Link - Article by Ian Scott and Avi Abrams

No Whistling, Abandoned Hotels Fetish - and Some Very Well-Behaved Ladies

In many ways, I guess it was inevitable that everything in Korea was going to surprise me, because I knew so little about the country before I came here - after all, it's on the other side of the world from England, and we rarely get any news about it there.

Some of the odd, unusual and somewhat bewildering things that took me by surprise:

1) Koreans don't whistle. In fact, many Koreans can't whistle. When I asked my students why, they said that whistling was taboo. I'll have to look into that one a bit more.

2) Teachers must not correct books using a red pen! If you write someone's name in red, it means they are dead!

(an interesting sculpture found in Pyongyang, photo by Artemy Lebedev)

3) There is a TV channel devoted 24/7 to a board game called Paduk, which is a bit like chess. On-screen you see the board and hands occasionally moving pieces. I think that channel would slowly take over my life if it weren't for the other TV channels, which just show teenagers playing video games all day and night. In fact, it's the same video game all of the time and it's not even a very good one. I mean, if it were Age of Empires or something, at least it would look nice.

4) Commercial breaks are longer than the actual programmes. Sometimes, you'll just be getting into a Korean soap, and then a commercial break will start and go on and on and on and on. So, you wait, right? And what comes on after the commercial break? A completely different programme! So, you never do get to find out which one of those two guys she ended up with. I guess if you are watching the board game or video game channels, it doesn't really matter anyway.

5) There are loudspeakers everywhere. I have never heard so many loudspeakers in the streets anywhere else in the world. There are mobile shops (flatbed trucks) constantly cruising the streets, with loudspeakers turned up to maximum volume, advertising everything from onions to computers. The schools have even bigger and louder loudspeakers blaring out children's songs, physical-education instructions etc. not only to the whole school, but to the entire neighbourhood.

6) Palaces. Korea is really big on palaces. There are five different royal palaces in Seoul alone, and they are vast. It took me about two hours just to walk around one of them.

7) One of the tallest buildings in Korea (if not the tallest) is in North Korea! It's also the most grotesque:

The World's Largest Ruin? Ryugyong Hotel, The Pyongyang Ghost Tower - an unfinished hotel, looking very atmospheric early in the morning (a new haunt for Dracula, if he is still around):

(images credit: Artemy Lebedev)

Pyongyang officials do seem to realize how depressing this hotel looks, so they started to dress the outside of the hotel with glass, but this will hardly take care of the rotten core inside. However, you should not underestimate North Koreans, one day the Ryugyong Hotel might even look like this:

(image credit: Damien K.)

Another abandoned building, probably a hotel, nearby -

(image credit: Artemy Lebedev)

8) Koreans don't use knives. They cut meat, noodles and anything else that is inconveniently long with scissors. Sometimes in a restaurant a waitress will just lean over, with her pair of scissors, and helpfully snip a few pieces of food for you. The funny thing is, it makes sense! I realize now that the rest of the world has got it wrong. It's actually much easier to cut with scissors than with a knife.

9) Koreans invented printing. Forget all that Guttenburg press rubbish. The Koreans invented printing long before that - more info.

10) No Japanese cars. Korea must be the only country in the world where you don't see Japanese cars on the roads. In fact, you don't see any foreign cars on the roads. They are all Korean.

11) On Valentine's Day, February 14th, women give gifts of flowers and chocolates to men. And, no I haven't got that the wrong way round, but you may think they have.

12) Confusing street numbers. In most countries, when you are looking for a house you can follow the numbers on the buildings. They are arranged in a logical numbered sequence, right? Not in Korea. Next to House No. 1 could be house No. 88 or anything! House No. 2 will probably be half a mile away. Why? I wondered. Something to do with confusing the invading North Korean troops when they arrive, as somebody helpfully suggested? No. Apparently, they are numbered according to their age. So No. 1 will be the oldest house on the street. What happens if they tear it down and build a new one on the same spot, God only knows. Anyway, what it all means is that giving your address to a taxi driver is next-to-useless. You have to guide them every step of the way.

13) OK, I know you are expecting it, but the first time you see a dead dog, skinned, on a butcher's slab at the market, it does surprise you, believe me!

This photo was taken on Christmas Eve in front of the Fuck Club in downtown Daejeon, complete with smoking Santa. Note the little performing dog standing on its hind legs. It's a real, live dog (not eaten yet). Photo by Ian Scott


BONUS: Some Curious Imagery From North Korea

North Korean traffic lady (see her in action in this video) -

(image via)

Apparently, there are no streetlights in Pyongyang, so these ladies take over in bossing around the few cars Pyongyang does have.

(images credit: Eric Lafforgue)

The blank, impersonal style of architecture is definitely intimidating:

(images credit: Eric Lafforgue, see more here)

Contrary to popular belief, North Korea can boast some color - take a look at these children out for a walk:

(photo by Kostya Rubakhin)

Colorful clothing on a group of workers attending the Kim Ir-sen's Mausoleum in the Kumsusan Memorial Palace:

(image credit: Sergey Dolya)

Same colors seem to be present in this visual joke:

(image via)

North Korea Mass Dance Performances can include 100,000 dancers at once - here is a glimpse of one pretty girl dancer:

(images via 1, 2)

The mass parades can get pretty weird:

(image via)

Beauty and propaganda are not too far apart:

Graveyard "night shift" must be somewhat spooky in these places:

Such a show of emotions! -

Cute-looking vintage buses in Pyongyang:

Life is Good! -

Looking to the future… with optimism!

(North Korean Pioneer Girl, photo by Artemy Lebedev)

Ian Scott is an Englishman who is trying to visit 100 countries and live in 20 of them. He is getting there: so far he's been to 94 and Oman is the eighteenth country he's lived and worked in. Other countries he's lived in recently include South Korea, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Romania. The name of his site, which started out as An Englishman in Korea, has changed accordingly. His blog includes his observations and photos of some of the more unusual aspects of these countries.

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Blogger The Night Time Brothers said...

Wow, this is awesome. I had an uncle who went to North Korea and told me about the traffic light women, but still, I now realise that there is still so much I have to find out about that country...

Blogger Carey Evans said...

I have read that mothers in Korea whistle as a cue to their very young infants to urinate — early toilet training was essential before disposable nappies or automatic washing machines. The story goes that this conditioning lasts into adulthood, causing a feeling of urgency whenever foreigners whistle.

Blogger K said...

Wow. I'm impressed that you'd publish what amounts to propaganda for one of the most barbaric authoritarian regimes on the planet.

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

Oh yeah, they need more propaganda, they don't have enough on their own :)

Blogger Mark Whiting said...

I am living in Korea and have also had comments about whistling. As I understand it is thought to attract either evil spirits or snakes. That said however I do know many Koreans who can whistle including several who do it exceptionally well, to the point that I imagine the could do it in concert etc.

Several months ago while walking in a shopping center in the evening a man angrily told me to stop. It was not about sound pollution it was about the issues of the activity itself. Interesting none the less.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is one famous foreign car in South Korea: BMW. I have seen a number of 735s on the streets while there.

Anonymous spiff said...

@ K: Yes, showing that life in a country can have some normal aspects which are caught on film definitely is propaganda and completely wrong. People see that there is not a gallow on EVERY street corner and forget about the dictatorship immediately. In fact they might just start moving there, causing a massive exodus from the Western world and they might take all relevant secrets (military and industrial) with them for Mr. Kim Jong Il to use. All because of these pictures.

BTW, I guess it's the common North Korean who use the BMWs. In shape of those who represent (?) them, of course.

Anonymous William said...

The board game, "Paduk", is more often spelled "Baduk" in english when we're talking about the game in Korea. However, it's a lot more commonly known as "Go" or "Igo" in the west, after the Japanese word for the game. The game is originally Chinese however, where it's called Wei-qui.

Blogger lImbus said...

oh, please. Gutenberg!

Blogger ton180 said...

The writing of a name in red is found in Asia. Take a look at Kill Bill movie and watch the lady write the names in red. It means death.
Commercial breaks happen between the shows to kill the dead air time.
There is Valentine's day and there is White day where men give to women.
No foreign cars?
Porche, mercedes, toyotas, bmw, masseratis, ferraris, puegeot, and others are plentiful in the South.

Anonymous Shane said...

I lived in Korea for more than a year and several of these are gross generalizations or not accurate at all. No foreign cars?? The Valentines Day info is not entirely correct - there is one holiday for girls gifting to guys, another one for the other day around, and yet another one for the single people.

Anonymous Anonymous said...


erm, it's not a whistling sound at all. They say shhh which means pee in Korean. Plz gt ur facts straights b4 they leave the hollow cavity that iz ur headz

Blogger Unknown said...

The video game channel is probably showing professional Starcraft competitions, which far from being 'not very good,' is one of the most popular and award-winning games of all time.

Anonymous DesignsDelight said...

I am realy suprised at the speed at which yo turn around these bog post, this is a great post, I normally do not sit down and read the thing slowly but I need to come back and read this one slowly

Blogger Nafhan said...

Gutenberg was first with the movable type printing press in the Western world. Movable type didn't catch on to well in Asia because of the number of characters in Korean, Chinese, etc. It makes a lot more sense with European languages as only a few characters are needed instead of hundreds or thousands.

Blogger Richard said...

the over generalization is ridiculous

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, you mixed up the stories about South Korea and North Korea. Most of your comments are about North.
Many Koreans can whistle and they just don't. And there are so many foreign cars in Korea, including Japanese cars. And I heard that I can see skinned dogs at some of the local market. I have lived in South Korea for 36 years and I have never seen skinned dog. It is regarded as orgish and no shop will want to scare customer...

Blogger Carey Evans said...

To anonymous number 1: I did actually read that. Thank you for pointing out that the writer was simply making stuff up.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post, but I was in Daejeon like 3 or 4 months ago and drank at the Wa bar, but didn't see the "Fuck Club" there. Must have closed quickly. Also, I've never seen a skinned dog, but there are plenty of Gaegogi shops around. I guess they would show you a skinned dog if you like. A lot of myths and stories about Korea are probably from the 50's to 70's. Their culture has changed a lot since then and their cities are pretty modern now.

Anonymous Pablo said...

The bus is electric, I could, I think, see the railing. Not many of those still cruise around, maybe it would be interesting looking out for more of them?

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone else has mentioned, the computer game is Starcraft...probably one of the most globally played RTS games ever made. Age of Empires pales in comparison and even comparing the two makes me cringe. Whistling is taboo because it was traditionally believed to call dead spirits...its not belived anymore but the taboo still exists. "In fact," i also know some Americans who can't whistle, including me.

Blogger rotten03 said...

I live in Daegu, South Korea and of the 40-50 parking spots just outside my apartment, only about 1/4 of them are taken up by Korean cars. There are many BMWs, Audis, Pontiacs, Harleys and even a Mustang and Corvette to boot. Sad thing is, most of them are completely beaten up due to traffic accidents and lack of respect in parking lots.

Blogger Huy801 said...

#10 is rubbish!!! When I was living there I saw BMWs, MBs, Heavily modified Nissan Skyline R34s, etc.

Blogger Nathan Billington said...

I'd have to agree with those who feel that this post is not a fair representation of the reality of life in North Korea. Although its important to meditate on the good, we have to ask ourselves the hard questions. How did those buildings get funded? How did their cities get built? At what cost to the people?

Although I haven't looked into it much myself (my apologies, I'm working on opening my eyes), I've heard reports that the NK government won't allow its people to move into the apartments, and most don't have functioning utilities, on top of other injustices.

The aim isn't to make foreigners out to be barbaric or less than human, or get stuck on fights over ideologies (for that is indeed propaganda), the point is to focus on the people who have suffered injustice, learn their stories and tell them, in the hope that there can be change in their lives for the better.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

On so amny North Korean posters, there is only one message:
USA is the 'great evil' and must be crushed??
We really need to deal with these people somehow!
There are some real anger issues there..........

Blogger Kitti said...

1. I'm Korean and can whistle very well, as can my brother and father. I've found that many people in general can't whistle.
2. Writing in red is used to record a dead person's name. This isn't, however, all over Asia. Chinese people consider red to be good luck.
8. We use scissors a lot because it's easier to cut some things, but we do use knives all the time.
10. The reason there aren't many foreign cars is because there are large taxes. Only wealthy people can afford them.

I understand that you're visiting many countries and you think these "quick facts" are funny, but they're really not. Even with no harm intended, generalizations like these are insulting. Generalizations are insulting to everyone. Please learn something from your trip around the world. It's one thing to think something interesting. It's another to portray other people as strange and weird.

Blogger okiroo said...

I can't make any sense which korean you most likely saying about between north and south. I am now leaving in seoul S. korea. lots of info you posted seem strange to me eventhough i am S.korean. but interesting posts if you were talking only about North. We do not know well of north either.

Blogger Brandy said...

Wow, this was fascinating. Especially the facts about addresses (I'm so glad they don't do that here in America. I have a hard enough time finding addresses); writing in red pen (wonder how many people I've killed off lol); and cutting food with scissors (that makes total sense). Thanks for a great post.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loudspeakers? Is that why they're so loud? Or is the other way around?

Anonymous Anonymous said...


North Korea and South Korea are COMPLETELY different countries.

North Korea has been shut off from the world for over 60 years and has faced nothing but misery and isolation, while South Korea has thrived to become a developed country.

Putting North Korea and South Korea would be putting apples with grapes... not even oranges. USA and Saudi Arabia. They're THAT different, and I find it ignorant and offensive how North and South Korea are described as the same thing in this article.

...and Koreans can't wistle? I can thanks. They choose not to? I've never heard this. Also, we use knives - also don't know where you got that from... and a lot of other things.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Korean doesn't have "hundreds or thousands of characters" in the alphabet as someone commented above, there are about 14 consanants and 10 basic vowel sounds. It seems perfectly possible that koreans could have come up with a printing press first.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

1/3 of the stuff on this post (not the responses) are wrong. No wonder why South Korea is often called 'the most misunderstood country'.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dog meat is only a summer meat. You only eat dog meat in summer and not that often.

Besides, it tastes better than beef and chicken.

Some people love North Korea because it's the only country in the world where dog meat is legal.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

this article is so fail, do some research about north and south korea, they are totally different country

Anonymous Anonymous said...

How is this any different from the nationalism of Washington DC with its long boulevards and structures honouring every single President? I don't see much of a difference really. This is scary because it's nationalism you guys don't like. DC is just as terrifying.

Anonymous vivienne westwood said...

Yes, showing that life in a country can have some normal aspects which are caught on film definitely is propaganda and completely wrong. People see that there is not a gallow on EVERY street corner and forget about the dictatorship immediately.

Anonymous Bakedpotatoes said...

Bloody hell some commenters are thick. This is about North Korea, too! Just because you went to Seoul once doesn't make you an expert on the entire peninsula.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, whistling in the night is the taboo; not in the daytime. At old times people used to believe that whistling in the night will bring snakes out of their nests... and for Carey, mothers' cue for urinating is not exactly whistles, they are 'shee' sounds, very much the same sound you make for requesting silency.

Anonymous DDK said...

you have some misunderstanding about Korea. What you are talking about is almost about North Korea, not South Korea.

You just collect very raunchy pictures and talk such as all life Korea is like that.

It's not right.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now we can assume Britain and America are pretty much the same.

Clap. Clap.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Korean does indeed only have about 24 characters, but the printing press still wouldn't have suited them, as Hangeul are combined in different shapes and sizes to form squares of text, rather than the European convention of just having one letter after the other.


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