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Tuesday 16 September 2014

Irish man becomes tour guide - in North Korea

John Mulgrew

Published 13/02/2014 | 16:42

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Chris Kelly with a fellow guide

IRISH man Chris Kelly (27) has been plying his trade as a tour guide - in North Korea.

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Speaking in the Grand People's House under the gaze of giant portraits of the nation's current and former leaders, to visiting the demilitarised zone between North and South, and introducing the North Koreans to St Patrick's Day, the Derry man said his first time in the capital Pyongyang was one of the "strangest and most breathtaking experiences in my life".

"It's the most bizarre thing. Standing in this massive square, in a country not influenced by capitalism, with no advertisements," he said.

"It's so strange and so incredible."

Of course, the country is no stranger to the headlines – often for the wrong reasons – with leader Kim Jong-un recently executing his uncle and mentor, which he described as the "elimination of factionalist filth".

But according to Mr Kelly, the media only portrays the region's "bad parts".

"It's strange, because people are not brainwashed. They are people who are concerned about the same things we are," he said.

"Promotion, educating their children, falling in love and going for a drink.

"It's ordinary things in an extraordinary place."

He said some customs and traditions seemed strange to outsiders, such as the prevalence of pictures of the oft-derided in the West leader Kim Jong-un, and of his late father and grandfather, adorning buildings.

"These things might seem weird for us, but it's not strange for them," he said.

Mr Kelly landed his job with China-based Young Pioneer Tours after making his first visit to the nation in 2012, following a teaching stint in Japan.

The law graduate is now set to return to North Korea several times this year – showing dozens of keen westerners around.

He said: "Those from the West think a lot of these people are actors, and are so surprised."

But while the nation still primarily relies on rationing as well as suffering from poverty – with average yearly incomes of less than €2,500 – Pyongyang is "booming", according to Mr Kelly.

"There is a lot of scepticism (in the West), but there are lots of restaurants opening up.

"It's a modern city.

"We are doing a St Patrick's tour this year for the first time. I'll be bringing my bodhran before we do the usual thing – have a pub crawl," he added.

 

FACTFILE

 

* One of the most secretive nations on Earth, North Korea has a population of 25 million.

 

* It is governed under a family dictatorship, with Kim Jong-un its current leader.

 

* The country's capital is Pyongyang, and it shares a land border with China.

 

* North Korea is one of the few countries still under nominally communist rule, while Press and media is under State control.

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