Archive for March, 2012

The North Korean Dining Experience

Exploring cuisines from around the world is one of the main reasons I have traveled so voraciously over the years, and while I love food and eating, I don’t really have the expertise to write about North Korean cuisine – I will leave that to the wonderful Juche Vegan blog. Instead I will use this post to highlight the North Korean dining experience available to tourists on a visit to the DPRK.

Lunch in Kaesŏng

Traditional Korean lunch at the Kaesong restaurant.

Lunch in Kaesŏng

Traditional Korean lunch at the Kaesong restaurant.


Waitresses serve a traditional Korean lunch at the Kaesong restaurant.

It was firmly impressed upon us during our orientation meeting in Beijing that while malnourishment still remains a major problem in the DPRK, the money paid for our trip would more than adequately pay for all the food we would consume on our visit – our DPRK dining experience would in no way be taking food out of the mouths of unfortunate North Koreans.

The quantity of food during our meals was always adequate while quality of the various meals ranged anywhere from average to fantastic. My favorite meals were the Korean BBQs while the most uninspiring were the buffets and set meal spreads normally found at the various hotels we visited.  Some of the specialty restaurants presented nice Korean dishes such as Bibimbap and cold noodles, but I found the meal served at the Korean hot pot restaurant in Pyongyang to be quite bland.  The most famous specialty restaurant in North Korea is the Pyongyang pizzeria, and while they specialize in authentic Italian cuisine (their pizzas are excellent), they also have many standard Korean meals on the menu.  In addition to my pizza I ordered the most exotic thing I could find on the menu (my own little test of their food supply situation), a spicy and fresh Korean style clam dish, it was excellent and served up promptly.  More about the Pyongyang pizza restaurant here.

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pasta dish at the Pyongyang pizza restaurant.

No true social outing would be complete in North Korea without a little live music, and on multiple occasions our waitresses serenaded us with the popular folk classics accompanied by either the piano or accordion.  During our BBQ in the park at the Pyongyang Ultimate Frisbee tournament the scene became borderline scandalous when our singing waitresses grabbed us to dance, and to the absolute amazement of our western guide, I had the first North Korean/American booty bump session since god knows when.

BBQ Lunch at North Korean Ultimate Frisbee Tournament

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Pyongyang BBQ

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Pyongyang BBQ Waitress

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Ultimate Frisbee North Korea

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

The Singing Waitresses of Pyongyang, North Korea

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Dancing with the Singing Waitresses of Pyongyang, North Korea

Dancing with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Beer is plentiful at all North Korean meals, and while not always cold, at least one big bottle is usually included with lunch and dinner.  At the Mt. Myohyang hotel restaurant one of us ordered a 2nd round of beers for the table, these were priced at about 1 USD per big bottle, but later one of us walked to the restaurant bar to order directly from the cashier, bottles bought here were only 50 US cents, that’s a 100% markup per bottle just for the 15 foot walk from the bar to the tables!

Mt. Myohyang Hotel Lunch

Lunch and beer at the Mt. Myohyang hotel restaurant.

Mt. Myohyang Hotel Lunch

Our North Korean guide at the Mt. Myohyang hotel restaurant.

We learned about the North Korean black market while relaxing at the BBQ lunch during the Pyongyang Ultimate Frisbee tournament. One of us slipped our guides about 5 US dollars and asked them to pick us up some beers.  Normally all financial transactions for foreigners are controlled through the government set rates at approved stores.  We had been accustomed to paying about 1 USD per big beer, but after having gained our guides trust, and at this informal drinking party in the park, the power of our 5 US dollars on the black market bought us a BMW trunk load full of beer!

Other unique dining experiences in North Korea:

Although we didn’t visit, there is a new fast food hamburger restaurant in Pyongyang, supposedly there you can pay using a North Korean debit card.  I obtained one of these debit cards at the Yanggakdo hotel but unfortunately its system was down and I was never able to charge it up with a little cash.  I also saw a Mexican burrito stand at the Pyongyang fun fair.  This was set up for locals using local currency, and although I missed the chance on the last trip, if the stand is still there when I go back in April I hope to have my guide buy me a burrito!

For something a little more on the exotic side try some North Korean ostrich.  Ostrich husbandry was introduced into North Korea as a way to help feed the starving masses, it didn’t work, but the North Korean ostrich farms remain (we were allowed to visit one on our tour) and ostrich meat can be found on menus of the high class Pyongyang restaurants.  Want something even more exotic? Try the dog soup available at the Kaesong folk hotel for 5 Euros a bowl – I did!

Revolving Restaurant North Korea

The Yanggakdo Hotel revolving restaurant and bar.

Yanggakdo Hotel

The Yanggakdo Hotel revolving restaurant and bar.

North Korean Rest Stop

Coffee, tea, and refreshment rest stop on the highway from Pyongyang to Kaesong.

Kaesŏng Old Town

Photos from the Kaesŏng old town, DPRK, North Korea. We were not allowed to walk there, only take pictures from a viewpoint from high above.

Kaesŏng Old Town

Kaesŏng Old Town

Kaesŏng Old Town

Kaesŏng Old Town

Kaesŏng Roof Tiles

Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country

Kim II-sung Statue

‘Eternal President’ Kim Il- sung – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

Joshua Spodek, PhD physicist, MBA, inventor, entrepreneur, and fellow travel buddy from my first trip to North Korea, returned spellbound by the experience, and after a period of study and reflection, wrote the book Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country.

Joshua joined our trip at the last-minute and entered North Korea with just the basics of background knowledge and with no previous study on the country.  I admit that I was quite skeptical to learn that on his return he wrote a book on North Korea, it’s a country that requires a career of study and dedication to research to understand – at least from a historian’s viewpoint.  Instead, Joshua took his considerable business and entrepreneur experiences, along with his ability as a physicist to break down complex systems into easily understandable parts, and applied these talents to write a book that presents a simple, clear, and nonjudgmental understating of modern North Korea’s motivations.  He accomplishes this by explaining the business concepts of strategy and sustainable competitive advantage, and how these concepts apply to, and help simplify an understanding of not only North Korea, but to each of the relevant players (countries) concerned with the North Korea situation.  These concepts are also used to help explain why those in power in the modern North Korean regime (those born after the Kim Il- sung personality cult was firmly established) resist change, finding it safer to continue and to perpetuate the statues quo.

This book battles the mainstream idea that North Korea’s leaders are crazy and act irrationally, and firmly proves that there is an easily understandable and well developed strategy behind modern North Korea’s actions and motivations.  This book is a great tool but does not replace, only supplements, a firm understanding of North Korean history and human rights issues.  Below is my recommended essential DPRK background reading list:

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

North of the Dmz: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

North Korean Postcard Offer

Who wants a post card sent from North Korea? I will send one to the first three people to comment here and to privately send me their full name and mailing address by email to

My Kim Jong-Il Stamp Collection

Kim Jong-Il stamp – unfortunately stamps like this are not allowed to be used for postcards

Ultimate in North Korea

Check out this recent interview with Andray Abrahamian, organizer of the North Korean Ultimate Frisbee tournament I played in last summer – my pictures were used in the post.

Ultimate Frisbee North Korea

A North Korean woman with a Frisbee – photo 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

Mass Gymnastics Post #2

North Korean girls perform mass gymnastics at the Arirang Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Mass Games

Mass Games

Mass Games

Mass Games

Arirang Mass Games - North Korea

Arirang Mass Games - North Korea

Mass Games

Mass Games

What to pack for a trip to North Korea

Going to North Korea? Below are some hints and advise on what to bring:


Camera equipment – photography enthusiasts should bring the best equipment they can get their hands on, along with extra batteries, and plenty of extra flash card memory. Official rules state that 200mm is the maximum size lens allowed, but Koryo Tours says you can bring anything in as long as it does not scream that you are a professional. I brought in a 300mm lens with no problem. What is a problem is if your camera has GPS hardware. Get an eraser and try to scrub the GPS label off, if found North Korean customs officials will hold your camera at the airport. I brought about 80 gigs in flash card memory and actually ran out of space by the end of the trip – I shoot in RAW and my camera shoots at 12 shot per second, I had a LOT of pics!

A flashlight – outside Pyongyang there is no guarantee your hotel will have power at night.

Laptop – this is allowed but do you really need one there?

Ipad and/or Ipod – Allowed! Load them up with games and foreign movies and let your guides play with them. Our guides went absolutely bonkers for our hand held Apple products, confiscating them to watch Dumb and Dumber and to play games.

Cellphone/Iphone – no foreign cell phones are allowed in North Korea. You can bring your cell phone but it WILL be collected, held for you, and given back on your departure.

Kindle – not sure about this, I didn’t bring mine. I brought a single paperback but was so busy I never cracked it. But if you do bring reading material obviously do not bring books that are critical of the North Korean government, read those before you come.

Books – see above.

Dress code – its very hot and muggy in North Korea in the summer, and while I wanted to dress smart in slacks, I gave up on it and fell back to wearing my shorts. At our Koryo Tours orientation meeting in Beijing we were told that “North Koreans already think foreigners are strange, so might as well play it up and be comfortable in your shorts”. You will need at least one set of dress cloths, including a tie for men, for the visit to the mausoleum to pay respects to Kim ll-sung.

Alcohol – North Korean beer is cheep and readily available but bring a bottle of wine or your favorite spirit if you so desire.

Gifts for children – you will not be able to give gifts directly to children.

Gifts for the guides – it is recommended you bring gifts for the guides. Beijing airport has a large duty free section and is a good place to stock up on a nice bottle of whiskey and a couple cartons of cigarettes. North Koreans like their cigarettes strong, full strength Camels or Marlboro Reds would be a good choice. A nice selection of makeup or skin creams would make a good gift for the female guides. Quality over quantity is suggested.

Coffee – bring your own supply of instant packages.

Juche Vegan

The world’s first English-language vegan food blog devoted to North Korean cuisine – check out the Juche Vegan blog

North Korean Lunch Painting