Want to know how to connect with north korean kids in a meaningful way – even if you don’t speak the language?
How about a way to — in a very small way — diffuse some of the tension between North Korea and the west? A simple way to show them we’re not so far apart?
On my trip I found a simple thing was very interesting. As an obvious westerner in North Korea, I started handing out bags of chocolate to North Korean kids. It wasn’t easy, and about 50% of them were scared of me and wouldn’t accept it, while the others only tentatively did. But the later reaction of the kids who accepted the chocolate made it absolutely clear this was the right thing to do — they had HUGE smiles, and were waving and very friendly. The change only took a few minutes and was dramatic.
I went from being a scary western white guy to a provider of SUGAR!!
No, chocolate isn’t the most healthy thing to be giving out, but the kids love it, and will remember it for a long time. Starvation is an issue inside North Korea (in the late 90’s about 2,000,000 people starved to death), so some extra calories certainly won’t hurt even though the kids you’ll meet in Pyongyang are the best fed in the country. Luxuries like chocolate aren’t a common treat in a country where people have disposable income US$5 – US$10/month and luxuries like these are not available to the general population.
“Breaking The Ice”
By doing this, something incredibly powerful is happening — you’re showing the kids that westerners aren’t completely scary people.
Even if much of the anti-western sentiment in North Korea is towards the USA, and you’re not American – they still think YOU are american, as they consider anyone who is not Korean to be from the USA. Obviously if you are from the US, this will be even more impactful.
Big doors swing on small hinges
Suggestions for handing out chocolate:
– Give big bags of individually wrapped chocolate/sweets/candy so one child won’t eat it all by themselves. This way they’ll be more likely to share it with their friends and talk about what happened, this is a form of viral marketing!
– Don’t ask for anything in return (eg photos). Just give them the chocolate, smile, then walk away. It must be an unconditional gift.
– If the child bows after receiving the bag, make a big smile and a friendly wave back without bowing in return. I believe its better to reinforce that we are not Korean and not part of their culture, yet are still their friends and respect them and their ways.
– Approach the child with a smile and look friendly.
– Chocolate is very cheap, about US$1.50 for a huge bag in most local stores. You can buy lots of big bags everywhere. Hand out an entire bag to each kid.
– Get some shopping bags to carry around with you during the day as you go sightseeing. Try to keep lots with you at all times — sometimes kids will turn up when you least expect it.
– You may want to consider bringing higher quality western chocolate with you, however it may not be so easy to carry in and won’t be brands they are comfortable with. Chocolate is very easy to buy at hard currency stores inside the country.
– Give the chocolate to kids who aren’t somehow connected with the tourism industry as this will make the biggest impact. You’ll have plenty of opportunities as you walk around parks and go to shows.
Also remember you may be the first westerner they’ve ever met — North Korea is one of the most homgenous countries in the world.
I gave away $30 of chocolate on my trip to 15-20 kids, had I been properly prepared I would have given away at least $150 worth — it would definitely have been possible. Thus I’ve put up this page so future tourists to North Korea can consider the idea.
And by doing this, you’re helping plant the suggestion in a small way for North Koreans that people from the west aren’t all bad.
And even if none of that works, at a minimum you’re helping a little with the very real problem of starvation.