Archive for May, 2013

Pyongyang Traffic Girl

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Pyongyang traffic girl at the  intersection near the foreign language bookshop – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

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American G.I. Clown At The Pyongyang Military Circus

The Korean War era American G.I. clown is alive and well at the Pyongyang Military Circus.  Performed while the nets for the trapeze grand finale are being rigged, the skit always portrays the G.I. as the butt of jokes and as a helpless buffoon.  The skit changes with time, one past visitor reported seeing a performance where the G.I. repeatedly had his plate of dinner hidden on him by a cunning South Korean military cook.  The skit I watched had the G.I. beat up by a South Korean street bum with 4 legs.  Why 4 legs?  I assume the audience is meant to see the action via the perspective of the drunken American soldier, which of course is blurred, confused, and absolutely absurd.

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American Soldier Clown at Pyongyang Military Circus

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American Soldier Clown at Pyongyang Military Circus

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American Soldier Clown at Pyongyang Military Circus

And no, this is not a real American G.I., but a North Korean soldier with a fake nose and a heavy makeup job.


Pyongyang Metro Actors

Pyongyang Metro

Girls share a seat on the Pyongyang Metro – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I was reading last night that when western tourists are allowed into the subway system, there are North Korean citizens who have the job of dressing nice and riding the subway. That is all they do. Get off the train, head up the stairs, and immediately come back down to board the train. It makes the station seem busier and keeps up appearances.

I can’t believe this urban myth is still making the rounds! The Pyongyang metro is real and used by normal citizens to efficiently move around the city. Riding the metro as a foreigner is not the only way to interact with locals on a tour, but it is one of my favorite ways to do so.


Changing of the Guard

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Pyongyang traffic girls change the guard – photo by Joseph A Ferris III


Teletubbies in North Korea

Teletubby Cup on the North Korean DMZ

Teletubby coffee mug on the North side of the DMZ – you never know what you will find in North Korea!


Spring 2013 North Korea Podcast

Soju at Mini Pyongyang Folk Park

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.


New DPRK Routes

Volleyball Cheerleaders at Mt.,Chilbo Home Stay

Volleyball Cheerleaders at Mt. Chilbo Home Stay – new routes to this area of the DPRK have been authorized!

We have just heard from our partners in the DPRK, and are very happy to announce a few new very exciting new routes into and out of the DPRK starting from next month.

Entering the country

It is now possible to enter the country from Hamyong, Rason, or visit Chongjin, and Chilbo, then take a charter flight to Pyongyang

Exciting the country

It is now possible to have a standard DPRK Tour (Pyongyang etc), charter flight to Mt Chilbo, and exit via Hamhyong, or most excitingly through the Rason SEZ.

This great news as it will mean we no longer have to exit via China, and most importantly no longer require triple, or even quadruple Chinese visas, with a double entry visa being sufficient.

We are still waiting for exact prices of the charter flight, which after we receive will start planning itineraries accordingly. This is something we have been pushing for for quite some time, and are extremely excited about.

Sinuiju to open for day trips.

We have had great news from our partners in the DPRK and China that as of now Sinuiju will now be open to day tourists from western countries.

Visitors require a valid passport of at least 6 month, and need to apply for a travel permit which will take 4 days to process.

Currently citizens of the USA, Japan, and Republic of Korea cannot join the tours.

The tours are restricted to days at present, but will be extended to overnight when CITS finish the new hotel in August.

YPT plans to run group trips every Sunday, as well as offering the ability to do independent trips throughout the week. We are also working on having Sinuiju as standalone extension for those people returning from a “mainland” DPRK tour, amongst other things.

We will be running a tester trip on May 26th, as well as meeting our partners for further negotiations. We aim to have more up to date news as soon as possible.


A Traffic Controller on Crossroads

A great film about my favorite ladies, A Traffic Controller on Crossroads is newly out with English subtitles on Youtube. In The DPRK the film is described as a romantic comedy, and while through a western perspective I found it neither, the film still provides a unique look into North Korean culture via their domestic film industry.


Springtime in Pyongyang, North Korea

With pleasant weather, flowers and trees in bloom, and North Korean citizens making their first round of pilgrimages to important revolutionary sites, late Spring is an amazing time to visit the DPRK. Below are just a few images of the thousands of Young Pioneers we encountered while visiting the Mangyongdae birth house of Kim Il-sung on my last DPRK trip in late May of 2013.

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Back From The First Ever North Korean Fishing Trip

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Fishing on the Taedong River, Pyongyang, North Korea.

I just returned from guiding the first ever North Korean fishing trip tour. Our small group fished in both the East and West Korean Seas, but we had our best luck at the beautiful Sijung Lagoon. Both the driver and I landed several golden carps which the Sijung Lagoon Hotel staff served as sashimi for us.

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Fishing with our driver at Sijung Lagoon.

North Koreans love to fish and our guides were wildly enthusiastic about this trip. Young Pioneer Tours is already looking at offering it again this fall – this is one not too miss!

I already have many of the pics from the trip up on my Instagram. For the fishing specific pics please check out Young Pioneer Tours Facebook page.


Moranbong Band

The Moranbong Band – Kim Jong-un’s hand picked all female band is currently all the rage in the DPRK. Check out the song Donsume starting 30:57 for the sexiest destruction of the USA imaginable.


North Korea Tourism Questions

Rason SEZ Shoe Factory Propaganda Art

Propaganda art at the Rason SEZ shoe factory – unfortunately not for sale.

Hello Joseph,

I have been reading through your website after a friend put the idea of a NK trip into my head. The idea of seeing NK before too much changes (example of Suddam’s Palace before his fall compared to after) just wont get out of my head. While there is surprisingly a lot of information about the tours on offer, various questions still elude me. Would you be able to do a detailed article on how to get the most out of a NK holiday? Maybe some of my questions are more suited to a private tour with friends which is why they don’t pop up as most tours seem to be group booking with random people. After going so many times, I couldn’t think of a better person to ask.

Questions like:

– How much should you tip a guide? Some websites are saying up to 10 euro per guide per day from each group member… that would make them extremely wealthy compared to he average NK citizen after only 1 tour? Do the guides keep the money or is it given to the government and they are paid a wage?

Our policy is to tip 7 Euro per day per participant of the tour (or equivalent in hard currency). The cash will be pooled together and split something like 40% – 40% – 20% between the two guides and driver. The money goes to the tourism workers, guides, and driver, and is not handed over to the government.

Yes, access to hard currency does make the guides wealthy in the DPRK, but remember that money will be spread out and shared between the guide’s extended family and their networks of support. The wage paid by the government for the guiding job is negligible.

– How much cash do you need, some people say 200-300 euro others up to thousands. Besides tips and extra food/alcohol and small but expensive souvenirs, what else can I buy? And realistically how much per day should I plan to have to spend including tipping?

For a seven day trip based in Pyongyang 400 dollars should be adequate. Of course there are no banks or ATM machines so I always play it safe and bring more than I need. If you really love propaganda art perhaps consider bringing more, hand painted posters cost around 60 Euros, hand embroidered masterpieces start around 200 Euros. Also consider your price for the Arirang Mass Games ticket if you go in late summer/fall, and don’t forget your tip!

– Everything is in Euros and they say ‘have lots of small denominations.’ How small? what is the average price of items I would be spending money on? Do I need 50 Euro in small coins or are we talking 1 euro plus to buy anything?

Actually USD, Euro, and RMB are all acceptable. Small bills are helpful – don’t come with a single 500 euro bill, nobody will break it. Bills below the 50 denomination will be the most useful. When spending hard currency be prepared to receive mixed change, perhaps it could come in a mix of Euro coins and small RMB bills.

Things you might spend small bills on: an extra coffee in the morning or after lunch, a game of pool or bowling, a beer or two at night, sending postcards, bottled water…..

– In one of your articles is says that you gave the guide several euros to buy more beer. How accepted is this practice? Would they be able to get you other things not normally provided? Traditional meals from local restaurants? Memorabilia that isn’t sold in a government run tourist stand?

Using hard currency and having our guide get beers at local cost was a special circumstance, I wouldn’t normally expect it. You might be able to have them get you ice cream or other local treats, just ask and see, but unfortunately all sit down meals will be at authorized tourism restaurants. It is possible to order extra food off the menu but the cost will be out of your pocket and in hard currency.

– How can you get the guide to allow more time for photos or other small side deviations? (if there was a nice park and you wanted to stop and take some photos but it wasn’t on the itinerary).

Easiest way to get this accomplished is to act as a responsible visitor and respect their photography rules and customs. When you gain their trust it’s much more likely your guides will accommodate a request to stop and check out a passing site.

– Taking home a piece of art would be high on my list of things to do. Where would this be available? Is there local art of personal expression or is it controlled art by the government? Again is this something the guide would need to source?

Not on many tour itineraries I would try to get your guide to fit in a trip to the embroidery institute. It is possible to commission work there, or you can browse through their showroom. Also mention to your western guide your interest in art so they can work early on to ensure stops at showrooms and galleries are including in the itinerary.

– Are there stores that would have antique items for sale, old books or small items that would make a unique gift, rather than a commemorative pin or stamps? Again is this something the guide would need to source?

I have not seen anything like this, and while possible, acquiring antiques is only done by a few people with long and developed relationships and after many return visits.

– When attending the Mass Games, is there any advantage (photography wise) to purchasing a much more expensive seat? Is there 220 euro better photos in VIP section compared to 80 euro standard seat if you have a good camera and quality lens?

I have only been to Arirang Mass Games once and consider my 150 Euro 1st class seat to be completely adequate. We had a table which was perfect for a small pocket tripod (they don’t like large pro tripods). You have a great view wherever you sit. If you go for the 80 Euro third class section consider bringing a monopod.

– You mentioned at night there is only bars and theme parks to go to. Can you bar hop from hotel to hotel until closing time? Possibly to meet up with other tour groups?

If you want to go out at night take a close look at the itineraries offered by tour companies. My company (Young Pioneer Tours) routinely offers nightly visits to the various drinking venues, but bar hopping really isn’t an option. The majority of tour groups will be based at the Yanggakdo Hotel, with the best place to mingle with other groups being the hotel’s microbrewery bar.

– Are the women working in the hotels, as guides or ones you can interact with all married? If not what is the etiquette for social interaction? Are they banned from physical interaction with westerners after hours? (obviously not talking about prostitution as that is illegal, free will interaction) I wouldn’t want to offend anyone the same way you wouldn’t ask a woman in Muslim country as it is not socially/religiously acceptable.

No, they are not all married, some are single, and some are dating. Interacting with people in the tourism industry is fine, you can invite the girl that works at the Viennese coffee shop to play foosball, or have a dance with a BBQ waitress, but these interactions will be part of their workday and any meeting up with an off duty girl is impossible – as is any type of intimate interaction.

Your female tour guide will probably have a beer with the group after hours at one of the hotel bars, but please be aware of the situation, often the DPRK guides can be seen meeting up with long time friends and enjoying some quiet time after a long day – drunken tour members crashing their private time is not particularly welcome but a common scene.

– There is a lot of talk about local beer (I am not a beer drinker), do they have local spirits? (excluding rice based alcohol) Whiskey?

I’m a beer and wine guy myself; I have seen some imported whiskeys available, but I suggest you bring in your own bottle from Chinese duty free. There is absolutely no problem with BYO in DPRK. Local spirits besides soju include blueberry and apricot wines, and various snake liqueurs.

– Do you have any recommendation for non itinerary items you can suggest to the guides on a standard 7 day tour? Seeing a sporting, art or cultural event. Do you need to tip to get these added on for the day or only pay entry to the event (if required).

You just need to enquire what is happening in Pyongyang during you stay, it is possible for the guides to arrange a visit to the circus, dolphin show, revolutionary opera, sports events, pizza restaurant, shooting range, or maybe even the Moranbong Band concert. These activities are not held on a daily basis, cost extra, and your entire group will need to agree on making the activity. I would suggest approaching your western guide to help setup any extra activities.


Sorry I know the list is long, but I tried to make it concise. I feel the above would really help anyone seriously considering going to NK and help in the planning process. Your site and views on NK was inspiring, to be able to show the unbiased beauty of a country with so much negative press is a rare talent, keep up the good work.


Back to North Korea For Fishing

Pyongyang BBQ Girls

Hanging out with the Pyongyang lamb BBQ girls.

Im off to Pyongyang tomorrow to lead a Young Pioneer Tours group on the first ever North Korean fishing trip. This will be my last DPRK trip of the season – wish us good weather, good photography, and hungry fish!

I’m back to the ship June 8th, hopefully then I can settle down and get caught up on all the photos and blogging. My next vacation will be in the fall. I already have some ideas for Oct. DPRK trips, if interested plus send me an email.


Safely Returned From The Rason SEZ, North Korea

Kindergarten Tank Rason SEZ, North Korea

On a tank statue at the Rason kindergarten.

I just returned to Yanji, China from yet another epic trip to North Korea. Keep an eye on my Instagram over the next few days for the latest pics from this trip. Tomorrow I have an overnight train to Beijing and return to Pyongyang to guide a 9 day fishing trip starting May 13th.


Rason SEZ, North Korea Travel Permit

Rason SEZ, North Korea Travel Permit

Rason SEZ, North Korea Travel Permit

Heading into the Rason Special Economic Zone of North Korea. Visas are not required but travel permits are – above are our permissions.