Posts tagged “communism

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Book Review

Cover_of_Pyongyang_by_Guy_Delisle

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

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

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.

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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

Pyongyang – Kaesong – Sariwon – Nampo


Restricted Chongjin, North Korea

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:

The Whole Restriction Thing

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.

The Whole Not Seeing Anything New Thing

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:

Chongjin, North Korea
Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Chongjin, North Korea

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


Is it Time to Defy Washington’s Logic on North Korea?

Wonsan, North Korea

Propaganda in Wonsan, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

Great analysis on the failed US “Strategic Patience” policy in regards to the North Korea problem by my friend, and  decorated Army Veteran, Michael Bassett.


Rason Business Interest Tour

Rason, North Korea

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.

Full itinerary can be found here.


Pyongyang Spring International Trade Fair

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.

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Luxury  Tissot watch booth.  Other luxury Swiss items can be found at a shop at the Yanggakdo Hotel.

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North Korean Samjiyon Tablet – are their tablets and new smart phones really made in North Korea?

North Korean Tablet

This photo is credited as being the first to confirm the existence of the larger size Samjiyon Tablet.

Pyongyang Spring Business Expo

Flat screen TVs showing the Moranbong Band.

Pyongyang Spring Business Expo

Panasonic in Pyongyang.

Pyongyang Spring Business Expo

Washers, dryers, and refrigerators.

Pyongyang Spring Business Expo

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:  joseph@youngpioneertours.com  – full itinerary and price to be published shortly.


Rason Special Economic Zone Shoe Factory

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.

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Rason Shoe Factory North Korea

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III


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


Rason Special Economic Zone Textile Factory

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”.

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Rason Garment Factory North Korea

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Rason Garment Factory North Korea

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Rason Garment Factory North Korea

Rason Garment Factory North Korea

Rason Garment Factory North Korea

Rason Garment Factory North Korea

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Rason Garment Factory North Korea

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!


Eurasian Adventure Tour

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 joseph@youngpioneertours.com for a trip discount!

McMariott

Tirana, Albania – from my travels 10 years ago.


Faces of North Korea

A high quality YouTube North Korea slideshow by ingoophotography.


I Have Been to North Korea Over 100 times

My friend Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, just did a reddit AMA (ask me anything).

I have been to North Korea over 100 times. AMA

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

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.

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North Korea Podcast Round 2

Jordan Harbinger and Cap’n Joe went BACK to North Korea in 2012 with a whole new group of awesome folks crazy enough to join them.

Checkout the podcast we recorded from inside North Korea during the 2012 celebratory week of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

North Koreans celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday anniversary in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square - photo by Joseph A Ferris III


North Korean Intranet

North Korean Intranet

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!


North Korean Nuclear Program

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Top North Korean scientists split the atom – photo by Joseph A Ferris III


Young Pioneer Tours Exclusive

Exclusive news and ground breaking experiences brought to you by the company I now guide for, Young Pioneer Tours:

YPT’s Richie Fenner just returned from our first trip of the year to the DPRK, with our group being the first foreign tourists to visit the Mausoleum since it’s reopening featuring General Kim Jong Il! We can also now announce that even more interestingly, foreigners can now bring cellphones, including smart phones into the country!

Young Pioneer Tours teamed up with NK News to break these stories, read about the change in cell phone policy here, and Richie’s visit to see Kim Jong-il here.

You can also read more on these developments over at Young Pioneer Tour’s blog.

Cell Call Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Cell phones in North Korea, not just for traffic girls anymore!

 


Unified Korea Costume Propaganda

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

A band leader wears a uniform with a graphic showing a unified Korea; subtle propaganda intended for the eyes of those foreigners who had come to see the Kim Il-sung 100th birthday celebrations.

I took this picture on the morning of April 15th, 2012 the 100th year anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth.  On that morning all foreign tourists were bused to a park in the Pyongyang suburbs, far away from the military parades and Kim Jong-un’s public address to the North Korean people.

Marching band performances, folk game competitions, and interactions with school children were the activities the North Koreans used to keep us occupied during our sequestration away from that morning’s downtown main events.  The entertainment at park may have been a disappointment for some, but the holiday week of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday was still an epic time to have experienced North Korea.


Women on Bicycles Banned Again

On the Streets of Kaesong, North Korea

Woman pushing a bike in Kaesong, a picture I took in 2011 during the brief time when it was legal for women to ride bikes.

Women on Bicycles Banned Again

By Kim Kwang Jin of Daily NK

It is said that the riding of bicycles by women has been prohibited once again, only months after a previous ban on the activity was rescinded.

A source from Hoiryeong in North Hamkyung Province told Daily NK today, “The use of bicycles by women was officially allowed last year, but was prohibited again on the 10th. There have been local People’s Safety officers patrolling since the day after that.”

The source added, “They’ve not only stopped women using bicycles, but also banned them from riding on the backs of bicycles and placed a weight limit on the luggage that can be placed on them.”

The source continued, “Before the ban was lifted last year, if a woman was caught riding a bicycle she was fined just a bit of money, no more than 5,000 won. But now they are confiscating the bicycle instead, and this has been causing a bit of upset.”

As the source also noted, if the ban is widespread and lasts any length of time, it will have a deleterious effect on the functioning of North Korea’s markets. Bicycles have been a critical factor in helping to spread commerce as a means of survival over the last ten to fifteen years, with women at the forefront of the trend.

“Bicycles are essential in North Korea,” the source explained. “They have no cars, motorcycles or other means of transportation. Bicycles are very useful; women can not only go to and from the markets on them, they can also give their children lifts and carry as much as 50 or 60kg.”

“Women used to ride early in the morning to avoid getting caught,” the source recalled. “During the squid fishing season, women from fishing towns even use bicycles to carry the catch to inland regions.”

It is said that Kim Jong Il initially banned the use of bicycles in the 1990s after the daughter of a high-ranking official was killed in a traffic incident in Pyongyang. The North Korean state media subsequently justified it by saying that the image of a woman riding a bicycle runs contrary to socialist morals.


Nampo Tae’an Glass Factory

In the spring of 2012 I was able to visit the Nampo Tae’an Glass Factory, one of several Nampo area heavy industry sites briefly open to tourists at the time – currently only the Nampo Kangso Mineral Water Factory is advertised as available for visits, a site which is included on my Spring 2013 tours.

North Korean Glass Factory Nampo

More modern than I expected (the plant was built in partnership with the Chinese and opened by Hu Jintao in 2005), inside we were able to get a close up view of working furnaces and sheet glass cutting machinery, as well as a look into their computerized production monitoring control room.

I expected to see communism in action, mass mobilization of the workers and all sorts of other cliches, and while I witnessed that sort of thing out in the fields and on countryside road construction projects, I was surprised to find the Nampo Tae’an Glass Factory eerily quiet.  Massive propaganda paintings on the walls looked down over just a handful of quality control workers, but the plant was producing glass, and I left the site suitably impressed by the operation.

North Korean Glass Factory Nampo

Close up view into the glass furnace.

North Korean Glass Factory Nampo

They let us climb up on the machinery – so dangerous!

North Korean Glass Factory Nampo

Freshly cut sheet glass.

North Korean Glass Factory Nampo

Propaganda painting on the production room wall.

Nampo Glass Factory North Korea

Lady in the quality control booth.

North Korean Glass Factory Nampo

Nampo Tae’an Glass Factory local guide.


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.


American Detained in North Korea

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:

Dandong Chinese North Korean Border
Dandong Chinese North Korean Border
Dandong Chinese North Korean Border
Dandong Chinese North Korean Border
Dandong Chinese North Korean Border
Dandong Chinese North Korean Border


Behind the Scenes

Being now focused on filling spots for my big May trip (the April tour is pretty much booked), I thought it might be valuable to show a little of the fun and behind the scenes action from my past visits. If you are familiar with my gun range and Ultimate Frisbee posts than you already know my tours are about more than just being bused around different monument and museum sites – we like to party too!

Almost all of the photos posted and linked below are what I had considered Facebook pics. Overlooked and neglected by this blog for too long, I think they fit in perfectly with this post. I hope you enjoy them and the behind the scenes insights they share.

Singing North Korea Guide
North Korean guide Ms. Han, flush with soju after our going away duck BBQ dinner, sings Arirang on the bus microphone.

More pics linked below!

(more…)


Mangyongdae Children’s Palace Piano Lesson

Think you have what it takes to teach the best and brightest children of the Pyongyang elite?

Below one of my tour group members gives a demonstration to piano students at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace.

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Mangyongdae Children's Palace North Korea

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III