Besides Dennis Rodman and his basketball buddies, Will Scott is another of the few Americans who can actually say that he’s been to North Korea. 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. Some insightful highlights from an interview Will did:
Business Insider: Could you talk about the “Supreme Leader” with anyone? Is their stereotypical love for him as displayed in the western media real?
Scott: The leader is certainly loved and revered. 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.
Was it possible to discuss politics or other sensitive topics?
Scott: Military stuff did get talked about some, as did some other topics. In the spring the understanding 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.
You mention that bringing up the fact that you’re American was a good way to end a conversation. How often were people able to pick up on that fact before you told them?
Scott: Very rarely. If you were just on the street people would smile and wave at you.
Did you have ‘handlers’ like visitors on organized trips?
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.
Could you elaborate on what that news was like in North Korea compared to the US?
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.
Sunday evenings there’s a foreign section on TV, 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?
Scott: Yeah! A lot of CS education really breaks down without access to the Internet.