Propaganda

International Friendship Exhibition Crocodile Bar Set

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Guard with silver plated AK-47 protects the entrance to the International Friendship Exhibition.

Holding all the gifts ever received by leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the two massive mountain bunker palaces comprising the Myohyang-san International Friendship Exhibition are deservedly one of North Korea’s top sites.

Some of the gifts are notorious: bullet-proof cars from Stalin, a Kim Il Sung life size wax statue (that you are expected to bow to) from the Chinese, a basketball signed by Michael Jordan from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Other gifts are more mundane: medals and plaques from communist friendship societies, nicknacks from diplomats, and TVs, golf bags, and living room sets from various Asian businessmen.

Humble or grand, the gifts on display serve as physical examples of world’s love and admiration for the deceased North Korean leaders – gifts to Mother Kim Jong Suk and Marshall Kim Jong Un are also housed there.

The International Friendship Exhibition holds an astonishing estimated 275,000 gifts – an exact count is digitally displayed in the first hall.  Visitors are required to wear cloth booties to prevent dirt from being tracked into the sacred halls as they view the gifts. There is so much to see that groups get to choose continents – I recommend seeing the gifts from Africa and Asia.

Touring the numerous halls of the International Friendship Exhibition is tiring, fortunately there is a a resting pavilion and cafe overlooking a scenic valley for visitors to enjoy at the end of their tour.

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KITC guide Miss Han and a local guide having a rest at the viewing pavilion.

Most North Koreans will make at least one pilgrimage during their lifetimes to view the treasures on display at the International Friendship Exhibition. Sacred Mount Paektu, Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (mausoleum of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il ),and the capital city of Pyongyang are the other great domestic North Korean pilgrimage sites.

Nicaragua's Sandinista Stuffed Crocodile Gift to Kim Il Sung

Photography inside the International Friendship Exhibition is strictly forbidden (readers will have to use their imagination), but I was lucky enough to find a rare stamp of my favorite gift, the stuffed crocodile bar set given by the Nicaraguan Sandinista communists, which should give you an insight into the treasures the International Friendship Exhibition safeguards.


North Korean Middle School Badges

North Koreans are initiated into the wearing of badges and insignia at a young age. In the Rason SEZ I found kindergarten children wearing red star badges as a reward for exemplary performance.  Throughout the country regimented middle school children compete for rank; those who win responsibilities, receive and wear arm badges.

Young Pioneers at the Mangyongdae Native House North Korea

The highest ranking student in a class receives an arm badge displaying three bars and three stars, as the boy above is wearing.

These types of badges are not available for tourists at souvenir shops, but I did find them.  I purchased several using local North Korean currency at the public market in the Rason Special Economic Zone.

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Of the two middle school badges I purchased, the one on the right, two bars and one star, ranks higher than the the one on the left, three stars and one bar.  I wore the higher ranking badge on my arm in the DPRK and the locals were absolutely delighted.  Women giggled, men posed for pictures with me, and I was repeatedly asked why I only held a mid level rank.

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Notice the lower ranking badge in the above picture; after leaving my camera battery charger at the Nampo Hot Spring Hotel and having to return for it, Miss Yu, the North Korean guide, demoted me!


Red Star for Exceptional Kindergarten Performance

Children from a kindergarten in Rason, North Korea  proudly wear red star awards for exceptional daily performance.

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Rason Kindergarten North Korea

Rason Kindergarten North Korea

Rason Kindergarten North Korea

Rason Kindergarten North Korea

Rason Kindergarten North Korea

Rason Kindergarten North Korea

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


More North Korean Children’s School Propaganda Art

Rason Foreign Language School North Korea

Framed print at the Rason Foreign Language School showing school children stabbing an American GI, Japanese imperialist, and a South Korean running dog.

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Jet, apple, ship, star, tank, and pear on a poster at the Sonbong Kindergarten.

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Military personnel, unified Korea, and a missile launch on a painted exterior wall at the Sonbong Kindergarten.

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


North Korean Kindergarden Propaganda

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Framed print of children attacking US soldier snowmen at the Chongjin Kindergarten.  I have been told the Korean script on the snowmen says “American bastards” -  extreme propaganda for a kindergarten!

This painting of the North Korean missile was also found at this Chongjin Kindergarten.

Photo by Joseph A Ferris III

Update – further details on the translation from my comments:  The snowman on the left appears to have “쥐명박” (jui-myeong-bak) written on it. The name of South Korea’s former president is “이명박” (lee-myeong-bak). They have changed the family name of the former president from the original “이” (lee) to “쥐” (jui), which means “rat”. The DPRK often referred to him as a rat and Seoul as a rat’s nest. Nice find, Captain!


Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun

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.

Outside Kumsusan Palace

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.

Kumsusan Mausoleum

North Koreans outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.

Girl with Flowers in Pyongyang

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.


Pyongyang Arch of Triumph

Bigger is better in North Korea, and standing at 60 meters the Pyongyang Arch is the World’s largest triumphal arch – sorry Paris.

Pyongyang Arch of Triumph

As a gift from Kim Jong-il to Kim Il-sung for his 70th birthday, the arch has 25,500 blocks of white granite, each representing a day in his life up to that point – another equally impressive 70th birthday gift with the same sort of construction numerology is the Tower of the Juche Idea.

The arch was commemorated to highlight the 1925-1945 revolutionary struggles and victory over the occupying Japanese forces. Supposedly there are rooms and viewing pavilions but I have never been let inside or had a closeup look.


The Wonderful Contradictions of North Korea

Gabriel Mizrahi of The North Korean Blog offers up the following Wonderful Contradictions of North Korea:

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.

On the Streets of Pyongyang, DPRK

But they sure know how to party. It’s a huge part of the culture.

East meet West

Top photo by Joseph A Ferris III, 2nd photo by Andrew Lombardi.

Many more of my photos are used in the post – make sure to check it out in its entirety!


Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace; a place for children of the privileged elite to spend time after school practicing sports, art, folk dance and music – and of course, show it all off with military like precision and forced smiles to groups of visiting foreign friends and tourists.

Mangyongdae Children's Palace

Young Pioneers sing a martial song during a special Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday celebratory performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. More pictures from this set linked below.

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Pyongyang Smiles

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

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

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.

Pyongyang Street Scene

Young girls laugh and smile while walking home from school.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Boys from a brigade of Young Pioneers enjoy an ice cream snack at a local park.

Pyongyang Roller Blading

Young girls smile while taking a break from an afternoon of rollerblading.

USS Pueblo Guide

Sharing a laugh with our guide on the USS Pueblo.

Pyongyang Subway

A cheerful Pyongyang Metro ticket attendant.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

A festive spirit pervades the crowds at a mass gathering in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung square.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

A festive spirit pervades the crowds at a mass gathering in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung square.


North Korean Roadside Attactions

Hamhung, North Korea

Soldier squirrels, missiles, and AK-47s raised defiantly into the air, just a few examples of the roadside attractions (propaganda) commonly seen in towns outside Pyongyang, North Korea.

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Nampo Chollima Steelworks

The Chollima Steelworks, a North Korean showcase heavy industry site located outside the west coast city of Nampo, was recently opened for tourism and we were among the lucky few to make a first visit.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Painting of the Chollima Steelworks – all photos on the post by Joseph A Ferris III

A historically important site, Kim II Sung and Kim Jong-il made many visits, the Chollima Steelworks is an impressive complex with wide boulevards, rail infrastructure, grand propaganda murals, and imposing buildings.  Being amongst the first western visitors, instead of the ubiquitous local guide, we were greeted by a large group of officials and representatives of the steelworks who shuttled around the complex in large black luxury sedans.  Of course they showed us the local museum dedicated to the visits and on the spot guidance of Kim Il sung and Kim Jong-il, but the highlight of our tour was our access into the steelworks itself with a close up inspection of a functioning electric arc furnace on the production floor.

This visit to the Chollima Steelworks was part of the new Heavy Metal Tour add-on package offered by Koryo Tours.   Also included in this tour was our visits to the Nampo glass factory and the Hamhung fertilizer plant.  We had unrestricted photography access to each site, other groups had their visits restricted to a bus ride through the parking lot with no photos allowed.  These groups had shadowed us at times and were continuously in trouble with their guides for breaking photography regulations – for the best access it pays to follow the rules set by your guide!

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.

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Our guide Ms Han and the local guide in front the Chollima Steelwork’s Kim II Sung mosaic.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks representative.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks representative and worker.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

As we did not venture too far onto the factory floor hard hats and safety gear were not provided for us.  On close inspection you can see only about 50% of the workers have hard hats on.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks production floor.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks production floor.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Close up of the electric arc furnace.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Electric arc furnace in wide angle.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks production floor in wide angle.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Propaganda on the production floor.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Achievement banners at the steelwork’s museum.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

North Korean guide Ms Han and a Chollima Steelworks painting.


Vehicle Billboard Advertisements – North Korean Capitalism or Propaganda?

North Korean Auto Advertisement

A billboard advertisement for the sale of North Korean produced cars and trucks of the Pyeonghwa Motor company.

Perhaps I missed them last year, or perhaps they are new, but this year I found two more vehicle billboards each located in the countryside outside Pyongyang – In 2011 I saw only one car advertisement billboard located in the Pyongyang city center.  In my first post about the North Korean vehicle billboards I made the simple suggestion that perhaps the Pyongyang vehicle billboard advertisement is an indication of capitalism creeping its way into the North Korean system, but upon further investigation I have found it suggested that these billboards are nothing more than propaganda.

Car and Driver magazine says:

Because the private sale of nearly everything is officially banned, North Korea doesn’t have much use for billboards—other than for cartoonish propaganda, of course.  But the country is obsessive about putting on a good face, so much so that it maintains an idyllic fake village at the end of the South Korean border.  It may well be that the purpose of the billboard for the Pyeonghwa Motors model Whistle is to advertise to the small group of foreign businessmen in North Korea, but it’s more likely they’ve set it up to dupe the locals into thinking the country is doing well enough for car ads.  (It’s not.)

With such a low production output, 314 cars produced in 2003 and 400 in 2005, I think the case made that these advertisements are simply propaganda is pretty valid.


The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace, a place for the children of the privileged elite to spend time after school practicing sports, art, folk dance and music – and of course, show it all off with military like precision and forced smiles to groups of visiting foreign friends and tourists.

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is the largest of the many palaces in North Korea dedicated to Children’s after school activities. The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace has 120 rooms, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, and a 2000 seats theater. The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace is not to be confused with the Pyongyang Children’s Palace situated in the north of the Kim Il Sung Square and founded in 1963 – where I visited and saw a children’s performance last year.

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

A young girl opens a show for tourists and dignitaries at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace.  This was a special performance to commemorate the Day of the Sun, the 100th birthday of ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung.  Many more pics from this performance to come!


New Portrait in Kim II-sung Square

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.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Taking a picture that fails to fully capture the image of Kim II Sung is strictly forbidden – although I captured the one above.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

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.

Kim Il-sung Square Pyongyang

View of Kim II-sung Square from atop Juche Tower – at 300mm zoom.


Reunification and North Korean Self Awareness

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?

Peaceful Unification Kaesong Propaganda

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 developedsense of national pride”, as the reason, despite internal and external propaganda proclaiming the opposite, as the reason why reunification has been indefinitely sidelined.

Wonson Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-il Mural

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


Countryside Propaganda Billboards and Murals Post #2

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.

Wonson - Hamhung Countryside North Korea

Wonson-Hamhung Countryside North Korea

Wonson-Hamhung Countryside North Korea

Hamhung-Wonson Road

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Countryside Propaganda Billboards and Murals

A collection of images showing propaganda billboards and murals from the Wonsan and Hamhung countryside areas.

Wonson - Hamhung Countryside

Propaganda from the Wonson/Hamhung region, North Korea

Propaganda from the Wonson/Hamhung region, North Korea

Hamhung-Wonson Road

Wonson - Hamhung Countryside North Korea

Wonson - Hamhung Countryside North Korea

All photos taken April 2012 by Joseph A Ferris III


The Current Round of North Korean Saber Rattling

Pyongyang, North Korea Soldiers

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 Pyongyang Subway

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.

North Korean Soldiers in Pyongyang

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.

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


Happy Women’s Day

Words of wisdom from a guide at Koryo Tours:

On this special day for women let us take a moment to ponder the words of the DPRK news agency: “Women in capitalist countries are in despair and get degenerate, deploring their miserable fate. This leads them to crimes.” You have been warned!

Sexy Sailor Girls

North Korean sexy sailors – photo by Joseph A Ferris III


100th Year Birthday of Kim Il-sung

An update on my upcoming trip: after some uncertainty about being allowed into the country due to all Pyongyang hotel space being reserved for North Korean delegations, it has been confirmed that the April trip to North Korea for Kim Il-sung’s 100th year birthday celebrations has been approved – they have a room for us!

Also, 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. I haven’t yet written about the International Friendship Exhibition on this blog, and as it is a North Korean holy space, I have to be extremely careful on the subject – after having been approved to present a gift there, any joking around on my part on this topic could single highhandedly shut down foreign tourism in the DPRK.

The International Friendship Exhibition is an elaborate mountainside bunker/ostentatious palace museum at Myohyang-san mountain.  Here, all gifts given by foreigners to Kim Il-sung (along with a separate but similar complex for all gifts given to and Kim Jong-il ) are kept on display. As a holy space it is 2nd only in importance to the mausoleum that houses and displays the body of Kim Il-sung.

You must surrender your cameras and cover your shoes with fabric booties when entering the International Friendship Exhibition, and after bowing to a wax statue of Kim il-sung, you will be shown the car gifted by Stalin, and then allowed to choose what continent’s gifts you want to view – there is just too much to see so you can only view gifts from the countries of two continents.  Western news sources report that there are a total of approximately 220,000 gifts shared between the two complexes.  In the main halls of each complex are digital displays showing the grand total of gifts. I remember seeing that Kim jong-il had about 60,000, while Kim il-sung had well over 100,000 gifts.

The International Friendship Exhibition is a cornerstone of North Korean propaganda.  Locals are taken on pilgrimages to the site where they are expected to be overwhelmed, not only with the opulence of the surroundings, but by the sheer number of gifts, which to them is explained as a tangible example of the respect, veneration, and love held for Kim il-sung by the rest of the world.

Among the most notable/notorious gifts on display (via Wikipedia) are:

  • A bear’s head from former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu
  • A metal horseman and ornate chess boards from former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi
  • A crocodile skin suitcase from former Cuban leader Fidel Castro
  • A gem-encrusted silver sword and a miniature mosque in mother of pearl, given by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
  • An antique gramophone from China’s first premier Zhou Enlai and an Armored Train car from chairman Mao Zedong (entire wings are dedicated to gifts from the country)
  • An ivory lion from Tanzania, gold cigarette case from Yugoslavia, bronze USSR tank from East Germany, silver chopsticks from Mongolia
  • A basketball signed by Michael Jordan given by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
  • A bullet-proof limousine from former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin

The following is an excerpt of the letter I will present, along with my gift, to representatives to Kim Il-sung at the International Friendship Exhibition during his 100th year birthday celebrations:

On this, my 2nd trip to the DPRK, and in appreciation of the wonderful cultural exchange I experienced on my first visit, and in the spirit of celebration for the 100th year birthday celebrations of the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, I am pleased to present the following gift to representatives for Kim Il Sung at the International Friendship Exhibition.

I am presenting The Stoneware Baby Seal Sculpture by Andersen Studio of Maine. This is a classic and very special piece of handmade art from my home state. With no two pieces being exactly alike, this baby seal statue represents my joy for learning about Korean culture through my visit to the DPRK, the wonderful experience of meeting friendly and truly wonderful North Korean people, and my happiness to share the important truths and help correct misconceptions about the DPRK on my return home.

The above letter is slightly modified from the letter of proposal and intent I had earlier sent, a letter that was highly praised by DPRK officials, with them going as far as suggesting that their western tour company partners could learn a few diplomatic lessons form me – ha ha!

Related Photos:

Girl with Flowers

Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang.

North Korea

Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang.

Girl with Flowers in Pyongyang

Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang.

Kumsusan Mausoleum

Locals pose for pictures after viewing the body of Kim il-sung at the Kumsusan Mausoleum.

Group Photo with Colorful Korean Natives outside the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

Locals invited us to pose for a picture with them at the Kumsusan Mausoleum – Photo by kinabalu


The Northern Side of the Korean Demilitarized Zone

Approximately 250 Kilometers long, 4 KM wide, and running roughly along the 38th parallel, the Korean Demilitarized Zone continues to be the most heavily militarized border in the world.  Most people visit it from the south but I am one of approximately 300 Americans who have visited it from the North.

Demilitarized Zone - North Korea

North Korean guard at Panmunjom, DMZ.

The trip to the border region south of Kaesong was the first activity on our week long visit to the DPRK. The DMZ would also be our first chance to test our preconceptions for what our visit to North Korea would be like:

We were marched (you know it’s serious stuff in North Korea when you are marched around as we were also later to do at the Kim Il-sung Mausoleum/Kumsusan Memorial Palace and the International Friendship Exhibition) – didn’t really expect that but since I went to military school I was ahead of the curve.   Pictures we took would NOT be instantly scrutinized and deleted, our military guides smiled and were very friendly, we would NOT be able to give South Korean soldiers profane finger gestures, we would NOT instantly be arrested for giggling about Kim Jong-il (our guide would blush in concern that we were giggling over her English usage, not the ‘Dear Leader’), and “the DMZ is the one place in North Korea where you ARE  free to take as many pictures as you want” rule was severely tested by my 10 pictures a second Sony A55 – I was warned to tone things down.

Demilitarized Zone - North Korea

The DMZ was also our first full on introduction to North Korea’s alternate historical reality.  What we know as the ‘axe murder incident‘ was simply explained away as a misunderstanding when an axe got innocently thrown over a fence – no mention of murdered US servicemen.  Desire for peaceful reunification was talked up while anti American propaganda was pointedly avoided, but the alternate historical reality crept back when all of us tourists were  sat around a table used during armistice talks.  Our guide enthusiastically named off North Korean officials and where they had sat, but when asked who had sat in my seat, the guide dismissively answered “some American aid or secretary” – hmmmmm, my seat was at the head of the table on the American/South Korean side.

Demilitarized Zone - North Korea

Soldiers marching at Panmunjom, DMZ.

Pointing out the DMZ line

Tour guide Ms. Kim pointing out the DMZ – photo by Kinabalu

Demilitarized Zone Guide

Local guide at Panmunjom, DMZ.

Demilitarized Zone - North Korea

North Korean guard at Panmunjom, DMZ.

Demilitarized Zone - North Korea

North Korean guard at Panmunjom, DMZ.

Demilitarized Zone - North Korea

North Korean guards at Panmunjom, DMZ.

Sign Language Tour at DMZ

Sign Language Tour at DMZ

The Korean War and the DMZ explained in sign language by tour leaders of a group of the hearing impaired.

Jordan Harbinger at the DMZ

Jordan Harbinger points out the Northern side of the DMZ.


Peaceful Unification Propaganda at the Demilitarized Zone Northern Side

Peaceful Unification Kaesong Propaganda

“Let us pass on the united country to the next generation!”


Guard Duty Pyongyang

Interesting set of photos showing a woman with rifle on guard duty in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Female Guard

Female Guard

Pyongyang Gate