Twin Sisters in the main square of Hamhung City, North Korea – photos by Joseph A Ferris III
Cell phones are all the rage in Pyongyang, North Korea this year (we hardly saw any during our Aug. 2011 trip) – here a traffic girl sneaks a call from behind a tree - photo by Joseph A Ferris III
A rare photo from the North Korean countryside – on the road between Wonsan and Pyongyang, a troop of soldiers return to base with a truck load of firewood. I love some of the small details I captured here: the girl in the back holding a branch with flower blossoms, a smile on the man in front, and girls curiously checking out the tourist bus as it passes.
- Soldier With Flowers (americaninnorthkorea.com)
One of the major changes from last summer that I saw in Pyongyang this spring was the newly hung portrait of Kim Jong-il in Kim II Sung Square, Pyongyang. Kim Jong-il is credited with the creation and fostering of his father’s personality cult, yet in his lifetime he had restrained the establishment of a personality cult of his own, but following his death portraits and statues have started to pop up throughout Pyongyang and beyond – check out the new Kim Joing-il mural in the Pyongyang Mansudae neighborhood.
Taking a picture that fails to fully capture the image of Kim II Sung is strictly forbidden – although I captured the one above.
Kim Jong-il and Kim II-sung portraits in Kim II-sung Square during the preparations for the 100th year birthday of Kim II-sung.
View of Kim II-sung Square from atop Juche Tower – at 300mm zoom.
- Pyongyang Mansudae Housing Complex (americaninnorthkorea.com)
I try to post something new and original on a daily basis here at the American in North Korea blog, but my four month vacation is over and I will be intensely busy with my normal job until I get set into my new routine – working as a Chief Mate on an ocean going ship.
To celebrate getting back to work (it’s my birthday today too – 36 years if you must know) I have posted the above photo, a Korean peninsular map – with Pyongyang indicated by a star, that shows the various ocean species and fisheries found in the Korean region. I found this map in a small museum at the Wonsan Songdowon Children’s Camp – many more pics from there to come.
An average Pyongyang street scene – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
While surfing the web I found some interesting posts over at NK News about Ashen, a Russian student living and blogging in Pyongyang, North Korea. Believed to be the only blogger in the DPRK, background about Ashen has been hard to track down. His blog, Show and Tell Pyongyang, is in Russian, and the guys at NK News have spent a lot of time running it through translation software, polishing up his text, and presenting summery posts. Their investigative work leads them to believe Ashen’s parents work at the Russian embassy, where he has access to the internet and is able to blog, and that he is currently enrolled at the Pyongyang Kim Il-sung University.
Here are the links to the NK News site summery posts and translations of Ashen’s blog:
A Blogger In Pyongyang (Part 1) – Intro and college life in the DPRK.
A Blogger in Pyongyang (Part 2) – Further investigation into college life in the DPRK.
A Blogger in Pyongyang (Part 3) - Metro, Ostrich farm, and North Korean cigarettes.
Pyongyang Shooting Gallery - Ashen visits a gun range.
New Year & Xmas Celebrations – Rare photos of Pyongyang in the winter.
North Korean Toys: Juche Lego Sets – Popular North Korean toys.
North Korea’s Juche Toy Industry – Part 2 – More popular North Korean toys.
A North Korean soldier with flowers passes by as we sightsee at the southern entrance to the Nampo West Sea Barrage – just another example of the humanity of the North Korean people rarely shown by the mainstream western media – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Read more about this experience and many more like it at Joshua’s Spodek’s Blog.
One of the best things about returning to North Korea was meeting up with the friends I made on my first visit. Below I get a hug from one of the singing waitresses that I danced with during the 2011 Ultimate Frisbee Tournament. I suppose I made a great impression during my first visit – that is one hell of a close hug, and I even got a kiss on the cheek when we made our goodbyes!
But of course I’m in trouble now, whenever my girlfriend is upset with me she points out these pictures and reminds me that “I know who your secret North Korean girlfriend is” and that “I know the real reason why you like going to North Korea” !
Well, I actually don’t know this girl’s name, but she is a real sweetheart, and if you ever pass through Pyongyang with a stop at the lamb BBQ restaurant on your itinerary, make sure to say hi to her for me – and be ready to dance!
Photo with my girl from 2011 Pyongyang Ultimate Frisbee Tournament.
In the tidal shallows outside the tourist hotel in the North Korean east coast city of Wonsan, local fisherman search out the ocean’s bounty – photos by Joseph A Ferris III
- Wonsan Docks (americaninnorthkorea.com)
The following question was posed to me in a recent post response thread: Is there a sentiment of North-South reunification among North Koreans or have they come long enough a way to forget and develop their own sense of national pride?…….How could North Koreans be fooled for so long that their country is on a higher moral ground than all other countries, when the leadership is showing the exact opposite? Do they really think foreigners have it worse or what? Some North Koreans know what real prosperity looks like across the border to Seoul, yet most of the country still seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that everyone in the country is basically working for the ruling family’s sole benefit and indulgence.
It may not be as clear cut as assumed here, but isn’t it the basic idea? Seriously, what is up?
Unification propaganda at the DMZ – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
My answer to the above question: Trying to figure out what North Koreans really think is a puzzle that has me infinitely fascinated. As a foreigner, and especially as a tourist, I believe you will never truly know, but visiting and discovering small insights and clues, or at least seeing a different side of the people – a human side (and capturing it in photos), is what keeps bringing me back. Testimony from defectors helps give a clue, but how much of that can you really trust? It all makes my head spin. Of course as a tourist you really only get to see Pyongyang and a handful of other cities and showcase sites, places of privilege where everyone toes the party line – their well-off lives depend on it!
So knowing what North Koreans really believe about reunification is a difficult thing. I know that the government supports unification in its propaganda and that guides tell us that reunification is a goal that all North Koreans hope for and support in their heart. There is a strong pan Korean cultural identity held in esteem in the North, and I believe the “idea” of reunification for the good of all Koreans and Korean culture is truly supported there. But I think the actual act of reunification is a vague idea and one that the government feels is better put off for the distant future, and looking at the cost of unification I believe the South feels the same way.
The North Korean leadership has specific strategies and sustainable competitive advantages that compel them to maintain the status quo (for more on this read Joshua Spodek’s book). I see this, more than a newly developed “sense of national pride”, as the reason, despite internal and external propaganda proclaiming the opposite, as the reason why reunification has been indefinitely sidelined.
Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il mural in the city of Wonsan – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I believe the 2nd part of the question – how could North Koreans be fooled for so long that their country is on a higher moral ground than all other countries……is brilliantly addressed in Brian R. Myer’s book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters. Here you can find an in depth examination of North Korean propaganda, how the government has had to accept its poverty, and instead focused on racial supremacism as a cornerstone of their propaganda.
Tourists to North Korea are no longer exposed to the old fashioned anti-American propaganda, neither are they exposed to this new North Korean supremacism propaganda, but to understand North Korea one needs to understand it exists. The South Korean economy surpassed the North in the early 70′s but for many years lack of information about the outside world allowed the government to proclaim its economy and Juche system as the envy of the world. Currently this would fool no one. Through smuggled South Korean DVDs, trading and border connections with China, and exposure to the outside world through Russian logging camps, North Koreans have a pretty good idea of their lowly economic position in the world. To help maintain their grip on power the North Korean regime shifted its propaganda to focus on the supremacism of the wholesome North Korean citizen living and holding the true Korean culture in trust until a time when the South Koreans vacate US soldiers off their soil along with all the associated vice and corruption US influence brings. They believe (or at least propagandize) this as a holy responsibility, something worth the sacrifice in the face of the wealth and the subsequent corruption, so readily apparent across their borders, that the wealth brings.
How effective is this propaganda? As a tourist I cant really say. North Koreans are not going to tell a tourist anything but the party line. Divergent opinions must exist but to talk openly about them brings down certain punishments……and any further discussion on that delves into taboo areas best not to be explored by those of us who want to continue with travels to the DPRK
From a previous post: To our delight, the traffic girls of Pyongyang were brought out of retirement to help deal with the massive traffic congestion, and perhaps to add a little more color to the city for ’Eternal President’ Kim Il Sung’s 100th year birthday celebrations.
On my first visit (summer 2011) we had been saddened to learn that the girls had been replaced by a modern traffic light system. They could still be seen on occasion, running roadside signal lamp switches, working road construction sights, or directing traffic during the frequent power outages, but we missed their famous directing routines performed at the main city intersections. I’m happy to report that this April they were back directing traffic throughout Pyongyang, and although I have no idea how long this will last, I got some great pics during this special opportunity and will be sure to have a follow-up post sharing the best of them!
This is the follow-up picture post with those promised photos posted below!
Remaining photos show the Pyongyang traffic girls performing their normal post retirement duties: cross walk safety overloading and manual light phasing – all from April 2012.
2011 Arirang Mass Games – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
From my contacts at Koryo Tours: We have just been informed that North Korea’s spectacular Arirang Mass Games will be taking place once again this year. The officially confirmed dates so far are from August 1st – September 9th (Sept 9th is DPRK’s National Day, a major holiday in North Korea) but we do expect the dates to be extended as it is normal for the initial confirmed run of the Mass Games to be this long, the event often finishes as late as mid-October, we will of course keep you updated!
If you’ve ever wanted to see 100,000 performers in a 90 minute spectacular combination of gymnastics, propaganda, dance, music, and of course unicycling all with the backdrop of the world’s largest screen – one made up of 20,000 schoolchildren flipping coloured cards to create an ever-shifting display unrivaled anywhere else in the world – then this is the event for you. Truly unforgettable and awe-inspiring, book now for something that will not be easily forgotten!
All tours that take place in this period can see the Mass Games, the event takes place in the evening and so is easily fitted to any tour schedule. The Mass games will run 5 times a week (on Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat) so plenty of opportunities for you to attend, you can even go more than once on a tour if you so desire!
North Korean guide Ms. Han at the Paradise Department Store in Pyongyang, North Korea. This is a hard currency store with many “luxury” goods available to those with cash – foreigners are allowed to shop there too . The top floor is home to the Paradise Microbrewery, an actual brew pub with decent draft beer on tap!
Live entertainment at a North Korean state run restaurant in Dandong, China.
Traveling to Asia but don’t have enough time to visit North Korea? It’s possible to get a taste, literally, of North Korean culture at one of the many state run North Korean restaurants located in the East and Southeast Asian region. At the Pyongyang restaurant chain you can get amazing North Korean cuisine along with music and dance shows performed by actual North Korean waitresses.
These restaurants are reportedly run by the infamous Room 39, the North Korean bureau that is tasked with acquiring and laundering foreign hard currency and the distribution of foreign luxury goods to high party officials.
The Pyongyang restaurant is the perfect place to hang out at if you are looking to rub shoulders with North Korean spies and secret agents. All the waitresses are required to live on premises and are closely watched by state security agents – reportedly several branches in China were shut down after escape attempts. Clientele at branches close to the North Korean border are mainly curious Chinese and North Korean businessmen, while branches further afield focus on the South Korean businessman trade.
Wikipedia reports that the Pyongyang restaurant chain operates in the major cities close to the North Korean border along with locations in Beijing and Shanghai. Outside China you can enjoy the North Korean experience at a Pyongyang restaurant in Bangkok, Jakarta, Pattaya, Siem Reap, Vientiane, and Amsterdam.
Live entertainment at a North Korean state run restaurant in Dandong, China.
My good friend Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of The North Korea Blog, and I visited a North Korean state run restaurant during our visit to the Chinese/North Korean border city of Dandong. We stopped by the Lui Jing restaurant, and although what I write about above deals with the Pyongyang restaurant chain, we were assured that the Lui Jing restaurant was also North Korean state run and would provide the most authentic North Korean meal in the city. While in North Korea our meals were always adequate but seemingly dumbed down for our western palette. At the Dandong Lui Jing restaurant we were served up heaping dishes of the best Korean food I have ever had. We dug into a serving of Yook Hwe, a cold raw beef and raw egg dish that was fantastic, along with bulgogi BBQ (we ordered 2nds), and a gigantic fluffy shrimp and octopus omelet.
Taking photos is not allowed in most North Korean state run restaurants, so I never got pictures of our dishes, but when the floor show started the waitresses used sign language to indicate we could snap some shots – as shown in the pics above. The waitresses were totally perplexed by us, I’m guessing they don’t see too many western foreigners stopping by at the Dandong branch, but of course we charmed them with our limited Korean language skills and smiles, and had the entire waitress staff abuzz chatting about our every move. We visited two nights in a row and was granted the special privilege, despite a no photo policy, of taking Polaroids and sharing them with the girls there.
More from my collection of images showing North Korean propaganda billboards and murals from the Wonson and Hamhung countryside areas – check out post #1 here.
Built in 100 days* to commemorate the 100th birthday of ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung, the new Mansudae housing project is the latest addition to the Pyongyang skyline. Also seen in the picture above is a new mural of Kim Jong-il. Conspicuously absent during his lifetime, grand murals and statues of Kim Jong-il are being unveiled and installed throughout Pyongyang.
View of the Mansudae housing complex as seen from the base of Juche Tower.
View of Mansudae housing complex as seen from the top of Juche Tower.
Video of the Mansudae housing complex nighttime light show – shocking evidence of change in the DPRK considering that last summer the city was blacked out by power shortages every night by 9PM.
*Although said to have been built in 100 days, I was told the construction of the Mansudae housing complex took a little longer than that – but it was still done in an amazingly quick time. I don’t remember any construction in that area of the city during my summer 2011 visit.
A collection of images showing propaganda billboards and murals from the Wonsan and Hamhung countryside areas.
Portrait of a girl in Wonsan City, North Korea . She was quite a little ham, always finding a position front and foremost in the crowds so she could be the center focus of my photos. You can find more of her in these previous posts here, here, and here.
More pics below from our walk at the Wonsan Docks, DPRK, North Korea – original post here.
North Korean troops ready to punish their enemies with “unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style“.
Pyongyang was lit up 24 hours a day, traffic jams clogged the streets (even the retired traffic girls were mobilized), the hotels and bars were impressively stocked with foreign luxury goods, new statues, murals, and even entire neighborhoods were unveiled and gifted to the public. The citizens were in good cheer with smiles on their faces as they enjoyed the gigantic military parades, public holiday gatherings, and massive fireworks displays – all to commemorate the 100th birthday of ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung.
There was also a missile launch, the failure of which was not reported to the North Korean people…….but everyone knew.
And now with the party over there is a HUGE debt, and with the suspension of American food aid sadly there also will be empty stomachs.
So where will the DPRK go from here? I’m not an expert, the focus of this blog is on my travel experiences, human interactions, and photography in North Korea, but I do have some on-the-ground observations and humble analysis I would like to share on the current saber rattling coming out of the DPRK.
While talking with our guides we freely discussed the topic of US food aid to the DPRK. Our guides explained to us that they were fully aware that the American Government gave food aid in the late 90′s in response to the mass famines that afflicted the country. When asked if this aid helped the USA to be regarded in a more favorable light by North Koreans, our guides said no, that the US did not give enough aid at that time for the average citizen to change their opinion on the US government – I’m sure ongoing anti American propaganda didn’t help either. A more enlightening revelation was that our guides admitted to us that they were unaware of continuing food aid supplied from the USA to the DPRK throughout the 2000′s.
While the food situation is believed to be better than the late 90′s, it is generally believed that food shortages and reduced rations do exist outside Pyongyang. People in the secondary cities we visited (Hamhung, Nampo, and Wonsan) looked to be in good health, but we did witness scavenging in the mountainous countryside in transit between these cities – our guides claimed not know what these people were doing when asked.
At the time when the DPRK government has proclaimed itself as achieving its goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, not only has it lost face with a failed missile launch – a costly blunder not only in the expense of research and development, but also in causing the loss of food aid – it is also faced with the tremendous expenses for the celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim il-sung.
During my summer 2011 visit blackouts commenced in the city at 2100 hours with only the foreign hotel and the largest city monuments still lit by midnight. I got a small peak at the expense and effort to light Pyongyang during this last celebratory period when during a trip to the Pyongyang outskirts for lunch at a mountain park, we passed the main road out to the port city of Nampo. Here dump trucks full of coal for the Pyongyang power plant where lined up and stretched out as far as I could see towards Nampo. This effort to light and power Pyongyang had to have been enormous, and ultimately I believe, unsustainable.
Kim Jong-un in the news at the Pyongyang Metro.
Kim Jong-un gave his first public speech to the North Korean people during the celebrations for his grandfather’s 100th birthday. Witnessing this broadcast from inside the DPRK was an incredible experience. The busy hotel lobby and bar hushed to a silence as North Koreans gathered around the bar television set. This was a big deal, remember that his father Kim Jong-il only publicly spoke once during his rule. Unfortunately to the eyes of us westerners Kim Jong-un’s speech looked terrible. He swayed and looked as if he was speaking without any kind of authority or self assurance. The North Koreans we met never talked about this speech so I assume it was viewed by them with some sense of unease.
Considering the situation the DPRK has gotten itself in (from my observations above), the current round of saber rattling is understandable, North Korea is desperately looking for attention and hopes to regain aid. Where could it all lead? Joshua Spodek, friend and travel buddy, argues in his book Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country, that the North Korean leadership is quite rational and rather pleased to continue with the status quo – it ensures their survival. Hard times may be ahead but the safe bet would have the North Korean government continuing as before. Brash talk, saber rattling, perhaps a small scale border skirmish, but in general more of the same with the people suffering in what their propaganda claims is a righteous honor – something the South has given up in their race for economic prosperity – as the North Korean Government would tell you.
But the food crisis, debt, and failure in faith of the top leadership could be worse than I imagine, and the consequences could be far worse than a continuation of the statues quo. Although I believe the leadership is rational, the possibility exists that if the hard liners believe their backs are truly against the wall they could follow their propaganda – 50 plus years of preaching to their military and people of a coming war to end all wars, and go for broke with a major military action. It would be a suicidal gesture with millions of people dying in both the North and South, but I do believe such an action is a possibility if the situation deteriorates badly enough and the hard liners see no way out.
Soldiers in Pyongyang walk home after a military parade.
While hard liners of the older generation maneuver to hold power, there are whispers that the younger generation is aware of the world outside the DPRK and that they desire change. A cell phone revolution has taken over North Korea and familiarity with the outside world is continuously leaking in via smuggled DVD’s. Western tourism is also helping to open eyes and change opinions. If conditions deteriorate enough, a clash between the hard liners and the new generation will be inevitable. The new and untested leader Kim Jong-un may find himself in the middle of this conflict, and with his own survival in mind, will probably back whatever faction seems to be winning out – that is if he survives that long.
It’s been an interesting time to have traveled to the DPRK, both before and after the death of Kim Jong-il, and no matter what happens there I wish the best of luck to the common people and hope they pull through the troubled times ahead with the least amount of suffering – the common people of North Korea are a good people and they deserve better than what they have been forced to endure.
We all know the media makes big bucks sensationalizing people, places and events. No location is probably sensationalized more than the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka the DPRK or North Korea). And who can blame them? It’s an ‘evil empire’, and nothing makes a story more intriguing than a common enemy. However, some of the information we hear about the forbidden fatherland has been exaggerated, to put it mildly.
Here are a few of the biggest myths about the country……..Continue reading this post by Cyrus Kirkpatrick, guest blogger over at the North Korea Blog.
Myth # 1: It’s impossible for foreigners to interact with North Koreans – here I am proving that myth wrong with locals in the North Korean port city of Wonsan!
Joshua Spodek and North Korean guide Ms Han - photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Joshua Spodek, North Korean travel buddy and author of the book Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country, recently gave the following strategy lecture — how business competitive analysis makes the actions of the world’s most erratic nation start to make complete sense —
The video cuts the lecture off a little short but Joshua gives additional insights:
From Joshua’s blog - The video didn’t capture the questions and answers afterward. One of the first questions people asked was if I worried I was overly sympathetic to North Korean decision-makers. My goal is to understand them and their perspective, which people sometimes interpret as support.
It bears repeating that understanding doesn’t mean support. If you want to influence someone — what else do we strategize about? — I consider ignorance of their perspective the least productive starting point. Once you understand that understanding doesn’t mean support, you begin to learn about them. Then you can influence them.
Come to think of it, a less productive starting point than ignorance is beginning with condemnation. No matter how justified you feel, you can rest assured the person you condemn won’t share your opinion. They’ll feel misunderstood if you lucky. More likely they’ll feel more right than before.
You will lose credibility, since they will feel they know more about themselves than you do and you disagree on what they feel they know better, and they will likely reinforce their position. Now you have two parties who both consider themselves right and the other wrong.
Of course, if you have overwhelming force you can always overpower the other party, but, as the video (and decades of history) show, no one has force that can overwhelm North Korea’s strategic competitive advantage.
Once you understand each other, you have a hope of influence.