North Korea

Visit North Korea!

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations
100 Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations in Pyongyang, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

Tell me a little about yourself and I will hook you up with a great DPRK travel deal for visiting!  Please leave a quick comment here (so I will know to check my email) and email me privately at with the following info:

Full name, how you learned about this blog, what your country of residence is, when you are interested in visiting the DPRK, and what you are interested in seeing.

As of Oct. 2012 I’m pleased to announce I can offer 5% off to people I refer for our scheduled trips to both the DPRK and Iran – so get in touch!

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.

The Current Round of North Korean Saber Rattling

Pyongyang, North Korea Soldiers

North Korean troops ready to punish their enemies with “unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style“.

Pyongyang was lit up 24 hours a day, traffic jams clogged the streets (even the retired traffic girls were mobilized), the hotels and bars were impressively stocked with foreign luxury goods, new statues, murals, and even entire neighborhoods were unveiled and gifted to the public. The citizens were in good cheer with smiles on their faces as they enjoyed the gigantic military parades, public holiday gatherings, and massive fireworks displays – all to commemorate the 100th birthday of ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung.

There was also a missile launch, the failure of which was not reported to the North Korean people…….but everyone knew.

And now with the party over there is a HUGE debt, and with the suspension of American food aid sadly there also will be empty stomachs.

So where will the DPRK go from here?  I’m not an expert, the focus of this blog is on my travel experiences, human interactions, and photography in North Korea, but I do have some on-the-ground observations and humble analysis I would like to share on the current saber rattling coming out of the DPRK.

While talking with our guides we freely discussed the topic of US food aid to the DPRK.  Our guides explained to us that they were fully aware that the American Government gave food aid in the late 90’s in response to the mass famines that afflicted the country.  When asked if this aid helped the USA to be regarded in a more favorable light by North Koreans, our guides said no, that the US did not give enough aid at that time for the average citizen to change their opinion on the US government – I’m sure ongoing anti American propaganda didn’t help either.  A more enlightening revelation was that our guides admitted to us that they were unaware of continuing food aid supplied from the USA to the DPRK throughout the 2000’s.

While the food situation is believed to be better than the late 90’s, it is generally believed that food shortages and reduced rations do exist outside Pyongyang.  People in the secondary cities we visited (Hamhung, Nampo, and Wonsan) looked to be in good health, but we did witness scavenging in the mountainous countryside in transit between these cities – our guides claimed not know what these people were doing when asked.

At the time when the DPRK government has proclaimed itself as achieving its goal of becoming a strong and prosperous nation, not only has it lost face with a failed missile launch – a costly blunder not only in the expense of research and development, but also in causing the loss of food aid – it is also faced with the tremendous expenses for the celebrations for the 100th birthday of Kim il-sung.

During my summer 2011 visit blackouts commenced in the city at 2100 hours with only the foreign hotel and the largest city monuments still lit by midnight.  I got a small peak at the expense and effort to light Pyongyang during this last celebratory period when during a trip to the Pyongyang outskirts for lunch at a mountain park, we passed the main road out to the port city of Nampo.  Here dump trucks full of coal for the Pyongyang power plant where lined up and stretched out as far as I could see towards Nampo.  This effort to light and power Pyongyang had to have been enormous, and ultimately I believe, unsustainable.

Kim Jong-un Pyongyang Subway

Kim Jong-un in the news at the Pyongyang Metro.

Kim Jong-un gave his first public speech to the North Korean people during the celebrations for his grandfather’s 100th birthday.  Witnessing this broadcast from inside the DPRK was an incredible experience.  The busy hotel lobby and bar hushed to a silence as North Koreans gathered around the bar television set. This was a big deal, remember that his father Kim Jong-il only publicly spoke once during his rule. Unfortunately to the eyes of us westerners Kim Jong-un’s speech looked terrible. He swayed and looked as if he was speaking without any kind of authority or self assurance. The North Koreans we met never talked about this speech so I assume it was viewed by them with some sense of unease.

Considering the situation the DPRK has gotten itself in (from my observations above), the current round of saber rattling is understandable, North Korea is desperately looking for attention and hopes to regain aid. Where could it all lead? Joshua Spodek, friend and travel buddy, argues in his book Understanding North Korea: Demystifying the World’s Most Misunderstood Country, that the North Korean leadership is quite rational and rather pleased to continue with the status quo – it ensures their survival. Hard times may be ahead but the safe bet would have the North Korean government continuing as before. Brash talk, saber rattling, perhaps a small scale border skirmish, but in general more of the same with the people suffering in what their propaganda claims is a righteous honor – something the South has given up in their race for economic prosperity – as the North Korean Government would tell you.

But the food crisis, debt, and failure in faith of the top leadership could be worse than I imagine, and the consequences could be far worse than a continuation of the statues quo.  Although I believe the leadership is rational, the possibility exists that if the hard liners believe their backs are truly against the wall they could follow their propaganda – 50 plus years of preaching to their military and people of a coming war to end all wars, and go for broke with a major military action.  It would be a suicidal gesture with millions of people dying in both the North and South, but I do believe such an action is a possibility if the situation deteriorates badly enough and the hard liners see no way out.

North Korean Soldiers in Pyongyang

Soldiers in Pyongyang walk home after a military parade.

While hard liners of the older generation maneuver to hold power, there are whispers that the younger generation is aware of the world outside the DPRK and that they desire change.  A cell phone revolution has taken over North Korea and familiarity with the outside world is continuously leaking in via smuggled DVD’s.  Western tourism is also helping to open eyes and change opinions.  If conditions deteriorate enough, a clash between the hard liners and the new generation will be inevitable.  The new and untested leader Kim Jong-un may find himself in the middle of this conflict, and with his own survival in mind, will probably back whatever faction seems to be winning out – that is if he survives that long.

It’s been an interesting time to have traveled to the DPRK, both before and after the death of Kim Jong-il, and no matter what happens there I wish the best of luck to the common people and hope they pull through the troubled times ahead with the least amount of suffering – the common people of North Korea are a good people and they deserve better than what they have been forced to endure.

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Back from the DPRK, North Korea!

Mangyongdae Children's Palace

Mangyongdae Children’s Palace Performance – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I just arrived back home after a 10 day trip to North Korea for the 100th year birthday celebrations for Kim Il Sung.  I’m happy to report that we had an amazing trip filled with wonderful interactions with charming locals, visits with old friends, and unparalleled access to the various major cities, countryside, and even industrial and heavy industry sites –  all made possible by the support of our fantastic North Korean guides!

I was genuinely surprised to have had over 10 people introduce themselves to me during the trip as fans of this blog.  I was truly delighted by the support, and as I sit here overwhelmed by the 8,000 plus photos I took during this last trip, I am motivated to get to work knowing that all my efforts are appreciated!

And I am certainly aware of the latest round of saber rattling currently coming out of the DPRK.  I have some on the ground observations, and while not an expert, I will work to get a post out ASAP sharing my thoughts on the present situation  in North Korea.

Much, much more to come!


Flight to Beijing and Pyongyang, North Korea

Mass Games

Chinese flag at the Arirang Mass Games – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I’m off to the airport for my flight to Beijing, China and will be flying to Pyongyang, North Korea on the 12th. See everyone on the the 25th of April – wish me luck!

Back to the DPRK!

My brothers over at The North Korea Blog and myself are are heading back to the DPRK next week for round two of some world-class totalitarian theatre. Empty highways, wet shooting ranges and disturbingly intimate conversations with locals are calling us back to the hermit kingdom.

Besides, this is the year that North Korea becomes a “strong and prosperous nation.” We couldn’t miss that, could we?

And how different it is this time around, just six months after our first trip.

Kim Jong Il is dead.

Kim Jong Un has assumed power……..continue reading this post at The North Korea Blog.

Taedong River View Pyongyang

Taedong River View, Pyongyang, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

The highlight of the trip will be the 100th year birthday celebrations of the ‘Eternal’ President Kim Il-sung.  This was no easy trip to make happen, over the winter we waited out the nationwide lockdown after the death of Kim Jong-il only to learn that it looked like there wouldn’t be rooms available to foreigners in Pyongyang during the Kim Il-sung birthday celebrations.  Dignitaries from the provinces would be flooding the capital during this time, but the good people over at Koryo Tours were finally able to scrape together some hotel rooms for us – not sure about the quality of the rooms but at least we have something guaranteed and the trip is confirmed!

Since I’m going to a birthday party I decided to bring a gift, and after a bit of diplomatic letter writing, I have been approved to present a gift to representatives for Kim Il-sung at the International Friendship Exhibition.  This is truly going to be a once in a lifetime trip!

Ultimate Frisbee North Korea

Soldiers at a Pyongyang park.

We want this to be a truly epic trip, birthday parties, rocket launches, and diplomatic gifts were not going to be enough, so I wrote up and submitted a custom itinerary that included North Korean sites never previously visited by western tourists.  Our tour will include the first ever visit to the Nampo  Chollima Steel Works, Tae’an Heavy Machine Tool Complex, Tae’an Glass Factory sites, and the Nampo Taekwondo School.  Another first ever visit will take us to Pujon, a town deep in the wild interior of the country where we will take mountain hikes and visit the infamous “slogan trees“.

Other exciting destinations we will visit (not on standard first time visitor tour program) include the Nampo West Sea Barrage, the Songdowon Schoolchildren’s Camp, Wonsan’s central square and piers, the Wonsan Agricultural University, the Tongbong Cooperative Farm, and the town of Hamhung and its beach scene.

6948973443_ea4ab89a0d_o (1)

Man at a Pyonagyang park.

I have also planned a trip up to the Chinese/North Korean border town of Dandong for a little exploration and investigation.  Most foreigners visit Dandong as a trip extension on their stopover on departure from the DPRK by train, but Americans are required to fly both in and out, so my visit will be by train from Beijing after the North Korea trip is complete.  In Dandong my friend Jordan (from The North Korea Blog) and I will attempt to rub shoulders with North Korean spies, and learn the lowdown from the smuggles, refugees, and Christian missionaries that haunt the border region.  There is also some pretty wacky nightlife to check out, and there is no way I’m going to miss out on the opportunity to have rocks thrown at me as I attempt to take pictures of North Korean sailors and their boats on the river cruise.

Ultimate Frisbee North Korea

Bubble gum in Pyongyang.

I hope all my dear readers will be excited for all the new and original material to come.  I have recently bought new lenses and  upgraded my camera kit from the Sony A55 to the new pro level Sony A77.  I just hope I can get this new camera into the county, I will be devastated if it is held at customs, so please send me some positive vibes and wish me good luck!

Happy Valentine’s Day

Mass Games North Korea

Arirang Mass Games, Pyongyang, DPRK, North Korea.

Guard Duty Pyongyang

Interesting set of photos showing a woman with rifle on guard duty in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Female Guard

Female Guard

Pyongyang Gate

DPRK (North Korea) Special Cuisine – Petroleum Clam Barbeque

Post 101

Is this really post 101?

At An American in North Korea I have tried to post something new and original on a daily basis. For the most part I have succeeded – but damn have I been busy lately!  My ship is coming out of dry dock and I have been run ragged getting her cleaned up and ready for sea again.

Unfortunately I am also starting to run out of original material and photos to post. But  don’t worry!  I still have some ideas for when things quiet down and there is a Spring trip to the DPRK being planned!

Taedong River Traffic North Korea

Posting a picture of the North Korean maritime industry as a reminder that no matter how crazy and busy things get on my ship I always have something to be thankful for!

10 of the world’s ugliest buildings – CNN

Hotel of Doom

North Korean Hotel of Doom photo by Joseph A Ferris III

CNN fluff web article on the world’s ugliest buildings:

1. Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korea’s long and hideous Communist dictatorship has simultaneously heaped misery upon its people while offering the rest of the world several moments of unintentional hilarity.

This 330-meter pyramid/spaceship/sci-fi villain’s lair-themed concrete edifice is a prime example of the regime’s hubris. Erected, apparently, as a riposte to South Korea winning the right to host the 1988 Olympic Games, the impoverished North ran out of cash for the project in the early 1990s.

After a 16-year hiatus, construction began again in 2008 at the behest of an Egyptian investment group and the hotel is slated to open next year in time for the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sun, the country’s late “Eternal” President.

This is a development that will surely herald the emergence of Pyongyang as a heavyweight tourist destination –- in the same alternate reality this monstrosity was conceived, that is.

Hello Kitty in North Korea

Young boy in Pyongyang, North Korea with Hello Kitty bag and his sister’s socks!

Hello Kitty North Korea

Laughter, Blogging and North Korea

The day I became a blogger: Gabriel Mizrahi’s observations on North Korea, humor, blogging, and his recent Huffington Post article.

Ultimate Frisbee North Korea

Laughter in North Korea photo by Joseph A Ferris III

Pyongyang Pizza

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea – the story is old but the pictures are new and original.

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

For millions of undernourished North Koreans, the notion of eating at a restaurant belongs strictly to the world of fantasy. And so there is only the grimmest humour in the news that, for the country’s ruling elite, Pyongyang’s dining options just got a little more impressive: the country now has its first-ever pizzeria.

An obsession with pizza stretching back at least 10 years prompted the isolated nation’s dictator, Kim Jong-il, to authorize North Korea’s first Italian restaurant, which opened in December, according to a pro-Pyongyang newspaper published in Japan. “General Kim Jong-il said that the people should also be allowed access to the world’s famous dishes,” the restaurant’s manager, Kim Sang-Soon, was quoted as saying in Choson Sinbo, a Tokyo-based newspaper seen as a mouthpiece for the regime.

Those dining at the restaurant are reportedly treated to pizza and pasta made with wheat flour, butter and cheese flown in from Italy. They are also presumably reaping the benefits of a years-long effort by Kim Jong-il to bring the perfect pizza to his famine-plagued totalitarian state.

In the late 1990s, he summoned a team of Italian pizza chefs to Pyongyang to instruct army officers. One of the chefs, Ermanno Furlanis, later recounted how the Italians underwent x-rays, brain scans and urine and blood sampling on arrival, before being sequestered in a marble palace. One of the officers Furlanis was training asked him to specify the precise distance at which olives should be spaced on a pizza, he recalled.

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

North Korea Pizza Restaurant

Neil Strauss with a North Korean Pizza

Neil Strauss with his authentic Italian pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Frisbee Diplomacy in North Korea – Picture Post #2

A series of photos from our day of Frisbee diplomacy in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Ultimate Frisbee North Korea

Above Gabriel Mizrahi of The North Korea Blog teaches young North Koreans how to throw a Frisbee.