native, who now lives and works in Singapore, has just returned from a visit to the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), a country which remains largely isolated from the world.
While admitting North Korea might not be on everyone's bucket list, Mr Collins said the experience opened his eyes to a country few people really know about.
Mr Collins, 38, travelled with Choson Exchange earlier this month.
The Singapore-based charity helps teach North Koreans business skills while giving entrepreneurs information through various workshops.
"In recent years, small scale entrepreneurship has flourished in the country, with fewer people relying solely on government jobs and the public distribution system," he said.
Mr Collins, who works for a Singapore-based consulting company, told news.com.au he was excited at the prospect of visiting North Korea and got a little nervous as the trip drew closer.
He admits people may view travelling to the DPRK as supporting the regime. However, he said he believed having some sort of diplomacy with the North Koreans was better than isolating the country and its people completely.
Mr Collins got to see Pyongyang, and as the workshops were held in Pyongsong, about 45 minutes northeast of the capital, got to see a bit more of the country too.
"For me personally, the purpose of my trip was due to fascination and curiousness about the country, but mainly the opportunity to make a difference," he said.
"I think the path forward is not a military one, but one of mutual understanding and information exchange."
Here's what he learned during his 10 days in North Korea:
RESPECT IS A MUST
Mr Collins said he never felt unsafe during his visit, but acknowledged his experience would be different to that of the average tourist.
"Going in as a tourist, there are a few more restrictions on what you can see or do however, it is still such an incredible experience regardless," he said.
"I'm always a big believer in seeing things first-hand, so if one is genuinely interested about the situation in the DPRK, I would absolutely suggest travelling there.
"Like anywhere though, just be mindful of their culture and customs and respect whatever requests they may have."
THE US ISN'T WELL LIKED
Mr Collins said he only realised the United States President was in South Korea when he saw the newspapers in Pyongyang which detailed the protests taking place in Seoul about Donald Trump's visit.
"We never really talked politics, but the resentment to the US is obvious," he said.
"You can see it in the propaganda but there's also a real curiousness about the world."
LACK OF PHONE IS LIBERATING
While his wife initially didn't like the idea of him being out of contact during his visit, Mr Collins said it was almost a relief not to be constantly glued to his smartphone.
He also said he was almost a little disappointed when he switched his phone back on once out of the country.
NORTH KOREANS LIKE A BEER
For Mr Collins, one of the highlights of the trip was the North Korean hospitality.
His guides took his team out for beers and karaoke where he sang from the Down Under.
"The beer was great," he said. "The bonus was it didn't give us a hangover but I had a hard time trying to tell them what our favourite spread was."
The Taedonggang Brewery in Pyongyang produces its own beer with seven different types, which are popular with North Koreans and visitors.
NORTH KOREANS ARE DETERMINED
Mr Collins said it was his first time to the DPRK and it was hard to tell what impact sanctions imposed on the country over its missile tests were having.
"The North Koreans are very innovative," he said. "My impression is they research and invent ways to get around things." According to him, the North Koreans are also hardworking.
"Everyone has a state salary and job but the government does seem to be more open to entrepreneurial opportunities for the local market as a way of boosting the local economy," Mr Collins said.
"Information can be hard to come by and they are really open to ideas and want to know about the world."
He also saw how the North Korean locals were benefiting from Choson Exchange's program.
"I went to a coffee shop which [was run by] two women who had been through the program two years ago," he said. "And the coffee was actually really good."
PERCEPTIONS AREN'T ALWAYS ACCURATE
Mr Collins said he understood the negative perception westerners have of the country, especially for those who've never been.
Government and leadership aside, Mr Collins said the North Koreans are just people at the end of the day trying to live their lives as best as they could.
He said he found the North Koreans just as friendly as people in any other country.
LEADERSHIP IS RESPECTED
Mr Collins said it was hard to tell if people really had the affection for their leaders as they appeared to show. What was obvious though, was how much people respected them.
"The first thing we had to do was bow at a statue of Kim il-sung and Kim Jong-il when we got off the plane," he said.
"Going around a roundabout in Pyongyang, which surrounds a statue of the leaders, traffic slowed right down as a sign of respect."
He said you can't walk five metres without seeing the "dear leaders" who are on everyone's badges.
NORTH KOREANS ARE CURIOUS
According to Mr Collins, North Koreans are good listeners and willing learners.
"Teaching local North Koreans about entrepreneurship in the challenging environment that they face was a completely unique and rewarding experience," he said.
"I thought I would have a sense of relief when we left, but I was genuinely sad after knowing that the work we did had a positive impact on the people."
Mr Collins said he does a lot of training workshops around the world and found the North Koreans very receptive.
"They were so appreciative of us volunteering our time with them and, even though it can be difficult working through translators at times, they asked many questions and actively sought our input for their concepts," he said.
NORTH KOREANS ARE HOSPITABLE
While tourists are accompanied by minders most places they go, Mr Collins said his hosts acted more like guides.
"Going in as educators gave us some more privileges than regular tourists, and we could pick and choose where we wanted to eat, and they allowed us to freely wander some of the department stores," he said.
However, he points out this is all built on a foundation of trust and his group respected their requests not to take photos of military of construction sites.