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I just went on a state tour of North Korea, one of the first since Kim Jong Un ascended to power, and I made a film about it. AMA.

Jul 6th 2012 by gnarfox • 49 Questions • 769 Points

My friends and I were on the Trans-Siberian Railway this summer and decided it would be cool to visit North Korea, so in June we went there on a government tour. Kim Jong Un had been "ruling" the country for about six months, and the propaganda push to deify him was in full swing. It also happened to be Children's Week in Pyongyang, so Young Pioneers (think Hitler Youth + Sailor Moon) were everywhere.

Surprisingly, they let me film and photograph just about everything.

Here's the film I made: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aqOLhx_QGto

Some pictures as well (mixed in with Russia, China, and Mongolia): thespeedcampaign.tumblr.com

Have at it!

Q:

Does he like looking at things just as much as his father did?

A:

ohhhhh yes. We were handed English-language versions of The Pyongyang Times on the Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang. The headline was, "Kim Jong Un Inspects New Development," or something like that. He was inspecting a new amusement park, and confidently declared that "function should trump form". All the generals around him took notes. He's a lot more chatty than his father - I saw him give three different speeches at rallies on TV. Kim Jong Il, I'm pretty sure, spoke one sentence to the people in his 17 year rule.


Q:

Were there any moments of connection with the guides/people you met? I remember in the VICE guide there is a lady who sells tea and she is alone most always, so she seems beyond joyed when people actually come in. Or another guy is able to share a smoke with them, and he looks like he is in heaven.

I have always wondered if they "know" their situation and dream of elsewhere things, or if it really is so airtight that "it just is what it is." Obviously they cannot express it because of the secret police, but it's always interested me if many are just acting to stay out of trouble, or if they truly are emotionally attached to the whole thing.

Apologies that this is not the most direct question, but it is interesting to me how these people behaved especially around westerners. Thanks.

A:

no, excellent question. we really bonded with our guide. he was a chain-smoking 29-year old who used a lot of English and American slang he'd picked up over seven years. ("I come drink with you, but then I have another fish to fry!" "Don't beat around the bush or I will break your face!") We drank with him every night we were there. One night we were bowling in the hotel basement and he burst into the alley (wasted) and just cut in on a game, dropping strikes like it was nothing. I challenged him to three games and he beat me every time. Sorry America. In a way, that's the most fun he's allowed to have.


Q:

I loved that bowling alley! When the frame came down it would knock over the remaining pins and register a strike, we'd had too much to drink and started calling it a Kim jong strike until the staff got a bit angry.

A:

hahaha that's amazing. did you notice the mysterious guy hanging out behind the pins? he was always there, but we weren't sure what his job was.


Q:

Please x-post this to r/pyongyang. Can't wait to see the responses from those guys!

A:

it'll last about five seconds i'm guessing


Q:

If you had to pick one thing, what surprised you the most? Could be anything.

A:

oh man...it's tough, but I would say the fact that our North Korean guides were surprised when we mentioned how old Kim Jong Un was ("Really? He is 28?"), and were equally surprised when we told them that he studied at a Swiss boarding school for a few years. They had no idea. They are trained to know all sorts of hard facts - the square meters of a museum, or when a statue was built - but they can't even explain "Juche", which is supposed to be the central guiding philosophy of their entire country. The access to information, even for the relatively privileged, is absurdly limited. By the end, we got the feeling that we knew more about North Korea than the residents of Pyongyang did.


Q:

Wow, that is a surprise. I always thought the guides would have canned answers to topics like Juche and details about the dear leader. In the end, I guess a blank stare is just as good as a rehearsed response.

A:

it's not just them. My friend bought "Kim Jong Il - Thoughts on the Juche Idea" and the writing in it is totally circular. "Juche is a new philosophy which represents a new age of man, but it is not of men. Many philosophers have praised the Juche philosophy as the philosophy of the future, and in the future it will be the dominant philosophy." Shit like that, it makes your head spin. I don't even think Kim Il Sung knew what Juche meant beyond "Everybody fuck off, we're doing our own thing".


Q:

Everybody fuck off we're doing our own thing - that's awesome

A:

that's the essence of NK in a nutshell. Lots of wounded pride left over from the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. People got behind Kim Il Sung because he promised them autonomy at whatever the cost. For all the things you can say about NK, it certainly marches to its own insane beat. Nobody can reliably pull its strings, not even China.


Q:

Are you sure he's 28? The Economist reported that his age was unknown but estimated, based on the Swiss attendance years, to be circa 28.

A:

i'm not 100% sure, but they had no clue. We were also never told where the Kims lived. There was no obvious palace. I don't think North Koreans are allowed to know that either.


Q:

Why were they confused when you told them Kim's real age? Are they made to think that Kim is younger? or older?

A:

i think they just aren't told, period.


Q:

This is so fucking sad. I guess he's ageless to them. He also loves the NBA!

A:

we had a joke there: the reason they wouldn't show us Kim Jong Un's palace is because if we walked by it, we'd hear "HE'S ON FIRE!" emanate from a super nintendo on the top floor.


Q:

Footage of North Korea always feels so mysterious to me. It's an entire culture that has been shielded from the western world.

Was there anything that you really wanted to see, but that they wouldn't let you check out? I know those government tours are pretty restrictive, though they do let you film nearly anything except of the faces of military personnel.

Edit: I am never critical of anyone's grammar more than my own.

A:

Obviously, I would've liked to see the poor rural areas of the country, but good luck with that.

We also really wanted to see Kim Jong Il's favorite opera, "Sea of Blood". It's the only opera playing regularly in Pyongyang, and it's apparently quite good. The NK Opera Company just toured with it in China and it was extremely popular. I think if you ask the tour company in advance, they might take you to see it, but everything was scheduled for us. They give you a list of sites and you pick which ones you want to see the most.


Q:

How could one help the residents, if at all possible?

A:

well, you're not allowed to talk to actual residents, only guides and the staff at the hotel. Our favorite guide would get drunk with us every night in the hotel's microbrewery. We'd always pay for him, and he'd ask us pretty frank questions about politics, US-NK relations, etc. We really felt for him by the end - he's lucky, but his life is still giving tours 6-7 days a week to foreigners, 12 hours a day. He's been doing it for seven years. He wanted to be a diplomat so he could travel outside of the country. He'd been to China once, for a day. We all tipped him about $150, a bottle of whiskey, and a carton of marlboros when we left. That's the best you can do.


Q:

I've met a DPRK diplomat. They attend all social events in pairs so that they can keep tabs on each other. They're pathetically grateful if you engage them in conversation - usually people avoid them because they're just so weird. You can distinguish them pretty easily because they wear Great Leader buttons.

Anyway, if O became a diplomat he wouldn't be allowed to have girlfriend either. Or at least, certainly wouldn't be able to bring any family abroad because they're all hostages for his good behaviour.

A:

I totally believe that. Our guide had no family, obviously, except for his parents. I know that if you defect, your family goes to a labor camp, which makes it all the more tragic. You have to be willing to sentence your entire family to death if you want to escape. I wonder if unmarried, childless men are even allowed to be diplomats for that reason.


Q:

When you see those children sing in the video, you hear some kind of human beauty in there, and you can't deny that they're fucking good at what they do.

So how powerful did you feel the propaganda was? For example, did you at ever catch yourself thinking "hey, this Kim Jong Il dude was a really nice guy!", just for one moment, before realizing where you were? If you imagine yourself stuck in North Korea, doing similar activities as you did on your tour, for let's say ten years straight, do you think you'd "forget" about what you rationally knew about the country, and just be mostly brainwashed?

A:

in a way, yeah. we all felt mildly brainwashed there, because we couldn't discuss what we were seeing openly and our hotel rooms were bugged. after the performance, whenever i saw the young pioneers i got really excited and would wave to them. they would always wave back to us. they were the only people there who might have been happy. like little kids who still believed in Santa.


Q:

Hotel rooms were bugged? How so?

A:

there were massive antique radios in every room. They had power but when you'd scan for a station, you'd only get static. Then we looked in the back and there were about fifty wires sticking out of it. Not very subtle. There's also no stop for the fifth floor, and you can't get off on four or six.


Q:

From the video, I keep catching myself thinking that North Korean cities look a lot like very uncreatively designed video game levels from 10 years ago.

A:

cs_pyongyang


Q:

How much was the tour per day? What did it include? How long were you there? It seems as though North Korea is allowing more tourism, maybe because they really need the money. Does that sound about right?

A:

yes, they need hard currency. A four day tour is about $1200. That includes a flight from Shenyang, China to Pyongyang, hotel, bus transportation, and three meals a day. All you have to do is bring some dollars/yuan/euros for souvenirs, which they seem to sell everywhere you go. The Chinese also run a casino in the basement of the hotel.


Q:

Did you see any military displays and/or weapons?

A:

Soldiers are pretty ubiquitous, but you can't take their picture. Some of them had AKs, and many were surprisingly genial. Didn't see any missile parades, if that's what you were asking...damn shame


Q:

Did the random people you saw seem happy/content?

A:

Nobody did, except for the Young Pioneers (every child has to be a Young Pioneer). Like I stated above, they were like happy little kids who still believed in Santa, except in NK Santa is Kim Jong Un and it's always close to Christmas. A lot of the kids we saw were from outside Pyongyang - they were flown in for Children's Week. For NK children, going to Pyongyang is like visiting Disneyland. Only the most privileged and loyal families get to live there. The countryside is far more bleak, from what I've been told.


Q:

When people like the secretary of state or some western country's prime minister or bill clinton go to NK do you think they are shoveled the same bullcrap or do you think they are treated like they know the real situation?

A:

Someone told me a story years back that'll answer your question:

This guy's dad was a State Dept. envoy in the 1990s, when we were negotiating with Kim Jong Il over their nuclear reactors. So the envoy goes to Pyongyang. When they stop outside of his hotel, two double-decker buses pull to a stop in the middle of the road. People pour out and start singing and dancing for about five minutes, all in unison. Then they get back on the buses and leave.

The envoy asks his guide, "Um, what was that all about?" The guide says, "Oh, that was just a spontaneous display of enthusiasm. It happens all the time in North Korea."

I can't guarantee that's a true story, but...yeah.


Q:

That video depicts a place that is beyond bizarre. It doesn't even seem like Earth. It's other-worldy.

Mad props for doing this!

A:

thanks!


Q:

How was the food?

A:

not as bad as everyone said it would be. We had some good Duck BBQ and Korean Hot Pot. i think they finally figured out that tour groups were reporting "the food sucks, everyone was intimidating" so they seemed to have made some improvements in their service. Though they served us a "hamburger" on Air Koryo when we left that was unsettling in every sense of the word.

Also, my friend and I got dysentery when we drank water from the childhood well of Kim Il Sung. North Koreans believe if you drink it you'll be president of something one day. We are idiots.


Q:

Was there ever a moment you feared for your safety. Sorry, I'm at work and can't watch the film yet, so I apologize if this is answered in the film.

A:

One night, when all of us were suitably drunk, we decided to go looking for the surveillance floor in the hotel. There was no "5" on the elevator, and you couldn't select 4 or 6, so we thought we'd figured it out and started going down the stairs from 8. We got to 6, laughing and yelling, when I realized how stupid an idea it was. As in, "you know they're watching us right now." There were no lights in the stairwell, and many of the floors were pitch black. It was like being in a haunted house.

The next day our guide alluded to it on the bus. He said there are many fun things to do in the hotel, but maybe if you go wandering around it's not so good. Maybe you fall in the river 20m down, and then no one can help you (our hotel was marooned on an island in the river, so there was no escaping to the city). We didn't do much exploring after that.


Q:

Do you think that was an empty threat or could something have actually happened to you? Have any tourists ever gone missing?

A:

I'm pretty sure he was telling us more in a "don't make me look bad, you idiots" sort of way. I never once felt like we'd get snatched up, though I heard a story about a Canadian hockey player who blatantly took pictures of soldiers back in 2008. They dragged him off the bus by the hair, stole his camera, and slapped him around until he pissed his pants. But apparently he was being a major dick up until then. He showed the guides porn on his iPod.


Q:

How long do you think it would take to repair all the damage the Kim regimes have caused?

A:

Jesus, who knows. People who grow up in NK have no conception of individualism, they've never used the internet, they have no idea what the rest of the world is actually like. Their best bet is some kind of slow-boil economic reforms a la China in the 1970s that could slowly open their country up to investment, and eventually information. But it would probably take at least a generation to deprogram the population. They're in way deep.


Q:

Surprisingly, they let me film and photograph just about everything.

Just about implies there was some stuff you couldn't, any examples?

A:

Soldiers. And one day we were driving by a bunch of laborers in Pyongyang - people would crowd these grassy knolls and snip away at blades of grass with scissors (very strange) - and one time our guide told us "maybe you don't take pictures of the workers, or they flip you the bird". He liked flipping us off, he thought it was funny.


Q:

Were the children in the video singing, or was it all lip-dubbed?

A:

oh, they were singing. the whole orchestra was comprised of children as well. North Korea is extremely good at theatrical bombast. Kim Jong Il was a well-known lover of cinema, music, and theatre. His philosophies on popular art also mandated the incorporation of western influences, many of which he probably passed off as his own ideas (since nobody else got to listen to western songs). Hence, why those kids sound positively transcendent, like Pet-Sounds-era-Beach-Boys-on-steroids, at times. There's something very unintentionally psychedelic about their music, their synthesizers and Philip Glass bells, and I'm dying to know how that creative process developed.


Q:

I'm interested in visiting NK. What tips / advice would you give someone that wants to visit for a few days?

A:

Do it! There are two companies that seem to have the best handle on things. They are Lupine Travel (which I used) and Koryo Tours. You pay over PayPal for most of it, then a rep meets you at the Shenyang airport and they give you all your tickets, visas, etc. They basically do all the legwork for you. I'd recommend Lupine because our North Korean guide was really great, and they work with him often.


Q:

I've heard that it is near impossible for anyone to legally visit North Korea without a Russian or Chinese passport. How difficult was it to gain entry to North Korea? Was it very complicated (like did they do extensive record checks, interviews, and screenings) or was it a pretty standard procedure?

A:

The only people who absolutely cannot go to North Korea are South Korean citizens, and arguably anyone of South Korean ancestry.

North Korea needs hard currency, so they're open to basically everyone. They wanted to know our occupations and basic info, but beyond that it's pretty easy. I think they've definitely lightened up. The only thing they really do is take your cell phone when you arrive and give it back when you leave. I gave them my iPhone at 42% battery life, powered off. I got it back at 20%. lolz


Q:

Was anything missing? Or was it password protected?

A:

everything was there and it was password protected, which made it all the more absurd.


Q:

Doesn't matter...there are devices that can suck all of your data off of your phone...in a few minutes. You wouldn't know it had even happened.

A:

just to be safe, i deleted all of my "bout to go bow down to the Great Leader lololol" texts i'd sent to my sister before i got there.


Q:

You have been banned from posting to /r/Pyongyang.

A:

noooooooooooooooo


Q:

I've been trying to get there as a tourist after spending about three weeks researching the place non-stop. Just showing you appreciation.

A:

Do it!


Q:

I almost cried while watching this, everything felt so fake and staged. Did any of you have a hard time trying to go along with it?

A:

It was surprisingly easy to roll with in the moment. We used humor a lot as a coping mechanism. Occasionally you wanted to cry, other times you wanted to burst out laughing because something was so far beyond reality, but you couldn't. My friend and I eventually resorted to semi-sarcastically appropriating "Juche" as a catch-all for anything that was really outrageous. Like, "Oh man, that statue is so Juche." "Yeah, it's Juche as fuck." The guides seemed to be okay with that.

That, or silence. Nod your head and say, "Wow, that's very impressive." Because honestly, out of context, a lot of it is. You just have to bury that context until you leave the country. Then you remember what the real world is like (regardless of people's criticisms, China provides quite a strong contrast) and the suppressed misery hits you like a tidal wave.


Q:

In your opinion, what percentage of Koreans who show up on this video not actors?

A:

i don't know if they're "actors" per se, or just people who are ordered by the state to do something. If you mean the latter, then probably 75%. Some of the people in the distant countryside I filmed were probably doing something...I think.

On the other hand, there were three buses of tourists. Two western buses, and one for Chinese tourists. We drove in a caravan, and were literally the only tourists in the country. So it wouldn't be that hard to make people pretend to do something when we drove by.

But as I said, in North Korea, all the world literally is a stage. It's like some absurd theatre experiment on a national scale. The line between reality and propaganda, prosperity and poverty, freedom and slavery, is totally scrambled. They're putting on a big show for each other every day, and somehow it lurches on unabated, because Big Brother is always watching.


Q:

The whole film felt like a family vacation to a fascist themed park. The audience who were clapping at the play seemed weird and awkward.

A:

When the photo montage of each Kim came up, they started clapping and wouldn't stop 'til the song ended. Very bizarre, to say the least.


Q:

Are you/any one of your friends American?

A:

Myself and my three friends are all Americans. There were six other strangers in our group - two Americans, a New Zealander, a young Chinese man (who was fluent in English and went with us), a Filipina, and two Italians who spoke little English. Most of them were English language teachers in Chinese prep schools.


Q:

Awesome! I am american as well and have always been interested in North Korea. For some reason I thought americans weren't allowed to go except for special circumstances.

Any advice/ something you wish you knew before about traveling there?

A:

Bring a SHITLOAD of film/memory cards. and lenses, if you're into photography like that. NK allows up to 150mm lenses, some people say 200mm. Anything beyond that and they think you're some sort of spy or journalist. I had to get very picky about what I was shooting near the end, but I would've shot three times as much if I had the storage for it.

The best time of year to go is probably the Mass Games in August. Kim Jong Un just retired the Arirang spectacle (youtube it if you haven't already) but promises something even "bigger" next year. So I'd try to sign up for that.

And don't be afraid to converse with your guides. A lot probably depends on their personality and experience, but it seems more lax than in previous years. They are really the only North Koreans you'll be able to have an intimate, in-depth conversation with, so be polite and make the most of it. Alcohol helps tremendously in this regard.


Q:

I asked the same question, and got voted down. Apparently people don't like being asked serious questions. Either way, I hope one of us gets an answer.

A:

I'm glad you asked. We wrestled with this one when we got back to China, but ultimately I've had to reject the whole notion of "voting with your dollars" when it comes to huge geopolitical situations like this.

If the only thing standing between North Korea and a regime collapse was their tourism dollars, I'd hold on to my money. But that's not the case. The primary forces that sustain North Korea are vastly beyond any of our control.

In a way, UNICEF perpetuates the regime with its food aid. The government simply has more money to waste on rockets and statues. Without the constant foodstuffs from the '90s onward, North Korea potentially could have collapsed, which could have paved the way for some sort of liberation. Instead, the regime is kept on life support indefinitely. If starvation is a pathway to freedom, then are they assholes for feeding the starving? I don't know. It's complicated.

China props up the regime as well, because an unhinged North Korea distracts everyone from whatever shadiness China's government is doing in the world (the usurpation of Central Africa's natural resources, for one). A unified Korea also poses a strategic risk to China. They don't want a highly industrialized US ally with tons of nukes and 30,000 American soldiers hanging out at their border. And to top it all off, a North Korean collapse would send millions of uneducated, hungry refugees over the Chinese border. Shockingly, China doesn't want any of this, so they keep funneling money and raw materials to keep the North Korean machine chugging. Should we not visit China, then?

Besides, if I steadfastly avoided putting money in the hands of every last organization and institution that I despised, I'd hardly be able to make it out of the house in the morning, much less travel to post-Soviet countries. I pay taxes to a government that tortures and drone strikes people without trial, and lets banks rip off billions from the general public with no consequence. Do I love the idea of that? Not at all. But if you want to have a particular experience in this world (living in America, visiting North Korea) sometimes you have to give some assholes some money for it.

edit: UNICEF, not UNESCO.


Q:

The way I see it, if you didn't pay $1200, your tour guide wouldn't be getting wasted, he'd be getting stoned...in a slave labour camp. Because there'd be no use for him and he would have gotten himself in trouble a long time ago.

A:

i like the way you think


Q:

Man... the tour guide of the korean war museum is hot. Too bad you can't get friendly without risking her being disappeared somewhere.

A:

she was beautiful, and consistently endearing. my friend asked her if we could ever get the Pueblo back. "Noooooo," she said with a smile.


Q:

So do the North Korean people deep down know that they're being used and just can't do anything about it or are they brainwashed and actually worship their government?

A:

That's the million dollar question. Pyongyang is where people have it the best, so it's the hardest to tell there. It's easier to imagine discontent in the countryside, where there's food shortages and forced labor. In the city, people are unswerving in their respect for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Even if things are bad, there seems to be a tendency to blame everything but the Dear Leader, who is spending every waking moment of his life trying to make things better for his people who he loves so much.

Some psychologists are going to have the study of a lifetime one day.


Q:

I'm thinking about taking a tour, but my friends are gigantic pussies. Would I enjoy being there alone?

A:

you very well could, but it would probably be cheaper and less eerie to join a pre-existing tour. that's what people in our group did. it's also fun to meet the type of people who would pay money to visit North Korea. only about 2,500 Americans have visited there since 1953. it's like Mt. Everest for lazy Wikipedia addicts, it's great.


Q:

Wow. Many of the outdoor areas (parks, roads, monuments) looked uncrowded or empty. Where were the people crammed in? Or is the city not very dense compared to the rural areas?

Another question, how much did the government influence your tour?

A:

The avenues in Pyongyang are HUGE. They were built that way after the Korean War to facilitate rapid evacuations, should the U.S. decide to ever carpet bomb the city again. Only high-ranking party officials and diplomats are allowed to have cars. Everyone else walks or bikes.

Pyongyang is also a bit like Oz. They have a caste system called "Songbun" in NK based on the political leanings of your grandparents. No joke. So the top 20%, the "loyal" class, gets to live in Pyongyang, gets three meals a day and maybe gets to go to college or work for the party. I think that's why Pyongyang feels so empty - it was built to be this Great Socialist Metropolis, but 80% of the country couldn't move there if they wanted to. Everyone outside Pyongyang is in the "wavering" class (50%) or the "hostile" class (30%), who get to spend their lives in labor camps or slaving away in a mine somewhere with meager food rations.


Q:

Were you ever at all briefed on how to act while either in NK or at a airport?

A:

The travel agency sent us a PDF with basic guidelines of behavior. It was basic stuff - don't insult the country or the Kims, don't be a condescending dick to the guides either, just be polite and never ever try to sneak off and do your own thing.


Q:

What type of camera did you record with? I think it was a VICE documentary that I watched the the guy said that they could only bring in a point and film type of camera. No high end technology or anything. Was it the same for you?

A:

I used a Canon 7D. DSLRs are perfect for NK - looks like an average still camera, but you can walk around with it hanging off your neck shooting 1080p. Nobody checked my camera or my CF cards going in or out, though I didn't really have anything to hide.


Q:

So what did you do in Russia? I just got back.

A:

Spent about ten days in Moscow, then took the Trans-Siberian all the way across. Russia's a whole 'nother story though


Q:

Good job with the video. You captured the literal greyish somberness of the whole country brought on by the architecture which seems to be undeniable regardless of one's views. The truth of this impression might vary since I'm watching this video from home, but have you noticed how everyone seems so very unsocial and cold there? You rarely see anybody in public talking with each other or having a laugh. Is this a false impression or did you get this too? Do you get the impression that these people genuinely like their country or do they know they are living in a depressed world?

A:

thanks! watching people from the bus was a fascinating experience. there wasn't much joy in the faces of people walking around Pyongyang. Beyond that, we were never sure where anyone was going. To work? What work? North Korea doesn't have a functioning economy. You got the impression that the government was making people walk around to provide the illusion of activity. The only truly happy-seeming people were the children. Not all of them, but many.

Our guide seemed to have a certain grasp of the world beyond North Korea. His life was spent interacting with foreigners, primarily from the West. He liked to ask us about America and also what we thought about different aspects of North Korea ("don't beat around the bush"), especially after a few drinks. At the same time, he never uttered so much as a word against his country. It seemed to be more of a personal curiosity for him. He just wanted to see the world. It was definitely a bit heartbreaking to see that.


Q:

They actually use the old trams and trains from East Germany for their subway system.

A:

the metro system was donated by East Germany.