Posts tagged “Kim Il-sung

Kim Jong-il’s New Jacket

The Kim Jong-il statue on Pyongyang’s Mansudae Hill got a new jacket this year: a massive bronze winter parka.


The Mansudae Hill Kim Jong-il statue was originally unveiled to the North Korean people on the April 15th, 2012, the 100th birthday anniversary of eternal President Kim Il-sung.  I was among the first group of tourists to visit the statue when the monument was officially reopened to foreigners the following day.  The original 2012 Kim Jong-il statue attire included a bronze medium length formal style jacket.  Apparently authorities didn’t find the formal jacket representative to late leader’s career, so master artists of the Mansudae Art Studio were tasked to cast a giant copy of the late leader’s iconic  winter parka – see Kim Jong-il looking at things.

Time examined Kim Jong-il’s parka and reported the following comments from the North Korean Rodong Sinmun:

“People around the world are attracted to and following not only the jacket our Great Leader is wearing,” Rodong Sinmun wrote in 2010, “but also his attitude, facial expressions, hand gestures, and even his handwriting.” All over the world, the parka was “the most valuable and noble item to have.”

The New Pyongyang Kim Jong-il Statue

Original Kim Jong-il statue with the 2012 formal bronze jacket.

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Young Pioneer Tours Exclusive

Exclusive news and ground breaking experiences brought to you by the company I now guide for, Young Pioneer Tours:

YPT’s Richie Fenner just returned from our first trip of the year to the DPRK, with our group being the first foreign tourists to visit the Mausoleum since it’s reopening featuring General Kim Jong Il! We can also now announce that even more interestingly, foreigners can now bring cellphones, including smart phones into the country!

Young Pioneer Tours teamed up with NK News to break these stories, read about the change in cell phone policy here, and Richie’s visit to see Kim Jong-il here.

You can also read more on these developments over at Young Pioneer Tour’s blog.

Cell Call Pyongyang Traffic Girl

Cell phones in North Korea, not just for traffic girls anymore!


Unified Korea Costume Propaganda

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

A band leader wears a uniform with a graphic showing a unified Korea; subtle propaganda intended for the eyes of those foreigners who had come to see the Kim Il-sung 100th birthday celebrations.

I took this picture on the morning of April 15th, 2012 the 100th year anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth.  On that morning all foreign tourists were bused to a park in the Pyongyang suburbs, far away from the military parades and Kim Jong-un’s public address to the North Korean people.

Marching band performances, folk game competitions, and interactions with school children were the activities the North Koreans used to keep us occupied during our sequestration away from that morning’s downtown main events.  The entertainment at park may have been a disappointment for some, but the holiday week of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday was still an epic time to have experienced North Korea.

Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun

Having been closed since the December 2011 death of Kim Jong-il, the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun has recently reopened, and along with refurbishment and new displays, the bodies of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are now available for viewing.

Outside Kumsusan Palace

North Koreans outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.

My 2011 visit to the mausoleum was the most surreal thing I have ever done. There is a deliberate awe inspiring buildup factored into the paying of respects at the body of Kim Il-sung. On entering the complex one is subjected to multiple security checks, cameras are confiscated, cloth booties are issued to be worn over the shoes, and you are forced to ride kilometers of moving walkways into the marble encased heart of the complex. From there you are marched around in groups, disorientatingly led from room to room, and forced to bow to various Kim Il-sung statues, all the while listing to an audio account of how the laws of nature were broken on the day of Kim Il-sung’s passing – upon his death the people cried with such emotion that their tears crystallized into diamonds in the pavement.

Before entering the holy of holies for the finale of bowing to the body of Kim Il-sung (all visitors will be expected to bow as a sign of respect – to go this far and not do so would cause a MARJOR incident), everyone must pass a through a bank ultra industrial sized air blowers, removing all traces of lint or dust to ensure no possibility of contamination. You will be expected to bow three times, once at Kim Il-sung’s feet, and on his right and left side. Authorities take your picture as you bow – the perfect little memento for your permanent secret record and always available for review by authorities if questions concerning your respect for the Eternal President become an issue.

If you can imagine how surreal all of this is for visiting foreign tourists, think about how overpowering the experience must be for a North Korean visiting for his first time from the provinces. A visit to Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun is the ultimate in propaganda showmanship; there is no other place or experience like it in the world.

I assume most of the procedures described above will continue with only slight changes to accommodate the paying of respects at the body of Kim Jong il (it is reported that he is placed at rest in a glass display next to his father). Viewing of newly created displays showing Kim Jong-il’s yacht, his medals and awards, and even the train car he died in will also be include in the visit.

Kumsusan Mausoleum

North Koreans outside the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.

Girl with Flowers in Pyongyang

A flower girl at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun.

Tourist trips don’t start up again until mid January, until then I will be eagerly awaiting the firsthand accounts of those who make the first visit to the newly opened mausoleum. Sunday morning visits to the mausoleum have already been included in the schedules for my two custom spring trips.

For insights and observations recorded from inside the DPRK, including the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, check out our 2011 podcast. The North Korean Economy Watch also has an interesting look at the odd history of communist leader preservation.

Breaking News: The Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun has Reopened!

I have it confirmed from two sources that the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun/Kim Il-sung Mausoleum has reopened to tourists and will be available for all 2013 itineraries!

Group Photo with Colorful Korean women outside of the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun – photo by kinabalu

Pyongyang Arch of Triumph

Bigger is better in North Korea, and standing at 60 meters the Pyongyang Arch is the World’s largest triumphal arch – sorry Paris.

Pyongyang Arch of Triumph

As a gift from Kim Jong-il to Kim Il-sung for his 70th birthday, the arch has 25,500 blocks of white granite, each representing a day in his life up to that point – another equally impressive 70th birthday gift with the same sort of construction numerology is the Tower of the Juche Idea.

The arch was commemorated to highlight the 1925-1945 revolutionary struggles and victory over the occupying Japanese forces. Supposedly there are rooms and viewing pavilions but I have never been let inside or had a closeup look.

2012 Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition

Pyongyang Flower Expo

2012 Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition

Taking pictures of the military in the DPRK is officially forbidden, but never fear, during visits to special cultural/social events, and if lucky to be touring with one of the more relaxed North Korean guides, photography freedom with the men and woman of the North Korean military is likely to be allowed – one such place where we had freedom to mingle with the troops was the at the 2012 Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition.

The Kimilsungia is a hybrid cultivar of orchid originally created in Indonesia. Official North Korean accounts tell of how Kim Il-sung admired the orchid during a botanical garden tour while on a state visit to Indonesia. Upon his inquiries about the flower President Sukarno promptly informed Kim Il-sung that it was as of yet unnamed, but due to his already performed great exploits for the benefit of mankind, it was apparent the flower must be named the Kimilsungia.

The flower exhibition is highlighted by the many elaborate arrangements created by and gifted from the foreign embassies based in Pyongyang, as well as the numerous North Korean military units and domestic social institutions. The huge arrangements gifted from the armed forces are adorned with statues of guns, swords, tanks, and missiles. Other arrangements often highlight the history of Kim Il-sung with models of his birthplace or other important historical sites associated with his life.

I had relatively low expectations for the flower exhibition but ended up delighted by the many military arrangements on display, especially the ones with models of the controversial test missile, and most of my group agreed that having shared our visit with large numbers of military personnel made the Kimilsungia Flower Exhibition a highlight of the trip – It’s the randomness in which you get to mingle with the armed forces that makes a visit to North Korea so much fun, perhaps if we had made the visit the following day the exhibition would have been empty and the experience much less special.

Pyongyang Flower Expo

Kim Jong-Il and Kim Il-sung Mural

Pyongyang Flower Expo

North Korean Soldiers at Flower Expo Pyongyang

Pyongyang Flower Expo

Soldiers Enjoy the Pyongyang Flower Expo

Pyongyang Flower Expo

Pyongyang Flower Expo

Pyongyang Flower Expo


Soldiers Enjoy the Pyongyang Flower Expo

Soldiers Enjoy the Pyongyang Flower Expo

Soldiers Enjoy the Pyongyang Flower Expo

Pyongyang Flower Expo

Pyongyang Flower Expo

There is a separate Kimjongilia flower festival held each February during the birthday celebrations for Kim Jong-il. Neither the Kimjongilia or the Kimilsungia is the national flower of North Korea, that honor goes to the magnolia.

Someone in my group asked why the Kimilsungia was a smaller flower than the Kimjongilia, our North Korean guide simply said that that was not a wise question to ask……

All photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Visit to the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery on the 100th Birthday of Kim Il-sung

For the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung we were allowed to join members of the North Korean military and make a pilgrimage to the Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery to pay our respects to the fallen fighters and leaders of the Homeland Liberation War (the Korean War as we know it) and the anti-Japanese revolutionary periods. Along a terraced hillside, each grave is adorned with a bronze bust of the fallen including Kim Jong-suk, first wife of Kim Il-sung, and Kang Pan-sŏk, mother of Kim Il-sung.

Photos of the military are generally prohibited in North Korea, but due to the importance of the event and sheer number of military personnel at the cemetery, our guides allowed us full photography freedom, although I was still chewed out by several over zealous guides working other groups. Photos from the visit posted below:

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Sailors at the Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Sailors at the Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations - Martyrs' Cemetery

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Mangyongdae Children’s Palace

The Mangyongdae Children’s Palace; a place for children of the privileged elite to spend time after school practicing sports, art, folk dance and music – and of course, show it all off with military like precision and forced smiles to groups of visiting foreign friends and tourists.

Mangyongdae Children's Palace

Young Pioneers sing a martial song during a special Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday celebratory performance at the Mangyongdae Children’s Palace. More pictures from this set linked below.


Pyongyang Smiles

During preparations for my first trip to the DPRK I watched all of the online documentaries I could find, from dreary hit pieces on the DPRK Government to over sensationalized video travel guides, and common to them all was the depiction of a sad, colorless, and lifeless North Korea.  But by coming to the DPRK myself I experienced something different; I found Pyongyang to be a clean, bright, colorful, and orderly city, with a people that smile, laugh, and despite the language barrier, interact with foreigners with a shy curiosity.

Sharing my pictures of the DPRK and its people is what this blog is all about. I’m trying to present a different perspective compared to the impressions put out there by the main stream media.  I don’t deny that there are human rights violations, but there’s already plenty of material out there to explore on those issues. Instead I wish to pass on what I observed during my travels in the DPRK: that despite the hardships and pressures the North Korean people endure (whatever they may be), they remain a very human people, and just like us they love life and share the simple hopes and dreams common to all humanity.

The people of Pyongyang smile – below are pictures taken during the festivities and celebrations for 100th birthday of ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung – all photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

During the week of celebrations for the 100th birthday of ‘Eternal President’ Kim Il-sung, mass parades and celebratory gatherings were quite common.  These events were not normally open to foreigners, but often we got caught stuck in traffic jams as tens of thousands of people clogged the roads on their way home.  During these times our guides were gracious enough to let us interact with the people, here young boys wave and smile on their walk home.

Pyongyang Street Scene

Young girls laugh and smile while walking home from school.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Boys from a brigade of Young Pioneers enjoy an ice cream snack at a local park.

Pyongyang Roller Blading

Young girls smile while taking a break from an afternoon of rollerblading.

USS Pueblo Guide

Sharing a laugh with our guide on the USS Pueblo.

Pyongyang Subway

A cheerful Pyongyang Metro ticket attendant.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

A festive spirit pervades the crowds at a mass gathering in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung square.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

A festive spirit pervades the crowds at a mass gathering in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung square.

North Korean Panda Bears Dance on Kim Il Sung’s Birthday

Young girls dressed in panda bear costumes relax between performances for foreigners at a folk fair held on the Day of the Sun, the April 15th, 2012 celebrations to honor the 100th year birthday of ‘Eternal President‘ Kim Il Sung.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

On this day there were many military parades and Kim Jong-un appearances throughout Pyongyang.  Unfortunately visiting foreign friends were not invited to these events, and to keep us out of the way, western tourists, dignitaries, and cultural delegations were bused to the city outskirts and conveniently sequestered at a park in the Mangyongdae district.  To keep everyone entertained, folk games and competitions (tug of war, three legged race, ect) had been arranged for the visiting cultural delegations.  Having traveled so far, and with expectations of seeing military parades, many of the tourists did not appreciate the situation – watching Eastern European and Russian delegations bob for apples was a big disappointment for most, but I really enjoyed the experience – not the international folk competitions, but all the interactions I had with the North Korean children who were at the event and enjoying themselves in such a relaxed atmosphere.  On arrival, little girls in traditional chosŏn-ot dresses grabbed us by the hand and led us into the park (they were fascinated with our bellies – notice the pokes!).  Hanging out, dancing, playing, and taking photographs with the North Korean children who were participating in the cultural dance performances made this event a cherished experience from the trip.

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Pyongyang 100th Year Kim Il Sung Birthday Celebrations

Photos by Joseph A Ferris III

Nampo Chollima Steelworks

The Chollima Steelworks, a North Korean showcase heavy industry site located outside the west coast city of Nampo, was recently opened for tourism and we were among the lucky few to make a first visit.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Painting of the Chollima Steelworks – all photos on the post by Joseph A Ferris III

A historically important site, Kim II Sung and Kim Jong-il made many visits, the Chollima Steelworks is an impressive complex with wide boulevards, rail infrastructure, grand propaganda murals, and imposing buildings.  Being amongst the first western visitors, instead of the ubiquitous local guide, we were greeted by a large group of officials and representatives of the steelworks who shuttled around the complex in large black luxury sedans.  Of course they showed us the local museum dedicated to the visits and on the spot guidance of Kim Il sung and Kim Jong-il, but the highlight of our tour was our access into the steelworks itself with a close up inspection of a functioning electric arc furnace on the production floor.

This visit to the Chollima Steelworks was part of the new Heavy Metal Tour add-on package offered by Koryo Tours.   Also included in this tour was our visits to the Nampo glass factory and the Hamhung fertilizer plant.  We had unrestricted photography access to each site, other groups had their visits restricted to a bus ride through the parking lot with no photos allowed.  These groups had shadowed us at times and were continuously in trouble with their guides for breaking photography regulations – for the best access it pays to follow the rules set by your guide!

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.


Our guide Ms Han and the local guide in front the Chollima Steelwork’s Kim II Sung mosaic.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks representative.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks representative and worker.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

As we did not venture too far onto the factory floor hard hats and safety gear were not provided for us.  On close inspection you can see only about 50% of the workers have hard hats on.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks production floor.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks production floor.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Close up of the electric arc furnace.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Electric arc furnace in wide angle.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Chollima Steelworks production floor in wide angle.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Propaganda on the production floor.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Entrance to Chollima Steelworks.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

Achievement banners at the steelwork’s museum.

Nampo Chollima Steelworks, North Korea

North Korean guide Ms Han and a Chollima Steelworks painting.

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.

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

Pyongyang Mansudae Housing Complex

Kim II Sung and Kim Jong-il Pyongyang

Built in 100 days* to commemorate the 100th birthday of ‘eternal president’ Kim Il-sung, the new Mansudae housing project is the latest addition to the Pyongyang skyline. Also seen in the picture above is a new mural of Kim Jong-il. Conspicuously absent during his lifetime, grand murals and statues of Kim Jong-il are being unveiled and installed throughout Pyongyang.

Pyongyang Mansudae Housing Project

View of the Mansudae housing complex as seen from the base of Juche Tower.

Pyongyang Mansudae Housing Project

View of Mansudae housing complex as seen from the top of Juche Tower.


Video of the Mansudae housing complex nighttime light show – shocking evidence of change in the DPRK considering that last summer the city was blacked out by power shortages every night by 9PM.

*Although said to have been built in 100 days, I was told the construction of the Mansudae housing complex  took a little longer than that – but it was still done in an amazingly quick time. I don’t remember any construction in that area of the city during my summer 2011 visit.

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

The New Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-il Badge

New Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-il Badge

The double Kim badge is the latest in North Korean fashion – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

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!

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.

100th Year Birthday of Kim Il-sung

An update on my upcoming trip: after some uncertainty about being allowed into the country due to all Pyongyang hotel space being reserved for North Korean delegations, it has been confirmed that the April trip to North Korea for Kim Il-sung’s 100th year birthday celebrations has been approved – they have a room for us!

Also, 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. I haven’t yet written about the International Friendship Exhibition on this blog, and as it is a North Korean holy space, I have to be extremely careful on the subject – after having been approved to present a gift there, any joking around on my part on this topic could single highhandedly shut down foreign tourism in the DPRK.

The International Friendship Exhibition is an elaborate mountainside bunker/ostentatious palace museum at Myohyang-san mountain.  Here, all gifts given by foreigners to Kim Il-sung (along with a separate but similar complex for all gifts given to and Kim Jong-il ) are kept on display. As a holy space it is 2nd only in importance to the mausoleum that houses and displays the body of Kim Il-sung.

You must surrender your cameras and cover your shoes with fabric booties when entering the International Friendship Exhibition, and after bowing to a wax statue of Kim il-sung, you will be shown the car gifted by Stalin, and then allowed to choose what continent’s gifts you want to view – there is just too much to see so you can only view gifts from the countries of two continents.  Western news sources report that there are a total of approximately 220,000 gifts shared between the two complexes.  In the main halls of each complex are digital displays showing the grand total of gifts. I remember seeing that Kim jong-il had about 60,000, while Kim il-sung had well over 100,000 gifts.

The International Friendship Exhibition is a cornerstone of North Korean propaganda.  Locals are taken on pilgrimages to the site where they are expected to be overwhelmed, not only with the opulence of the surroundings, but by the sheer number of gifts, which to them is explained as a tangible example of the respect, veneration, and love held for Kim il-sung by the rest of the world.

Among the most notable/notorious gifts on display (via Wikipedia) are:

  • A bear’s head from former Romanian leader Nicolae Ceauşescu
  • A metal horseman and ornate chess boards from former Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi
  • A crocodile skin suitcase from former Cuban leader Fidel Castro
  • A gem-encrusted silver sword and a miniature mosque in mother of pearl, given by former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat
  • An antique gramophone from China’s first premier Zhou Enlai and an Armored Train car from chairman Mao Zedong (entire wings are dedicated to gifts from the country)
  • An ivory lion from Tanzania, gold cigarette case from Yugoslavia, bronze USSR tank from East Germany, silver chopsticks from Mongolia
  • A basketball signed by Michael Jordan given by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
  • A bullet-proof limousine from former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin

The following is an excerpt of the letter I will present, along with my gift, to representatives to Kim Il-sung at the International Friendship Exhibition during his 100th year birthday celebrations:

On this, my 2nd trip to the DPRK, and in appreciation of the wonderful cultural exchange I experienced on my first visit, and in the spirit of celebration for the 100th year birthday celebrations of the Eternal President Kim Il-sung, I am pleased to present the following gift to representatives for Kim Il Sung at the International Friendship Exhibition.

I am presenting The Stoneware Baby Seal Sculpture by Andersen Studio of Maine. This is a classic and very special piece of handmade art from my home state. With no two pieces being exactly alike, this baby seal statue represents my joy for learning about Korean culture through my visit to the DPRK, the wonderful experience of meeting friendly and truly wonderful North Korean people, and my happiness to share the important truths and help correct misconceptions about the DPRK on my return home.

The above letter is slightly modified from the letter of proposal and intent I had earlier sent, a letter that was highly praised by DPRK officials, with them going as far as suggesting that their western tour company partners could learn a few diplomatic lessons form me – ha ha!

Related Photos:

Girl with Flowers

Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang.

North Korea

Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang.

Girl with Flowers in Pyongyang

Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, Pyongyang.

Kumsusan Mausoleum

Locals pose for pictures after viewing the body of Kim il-sung at the Kumsusan Mausoleum.

Group Photo with Colorful Korean Natives outside the Kim Il Sung Mausoleum

Locals invited us to pose for a picture with them at the Kumsusan Mausoleum – Photo by kinabalu

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

Funny Old White Men in North Korea

Paintings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin in Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea.

Karl Marx in North Korea

Vladimir Lennon in North Korea

Kim Jong II 12-17-11

A photo collection of Kim Jong-il in art from my Aug. 2011 North Korea trip.

Kim Jong-il

Pyongyang scene with Kim Jong-il.

North Korean Diorama

Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung give on the spot bridge building guidance. Diorama from the Pyongyang Railway Museum.

North Korean Diorama

Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung give on the spot bridge building guidance. Diorama from the Pyongyang Railway Museum.

Kim Jong Il Looking at Things

Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung looking at Things.

Kim Jong Il and Kim II Sung

Baby Kim Jong-il and the cabin where he was born at the sacred Mt. Baekdu San – although he was really born in Russia.

Little Kim Jong-il in Battle

Baby Kim Jong-il gives “on the spot” battle guidance.

Kim Jong-il Painting

Kim Jong-il – I’m not sure what this painting is about.

Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung

Kim Jong-il in a Pyongyang street painting.

Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung in a Pyongyang Railway Museum mural.

Kim Jong-il

The ‘Dear Leader’

Kim Jong-il

Neil Strauss, Jordan Harbinger, and Ingrid De La O with Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung

Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung at the Mt. Myohyang hotel.