Soju at the Mini Pyongyang Folk Park.
Jordan Harbinger, Captain Joe (Sailor Joe got promoted) and some AoC alumni trekked it out to North Korea in the middle of the highest point of tension between North Korea and the rest of the world. Here’s an inside look at the country from us while we were there.
With pleasant weather, flowers and trees in bloom, and North Korean citizens making their first round of pilgrimages to important revolutionary sites, late Spring is an amazing time to visit the DPRK. Below are just a few images of the thousands of Young Pioneers we encountered while visiting the Mangyongdae birth house of Kim Il-sung on my last DPRK trip in late May of 2013.
A North Korean Army Captain and myself three days ago on the North Korean side of the DMZ at Panmunjeom.
I just returned from North Korea on another amazing trip! I understand the world is freaking out, but from what I witnessed I believe war is NOT imminent. We saw the army planting trees and building houses, while the people of Pyongyang were busy overhauling the city sidewalks.
The Kim Il-sung birthday holiday season is coming up and I expect the bellicose rhetoric to soon ease – hopefully the American media can restrain its warmongering too.
Our guides were fantastic, food was great, but photography was difficult on this trip – don’t worry I still got a ton of fantastic pics with tons of content to come.
Update: I will be going on CNN in two hours – things are going crazy.
A nice write up about me in Business Insider:
Joseph Ferris doesn’t want to settle down.
Ferris earned himself a US Coast Guard 3rd Mate Unlimited license from Maine Maritime Academy, and took a job on a global class research ship.
There was just one problem: the job was seven months on with five months vacation.
“While on the ship, room and board goes with the job; I found keeping an apartment and all the trappings of a settled life is a waste of money,” Ferris told Business Insider.
So he took another job, as a tour guide … in North Korea.
I leave for my first spring trip out of a possible 5 visits to North Korea on March 30th; I will be live blogging there on the new Koryolink 3G network. Remember to not only follow me here on WordPress, but also live from North Korea on Twitter @JosephFerrisIII, Facebook, and Instagram (coming soon).
Lots of insightful opinions and analysis from top DPRK watchers and North Korea travel industry experts in James Griffith’s article on the ethics of traveling to North Korea:
North Korea, one of the world’s last remaining closed societies and perennial geopolitical troll, is on many world travellers’ bucket list. Few places are as unique or just downright weird as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The DPRK’s attraction as a tourist destination aside, is it ethical to visit a society completely under the control of a dictatorial regime?
My photos are used throughout the article – continue reading here.
The article shows that the majority of experts interviewed believe travel and interaction with North Korea serve as a positive instrument for change - glad I’m with the cool crowd on that one.
3/23/13 Update: 3G is no longer available. The fundraising below has been discontinued with money raised refunded.
Internet has just been authorized in North Korea, but unfortunately it is very expensive.
I am one of the leading North Korea bloggers and run the American in North Korea site. Through high quality photography and unique access I work to promote cultural understanding and an accurate portrayal of the North Korean tourist experience. I tend to stay away from politics.
I hope to blog from inside North Korea during the 5 trips I have planned this spring.
I will be going much further afield than just Pyongyang; In April I will be the first American tourist to cross the Tumen border post into Namyang – continuing on to Hyeryong – Chongjin – Mt Chilbo – Rason – Yanji. In May I will be guiding the first ever recreational fishing trip to North Korea.
With your help I can blog all of this in real time!
Reports have North Korean 3G priced at the following:
I am looking to raise 600 USD to help accomplish this. I initially started a Kickstarter project, but in the fine print discovered that this project is too opened ended to meet their standards.
Please help me share pictures like this in real time from inside North Korea.
Pledge $5 or more – A thank you message to your Facebook wall or your twitter posted from inside North Korea – as well as your name mentioned in a thank you post on my blog posted from inside North Korea. Estimated delivery: Apr 2013
Pledge $20 or more – A two page North Korean stamp book, as well as a thank you message to your Facebook wall or your Twitter posted from inside North Korea – as well as your name mentioned in a thank you post on my blog posted from inside North Korea. Estimated delivery: Jul 2013, ships within the US only.
Pledge $100 or more – A deluxe multi-page North Korean stamp book and a North Korean postcard sent from North Korea (DPRK does not allow post cards to Europe at the moment due to sanctions), as well as a thank you message to your Facebook wall or your Twitter posted from inside North Korea – as well as your name mentioned in a thank you post on my blog posted from inside North Korea. Estimated delivery: Jul 2013, ships within the US only.
Donations will be accepted until my goal is met, or until mid May when I have my final chance during this travel season to buy the North Korean stamp book pledge rewards.
Please contact me at email@example.com for more info, how to set up a pledge, or just follow the Paypal donation button.
3/06/13 Update – New details on the Koryolink pricing structure; more expensive than I initially thought!
I’m the GM of Koryo Tours. The leading North Korea travel company. In this capacity I have been to the country 118 times thus far. Glad to answer any questions about what it’s like to visit North Korea.
Simon from Koryo Tours at the Mt. Myohyangsan Friendship Exhibition – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I have pulled the best questions and answers from the session:
Please note that the grammar and punctuation reflect the nature of the real time Q&A format.
Do you know why Americans (and only Americans) are not allowed to leave the country by train? (Assuming that rule is still in force.)
That rule is still in force and honestly I have no idea why. After all many Americans have a second passport and can just use that for travel. When you travel in or out by train you don’t see anything particularly sensitive anyway. I would expect this rule to change before long (but I have been expecting that for some time!).
What would you say is the oddest custom they have?
Finding something odd is subjective of course. A lot of the traditional rituals that Korea has would be perfectly familiar to people in South Korea but very alien to anyone who hadn’t been to either place (or to East Asia). Surely though the most quintessentially North Korean rituals are mass rallies. While we don’t attend these you do see them happening n the TV and while passing by. These are often not even broadcast very extensively as they happen so frequently. These are a part of life for everyone in North Korea but something that most people outside of the country have never taken part in. I’d distinguish between these and political rallies in western countries as the latter are of course voluntary. North Koreans don’t really choose whether to attend their rallies or not
Have any of your clients gotten themselves in trouble while visiting?
No, the people we take in are well prepared and know the rules, regulations, etc. Nobody wants to get in trouble in North Korea, no to get anyone else in trouble there so people do tend to be fairly well behaved.
What are some precautionary measures that you or your company would advise tourists to take before visiting (ie don’t wear THIS, don’t bring a camera HERE). Is there a particular season or time of year that you find a big spike in the number of tourists visiting? And sub question: what is the place like ‘off-season’?
Low season is winter; its very cold and the days are short. In fact tourists are not permitted to go there between Dec 15 – Jan 15 usually. High season is when there are a run of national holidays and big events. For the Mass Games which takes place every year recently between Aug – Oct the largest numbers of tourists visit. Many Chinese go at this time too so there are times when it seems the place is overrun with foreign visitors. in terms of what can be taken into the country it was always mobile phones that were not allowed. This has now changed and you can take them in, you need to buy a local SIM (50 EUR) though and the cost of international calls is very very high. But it is possible to take in overseas phones now. Cameras etc are fine too, there is a rule against lenses over 150mm but it has been years since I’ve seen that enforced. Computers are fine but there is no internet available for tourists. While the locals dress conservatively it is fine for tourists to dress as they like, but at the most significant places such as the Mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il it is expected that tourists will make a bit of an effort – long trousers, no flip-flops, shirt, that kind of thing. Also visitors are advised not to give anything to locals which could be compromising for them – religious texts, western CDs, that kind of thing (although they can be taken into the country). As is well known this can cause some problems for people who aren’t supposed to have such things.
Have you noticed any major changes in the country since Kim Jong Il died? Do you think the country will ever open up to the outside world without foreign intervention?
I haven’t noticed any major changes since Ki Jong Il died. Some surface changes are clearly visible (obvious stuff like more statues of Kim Jong Il, that kind of thing) and more mobile phones in the general population, more building work going on (almost all in Pyongyang), but this may well have happened regardless of his death. So we wait with hope of more substantive change that has been widely predicted, but thus far not materialized. As for opening up the country I honestly don’t know. People there deserve better lives, even the people with relatively comfortable lives, but how and when it will happen is beyond my knowledge. A lot has been predicted by various experts but it remains unclear. We live in hope though, fingers crossed for substantive and beneficial change before too long.
You mentioned people are interested in the outside world. How much do you tell them? What are their responses?
As the people we deal with are adults I feel that if they ask a question they should get an honest reply. People don’t really ask if other countries are better than theirs though, they usually ask about what kind of houses people live in, what jobs people have. What films are popular, what people abroad think of North Korea? I’m of the opinion that answering honestly is best, they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t want to know after all!
Do you think the North Koreans actually believe all the propaganda their government produces, or do they realize that the government is their enemy?
I would say that by and large most people take most news they are given at face value. There is only one official news source and this is not a new system, the vast vast majority of people there have never known anything else. However people talk to ach other, and a fair number of North Koreans have been abroad (mostly to China) and know certain things that run counter to some things they are told. So its a combination. Much of the propaganda people are told is about how Koreans are best (rather than that they have more stuff I mean) and this is a powerful message for people wanting something to make them feel better about their situation. Being able to even slightly credibly blame the outside world (usually it is the US) for their predicament makes people feel that they are toughing life out all-in-this-together a kind of blitz spirit. This is outlined very well in this book http://www.amazon.com/Cleanest-Race-Themselves-Melville-Publishing/dp/1935554344 by the way.
I caught the tail end of a show on NPR regarding the environment in NK. I recall that one of the things the guest noticed was the absence of small animals (squirrels, birds, etc). I think they were making the possible connection between that and food shortages, but since I missed most of the show, I could be wrong. Have you noticed anything similar?
Hard to be sure to be honest. You don’t see that many birds around although you do see them. Squirrels and other wildlife too. It may well be that they have been caught, etc I couldn’t say for sure. This would be more likely in the worst-hit areas of the country, the places with the biggest problems due to lack of food, however these places tourists can’t go to so I can’t say for sure
Thank you for doing this AMA as well as producing documentaries. When asked, I always suggest that everyone watch State of Mind. I’ve been saving up to do one of your tours for about 3 years now but I’ve been struggling with my curiosity to see it first hand, but also my morale outrage that I’d be lining the pockets of “The Kims”. If I took one of your tours, can you please tell the break-down of where my money would go? Again, I’m extremely interested in experiencing N. Korea first hand, but the thought that I’d be helping the State say, buy more weapons to “guard” and oppress more people in Yodok keeps me up at night.
Thanks for the comment. I answered this a bit in another reply but its a valid concern and a common one. We believe that engagement and humanization is a valid thing to be involved in, we also try to direct those interested in humanitarian issues to the right organizations and have a handful of small projects that we fund ourselves. As for the breakdown of where payment goes to explain this would require me to know the exact source cost of everything to be able to work out profit levels from things such as plane tickets, hotel bills, etc to be able to work out what tax is paid to the state by the organizations that we pay for goods and services. Sorry but I simply don’t know these numbers. Apologies for this.
Does the VICE-documentary about North Korea give a good insight of what going to North Korea looks like? It’s on youtube if you have not heard of it.
The Vice guide is interesting for sure. It’s a wildly sensational piece though shot on what is a pretty normal tourist trip. Obviously the magic of editing/camera angles/editorial/etc can be used to make anything appear in any way but I would say it is worth watching with a slightly skeptical eye. It’s entertaining though obviously.
Having been closed since the December 2011 death of Kim Jong-il, the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun has recently reopened, and along with refurbishment and new displays, the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are now available for viewing.
North Koreans outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.
My 2011 visit to the mausoleum was the most surreal thing I have ever done. There is a deliberate awe inspiring buildup factored into the paying of respects at the body of Kim Il-sung. On entering the complex one is subjected to multiple security checks, cameras are confiscated, cloth booties are issued to be worn over the shoes, and you are forced to ride kilometers of moving walkways into the marble encased heart of the complex. From there you are marched around in groups, disorientatingly led from room to room, and forced to bow to various Kim Il-sung statues, all the while listing to an audio account of how the laws of nature were broken on the day of Kim Il-sung’s passing – upon his death the people cried with such emotion that their tears crystallized into diamonds in the pavement.
Before entering the holy of holies for the finale of bowing to the body of Kim Il-sung (all visitors will be expected to bow as a sign of respect – to go this far and not do so would cause a MARJOR incident), everyone must pass a through a bank ultra industrial sized air blowers, removing all traces of lint or dust to ensure no possibility of contamination. You will be expected to bow three times, once at Kim Il-sung’s feet, and on his right and left side. Authorities take your picture as you bow – the perfect little memento for your permanent secret record and always available for review by authorities if questions concerning your respect for the Eternal President become an issue.
If you can imagine how surreal all of this is for visiting foreign tourists, think about how overpowering the experience must be for a North Korean visiting for his first time from the provinces. A visit to Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun is the ultimate in propaganda showmanship; there is no other place or experience like it in the world.
I assume most of the procedures described above will continue with only slight changes to accommodate the paying of respects at the body of Kim Jong il (it is reported that he is placed at rest in a glass display next to his father). Viewing of newly created displays showing Kim Jong-il’s yacht, his medals and awards, and even the train car he died in will also be include in the visit.
North Koreans outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.
A flower girl at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.
Tourist trips don’t start up again until mid January, until then I will be eagerly awaiting the firsthand accounts of those who make the first visit to the newly opened mausoleum. Sunday morning visits to the mausoleum have already been included in the schedules for my two custom spring trips.
For insights and observations recorded from inside the DPRK, including the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, check out our 2011 podcast. The North Korean Economy Watch also has an interesting look at the odd history of communist leader preservation.
It’s going to be a busy spring; in addition to the two custom group trips I am planning, and the private owners/investors tour to Rason, I am also now scheduled to work as one of the guides on Young Pioneer Tour’s DPRK May Day Extravaganza Tour!
This May Day Tour is going to be a blast! It coincides with Young Pioneer Tour’s five year anniversary, and they plan to make the event a massive party!
Join us for of the most spectacular holidays to take part in North Korea, the May Day Festival. Aside from all the usual sites May Day gives us one of the best opportunities to relax meet and hang out with locals during the celebrations on Moronbong Hill. Koreans take this holiday very seriously and you will more than be expected to sing dance and play around with them. Could there be a better time to go?
This tour also marks the 5 year “birthday” of YPT taking revelers into the DPRK, and as such for a VERY limited time we are offering the tour at our very retro 2008 price. We are aiming for this tour to be massive, and are hoping for all of our guides to be present for the tour.
As with all tours we are currently offering a free upgrade to flight for the journey in, with us taking the amazing train out as standard, or a small extra charge if your preference is to fly.
We are also offering a very special extension to Rason directly following the tour that can be done as a standalone trip, or both combined for a great discount. For those not in the know Rason is the Special Economic Zone of the DPRK, and the only place where you currently receive a stamp in your passport (excluding US and Japanese passports), and can legally use Korean Won, as well as visit the local markets.
April 29th – May 5th/7th
North Koreans on holiday – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
We are scheduling the May 1st holiday to be a day of fun and relaxation. In the morning we will join locals for dancing and folk games at the Mt Taesong Amusement park. A BBQ lunch at Moranbong Hill and continued local festivities is scheduled for the afternoon.
This tour also includes a visit to the newly opened Pyongyang Rungna Island funfair- with rides and even a dolphin show – as well as overnight visits to Nampo and Kaesong. If interested send me off an email; I can’t offer the 5% discount as this trip is already heavily discounted as an anniversary gift to our customers, but I can arrange to have you placed in my group.
I still have some spots available on my early April and mid May custom tours, those itineraries are posted on my American in North Korea Facebook Page.
Don’t worry, I am not the American guide arrested in North Korea, I am safe and sound and on my way to Hawaii – I have been receiving emails all morning long asking.
I have known about this incident since last week, but only today has the DPRK confirmed that Bae Jun-ho, an American citizen of Korean decent, has been charged with committing “hostile acts against the republic”. His website is down, but it is reported that Bae Jun-ho ran the small tour company, “Nation Tours”, which is widely rumored to engage in missionary/proselytizing activities, this is strictly illegal in the DPRK.
Kookmin Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper owned by an evangelical church, had said Bae had been arrested for carrying a computer hard disk which contained footage of North Korea executing defectors and dissidents.
There were other rumors out this week suggesting he was searched because members of his group took unauthorized and unflattering pictures at an orphanage.
No matter the details of this case, legit tour companies such as Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours envision no changes in their schedule or with their relation with KITC (Korea International Travel company), but prospective tourists to the DPRK should be well aware of, and be willing to accept the rules and laws governing a tourist visit.
There are certain taboos and forbidden activities for tourists to engage in while visiting North Korea:
Trying to educate your North Korean guide about the western understanding of Cold War history, especially in regards to North Korea, is bad form. It’s not going to get you in trouble but it could piss off the guides enough that the tour group’s access to sites suddenly becomes restricted. I have seen this happen to other tours! The same goes for breaking the photography rules set by the guides.
More serious taboos include: undercover journalism, missionary work, trafficking in Bibles and anti-North Korean books, and human rights activism.
A tourist visit is not suggested if you are unable to abide by the above guidelines.
For those who believe they must bring a laptop (I leave mine behind), I suggest you check your hard drives. Don’t bring in any anti-North Korean documentaries or anti-North Korean ebooks – and gentleman, please don’t bring in any pornography.
To lighten up this post let me present some Dandong region Chinese/North Korean border signs:
North Korea is a place of deep contradictions.
It confirms our worst fears with its nuclear belligerence, only to reveal its romantic folkloric past.
It confirms a taste for criminal delights – then seduces us with its unexpected charms.
Functioning cities are just a short bus ride from unimaginable prison camps. Those prison camps are only miles from the beautiful sights of Korean mythology, which tell of magical birthplaces and undead leaders who still rule.
These paradoxes make North Korea what it is. Here we present the wonderful contradictions of North Korea….
My favorite contradiction from the post:
North Koreans are generally kind, modest, humble people.
But they sure know how to party. It’s a huge part of the culture.
Many more of my photos are used in the post – make sure to check it out in its entirety!
Gabriel Mizrahi over at The North Korea Blog has the following thoughts on The End of North Korea:
You have to hand one thing to North Korea: It knows how to keep us guessing.
Predictions about the end of North Korea keep coming (The Atlantic recently published a terrific article about the long history of wrongly predicting the DPRK’s demise), but the truth about the regime seems to elude most analysts. Still, that won’t stop the best of them from trying to pin down the end of North Korea.
Consider, for instance, Mark P. Barry’s recent post on World Policy Blog:
It’s possible that a process may have recently begun whereby North Korea could eventually shift from totalitarianism (or total control of public and private life) to authoritarianism (with minimal pluralism and autonomy in private life), drawing from the recent experiences of China.
Because when in doubt — and how could Mr. Barry not be, seeing as he’s talking about the world’s most secretive regime — use vague terms. “It’s possible.” “A process.” “May have recently begun.” “Could eventually.” I would love to see someone explain to Kim the difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Better yet, I’d love to see someone explain the difference to a North Korean citizen. I doubt that the distinction, such as it is, is compatible with Red Confucianism…..continue reading this post at The North Korea Blog.
Kim Jong-un in the news at a Pyongyang Metro station – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
During preparations for my first trip to the DPRK I watched all of the online documentaries I could find, from dreary hit pieces on the DPRK Government to over sensationalized video travel guides, and common to them all was the depiction of a sad, colorless, and lifeless North Korea. But by coming to the DPRK myself I experienced something different; I found Pyongyang to be a clean, bright, colorful, and orderly city, with a people that smile, laugh, and despite the language barrier, interact with foreigners with a shy curiosity.
Sharing my pictures of the DPRK and its people is what this blog is all about. I’m trying to present a different perspective compared to the impressions put out there by the main stream media. I don’t deny that there are human rights violations, but there’s already plenty of material out there to explore on those issues. Instead I wish to pass on what I observed during my travels in the DPRK: that despite the hardships and pressures the North Korean people endure (whatever they may be), they remain a very human people, and just like us they love life and share the simple hopes and dreams common to all humanity.
The people of Pyongyang smile – below are pictures taken during the festivities and celebrations for 100th birthday of ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung - all photos by Joseph A Ferris III
During the week of celebrations for the 100th birthday of ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, mass parades and celebratory gatherings were quite common. These events were not normally open to foreigners, but often we got caught stuck in traffic jams as tens of thousands of people clogged the roads on their way home. During these times our guides were gracious enough to let us interact with the people, here young boys wave and smile on their walk home.
Young girls laugh and smile while walking home from school.
Boys from a brigade of Young Pioneers enjoy an ice cream snack at a local park.
Young girls smile while taking a break from an afternoon of rollerblading.
Sharing a laugh with our guide on the USS Pueblo.
A cheerful Pyongyang Metro ticket attendant.
A festive spirit pervades the crowds at a mass gathering in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung square.
A festive spirit pervades the crowds at a mass gathering in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung square.
100 Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations in Pyongyang, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Tell me a little about yourself and I will hook you up with a great DPRK travel deal for visiting! Please leave a quick comment here (so I will know to check my email) and email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following info:
Full name, how you learned about this blog, what your country of residence is, when you are interested in visiting the DPRK, and what you are interested in seeing.
As of Oct. 2012 I’m pleased to announce I can offer 5% off to people I refer for our scheduled trips to both the DPRK and Iran – so get in touch!
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.
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.
Mangyongdae Children’s Palace Performance – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I just arrived back home after a 10 day trip to North Korea for the 100th year birthday celebrations for Kim Il Sung. I’m happy to report that we had an amazing trip filled with wonderful interactions with charming locals, visits with old friends, and unparalleled access to the various major cities, countryside, and even industrial and heavy industry sites - all made possible by the support of our fantastic North Korean guides!
I was genuinely surprised to have had over 10 people introduce themselves to me during the trip as fans of this blog. I was truly delighted by the support, and as I sit here overwhelmed by the 8,000 plus photos I took during this last trip, I am motivated to get to work knowing that all my efforts are appreciated!
And I am certainly aware of the latest round of saber rattling currently coming out of the DPRK. I have some on the ground observations, and while not an expert, I will work to get a post out ASAP sharing my thoughts on the present situation in North Korea.
Much, much more to come!
Chinese flag at the Arirang Mass Games – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I’m off to the airport for my flight to Beijing, China and will be flying to Pyongyang, North Korea on the 12th. See everyone on the the 25th of April – wish me luck!
My brothers over at The North Korea Blog and myself are are heading back to the DPRK next week for round two of some world-class totalitarian theatre. Empty highways, wet shooting ranges and disturbingly intimate conversations with locals are calling us back to the hermit kingdom.
Besides, this is the year that North Korea becomes a “strong and prosperous nation.” We couldn’t miss that, could we?
And how different it is this time around, just six months after our first trip.
Kim Jong Il is dead.
Kim Jong Un has assumed power……..continue reading this post at The North Korea Blog.
Taedong River View, Pyongyang, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
The highlight of the trip will be the 100th year birthday celebrations of the ‘Eternal’ President Kim Il-sung. This was no easy trip to make happen, over the winter we waited out the nationwide lockdown after the death of Kim Jong-il only to learn that it looked like there wouldn’t be rooms available to foreigners in Pyongyang during the Kim Il-sung birthday celebrations. Dignitaries from the provinces would be flooding the capital during this time, but the good people over at Koryo Tours were finally able to scrape together some hotel rooms for us – not sure about the quality of the rooms but at least we have something guaranteed and the trip is confirmed!
Since I’m going to a birthday party I decided to bring a gift, and after a bit of diplomatic letter writing, I have been approved to present a gift to representatives for Kim Il-sung at the International Friendship Exhibition. This is truly going to be a once in a lifetime trip!
Soldiers at a Pyongyang park.
We want this to be a truly epic trip, birthday parties, rocket launches, and diplomatic gifts were not going to be enough, so I wrote up and submitted a custom itinerary that included North Korean sites never previously visited by western tourists. Our tour will include the first ever visit to the Nampo Chollima Steel Works, Tae’an Heavy Machine Tool Complex, Tae’an Glass Factory sites, and the Nampo Taekwondo School. Another first ever visit will take us to Pujon, a town deep in the wild interior of the country where we will take mountain hikes and visit the infamous “slogan trees“.
Other exciting destinations we will visit (not on standard first time visitor tour program) include the Nampo West Sea Barrage, the Songdowon Schoolchildren’s Camp, Wonsan’s central square and piers, the Wonsan Agricultural University, the Tongbong Cooperative Farm, and the town of Hamhung and its beach scene.
Man at a Pyonagyang park.
I have also planned a trip up to the Chinese/North Korean border town of Dandong for a little exploration and investigation. Most foreigners visit Dandong as a trip extension on their stopover on departure from the DPRK by train, but Americans are required to fly both in and out, so my visit will be by train from Beijing after the North Korea trip is complete. In Dandong my friend Jordan (from The North Korea Blog) and I will attempt to rub shoulders with North Korean spies, and learn the lowdown from the smuggles, refugees, and Christian missionaries that haunt the border region. There is also some pretty wacky nightlife to check out, and there is no way I’m going to miss out on the opportunity to have rocks thrown at me as I attempt to take pictures of North Korean sailors and their boats on the river cruise.
Bubble gum in Pyongyang.
I hope all my dear readers will be excited for all the new and original material to come. I have recently bought new lenses and upgraded my camera kit from the Sony A55 to the new pro level Sony A77. I just hope I can get this new camera into the county, I will be devastated if it is held at customs, so please send me some positive vibes and wish me good luck!
Arirang Mass Games, Pyongyang, DPRK, North Korea.
Interesting set of photos showing a woman with rifle on guard duty in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Is this really post 101?
At An American in North Korea I have tried to post something new and original on a daily basis. For the most part I have succeeded – but damn have I been busy lately! My ship is coming out of dry dock and I have been run ragged getting her cleaned up and ready for sea again.
Unfortunately I am also starting to run out of original material and photos to post. But don’t worry! I still have some ideas for when things quiet down and there is a Spring trip to the DPRK being planned!
Posting a picture of the North Korean maritime industry as a reminder that no matter how crazy and busy things get on my ship I always have something to be thankful for!
- North Korean River Traffic (americaninnorthkorea.com)
North Korean Hotel of Doom - photo by Joseph A Ferris III
CNN fluff web article on the world’s ugliest buildings:
This 330-meter pyramid/spaceship/sci-fi villain’s lair-themed concrete edifice is a prime example of the regime’s hubris. Erected, apparently, as a riposte to South Korea winning the right to host the 1988 Olympic Games, the impoverished North ran out of cash for the project in the early 1990s.
After a 16-year hiatus, construction began again in 2008 at the behest of an Egyptian investment group and the hotel is slated to open next year in time for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sun, the country’s late “Eternal” President.