Fresher is the first westerner to study in North Korea for a whole term

They all bathed together and talked about American ‘evil imperialist dogs’


One intrepid first year shunned popular and comfy study abroad options to study at a secretive university in North Korea instead.

For four months last year Alessandro Ford, 18, enrolled as a student as Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang to learn Korean.

While the uni brings in students from Russia and nearby China, he was the first Western pupil to step foot in the university, named after Kim Jong-Il’s grandad.

On planning his one of a kind year out, Alessandro, who is going to Bristol to study Philosophy in September, said: “My dad always used to joke ‘If you don’t make up your mind I’ll ship you off to North Korea'”, but the joke threat finally came true.

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Alessandro in Pyongyang. Credit: Alessandro Ford

Alessandro, originally from Brussels, splashed out £3000 for four months of the North Korean uni experience, which included all food and accommodation.

He told the BBC: “The facilities at the Pyongyang campus were rather spartan, squat toilets, no showers – we’d all bath together, Roman style.”

Alessandro got used to regular saunas which are “popular with Koreans”.

The dormitories were apparently clean and comfortable, but extremely basic – and in winter they ran out of hot water for two weeks when it was minus -20C.

Alessandro was totally free to mingle with all students on campus, saying “we spoke a little bit about everything, but always from a North Korean perspective.”

And far from considering all his classmates to be brainwashed, Alessandro thought they were all sincere.

“I genuinely think they all believed what they were saying, that North Korea was an impoverished country that had been persecuted by the Americans.

“The only barrier to our interaction was language,” although there were a few English-speaking North Korean students placed in the foreign dormitory specifically to talk to him.

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North Korea’s answer to Times Square

On a typical gap year most of us are partial to a few drinks and other substances, but things were different in North Korea.

When they listened to Eminem together, the lyrics came under fire.

Alessandro’s fellow students asked: “Why does he rap about himself, sex and drugs? He should be making music about his family and his country.

“From what I was told and from what I saw, North Koreans are more puritan. It’s a ‘no sex before marriage’ culture and sneaking around is not really done.

“The students I hung out with, aged between 20 and 25, were virgins.”

During his time in the country Alessandro claimed he never saw any kissing, even amongst those who had girlfriends or boyfriends.

He added: “They’d tell me they showed affection in other ways.”

Punters at a microbrewery in Pyongyang.

Punters at a microbrewery in Pyongyang.

Alessandro admitted he couldn’t engage with North Korean culture and often felt lonely in the country.

Despite having an international phone, it cost £2 per minute to call home.

On a year abroad we might check in with home a few times a month, but Alessandro was monitored everywhere he went.

“At times it did get quite suffocating. Koreans don’t have a sense of individualism nor did they understand the need for the solitude of western culture.”

They hate the American government, but think the US people are alright.

“The people, the students, they hated the American government, and there was no apology about that.

“They straight up said, ‘We detest the American government. We think they’re vermin. We think they’re evil imperialist dogs.’

“But that hatred doesn’t extend to its citizens, who they believe “are merely misled” by their government.

Alessandro was careful not to talk too much about politics, but said prisons were in fact named re-education camps.

“Those are camps for when someone doesn’t understand the great leader’s political thoughts, and they simply need to be instructed.

“They made it sound as if someone was simply ignorant about their maths homework and had to have extra classes afterward.”

A household tribute to Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Sung

A household tribute to Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Sung

Alessandro says his North Korean coursemates asked lots of questions about the Western world.

One friend of his spent hours asking difficult military related questions and saw amazed to learn some countries don’t have compulsory military service.

Alessandro said: “He was absolutely baffled.”

He says he would definitely recommended the trip to others, both for the education and for checking out the culture. He believes that future student exchanges would “help with human rights violations by opening up the country”.