North Korea Guide Mr Lee

My final profile of our North Korean guides looks at our senior guide, the imposing Mr Lee.  Tall and lanky, Mr Lee exudes the aura of authority – of all our guides and minders we pegged him as the secret state security agent (but then at some point we had believed each of our guides had to be working for the secret police – and they probably were). 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, breaking the rules concerning photography can get the guides in a lot of trouble and can quickly sour the relationship between the tour group and guides.  I was crushed when on the 2nd day of the trip,  after being granted the opportunity to take a 20 min. escorted walk through downtown Pyongyang, Mr Lee slapped a big hand down on my shoulder and told me “no more pictures Joe”.  I believed my photography was being shut down for the remainder of the trip and that I had put the guides in danger and my group in bad standing for excessive picture taking – I had been taking a LOT of pictures.  So I put my camera away and vowed to do a better job at staying out of trouble.  Later that night in the gift shop of a cold noodle restaurant, Mr Lee again put his big hand on my shoulder and bid me to follow him.  As I was drawn away from the group and towards a secluded display case I thought to myself that an ass chewing for my illegal photography was at hand.  But instead Mr Lee simply pointed to a box in the display and flashed me a big smile and a nod as he said “North Korean Viagra!” Oh yo me! I wasn’t in trouble one bit, earlier on the street I was simply being warned that we had entered an area where locals would complain about pictures, I was actually being an exemplary tourist by doing what was asked of me, putting my camera away and not sneaking shots.

North Korean Guide Mr. Kim

Mr Lee on the North Korean cell network – no foreign cell phones are allowed in the country.

Mr Lee has a dry sense of humor.  On the bus we begged him to tell us a North Korean joke and after declining several times he finally agreed.  With a raised finger he commanded our attention and maintained a serious gaze for several long moments, finally through the microphone he delivered a deadpan “George W. Bush”, and to our cheers he gave an appreciative “thank you very much!”

Mister Lee @ Farm Coop

Senior guide Mr Lee.  Photo by fellow North Korea tour group member Andrew Lombardi.

On the final night of our trip our group had dinner at a Pyongyang BBQ duck restaurant.  Beer and Korean soju rice wine/liquor flowed liberally and the plates of barbequed duck tasted great.  After already having ordered several extra plates, one of our group decided to lean back and steal one last plate of meat from the table behind us (a strange custom in most of the restaurants tourists frequent in North Korea is that all the vacant tables are laid out with dishes of food).  No sooner was this plate of duck snatched and thrown on the BBQ then a stern faced waitress was on to our scam stomped off to inform Mr Lee of our pilferage.  Mr Lee strided over with a serious look on his face and demanded to know who stole the duck and eventually one of our group sheepishly fessed up.  “Stealing in North Korea is a serious crime, you must be punished!”  Mr Lee then proceeded to pore out a HUGE glass of soju and passed it to the thief declaring “this is your punishment.”  He then raised his own glass of soju in a gesture of a toast and simply informed us “you will be charged one Euro for the extra plate of duck!”

Mister Lee at Duck Restaurant

Mr. Lee at the BBQ duck restaurant.  Photo by fellow North Korea tour group member Andrew Lombardi.


Myself after a little too much “punishment” at the BBQ duck restaurant – and no, I was not the thief.   Photo by fellow North Korea tour group member Andrew Lombardi.

And I just want to make it clear in case any North Korean officials are reading – our guides were fantastic!  They helped to make the trip the special experience that it truly was and I really hope that if I’m lucky enough to make a second trip (or more) to the DPRK that I will have the opportunity to travel with them again.

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4 responses

  1. BBQ duck was one of my favorite dishes when I was living in SoKo. How does it compare to the DPRK version? I’ve heard stories about how the mandu compares from country to country.

    I also wonder what Mr. Lee’s life is really like. My impression of DPRK is eerie and enigmatic and I really hope that someday the people’s voices will be heard.

    November 16, 2011 at 11:19 pm

  2. The food was really hit or miss during the trip, we always had more than enough so that was never a problem. The BBQs were the best but other meals tended to be rather bland and a little bit too westernized for my taste. The beer was good too, they had a local North Korean micro brew on tap at the hotel.

    I had to look up mandu – is that dumplings? I spend a lot of time in Taiwan, thats where my favorite dumplings can be found.

    and yes, the guides are fascinating, there is SO much more I would like to write about them, but one has to be careful about putting too much personal stuff out there, really could get them in trouble.

    November 17, 2011 at 6:09 am

    • Yep, mandu is a dumpling. Very yummy! You can never go wrong with dumplings, no matter where you go! A lot of foreigners I knew in SoKo hated their domestic beer, but I always thought it was pretty good. Would love to taste DPRK beer someday!

      I totally agree with your discretion when you talk about the guides. It seems like once you visit DPRK and then leave, the trip never really ends in that there’s always a chance that the dissemination of information could still be used to penalize those who you encountered there.

      November 18, 2011 at 5:06 pm

  3. will

    I enjoyed seeing these pics.

    My wife and I just returned from a trip to pyongyang last week where Mr lee was one of our tour guides. Your pics and summary makes us miss the trip more, and especially our two guides (and driver).

    The thing that struck me most about the short stay we had was that we found like we formed a strong bond with our guides. Part of me thinks that I went in there with these preconceived ideas of the people being like robots, only to learn that they are unbelievably generous, friendly and easy to talk to. We never felt like we were being forced to believe anything that was told to us, however obviously the necessar level of respect for their beliefs was shown. Like you guys, I found learning about their beliefs to be one of the most fascinating parts of the trip.

    Not sure if it’s just us but we feel like we want to go back and see more, and spend more time there. I doubt that we would be allocated the same guides unfortunately.

    Loved the duck BBQ, and the fish hotpot too on one of the other nights.

    Thanks for creating this site so guys like me can look at other peoples experiences and see that the place seemed to shock us all a little bit, in a positive way.


    April 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

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