Student Stories

Summer in North Korea

This is a guest post by an Altay Otun student for InternMatch’s Student Stories. If you’re interested in getting involved with Student Stories, learn more here.


On a hot and humid summer’s day, I found myself wandering around Kim Il-sung Square in the heart of Pyongyang. Surrounded by portraits of Lenin and Marx, I felt as if I had just stepped onto a set of some Cold War era spy movie. But this was no movie set and hundreds of North Korean school children practicing for the annual Arirang Festival were no extras.

When most students take the summer after their freshman year in college to reconsider their fateful decision to major in mechanical engineering, Skype with their new girlfriend or boyfriend- that they met while living in dorms -about their future plans to move in together (we all know how that one ends), or backpack through western Europe and take a selfie of themselves propping up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, I decided to travel to North Korea.

My trip to North Korea was part of an internship with the Pyongyang Project, a Canadian non-profit, that took me and a dozen or so undergraduate and graduate students to Beijing, Pyongyang, and Seoul. Our aim was to analyze the highly interconnected nature of Northeast Asian economies, cross-border interactions between China and North Korea, and political as well as social relations between China, North Korea, and South Korea. At the end of our trip, we authored a memo on our findings and recommendations on how to ensure peace and stability on the Korea Peninsula, which we presented at the Canadian Embassy in Seoul.

But here’s the catch: I didn’t know much about North Korea or Northeast Asian politics when applying for the internship position. For many students, that would be enough to discourage them from applying for a great opportunity. But I am here to tell you that you don’t have to be a perfect fit to land the internship that you want.

Let me explain. While I did not have any expertise or in-depth knowledge on North Korea or the surrounding region (prior coursework, fluency in Korean or Mandarin, past internship experiences on the topic, etc), I was able to tailor my skills and past experiences to fit the internship’s requirements. Having a previous internship experience in Cyprus, a country also divided between two communities, I highlighted my experiences working and researching in such an environment and this ultimately worked in my favor.

The main takeaway here is that you don’t have to match-up with the internship’s qualifications exactly to be a great fit for the position. Just because you don’t have experience in Asian politics doesn’t mean that your experience analyzing politics in the Middle East couldn’t be an adequate substitute. Your primary goal should be to look hard and long at the experiences and skills that you do have and communicate to your interviewer about how they fit with the internship’s requirements – even if they don’t match up with what’s written on paper.

If I had let the fact that I was not extremely knowledgeable on state Northeast Asian politics discourage me, I would have missed out on the internship of a lifetime. Make sure you don’t let your fears cost you the position of your dreams!

About the Author:

Altay Otun is a senior majoring in Political Science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He has held numerous internships with the State Department, the Obama Campaign, US Congress, policy think-tanks, and non-profits. He is also the founder of Canada’s first student run policy think tank- the Policy Scholars Forum. He is passionate about politics and innovation. Find him on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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