Soju at the Mini Pyongyang Folk Park.
Jordan Harbinger, Captain Joe (Sailor Joe got promoted) and some AoC alumni trekked it out to North Korea in the middle of the highest point of tension between North Korea and the rest of the world. Here’s an inside look at the country from us while we were there.
Kindergarten Performance Chongjin, North Korea – Photo by Joseph A Ferris III
With so many great pics from my last trip, such as the one above, it’s unfortunate that I’m in such a rush with less then a week turn-abound between DPRK trips. I have had no time to give my photography work and this blog the attention they deserve – arranging visas, train tickets, sleep, laundry, and buying fishing equipment has taken precedence.
Tomorrow I head back up to Yanji to bring a small group of DPRK return visitors into the Rason Special Economic Zone.
Does Rason ring a bell? It’s where American tour guide Kenneth Bae was recently arrested and convicted for unspecified crimes against the government.
I have been receiving plenty of warnings from concerned people that I will become the next pawn on the international stage, but please remember that unlike Kenneth Bae, we will be engaged in legitimate tourism. Laptops and hard drives full of religious materials, and videos profiling human rights abuses will be the last thing I will carry across the border with me. So please don’t worry about me!
Waiting for my Manila to Beijing flight for yet another North Korea trip this week.
On April 22nd I start the Extreme North East Tour and will be the first American tourist to cross the Tumen land border.
Beijing – Tumen – Namyang – Hyeryong – Chongjin – Mt Chilbo – Rason – Yanji
In November 2012, YPT, and Troy became the first westerner to cross the Tumen border in Namyang, into the extreme North-East of the DPRK. This will be the second group of Western Tourists to enter the country via Namyang and to undertake this route!
Our trip starts off either in Beijing, or meeting us directly in Tumen to cross on foot over the bridge and into the DPRK, and Namyang, where your extreme DPRK experience starts with a bang. This can be considered the most intense border crossing in the country, with every piece of paper that you own, and all your electronics and bags being given the most thorough going over you are ever likely to receive in any border! It might sound scary, but the intensity makes it quite the experience.
We are then met by our extremely friendly guides and driven to Hyeryong, a city only just opened to western tourists, and hometown of not only the most beautiful women in the country (according to the Koreans), but also mother Kim Jong Suk, before heading on to the infamous Chongjin and the scenically beautiful Mt Chilbo, where we indulge in the only home-stay available in the country. This is an extremely unique and interesting experience, and your night spent drinking and eating with the Korean family will undoubtedly be unforgettable.
Following this we cross the internal border from the DPRK “mainland” into the Rason Special Economic Zone, currently the only place in the DPRK where foreigners can change money at the market rate, use local money and even shop in the private markets! Thus combining the least seen parts of this country, with the practically unseen.
We then finish the tour Yanji, Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, an area with the largest Korean-Chinese population in China.
Pyongyang traffic girl via Instagram.
For a quick look at my latest pics check out my Instagram feed.
Update: I’m here with CNN going on video in a few minutes.
I have a March 30th flight with Koryo Airlines to North Korea – the first of many!
A lot has happened since the last time I was in the DPRK (I went to Iran on my last vacation): nuclear and long range missile tests, new sanctions vigorously enforced by the Chinese, suspect internet hacker attacks to both North and South Korea, a visit by Dennis Rodman, cell phone access, and a brief experiment allowing 3G internet access to foreigners – the handful of foreign residents may still use the service, but access to tourists has been rescinded.
Other changes, less remarkable, but of interest to those traveling to North Korea: the US spy ship Pueblo has been moved to the Homeland Liberation War Museum (the ship and museum are currently closed until this summer), the Mausoleum has reopened with the body of Kim Jong-il on display, and new routes in the North have been opened to tourism – this April I’m set to be the first American tourist to cross the Tumen/Namyang border into the remote North of the country.
There have been big changes for me as well; I make my return to North Korea as a guide for Young Pioneer Tours. The recent raised tensions have unfortunately made our North Koren partners less than enthusiastic about my new position. KITC does not want to be seen working too closely with Americans at the moment – visas have been issued, and Americans can still tour, but when I’m in country I need to officially present myself as a lowly agent working through YPT, not for them. We hope this will change once tensions ease.
I had plans to take advantage of the new 3G access to live blog and interact through social media from inside North Korea, but as mentioned above this service has been rescinded. When I’m outside North North Korea people can still follow me via the various social media outlets I’m on:
Facebook Page – Instagram @josephferrisiii – Twitter @JosephFerrisIII
The grand lineup of my spring DPRK trips:
March 30th – April 6th: Private/custom Pyongyang, Nampo, Sariwan, Kaesong, and Mt. Myohyang.
April 22nd – April 29th: VIP private investors tour to the Rason Free Trade Zone and first time visits to newly opened sites in the far north – Tumen – Namyang – Hyeryong – Chongjin – Mt Chilbo – Rason – Yanji.
May 30-June 3 Rason cruise, Rajin Port, to the Mt Kumgang.
More Air Koryo photos posted below:
Lots of insightful opinions and analysis from top DPRK watchers and North Korea travel industry experts in James Griffith’s article on the ethics of traveling to North Korea:
North Korea, one of the world’s last remaining closed societies and perennial geopolitical troll, is on many world travellers’ bucket list. Few places are as unique or just downright weird as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
The DPRK’s attraction as a tourist destination aside, is it ethical to visit a society completely under the control of a dictatorial regime?
My photos are used throughout the article – continue reading here.
The article shows that the majority of experts interviewed believe travel and interaction with North Korea serve as a positive instrument for change - glad I’m with the cool crowd on that one.
Come see the Ryugyong “Hotel of Doom” - Photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I will be going to North Korea in just 6 weeks!
Be assured that for the tourism industry it’s still business as usual – the boss at Young Pioneer Tours, who is entering the DPRK today, says:
And whilst these incidents always bring talk of sanctions, or strained relations with other countries, it is our experience that it does not, and should not affect the tourist industry, with our 2013 program going ahead as planned.
I had a fully booked trip but this nuke test caused a few people to drop out – there is still time for those brave enough to join me!
March 30th – April 6th: Pyongyang, Nampo, Sariwan, Kaesong, and Mt. Myohyang – 1395 Euro.
We have two weeks until the deadline for the visa applications – serious inquires only.
I have posted the full itinerary for this trip in the comments.
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
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.
Gabriel Mizrahi over at The North Korea Blog has the following thoughts on The End of North Korea:
You have to hand one thing to North Korea: It knows how to keep us guessing.
Predictions about the end of North Korea keep coming (The Atlantic recently published a terrific article about the long history of wrongly predicting the DPRK’s demise), but the truth about the regime seems to elude most analysts. Still, that won’t stop the best of them from trying to pin down the end of North Korea.
Consider, for instance, Mark P. Barry’s recent post on World Policy Blog:
It’s possible that a process may have recently begun whereby North Korea could eventually shift from totalitarianism (or total control of public and private life) to authoritarianism (with minimal pluralism and autonomy in private life), drawing from the recent experiences of China.
Because when in doubt — and how could Mr. Barry not be, seeing as he’s talking about the world’s most secretive regime — use vague terms. “It’s possible.” “A process.” “May have recently begun.” “Could eventually.” I would love to see someone explain to Kim the difference between totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Better yet, I’d love to see someone explain the difference to a North Korean citizen. I doubt that the distinction, such as it is, is compatible with Red Confucianism…..continue reading this post at The North Korea Blog.
Kim Jong-un in the news at a Pyongyang Metro station – photo by Joseph A Ferris III
I try to avoid politics on this blog, I want to be invited back for a return trip to the DPRK, so I mostly stick with the cultural side of things highlighted by my original photos, and with an occasional link to the more controversial posts over at my associate’s site, The North Korea Blog.
This morning I found some interesting analysis about what the future might hold for the DPRK, all dependent on how well the young Kim Jung-un is able to quickly consolidate power. Check it out at the link below.
Will Juche Idea survive?
Tower of the Juche Idea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III