Archive for May, 2012

Twin Sisters Hamhung City, North Korea

Hamhung City Square, DPRK, North Korea

Hamhung City Square, DPRK, North Korea

Twin Sisters in the main square of Hamhung City, North Korea – photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Sneaking a Cell Call

Cell Call Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Cell phones are all the rage in Pyongyang, North Korea this year (we hardly saw any during our Aug. 2011 trip) – here a traffic girl sneaks a call from behind a tree – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

A Load of Firewood in the North Korean Countryside

Wonson - Pyongyang Countryside

A rare photo from the North Korean countryside – on the road between Wonsan and Pyongyang, a troop of soldiers return to base with a truck load of firewood.   I love some of the small details I captured here: the girl in the back holding a branch with flower blossoms, a smile on the man in front, and girls curiously checking out the tourist bus as it passes.

New Portrait in Kim II-sung Square

One of the major changes from last summer that I saw in Pyongyang this spring was the newly hung portrait of Kim Jong-il in Kim II Sung Square, Pyongyang.  Kim Jong-il is credited with the creation and fostering of his father’s personality cult, yet in his lifetime he had restrained the establishment of a personality cult of his own,  but following his death portraits and statues have started to pop up throughout Pyongyang and beyond – check out the new Kim Joing-il mural in the Pyongyang Mansudae neighborhood.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

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

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Kim Jong-il and Kim II-sung portraits in Kim II-sung Square during the preparations for the 100th year birthday of Kim II-sung.

Kim Il-sung Square Pyongyang

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

Keeping Pyongyang Tidy

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

A Pyongyang traffic girl cleans broken glass – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

Back to Work at Sea

I try to post something new and original on a daily basis here at the American in North Korea blog, but my four month vacation is over and I will be intensely busy with my normal job until I get set into my new routine – working as a Chief Mate on an ocean going ship.

North Korean Fisheries

To celebrate getting back to work (it’s my birthday today too – 36 years if you must know) I have posted the above photo, a Korean peninsular map – with Pyongyang indicated by a star, that shows the various ocean species and fisheries found in the Korean region.  I found this map in a small museum at the Wonsan Songdowon Children’s Camp – many more pics from there to come.

Blogging From Inside North Korea

Pyongyang Taxi

An average Pyongyang street scene – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

While surfing the web I found some interesting posts over at NK News about Ashen, a Russian student living and blogging in Pyongyang, North Korea.  Believed to be the only blogger in the DPRK, background about Ashen has been hard to track down.  His blog, Show and Tell Pyongyang, is in Russian, and the guys at NK News have spent a lot of time running it through translation software, polishing up his text, and presenting summery posts. Their investigative work leads them to believe Ashen’s parents work at the Russian embassy, where he has access to the internet and is able to blog, and that he is currently enrolled at the Pyongyang Kim Il-sung University.

Here are the links to the NK News site summery posts and translations of Ashen’s blog:

A Blogger In Pyongyang (Part 1) – Intro and college life in the DPRK.

A Blogger in Pyongyang (Part 2) – Further investigation into college life in the DPRK.

A Blogger in Pyongyang (Part 3) – Metro, Ostrich farm, and North Korean cigarettes.

Pyongyang Shooting Gallery – Ashen visits  a gun range.

New Year & Xmas Celebrations – Rare photos of Pyongyang in the winter.

North Korean Toys: Juche Lego Sets – Popular North Korean toys.

North Korea’s Juche Toy Industry – Part 2 – More popular North Korean toys.

Soldier With Flowers

A North Korean soldier with flowers passes by as we sightsee at the southern entrance to the Nampo West Sea Barrage – just another example of the humanity of the North Korean people rarely shown by the mainstream western media – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

North Korean Soldier/Sailor with Flowers

Read more about this experience and many more like it at Joshua’s Spodek’s Blog.

Reunion With a Friend

One of the best things about returning to North Korea was meeting up with the friends I made on my first visit.  Below I get a hug from one of the singing waitresses that I danced with during the 2011 Ultimate Frisbee Tournament.  I suppose I made a great impression during my first visit – that is one hell of a close hug, and I even got a kiss on the cheek when we made our goodbyes!


But of course I’m in trouble now, whenever my girlfriend is upset with me she points out these pictures and reminds me that “I know who your secret North Korean girlfriend is” and that “I know the real reason why you like going to North Korea” !

Well, I actually don’t know this girl’s name, but she is a real sweetheart, and if you ever pass through Pyongyang with a stop at the  lamb BBQ restaurant on your itinerary, make sure to say hi to her for me – and be ready to dance!

With the Singing Waitresses of Pyongyang, North Korea

Photo with my girl from 2011 Pyongyang Ultimate Frisbee Tournament.

Local Fisherman in Wonsan, North Korea

In the tidal shallows outside the tourist hotel in the North Korean east coast city of Wonsan, local fisherman search out the ocean’s bounty – photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Wonson Fisherman DPRK, North Korea

Wonson Fisherman DPRK, North Korea

Wonson Fisherman DPRK, North Korea

Wonson Fisherman DPRK, North Korea

Wonson Fisherman DPRK, North Korea

Reunification and North Korean Self Awareness

The following question was posed to me in a recent post response thread:  Is there a sentiment of North-South reunification among North Koreans or have they come long enough a way to forget and develop their own sense of national pride?…….How could North Koreans be fooled for so long that their country is on a higher moral ground than all other countries, when the leadership is showing the exact opposite? Do they really think foreigners have it worse or what? Some North Koreans know what real prosperity looks like across the border to Seoul, yet most of the country still seems to turn a blind eye to the fact that everyone in the country is basically working for the ruling family’s sole benefit and indulgence.

It may not be as clear cut as assumed here, but isn’t it the basic idea? Seriously, what is up?

Peaceful Unification Kaesong Propaganda

Unification propaganda at the DMZ – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

My answer to the above question:  Trying to figure out what North Koreans really think is a puzzle that has me infinitely fascinated.  As a foreigner, and especially as a tourist, I believe you will never truly know, but visiting and discovering small insights and clues, or at least seeing a different side of the people – a human side (and capturing it in photos), is what keeps bringing me back.  Testimony from defectors helps give a clue, but how much of that can you really trust?  It all makes my head spin.  Of course as a tourist you really only get to see Pyongyang and a handful of other cities and showcase sites, places of privilege where everyone toes the party line – their well-off lives depend on it!

So knowing what North Koreans really believe about reunification is a difficult thing.  I know that the government supports unification in its propaganda and that guides tell us that reunification is a goal that all North Koreans hope for and support in their heart.  There is a strong pan Korean cultural identity held in esteem in the North, and I believe the “idea” of reunification for the good of all Koreans and Korean culture is truly supported there.  But I think the actual act of reunification is a vague idea and one that the government feels is better put off for the distant future, and looking at the cost of unification I believe the South feels the same way.

The North Korean leadership has specific strategies and sustainable competitive advantages that compel them to maintain the status quo (for more on this read Joshua Spodek’s book).  I see this, more than a newly developedsense of national pride”, as the reason, despite internal and external propaganda proclaiming the opposite, as the reason why reunification has been indefinitely sidelined.

Wonson Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-il Mural

Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il mural in the city of Wonsan – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I believe the 2nd part of the question – how could North Koreans be fooled for so long that their country is on a higher moral ground than all other countries……is brilliantly addressed in Brian R. Myer’s book The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.  Here you can find an in depth examination of North Korean propaganda, how the government has had to accept its poverty, and instead focused on racial supremacism as a cornerstone of their propaganda.

Tourists to North Korea are no longer exposed to the old fashioned anti-American propaganda, neither are they exposed to this new North Korean supremacism propaganda, but to understand North Korea one needs to understand it exists.  The South Korean economy surpassed the North in the early 70’s but for many years lack of information about the outside world allowed the government to proclaim its economy and Juche system as the envy of the world.  Currently this would fool no one.  Through smuggled South Korean DVDs, trading and border connections with China, and exposure to the outside world through Russian logging camps, North Koreans have a pretty good idea of their lowly economic position in the world.  To help maintain their grip on power the North Korean regime shifted its propaganda to focus on the supremacism of the wholesome North Korean citizen living and holding the true Korean culture in trust until a time when the South Koreans vacate US soldiers off their soil along with all the associated vice and corruption US influence brings.  They believe (or at least propagandize) this as  a holy responsibility, something worth the sacrifice in the face of the wealth and the subsequent corruption, so readily apparent across their borders, that the wealth brings.

How effective is this propaganda?  As a tourist I cant really say.  North Koreans are not going to tell a tourist anything but the party line.  Divergent opinions must exist but to talk openly about them brings down certain punishments……and any further discussion on that delves into taboo areas best not to be explored by those of us who want to continue with travels to the DPRK

Return of the Pyongyang Traffic Girls – Picture Post

Brought back from their Sept. 2010 retirement, these April 2012 photos posted below show Pyongyang traffic girls performing their classic signal direction routine photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

From a previous post:  To our delight, the traffic girls of Pyongyang were brought out of retirement to help deal with the massive traffic congestion, and perhaps to add a little more color to the city for ’Eternal President’ Kim Il Sung’s 100th year birthday celebrations.

On my first visit (summer 2011) we had been saddened to learn that the girls had been replaced by a modern traffic light system. They could still be seen on occasion, running roadside signal lamp switches, working road construction sights, or directing traffic during the frequent power outages, but we missed their famous directing routines performed at the main city intersections. I’m happy to report that this April they were back directing traffic throughout Pyongyang, and although I have no idea how long this will last, I got some great pics during this special opportunity and will be sure to have a follow-up post sharing the best of them! 

This is the follow-up picture post with those promised photos posted below!

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Remaining photos show the Pyongyang traffic girls performing their normal post retirement duties: cross walk safety overloading and manual light phasing – all from April 2012.

Pyongyang, North Korea Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girls

Pyongyang Traffic Girls

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Arirang Mass Games 2012 Dates Confirmed!

Mass Games North Korea

2011 Arirang Mass Games – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

From my contacts at Koryo Tours: We have just been informed that North Korea’s spectacular Arirang Mass Games will be taking place once again this year. The officially confirmed dates so far are from August 1st – September 9th (Sept 9th is DPRK’s National Day, a major holiday in North Korea) but we do expect the dates to be extended as it is normal for the initial confirmed run of the Mass Games to be this long, the event often finishes as late as mid-October, we will of course keep you updated!

If you’ve ever wanted to see 100,000 performers in a 90 minute spectacular combination of gymnastics, propaganda, dance, music, and of course unicycling all with the backdrop of the world’s largest screen – one made up of 20,000 schoolchildren flipping coloured cards to create an ever-shifting display unrivaled anywhere else in the world – then this is the event for you. Truly unforgettable and awe-inspiring, book now for something that will not be easily forgotten!

All tours that take place in this period can see the Mass Games, the event takes place in the evening and so is easily fitted to any tour schedule. The Mass games will run 5 times a week (on Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat) so plenty of opportunities for you to attend, you can even go more than once on a tour if you so desire!

Pyongyang Paradise Department Store

Paradise Department Store Pyongyang North Korea

North Korean guide Ms. Han at the Paradise Department Store in Pyongyang, North Korea. This is a hard currency store with many “luxury” goods available to those with cash – foreigners are allowed to shop there too . The top floor is home to the Paradise Microbrewery, an actual brew pub with decent draft beer on tap!

Pyongyang Restaurant Chain – North Korean Food Available Around the World

Singing North Korean Waitress Dandong, China

Live entertainment at a North Korean state run restaurant in Dandong, China.

Traveling to Asia but don’t have enough time to visit North Korea?  It’s possible to get a taste, literally, of North Korean culture at one of the many state run North Korean restaurants located in the East and Southeast Asian region.  At the Pyongyang restaurant chain you can get amazing North Korean cuisine along with music and dance shows performed by actual North Korean waitresses.

These restaurants are reportedly run by the infamous Room 39, the North Korean bureau that is tasked with acquiring and laundering foreign hard currency and the distribution of foreign luxury goods to high party officials.

The Pyongyang restaurant is the perfect place to hang out at if you are looking to rub shoulders with North Korean spies and secret agents.  All the waitresses are required to live on premises and are closely watched by state security agents – reportedly several branches in China were shut down after escape attempts.  Clientele at branches close to the North Korean border are mainly curious Chinese and North Korean businessmen, while branches further afield focus on the South Korean businessman trade.

Wikipedia reports that the Pyongyang restaurant chain operates in the major cities close to the North Korean border along with locations in Beijing and Shanghai.  Outside China you can enjoy the North Korean experience at a Pyongyang restaurant in Bangkok, Jakarta, Pattaya, Siem Reap, Vientiane, and Amsterdam.

Dandong North Korean State Restaurant Entertainment

Live entertainment at a North Korean state run restaurant in Dandong, China.

My good friend Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of The North Korea Blog, and I visited a North Korean state run restaurant during our visit to the Chinese/North Korean border city of Dandong.  We stopped by the Lui Jing restaurant, and although what I write about above deals with the Pyongyang restaurant chain, we were assured that the Lui Jing restaurant was also North Korean state run and would provide the most authentic North Korean meal in the city.  While in North Korea our meals were always adequate but seemingly dumbed down for our western palette.  At the Dandong Lui Jing restaurant we were served up heaping dishes of the best Korean food I have ever had.  We dug into a serving of Yook Hwe, a cold raw beef and raw egg dish that was fantastic, along with bulgogi BBQ (we ordered 2nds), and a gigantic fluffy shrimp and octopus omelet.

Taking photos is not allowed in most North Korean state run restaurants, so I never got pictures of our dishes, but when the floor show started the waitresses used sign language to indicate we could snap some shots – as shown in the pics above.  The waitresses were totally perplexed by us, I’m guessing they don’t see too many western foreigners stopping by at the Dandong branch, but of course we charmed them with our limited Korean language skills and smiles, and had the entire waitress staff abuzz chatting about our every move.  We visited two nights in a row and was granted the special privilege, despite a no photo policy, of taking Polaroids and sharing them with the girls there.