Guides

USS Pueblo Guide

Pueblo Guide DPRK, North Korea

Our lovely guide shares a laugh and smile during our return visit to the US spy ship Pueblo.

This wasn’t our first time meeting this guide – Jordan, Josh, and I remembered her from last year (and she confessed to remembering us too), she was our guide during our 2011 visit to the  Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.  It was with her that we shared one of our favorite interactions of last year’s trip:

After being told of our impending annihilation we split our group between our trip guides and the local museum guide to fit into a small elevator to return to the museum entrance. Stuffed in the elevator between 5 big western men our guide asked us where we were from – Michigan, Maine, California, and so on.  The look on our guide’s face was priceless, she was stuck in an elevator with 5 arch enemy Americans just moments after she predicted our impending annihilation by North Korean troops. The look of shock on her face changed into a big smile as our guide declared “I love American civilians!” and together we all all broke out into laughter – one of the best moments of the trip!


Our guide “love(s) American civilians!” at the North Korea Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

A required stop on any tour to North Korea is the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. Here you will be ushered through room after room of displays showing off and explaining the great North Korean victory over American invaders during what we know as the Korean War (Forgotten War). What you see depends on your nationality, I have been told of three routes – perhaps there are more. North Korean visitors will see exhibits proclaiming the heroics of Kim Il-sung and the North Korean people and soldiers – little mention will be made of Chinese and Russian contributions. Separate exhibits for Chinese visitors celebrate their role in the war, while other exhibits for western foreigners focus on placing the blame for the conflict on the Americans and of telling of all the American war crimes and genocidal acts. 

Guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Our wonderful guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

We were shown war scene dioramas and 360 degree panoramas of Americans in defeat, DVD propaganda presentations, and led to a great basement warehouse housing captured tanks, wreaked airplanes, and all manner of  war trophies and captured memorabilia – but the most interesting thing about the War Museum was our guide.  We asked her who she thought had won the war, “we did of course because we defended our homeland against the great American invaders and forced a draw.”  Pretty good answer we thought, but then one of us asked what she thought would happen if there was another conflict, her eyes lit up and a diabolical smile spread across her face, “if we need to defend our homeland again we will take the opportunity to annihilate the Americans!”  WOW! – this was the first time on the trip we were exposed to such militaristic fanaticism – but I guess its pretty hard to get a job at the War Museum in North Korea if you are soft on Americans.

Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, Pyongyang

After being told of our impending annihilation we split our group between our trip guides and the local museum guide to fit into a small elevator to return to the museum entrance. Stuffed in the elevator between 5 big western men our guide asked us where we were from – Michigan, Maine, California, and so on.  The look on our guide’s face was priceless, she was stuck in an elevator with 5 arch enemy Americans just moments after she predicted our impending annihilation by North Korean troops. The look of shock on her face changed into a big smile as our guide declared “I love American civilians!” and together we all all broke out into laughter – one of the best moments of the trip!

Guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Our wonderful guide at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

Defeated American Army in North Korea

Defeated American Army in North Korea

A portion of the giant 360 degree American defeat panorama painting.

Defeated American Army in North Korea

Americans in defeat, painting at the North Korea Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.

War Trophies at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

War Trophies at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Wreak of an American plane form the Korean War.

War Trophies at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum

Captured American tank from the Korean War.

War Trophies from the US Spy Ship Pueblo

War trophies from the sailors of the captured USNS Pueblo – American spy ship.

Pueblo US Spy Ship Incident

Exhibit on the capture of the captured USNS Pueblo – American spy ship.


Domestic Tourism North Korea

An interesting photo series showing North Koreans on a domestic tour at the Pohyon-sa Buddhist temple at Mt. Myohyang. This 11th century temple is considered an important North Korean historic treasure, and although taken over by the state, it still houses important religious texts and a few active monks (at least I hope they are active and not actors).

North Korean Tour at Pohyon Buddhist Temple

North Korean Tour at Pohyon Buddhist Temple

North Korean Tour at Pohyon Buddhist Temple

Girl in Pink Dress at Temple

Girl in Pink Dress at Temple

Pohyon Temple Tour Group

Pohyon Buddhist Temple


Friendship

Youth Hero Highway North Korea

Photo and story by Gabriel Mizrahi

Crumbling from end to end and punctured by gaping holes, Pyongyang’s massive 12-lane Youth Hero Highway is a free-for-all for the few dozen vehicles that actually use it. Trucks, buses and the occasional sedan weave in and out of oncoming traffic in order to avoid the sickly workers stooping to repair the road, a symbol of the mindless excess and abject failure of North Korea’s infrastructure. The road was built, James Bond Villain explained, by students and people under the age of 30. It is a point of national pride………..Continue reading this post at The North Korea Blog.


Spies, Entrepreneurs and the Internet in North Korea

Demilitarized Zone - North Korea

Demilitarized Zone, North Korea – Photo by Joseph A Ferris III

By Contributing Writer Gabriel Mizrahi

According to an envoy I met in a park in Pyongyang, there is one informant for every three citizens in the DPRK. To put that penetration into perspective, the East German Stasi, one of the most pervasive police organizations in history, boasted one informant for every ten citizens. Some experts dispute this figure—naturally, given the astounding implications—but the familiarity of its source with state espionage gave me pause.

Before I traveled to the DPRK, I was told that I would encounter normal citizens, and then I would encounter actors playing normal citizens, and that the obvious distinction would be part of North Korea’s entertainment value. That duplicity seemed to hold up when James Bond Villain probed us about our jobs—asking Jordan, at one point, how many people he has “influence over in your country”—an exchange that might have been genuinely motivated but never quite felt like innocent conversation. The porcelain face, in contrast, reversed my suspicions. Her genuine curiosity about life in America and our impromptu English lessons on the bus resulted in a moving exchange and her crowning achievement: “You’re so money, and you don’t even know it.”

Continue reading this post at The North Korea Blog.


Pyongyang Cleaning Stations

“What do you think of Pyongyang?” asked one of our guides. As we carefully considered our responses our guide answered for us, “foreigners think Pyongyang is a clean city!” Well I can’t argue with that. While Pyongyang is a little rough and scruffy around the edges, the proud residents do work hard to keep the streets, parks, and public spaces swept and clean. If you do visit Pyongyang and happen to see some garbage, don’t take pictures, concerned citizens will complain to authorities, and the guides require you to delete the photos off your memory card.

Cleaning Stations North Korea

A boy in Pyongyang at his morning cleaning station.


Colors in North Korea

Who says communism has to be drab?  In North Korea your eyes will be assaulted by the dark green fields of the countryside, the intense reds of the ever present propaganda posters and billboards, and by women wearing the Korean traditional dress, the hanbok – also called chosŏn-ot, in every color imaginable.  Of course I visited during the summer, I’m guessing in the winter you will just see a lot of white.

North Korean Pohyon Temple Guide

Local guide in a yellow chosŏn-ot at the Pohyon Temple, Mount Myohyang, North Korea.


How to travel to North Korea

Do any of posts and pictures make you want to plan your own trip to North Korea?  Its not for everybody, but its a strange and unique travel and cultural experience unlike any other in the world.  Get there now before it changes – it could open further or could suddenly close, who knows.  Setting up a trip to the DPRK is actually quite easy, you will need a double entry Chinese visa and to get yourself to Beijing to make the orientation brief, from there my friends at Koryo Tours will do all the rest – make sure to ask for Hannah!

There is some fine print involved:  Professional journalists and photographers will need to sign an agreement to not publish unauthorized news stories about the DPRK – posting to Flickr, Facebook, and to blogs by normal people is fine as long as they don’t go overboard with criticism.  Americans can easily arrange a tour to North Kora at all times of the year but we are restricted to a stay of just 7days/6nights, and while other nationalities normally fly in and depart by train, we are required to fly both in and out.

North Korean Guide

The lovely Jr. guide Miss Choe would love to show you her country.


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.

Joe

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.


North Korean Guide “Crazy” Kim

Here is Mr. “Crazy” Kim, the Jr. guide for our North Korea tour.  For his English studies Mr. Kim had access to a wide selection of western films.  He has an absolute love affair with gladiator movies and of Brad Pitt – “Brad Pitt has to kiss Angelina Jolie’s lips….YUCK!”.  When we would need to settle him down for a spell one of the guys would produce the film Dumb and Dumber loaded on an ipod and hand it over, this would keep Mr. Kim enraptured for hours.  I could write a book about this guy but I think it would be best if I only leave this pic since it says it all.

North Korean Guide "Crazy" Kim

More North Korea pics at my Flickr Photostream

 


North Korean Guide Ms. Yu

Planning a trip to North Korea?  Your girlfriend will cry, your friends will ridicule you, your family will look up Bill Clinton’s number so they can spring you out of jail, and just about everyone else will think you are joking.  I have been to over 80 countries but getting my family to accept the idea that I was truly going to the DPRK was a tough sell.  By sharing the Koryo Tours website with my family I was finally able to convince my Dad to help arrange the money transfer to China to pay for the trip, and while everyone else had gross misconceptions of what the North Korean travel experience would be, everything turned out to go more or less as I expected – in general it was more of a blast than I ever thought it would be!  The one wild card that neither my travel buddy Jordon Harbinger or myself were sure about was what our North Korean guides would be like.  A few documentaries out there (while entertaining the Vice Guide to North Korea is bullshit) portray the North Korean guides as iron fisted minders, strait from the secret police academy, and ready to deport you on your first infraction of the rules.  The truth is a little less severe – you wont get deported until your 3rd rule infraction!

Our guides truly were wonderful people.  In North Korea, working as a guide for foreign tourists is an enviable job – good food, travel, foreign gifts, and regular access to hard currency, but with all this comes the risk of managing groups of unpredictable  foreigners.  As a foreign tourist you really cant get into too much trouble, but the trouble you make can  get your guides into a lot of trouble.  When they tell you not to take photos – don’t take photos.  When you break the rules you put your guides at risk.   There is a bit of trust to be developed at the start of the tour, be a good tourist, do what you are asked, and show a little respect (you are not expected to believe but just to be respectful to their official viewpoint)  and by the end of the week everyone will be having a great time!

She doesn’t look that scary – our guide and minder in DPRK, North Korea, Ms. Yu.

North Korean Guide Ms. Yu and Myself

North Korean Guide Ms. Yu and Myself

Ms. Yu and myself hamming it up for the camera.

North Korean Guide Ms. Yu in Bunny Hat

Our guide and minder in DPRK, North Korea, Ms. Yu wearing my bunny hat.

North Korean Guide Ms. Yu

Miss Yu with sun umbrella.