I have never been a fan of graphic novels, but recently I read and enjoyed Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.
Guy Delisle worked in Pyongyang as a project manager for a French animation company in the early 2000’s. The outsourced animation projects he oversaw seemed to run themselves, and finding himself without much to do, Guy busied himself by sketching scenes of Pyongyang and documenting instances of culture shock he encountered.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea is witty, and fair (I believe) to what the experience must have been like as an expat there in the early 2000’s. His portrayal of Pyongyang’s unique buildings and architecture is spot on, and I found myself reminiscing over the many little details of Pyongyang he sketched: 50’s era Hungarian buses with star embalms, each star indicating 5,000 accident free driving miles, ladies of Pyongyang wearing socks hiked up over their nylons, and fly swatting waitresses. Even the lonely (and endangered – so I’m told) turtle in the giant fish tank at the Yanggakdo Hotel bar is a recurring character.
For North Korea watchers not fortunate to have visited the country, perhaps the most useful sketches from Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea are of Guy’s visit to the International Friendship Exhibition, a site where interior photography is prohibited.
It’s a shame Guy never visited the Kumsusan Memorial Palace and Mausoleum; his sketches would have been quite valuable as interior photography is also prohibited there.
For fans of graphic novels, and for those waiting to properly fill out their North Korean book collection, I certainly suggest picking up Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.
Chinese National Day Tour – September 30th – October 8th
My plans have changed; instead of a Rason trip I’m now being sent in to guide the finale of the Arirang Mass Games for Young Pioneer Tour’s Chinese National Day Tour.
Still time to arrange a visa to see the final Arirang Mass Games: €1195 – 7 days in DPRK, Train/Flight In, Train Out (Flight out +€120) Dandong option €795
In the post 5 Reasons Not To Go To North Korea, the author claims (amongst many other things I strongly disagree with) that travel to the Northeast industrial city of Chongjin is impossible:
You know those tour buses that clutter up every major city in the world? The ones that pull up and regurgitate camera-snapping masses onto the streets of London, Paris, New York and Rome?
Give me one of those any day over a trip to Pyongyang.
You see, you only see what the government allow you to see. That is to say, you see the capital city and all the chintziest sights that the Kim dynasty deem suitable for foreign eyes, the sights that portray their tyrannic regime in the best light possible. Prosperous, modern, robust
Your cameras are checked. You can only take photographs where permitted. You can’t wander down a side street while the rest of your tour group is regaled with tales of double rainbows and icebergs heralding the birth of Kim Jong Il.
You won’t see Cheongjin, the industrial city on the coast that was thoroughly ransacked and ravaged during the famine, North Korea’s second largest. It’s not even on Google maps at present.
This isn’t accurate, Chongjin has been an approved tourist city for some time, the problem has been getting there. Until recently access was only possible by charter flight via Pyongyang, but in 2013 new routes in the Northeast were opened with Chongjin easily visited via either Rason or Namyang.
What exactly would a visitor to North Korea see that hasn’t been seen before?
Will they see the places I’ve listed above? Not unless the government relax their policies regarding where can and cannot be visited, and even under the rule of Kim Jong Un, who appears to be slightly less monstrous than his father, this appears unlikely at present.
Rather, a visitor to North Korea is only going to see what everyone else before them has seen. See the same statues, hear the same stories, walk across the giant streets with barely a car in sight – maybe even catch a military parade of some kind if they’re lucky.
There are so many new places and things to see in the DPRK it’s mind blowing. Join Young Pioneer Tours on one of their Northeast Extreme trips, a cruise out of Rason, Dandong day trips to Sinuiju, or check out the newly opened sites in the town of Pyongsong – there is no excuse for not seeing something new on a trip to North Korea if you are adventures enough to get out of Pyongyang!
Amazing interactions with local kids in the “you won’t see Cheongjin” industrial city of the Northeast:
Propaganda in Wonsan, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Development under the watchful eyes of a Kim mosaic in Rason, North Korea.
Join me for the September 22nd – September 27th Rason Business Interest Tour.
The 3 night, 4 day trip has us visiting many of the major joint-venture and foreign owned companies in the area as well as most importantly meeting people involved with the foreign affairs and investment departments in the area to explore opportunities in the region as well as the logistics of doing business here.
Whilst we will be visiting tourist attractions whilst here the trip will primarily be based around doing business, and as such we will only be accepting bookings from people looking to do business here.
This is an excellent opportunity to meet the people that matter, set up further appointments, and begin what can be a long process of doing business in the DPRK.
The trip starts and finishes in Beijing/Yanji, with us doing a Rason Business presentation at the wonderful LiuJing Hotel, Yanji on the evening prior to departure.
4 nights, 5 days • €695 (650 meet in Yanji) • (Beijing – Yanji – Rason – Yanji. (3 nights, 4 days in Rason, 1 night, 2 days in China)
This trip is capped at 6 people, three more spaces available, and time to sign up is limited.
Last spring I had a chance to visit the 16th Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair held at the Three Revolutionary Ideas Exhibition. Entrance was 5 Euros and not everybody in my tour group wanted to visit. Those who didn’t enter got to mingle with locals and eat barbeque pork at an outside food court, but those of us who did visit were treated to an amazing look at North Korean technology and the country’s emerging marketplace.
Luxury Tissot watch booth. Other luxury Swiss items can be found at a shop at the Yanggakdo Hotel.
North Korean Samjiyon Tablet – are their tablets and new smart phones really made in North Korea?
This photo is credited as being the first to confirm the existence of the larger size Samjiyon Tablet.
Flat screen TVs showing the Moranbong Band.
Panasonic in Pyongyang.
Washers, dryers, and refrigerators.
Young woman in revolutionary outfit using North Korean currency at the trade fair.
Want to learn more about business opportunities in the DPRK ? Gareth Johnson, Young Pioneer Tours founder, and I will be heading up to the Rason Special Economic Zone for 3 days of business meetings on Sept 24th. This is not a tourist trip, but for those with serious business interests there is still time to join up. Please email me at: email@example.com – full itinerary and price to be published shortly.
The Rason shoe factory is one of the various light industry sites open to tourists in the North Korean Special Economic Zone. Unlike the bustling Rason textile factory, the shoe factory was only running at half capacity on my visit. Factory officials embarrassingly explained that output was down due to sanctions – although that seemed a dubious excuse after having witnessed the busy textile factory production floors. But then again, I’m not an expert on sanctions, and keeping North Korean high heels off the international market might truly be part of American strategy to force regime change.
Children from a kindergarten in Rason, North Korea proudly wear red star awards for exceptional daily performance.
Closed during the height of the spring 2013 tensions, the Kaesong Industrial Complex will probably never be a tourist attraction, even if reopened. But if light industry is your thing, it is still possible to gain access and check out the behind the scenes action at various factories in the Rason Special Economic Zone.
Despite sanctions, one of the busiest factories I visited in Rason was the textile and garment plant. During our visit my group was led to the 2nd floor production halls where we watched Chinese supervisors make rounds to oversee the quality of work of the local North Korean staff.
There were no children working at the plant, the work space was clean and well ventilated, and in the parking lot we witnessed the distribution of the worker’s monthly rations. But for those who must have controversy and scandal when it comes to North Korean issues, I can report that the tags on the jackets being produced there claimed “Made in China”.
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.
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!
This fall I will be helping out on YPT’s Eurasian Adventure Tour!
Beijing – Moscow – Minsk – Kiev – Chernobyl – Transnistria – Chisinau – Bucharest – Sofia – Macedonia – Kosovo – Tirana
Group 1 (Beijing – Moscow) = €695
Group 2 (Moscow – Minsk – Kiev)= €255 / 950
Group 3 (Kiev – Pripya – Kiev) = €349 / 1299
Group 4 (Kiev – Odessa – Transnistria – Moldova – Romania) = €249 /1548
Group 5 (Bucharest – Sofia – Skopje – Kosovo – Tirana) = €350 / 1898
Quite frankly one of our favorite tours, our third annual Eurasian Adventure Tour!
The tour starts in Beijing, with an overnight stay and optional visit to the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao, before embarking on the 6 day epic that is the Trans-Mongolian, or the “party train” as it also known. We already have a number of people signed up for this part, so if you are considering taking the train anyway, why not join us fun young people?
Following our arrival in Moscow we start to fully embrace Soviet nostalgia, by visiting all of Moscow’s top sites, before taking the train to the most Soviet of all republics Belarus, and it’s capital Minsk, where we will be seeing such treasures as the former residence of Lee Harvey-Oswald, as well as staying in our own little pimping apartment.
This leads us on to group 3, our big group, where we will be visiting not only Pripyat (Chernobyl), but also doing the extreme missile base tour, as well as sampling the night time delights on a bar crawl. Accommodation? Old style Soviet Hotel, complete with rude staff, peeling wallpaper, and more corruption than you can shake a sickle at.
After group 3 leave us in Kiev, group 4 continue firstly to Odessa, then onto Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway republic of Transnistria. If you do not know anything about the place, Google it. And if you want off the beaten track this is it. There is one hostel in the whole country, and we are the first group to ever inquire about going there. A true Soviet Time-warp. Following a few nights here, we visit Moldova, the only ex-Soviet republic to vote the communists back in! Before taking the overnight bus to Bucharest, which as a flight hub, and will make it easier to arrange onward flights.
Group 5 completes the full communist chic element, with us visiting the former homes of Ceausescu, Tito, and Hoxxa, via Romania, Macedonia and Albania, as well as visiting the contemporary hot spots that are Mitrovice, and Kosovo, before finishing in Albania, which has ferry, road, and air links to aid your onward journey.
YPT are all about budget, and this tour is by no means any different, many companies, charge over 1000 Euro just for the trans-Mongolian, or 250 Euro just for a day at Pripya, we have managed to budget the whole thing, Beijing – Tirana, over 26 barmy days, to just €1898, all in. With the tour being split into 5 manageable parts, each part is completely optional, with guests having full autonomy to do any part they fancy, from just 1, to all 5
Join me for one leg, or for the entire crazy journey – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a trip discount!
Tirana, Albania – from my travels 10 years ago.
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.
Checkout the podcast we recorded from inside North Korea during the 2012 celebratory week of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary.
North Koreans celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square - photo by Joseph A Ferris III
Intranet computer room at the Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris
I was looking for this pic during the week when the Google visit went viral; found it in one of my Facebook North Korean albums – I drive myself crazy sometimes!