While tourists are allowed into North Korea, they are only permitted to travel around its capital city, Pyongyang, while on guided tours. Outsiders are forbidden from travelling around the city on their own and can only photograph a select number of spots. Other than those assigned to show them around and hotel staff, visitors have limited contact with citizens. This guarded approach to tourism is believed to represent Kim Jong-un’s concern over how the nation is perceived by the outside world.
Some have claimed there are similarities between how North Korea presents itself and the plot line for the 1998 film The Truman Show.
The US hit starred Jim Carrey as a man who discovered his life was not real and all of his interactions, his marriage and achievements were scripted as part of a TV show.
Some who have visited North Korea claimed their experiences were similar to that of fictional character Truman Burbank – who was presented with an idealised view of existence.
But Ian Bennett, of Choson Exchange, who has travelled to the state for the last 12 years, gave a different account and claimed this was far from the case.
He has been allowed more access than most in his capacity as an advisor to North Korean entrepreneurs – a role he joked was similar to the TV show The Apprentice.
Mr Bennett told Express.co.uk: “If you go as a tourist it’s not The Truman Show but nonetheless you’re not going to drop into someone’s house or have a random conversation.
“You’re mostly going to be visiting sites where people expect to see foreign tourists.
“With Choson Exchange we go to hold seminars, we sit with the groups and chat to them about their business ideas – there’s no minder there.
“You find someone in each group who speaks English and then work through games and chat about everyday stuff.”
Mr Bennett explained that citizens were “surprisingly creativity”, considering they live in a society “where having your own ideas is not exactly encouraged”.
He said: “There is this image of North Koreans as robots, who are all just marching in lockstep and only having thoughts on how best to serve their leader.
“But they are people who think of their own lives, promotions and arguments at work.”
Mr Bennett admitted that he steered clear of conversations about Kim Jong-un or politics because “they are conscious” of the lives they are living.
He continued: “Generally I try not to go for the ‘gotcha’ moments or trip them up, they are conscious.
“It’s a trust thing and if they speak openly to you, there is only one person who could suffer for that.
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“I don’t try to put them on the spot. I talk around safe topics like laughing at [Donald] Trump and safe ground, which helps everyone open up a bit.”
Mr Bennett’s experience of North Korea is very different to ordinary visitors because he is allowed to jog around Pyongyang, which he claims draws a “few looks”, and picks where to go for dinner in an evening.
He countered the criticism of some visitors who felt frustrated by being unable to look around without tour guides – who they often compare to “minders”.
Mr Bennett said: “I go regularly and it’s useful to have someone there who knows the ropes and what can and can’t be done.
“Not everything is open to foreigners by any means but for us, we have a little more flexibility.
“If you go as a tourist, your itinerary is set in advance but that doesn’t mean everyone’s waiting there, putting on their costumes ready for when you arrive because that would be insane!”
Mr Bennett believes the nation’s guarded approach to outsiders is complex but stems from them having “to find their own way” for much of the last century.
He continued: “They have kind of done their own thing and they have their self-reliance ‘Juche’ ideology.”
Mr Bennett acknowledged that there was a “job for everyone” in the state and those selected for outward facing roles – who interact with outsiders – had to be perfect.
He said: “If you’re the lady who mans the karaoke machine you’re going to be able to sing.”