Inside North Korea: Vodka, child soldiers, and ultimate frisbee

North Korean soldiers

Joseph Ferris is the chief mate on an oceanographic research ship. He’s hiked Mount Everest, hung out in war zones, and traveled to more than 90 countries. When he’s not at sea, he gives tours of North Korea and writes the blog American in North Korea. We interviewed Ferris about photography restrictions, food shortages, and how he helped introduce Ultimate Frisbee to the reclusive country.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you came to be a regular in North Korea?

As an avid world traveler I have always been fascinated with the DPRK and for years I would periodically check for changes in North Korean regulations allowing Americans to visit.  When Americans were finally allowed to travel there on a year round basis (for a brief period Americans could make short visits to see the mass games) I immediately booked a standard trip via Koryo Tours.

Along with some friends who joined me I ended up doing a private tour with no western guide to accompany us (western guides usually help out on the regularly scheduled trips managed by the big western companies).  Every tour group is led by two North Korean guides, or minders, as many people like to call them.  We bonded well with our guides and left considering them close friends after an amazing trip.

I loved the format of a small independent custom trip and immediately made plans for a return visit for the 100th birthday anniversary of Kim Il-sung.  For this trip I created the entire itinerary and submitted it for approval to the North Koreans via Koryo Tours.

The week of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday was an intense time to be in North Korea.  The country had never seen so many foreign tourists.  And unlike the way the North Koreans like to run things, schedules and trip itineraries were subject to change on an hour-to-hour basis – there were times we didn’t know where we would stay the night.

Under those crazy circumstances I spent a lot of time working behind the scenes with the North Korean guides to ensure a smoothly run trip.  I learned a lot about how North Korean tourism works and how to work best with the North Korean guides.

Since then I have traveled to Iran with Young Pioneer Tours, another leading tour company that specializes in North Korea, and spent time with that company’s owner traveling independently and doing research for future tours in Armenia, Nagorno Karabakh, and Georgia.  Young Pioneer Tours has offered me a position as a part time guide on some of their scheduled trips (I already have a professional career as a ship’s chief mate on a scientific research vessel).  I still plan to continue to do what I enjoy the most, using their logistics to lead two or three custom DPRK trips a year.

I saw a short video online made by a guy who visited North Korea  back in 2011. The video is shot like it’s hidden in his jacket or something. It seems like you were just freely taking pictures. How were you able to do that? Is it a misconception that photos and video aren’t allowed in North Korea?

There are quite a few sensationalized videos out there and I think they present an entirely wrong impression of what the tourist experience in the DPRK is all about.  There are some photography rules, but when the North Korean guides see that the group is diligent about following those rules they tend to relax and let everyone have some photography freedom.  It helps that I keep my groups relatively small and manageable at around 10 people.  With a group that size we can really develop a positive relationship, developing an optimum situation where the guides feel secure and in control enough to let us enjoy more freedom while not feeling that we are putting them at risk.

Conversely I have witnessed a full tour bus of about 30 camera touting foreigners clearly disregarding the photography rules within the first couple hours of their trip.  The North Korean guides are responsible for the rules broken by the tourists under their care, and this group’s North Korean guides were clearly upset.  The remedy to these situations is easy, punish the tour group by restricting access to sites.  That group was allowed to drive to sites but only got to visit the parking lots.  We saw them restricted to the bus at the Hamhung fertilizer plant, a site where we were given full and unrestricted photography access.

In some of your photos it looks like some of the women have their hair dyed and several of them have on makeup. It’s just a very different view of how the U.S. media portrays the culture. From what you’ve seen, how prevalent is that? Would you say that’s something similar to U.S. culture?

I think the pictures you refer to are of local guides at the big monuments, women made up for their wedding photos, and children with makeup at cultural performances.  On average I don’t believe western style fashion is very common in North Korea, at least not from what I have seen.

This is a very conservative society, which is the main reason why I’m so fascinated with their culture and I’m so eager to travel there and document it.  For me it’s like traveling back in time to witness the values of the 40’s and 50’s before mass media completely changed everything.

In North Korea contraband South Korean soap DVDs are all the rage.  Through them and through contact with western tourists, North Koreans have increasingly become aware of outside cultural influences.  If the government was to loosen restrictions, (much of their conservative values are imposed from above), and if there was personal wealth available to finance it, I’m sure western fashion would take off like wildfire.

What are the primary sources of entertainment over there?

For most tourists on a visit to Pyongyang entertainment, will be limited to what’s on offer at the Yanggakdo Hotel.  There is a bar attached to the hotel lobby with local micro brewed beer on tap, but the Yanggakdo hotel is most famous for its infamous “Chinese basement”, with its naughty massage parlor, nightclub, and casino.  These venues are staffed by Chinese workers; North Koreans are not allowed to visit, although foreign tourists and their hard currency are.

Much more wholesome is the “Korean basement”, with karaoke, bowling, legit Korean massage, and snooker tables.   The Yangakdo hotel has a debit card system where you can put money on account and pay for all your drinks and entertainment with a swipe of a card.  I have never seen the system work but, I was able to get the hotel to give me an uncharged card.

Most tours to Pyongyang include an evening at the Kaeson fun fair.  This is a modern amusement park in the center of Pyongyang just next to the Arch of Triumph.  Here you can mix with locals and military personnel on rides such as the “vominator”, swinging pirate ship, and the bumper cars.  They also have a video arcade full of early 90s era games.  My favorite is going up against the arm wrestling machine.

Pyongyang has other entertainment venues open to foreigners.  My favorite night life spots, which are usually not included on large group itineraries, are the Pyongyang gun range bar, Diplomatic Club, Paradise Micro Brewery, and lunch or dinner with the singing and dancing waitresses of the Pyongyang BBQ lamb restaurant.

Pyongyang also has a newly opened water park that offers a dolphin show, as well as mini golf, and an assortment of amusement rides.   I plan to visit the water park on my May 2013 trip.

Outside Pyongyang a trip to the beach is possible.  The best time for this is on Sundays when locals are also out enjoying themselves – bring a football, getting locals to join up in an impromptu football or volleyball game is usually not a problem.

For North Koreans entertainment tends to be wholesome, film is popular, as well as mass dancing, and time spent with the family at picnics in the park, or paddle boat rides on the Taedong River.

Can you tell me about your trip to the gun range?

Pyongyang has a gun club open to tourists.  This is not on most scheduled tour itineraries, but I always include a visit there on my custom trips.  Target practice over a few rounds of beer at the gun range is my favorite activity in North Korea. The gun range is a club for North Korean men, a place to drink beer, play pool, and fire off a few rounds.  The attendants are all women in military style uniforms; my goal on every visit is to get a picture posing with one of the cutest attendants, gun in one hand and beer in the other.

At the range there is a coop with pheasants that you can take a shot at for five euro per try.  On my last trip we walked out with two dead pheasants, one we gave to the bus driver as a tip, and the other we brought to the hotel restaurant, where to the horror/amazement of many of the guests who were settled into their dinner, we handed it over to the waitresses.  The next morning we had pheasant soup for breakfast to the envy of the other diners.

Can you tell me about how you guys introduced Frisbee to North Korea?

A group of Ultimate Frisbee enthusiasts worked hard to put together a tournament in Pyongyang.  My group just happened to be there at the same time, and being young and eager to try any unique experience to come our way, we were asked to join up.  The tournament ended up consisting of only foreigners and North Korean guides, I got bored and was quick to leave the field of competition in favor of tossing the Frisbee and drinking beer with random North Koreans.

It was a local holiday and the park was filled with people enjoying some well deserved leisure time; I’m sure the last thing they expected was some big foreign guy tossing an unknown flying object at them, but they took right to it and we started a sensation.  The secret police tried to shut things down, but in the end just gave up.  That afternoon was one of my favorite experiences from my DPRK trips.

In order to secure permission the North Koreans had to be convinced that Ultimate Frisbee was a sport invented by Canadians, we were told to go along with this if we were asked, and we were.

In a couple of the photos the people walking past are smiling or waving at you while you take the photo. This doesn’t really fall in line with the West’s portrayal of North Korea as an isolated, solemn place who have never seen people other than North Koreans. In fact, a lot of your photos go against the Western narrative of the country. 

I think the people of Pyongyang are now used to seeing tourists come through, but out in the other cities foreign tourists remain a rarity – in Hamhung and Wonsan many people tried to talk to us in Russian.

North Koreans tend to be a little shy, but they are charming, warm, and fun loving people; I certainly don’t think this is the perception people have of them in the west.  I started this blog because I wanted to show this side of their culture in a non-sensationalized manner.   I didn’t believe this was being done anywhere else and people have responded to it in an overwhelmingly positive manner.

On my trips we like to dive right into the culture, we have been invited into wedding photos, sat down with locals and joined them in their card games, and have created a sensation by pulling out a Frisbee and randomly playing with locals in Wonsan City Main Square – until the secret police shut us down.

Have you ever wanted to do something that was at odds with the government or with your handlers? What was it and what came of it?

I’m sure I took a few photos when I really shouldn’t have, but I have never intentionally used any of my photos in a malicious way.  I have never had any problems with my North Korean guides.  They have always been fun and supportive and a wealth of insight once they open up to the group – if you want some truly amazing cultural insights just ask your guide for an example of a North Korean naughty joke, or the story of how they met their spouse.

I always end my trips with a going away party eating dinner at the Pyongyang BBQ duck restaurant, its the one meal where the North Korean guides are allowed to eat with their group (for some reason the government normally makes us take our meals separately).  At one of these parties, after an evening of excessive soju (a vodka like Korean liqueur), and BBQ duck consumption, one of the travelers snuck a plate of BBQ duck off of an adjacent table and cooked it up at our grill (the North Koreans really do stock all the empty tables with plates of food just as shown in some of the documentaries, although often other groups do show up and eat these meals).  We were immediately busted by one of the waitresses who told our North Korean guide.  He sauntered over to the table and told us about how “stealing is a grave crime in the DPRK” and how we “would have to be punished”.  That punishment was a water glass filled to the brim with soju, and a “penalty” of one extra Euro for the plate of duck.   I suppose that was the worst trouble I have gotten into in North Korea thus far.

What is the most dangerous part of traveling in North Korea?

For most visitors road travel outside Pyongyang and dealing with an illness or accident would be the most dangerous aspect of a trip.  Before you go you definitely want to have travel insurance that covers emergency evacuation.

As a tourist you are quite safe and well looked after by your North Korean hosts as long as you play by their rules.  This is no country to mess around in if you want to sneak in as an undercover journalist or smuggle in bibles and proselytize.

What about the food shortages? Do you get to see any of the effects of that or is that something you’re shielded from as tourists?

Visitors are pretty well shielded from seeing this, especially if you are only visiting Pyongyang.  The hotel meals become a little monotonous, but tourists are always amply fed, and for flexible tour groups there is always the option to spend more and eat out at one of Pyongyang’s specialty restaurants.

We did witness foraging during our travels between Pyongyang and the eastern city of Wonsan.  A person in my group asked the North Korean guide what the people were doing and the guide feigned ignorance, but in general the famines and the ongoing food crisis are not taboo subjects.

During my visit to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace of the Sun, AKA Kim Il-sung’s Mausoleum, we passed a platoon of child soldiers from the remote countryside who were there to view the body of Kim Il-sung on a state sponsored pilgrimage.  The children were all malnourished, with patchy hair, and sunken eyes.  That has been my most troubling North Korea experience and certainly something our North Korean guides would have preferred we had not seen.

Did you ever meet Kim Jong Ill or Kim Jong Un? Have you have had the chance too? What was it like?

I have bowed to and viewed Kim Il-sung laying preserved in a glass coffin.  This spring I will make a return visit and bow to the body of Kim Jong-il as well – don’t judge me, it’s a requirement of the visit. I don’t anticipate ever meeting Kim Jong-un, tourists are kept well away from his public appearances.

Have you read this story from VICE (they cover North Korea a lot) about weed smoking in Korea? So is it true? Are marijuana plants just growing by the roadsides? Are people rolling up their newspapers to smoke joints? Does the government turn a blind eye to it?

I think people are blowing that story way out of proportion.  Pyongyang is definitely not the Amsterdam of Asia and I have never seen marijuana growing or seen it being smoked by locals.

Due to an acute shortage of pharmaceutical drugs in North Korea, the science of herbal remedies is highly advanced there; it wouldn’t surprise me if Marijuana grows wild and is used in the rural countryside as both a medicine and as a tobacco substitute.

I have seen the marijuana leaf advertised on goods at a North Korean gift shop but I don’t know what product was being sold.  Next time I’m going to be sure to open the box and get the North Korean guide to give me an explanation.

And while I don’t want to go too far into the specifics, I’m told from very reliable sources that fields of cultivated marijuana can be seen up in the Rason Special Economic Zone by those who keep a sharp lookout for it.


image by Joseph Ferris