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 North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)

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PostSubject: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Sun Jan 22, 2012 6:17 pm


Copy of an AMA (Ask me anything) thread by Zaruka, originally posted on Reddit: http://www.reddit.com/r/northkorea/comments/n8ysx/i_travel_to_north_korea_annually_ama/

Part 1 ( part 2 continued in following post ):


    I travel to North Korea annually AMA

    submitted Dec 11 2011 by Zaruka


    I am an American citizen who travels to North Korea each year. I have done so since 2008 and have a total of 38 days in the country. I have been requested to do this by several users so I will give it a try.

    1. Why do you travel to North Korea? There are a number of reasons for me. The first is that I have traveled all over the socialist bloc in the old days and North Korea is the last one standing. I was raised as an Army brat and saw the Cold War from the other side. I have a degree in East Asian politics and this was only natural to want to go after traveling China in the old days. I also have a disdain for "experts" of any kind that have never set foot in the society they are studying. (This was very common during the Cold War and with North Korea.)

    2. How can you go if you are an American? Easy, just get on a tour. There is a preconception that Americans cannot go. That is just not true. On my first trip people online accused me of stealing photos. Now I routinely find my photos stolen by others.

    3. What do you see as a tourist? That depends. On your first visit you will see very little relative to what you expect to see. You will see some interesting things but unless you know what to look for you will not see that much. You will be well fed and meet lots of nice people. If you have not been to a totalitarian state, what would you know to look for? If you go back or stay long enough you will begin to see behind the society and get a better picture of things.

    4. What are you allowed to photograph? One of the reasons I go is to document the society. I have taken 20,000 photos. The photo restrictions are the toughest I have encountered. I used to tour Eastern Europe on my own as well as the USSR but this is something different. In Cuba they do not care what you shoot. Here you will have minders and it can be difficult. I want to take photos of the Korean people and their lives. That is not always possible. They will not shoot you but they will threaten or get others in the group to talk to you.

    5. Why do you go back? Again I want to see this society and the longer I can stay the more I see. This year we got to see things not seen before: an air raid, "the speaker," more construction , the poorest areas of the country, and more things tourists do not get to see. Remember this, they cannot hide everything and the longer you stay the more you will see.

    ------------------------------------------------------------------------------
    { pjamessteven }
    How much does this cost you? I would imagine quite a bit. What's the worst/scariest thing that has happened while you were over there?


    Zaruka
    It is not cheap. For the five day tour you can expect to pay about 1500 Euros from Beijing. Off season that would run 900 Euros. The Chinese tour operators will charge less. For the 17 day tour I paid about 3400 Euros. Again you have to get to Beijing. On the ground there are souvenirs and tips for the guides, about 5 Euros a day and that is pooled for the guides.

    { Gawr }
    How can you afford it? And do you feel bad continually supporting an oppressive regime by paying that money to them?


    Zaruka
    I do consulting work and keep part of that for travel and I accumulate air miles. I get outside income and put it aside for travel. I have been able to do that for four years now and will keep doing that. I really need to see more of China and I hope some day to live there. I really like China. When I get there it seems like a second home. Cheap food.

    Ok the "supporting the regime" question and one I am used to. It is a valid question and one you should consider. Do you have a cell phone? How do you feel about coltan mining? How much do you give to the Chinese Communist party each year by shopping at Walmart or perhaps supporting Pakistani child labor through your shoe wear? It is a valid question and one I put to the owners of the tour agency.

    We look at it this way. Each foreigner that they see, each encounter and each conversation is showing them the outside world. We wave to kids in the villages, go to schools and interact with people in remote areas. We are the first foreigners they have ever seen. We de-mystify the outside world. They see our gadgets, our clothing and how we act. We look so much less harmful to them. We are defying the propaganda. We are giving gifts. I am bringing in foreign currency for my friends so they can survive. Without this they will see nothing of the outside. Probably 30% at most is raked off the top but we provide a living to many people inside that country. That makes it worth it. The Chinese would pick up the slack but we are literally opening that society. When you hear American Imperialist Aggressors all the time for many it takes on a new meaning. I have seen museum guides giggle because they no longer think we are so awful. I have shaken hands with survivors who as children had their families wiped out by American forces. That really means something to them.

    No, I think the opposite is happening. We are winning them over slowly. I have see people go from turning backs to us, running away to running to see us. They now wave. The run up to us. In 2008 they did not do that much. That is even in the closed towns. I was first into Hamhung and the people greeted us with cheers. I saw this as not led or done on command. It felt weird but somehow we are making strides. Take a look on their faces in the photos. It is interesting. We are all human and that is really the interesting thing there. The regime is indeed a bad one and perhaps worse than the usual kleptocracy that steals all the money for the leaders. I think we are better doing this than not. If anything the regime is making a mistake or is trying to open up.

    { IllGiveYouTheKey }
    The answer about supporting the regime is brilliant. I had a lot of that when visiting Burma/Myanmar this summer, and justified it in the same ways (although you articulate yourself in a much more effective manner!).


    Zaruka
    Hey I still have some guilt but we do have to take a measured approach. I have spoken to others at length in North Korea about it to see how they think about it. Europeans have no problems. Thanks

    Scariest thing. The tours are easy. I have been strip searched by the Vopos in East Germany, in jail for a night in the USSR, held at gunpoint by the Syrian Army, the Israelis and seen people beaten in Bulgaria so anything in North Korea would be easy. I have been told privately that I could be detained if I did not cool the photography. They do not listen to us in the rooms, that was true in the USSR. I think this is not so bad, you just have to know that you are 5 minutes from a major international incident so you have to tread lightly.

    { istara }
    "I could be detained if I did not cool the photography"
    Why wouldn't they stop you during your trip, given they monitor visitors all the time? I mean presumably you're mainly taking pictures of things that they authorise you to visit?


    Zaruka
    Yes but I am not taking photos of authorized things all the time. Many of the smaller villages are not to be photographed but the guide lets us do it because they want to be friends, get a big tip or gain favor with the tour company. it varies. You have to balance what they want you to photograph vs what you want to photograph. Take a look at my photos. You will see things they do not want photographed. Ox carts - no, they want tractors. Cities, yes. Hauling water - no. You take it anyway and they might make you delete it or they might just let it go. Military - NO. I obey that generally but I do have a few photos I do not display.

    { razorbeamz }
    What's the craziest thing you've ever seen there?
    EDIT: If I was going to NoKo, what should I bring?


    Zaruka
    Crazy, well it is funny because you are talking about a society that has no cultural norms that we take for granted. Give that it could be anything. They overfeed us. We can see no one around us has an ounce of extra weight. I think that eating dog could be called crazy. I eat it most every year. It actually is good. One time we were going to a location and the bus arrived when thousands of older teenage girls were practicing drills. This was in Wonsan and they told us not to photograph it as we walked around.

    We all split up and got some great shots. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/5244818825/

    Another time we went to a museum. When we came out thousands of uniformed men and women were there. We got to shoot photographs as the guides freaked. Some of the best shots ever. The problem is that the guides do not want us to mingle but the Koreans are fascinated with us. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4910840594/

    What to bring? Flashlights. Power failures are the norm. A friend who just came out was in the subway when it went dark. A first aid kit with every medication you could need. A friend had a tooth that went into an abscess. I went with her to the Friendship Hospital where they gave her a root canal. Crazy stuff.

    { justanotherreddituse }
    Are the rifles in the photo fake? They look fake to me.


    Zaruka
    No I can tell you they are not - except the wooden ones for practice. Maybe you are referring to those. No the girls have wooden ones to practice for parades. I meant the ones the guards have.

    { peppermint_dickables }
    Getting a root canal in North Korea sounds frightening.


    Zaruka
    She was brave. Photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/sets/72157628122516716/with/6342778992/

    { platypusmusic }
    Looks modern and clean. But the dentist is not wearing gloves.


    Zaruka
    He did later. That was early in the exam.

    { kapncobs }
    Something about "Friendship Hospital" sounds creepy by nature.


    Zaruka
    It is the foreigner's hospital for diplomatic personnel. The other nations pay for it and it is staffed with DPRK doctors. I was really impressed with the knowledge and practice of the dentist. I have vast experience with bad teeth. I have worked in 5 hospitals. This one was not too bad. Yeah the name is strange.

    { kapncobs }
    Sounds pretty awesome. I hope to go to the DPRK one day and it's nice to know that their "this woman is 120 years old" propaganda isn't totally hype and I won't die if something goes a tad wrong.


    Zaruka
    You wont die but you may have a five day wait to get out. Medical is not as bad as we think but it is not the Mayo clinic.

    { kapncobs }
    Thanks for doing this AMA.

    Other than not being able to take photos freely, what do they not allow? Are there any things they don't let you bring into the country?

    You mentioned that they feed you well. What dishes do they serve? I'm curious to know the exact names of the foods they give the tourists.

    Could you tell us some of the "behind the society" stuff you saw that new tourists might miss?


    Zaruka
    They do not let us bring in radios and GPS devices. We carry black magic markers to black it out on the cameras or take a pocket knife and scrape it off. They do not like video but allow it. 300mm lenses were forbidden years ago but now we can. Printed material is also declared at the border but we give away magazines brought in. We are forbidden to give things away without permission but now that I have friends I am bringing them items they need.

    The food is traditional Korean. Here is a sample from Kaesong: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4075750382/

    If you go for a long tour the food gets monotonous (Imagine eating Korean for 17 days straight). I lost 20lbs.

    I have seen things that are from that darker side. Hungry children, not begging but just malnourished (confirmed by a doctor with us), the decay of the society, free enterprise, black marketing, etc. If you are there long enough you will see it. Having been into black marketing in the USSR I can spot it from a block away. A woman sitting on a box is not there waiting for a bus (no buses in the DPRK anyway, just servi-chas - trucks) she is selling. When it legalized the intersections became jammed with sellers. Now small markets are springing up. Many people miss the underpinnings of the society. Look at the infrastructure. What is on the outside is not what happens. Go long enough and you will find hot water is scarce. Electricity is scarce, food is all local, the roads outside Pyongyang are awful, life is very different from the countryside to the city. People use bathtubs as water storage. Some of the buildings are merely facades and have nothing in them. The society is dying. To many it would not be evident.

    I excuse myself at every location to find out if the location has electricity or running water (give up on hot water). I want to see if soap is available (another thing very rare). I will check the fuse box. One of the things noticed was that the fuses are removed from many of the boxes. Is the beverage cold? Many times the coolers are turned on and turned off after we leave. What are the products available and what is their origin? Because there is not trucking infrastructure you find that if varies. Check the date on the packages. Stoli vodka in Samjiyon was made in the USSR. Snacks routinely read "use by 2003." When you get to some hotel rooms you find that the mold was there for a long time. There are no going to many of these places. If you explore you will find some interesting aspects to the society. Remember - this is Korea. The place would have a lower standard of living in the countryside. That is true in China but this society has some real basic problems. It is not a tourist mecca.

    { ryan_is_awesome }
    Its sounds like you are "mobile", or sly, or confident, or whatever to be able to check the fuse boxes at the places you go.

    This AMA is awesome.


    { platypusmusic }
    Electricity is scarce, food is all local, the roads outside Pyongyang are awful, life is very different from the countryside to the city. People use bathtubs as water storage. Some of the buildings are merely facades and have nothing in them. The society is dying. To many it would not be evident.

    I know it sounds twisted but could that be the future in the West? Look at Detroit or many places in East Europe. We take running water, electricity, supermarkets, mobility, gadgets etc. for granted. But after the downfall of the Soviet Union there is no reason to keep up the competition and face off. Hence the post-capitalist society can show its real face and strike.

    Ok, DPRK might not be the role model but I have China in mind for both role model for the West and the rest of the third world.


    Zaruka
    I think the west is more nimble and can change faster than the DPRK. It is in a way a post-apocalyptic society but their tragedy was the fall of the Soviet Bloc. Indeed we do take our infrastructure for granted and find out how frail it is (Katrina). It is a fascinating reality check to go to the society, that is for sure.

    { Meriadegrin }
    Thanks for doing this AMA! I've always found North Korea to be very fascinating. In the documentaries that I've watched on N. Korea the minders seem to isolate tourists from the locals as much as possible. Have you ever had a chance to talk to any citizens? If so, what did you discuss? Do they really talk about the "Great Leader" as much as the documentaries seem to suggest?


    Zaruka
    Isolation - yes about that. I know I can get a bit crazy about this telling the guides that I came to see Korea, not a bunch of rocks. On my first tour I began to notice that the timing would be off every so often. No matter what they do to "time" a visit to have the tourists away from the locals it does not seem to work out.

    The group of us Americans had been at the statue of Kim Il-sung for a few minutes when about 300 junior high school kids came to the top of Mansudae, the hill where the statue is. They instinctively grabbed my wife and asked for a photo - asked their teacher. With her soviet camera she photographed them, as did I. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/2945630128/in/set-72157609631852560

    The guides were freaked. This sort of thing was just not done. A guide asked me to help break it up and I did. The reason was about 1000 more were coming.

    It is true, they discourage this BUT it is happening more and more. When the bus pulls up to 5000 Koreans they cannot keep us on the bus. We have had to wade through crowds. They allow us to randomly speak to Koreans at times and it is getting easier. Four years ago that was impossible. We walk as a group in the park and encounter groups.

    Picnics - some picnics are contrived with trusted locals. I have done that but sometimes the bus breaks down or we get stuck and we talk to locals. One Korean American woman with us was going up to people at random. The guides have a double standard about Koreans with us, they can do anything. Anglos - not so. So it is yes, they try to separate us but it does not always work. Now I have been four times and I am not seeing the same people in parks and at locations. That is not fixed. We ran into a high school group hiding in a rain storm. They sang songs for us as we hid in the rain.

    What do they discuss? Fashion has been a topic. We generally do not talk about politics but about aspirations, futures. If you just get the standard tour the guides and the museum people will fill you up with the Great and Dear leaders. That is their job. The problem is that this begins to fall down. I cannot say much because I want to see my friends again but they are doing their jobs. When they are relaxed you will get a better read on things. One drunk party member told me "we had only one leader." Yeah, that said it all. They do not express displeasure with Kim Jong-il, they will say they are worried about their future. They will say how much they loved Kim Il-sung. You get the picture fast. The documentaries are accurate but there is much behind this that would take days to explain. Why is it that way? That regime built everything you see plus they are Korean - leadership and country and legitimacy are one. To deny one is to deny your Korean heritage and the essence of who you are. As crazy as that is it is the way you see it from the inside. From a western standpoint it is insane but if you travel in Asia you will see cultural parts of this so then Korea does not seem so weird.

    { whizzie }
    Since you mention people of Korean heritage getting a different standard, how about black / brown people? Of all the tourists that I see visiting North Korea, its mainly always Caucasians. Any idea how they behave towards say Indians or Africans ? As an Indian Australian, I would love to visit Noko someday. What should I expect? Do they still subscribe to their race being better and the darker races being impure / lower etc?


    Zaruka
    That is hard for me to say. I often wonder since many African Americans served during the Korean War what they think. We have had no people of African heritage on the tours but it is a good question. I know in China it has been a problem. I will ask next year. I have met Indians in-country with the aid agencies and they seem to do well. I doubt they would think there was a lesser standard. They have very little frame of reference.

    { whizzie }
    I understand the frame of reference , which is exactly why I asked. Chinese for instance (those who have never met a foreigner) always associate brown / black skin with being unhygienic and smelly. Given that North Koreans think so highly of their own race, I always wondered. Do find out next year, and if you can PM me the answer. Id love to know.


    Zaruka
    Han nationalism/racism is legendary. China is fascinating but it is internationalizing - slowly. I still meet plenty of people who have never met a Caucasian. I have been pointed to as a barbarian by kids but I laugh to put their terrified parents at ease. Koreans, being isolated, will have some of that no doubt. They do not touch you as the Chinese do. There is more reservation in Korea.

    { Meriadegrin }
    Thanks for the informative reply. I'm glad to hear that people are more open than the documentaries depicted. I think I might like to visit one day.


    Zaruka
    About documentaries. I watched them all and still do. There is some good stuff there but if you are going to watch the Vice Guide where they decide they are going to make fun of the place for good cinema you should take it for entertainment. North Korea is a far different place if you understand Korean culture. It is different if you have seen rural poverty in China. It is a very strange place. No other society is like that. It is like a kingdom where a wayward prince has overseen the decline of his father's kingdom, one where they all worship the leader. We just do not do anything like that. It is no paradise or utopia at all. People live hard lives but they do love the place. It is hard to sell a documentary that follows any middle road. I am accused of taking photos of smiling Koreans - therefore I am painting a false picture. They are humans. I want to show them as such. Lets listen to them for a while.

    { fakaff }
    What were your impressions of the Vice Guide to NK, if you could expand on that?

    As a viewer who's never been to NK, I didn't get the impression they were mocking Koreans or that I was supposed to be laughing at the Koreans during the movie (though they were clearly disrespecting the "Dear Leader" as far as they could to push some buttons).


    Zaruka
    I did not like it. To me it was Frat boys go to North Korea. It was more the ugly American views North Korea. It is easy to trash the place with cultural superiority. Had they done this with Bhutan or Nepal what would you think? I think some of it was anti-Asian. The BBC did a segment that was funny. There is the "Welcome to North Korea" by Peter Tetteroo that is factual but decides to paint a bleak picture. I tend to leave my opinions at home. I have gotten pissed and played Cult of Personality on the bus but hell the guides don't know what the hell it is. That is about as rebellious as I have gotten.

    { timberlands02 }
    Crazy question, but is there any way a student could get a discount to do this? I was a military brat like you as well and am fascinated by North Korea/USSR/etc.. North Korea seems to be the last of its kind on the map. I really want to go, but I am broke right now :/.


    Zaruka
    Yes, check around with the various groups offering tours. There is a group offering study in North Korea from an American university at PUST. As things open up there will be more opportunities.

    { timberlands02 }
    a quick little question, if you don't mind Smile.

    Do you have links to those sites offering those education in North Korea opportunities? How long would it be and do they teach in English? Also, any links to tour companies giving discounts to students?

    One other question, and this is a long shot. I just sort of found it funny that you were a military brat to and had a facination with this stuff. I really wish I had the chance to go to East Germany/USSR when it still existed.

    But, on the off chance they offer a buy one get one free ticket to that country, could I hitch a ride with you :P? I doubt you would say yes, but can't hurt to ask.

    Either way, I hope I get to check that country out.


    Zaruka
    I will check back on the opportunities.

    My wife (17 years younger) also wished she had gone. I took her to Hungary just after the fall but when I went to North Korea she demanded to go. We had a great time.

    I know, I am SO glad I saw the USSR in operation and I saw so much of it in four trips. I just wish I had more film.

    { justanotherreddituse }
    I want to visit as well, but I'm worried that because I used to be a member of the Canadian military that I would not be allowed in? What do you think about this?


    Zaruka
    We have had ex-military people on the tours. Not a problem. Journalists are not allowed. Ask the tour companies, no problem at all.

    { peppermint_dickables }
    This AMA is very exciting. I could probably ask a zillion questions but as of late I have been catching up on r/northkorea and really only have one thing on my mind: nationalism and racial pride.

    It may have even been you that brought it up on another thread: is it true that North Koreans are exceptionally nationalistic and interested in staying where they are, to the extent that they don't really want to leave?

    Along the same lines - hypothetically if North Korea were to open up their borders and allow their citizens freedom of movement, would they leave?


    Zaruka
    Nationalism and race. Have you read "The Cleanest Race?" They are incredibly nationalist. I have not seen anything like the level of nationalism that is seen in that country. Why? This is a closed society, probably the most closed society on earth today. They have no frames of reference. Another factor is that everything you see, every bridge, building, dam etc. was built by that regime and those people. Ok, so they had some help from the East Bloc but that is not well known. The USAF leveled the society and so not everything was built by them. Everything came from that society, and the Great or Dear Leader. They are proud to be Korean in a way that other societies do not have. Koreans in the US have some of that. To be Korean is special. In the North they want to do things "in the Korean way." They do not want to be dominated by any outside power - Japan, China, Russia or the US. They are a "garrison state" meaning that they are surrounded. They know that and prepare for an invasion. It is a pressure cooker that may have been necessary 50 years ago but not today. They are back 50 years in time in some respects. Judging from the mineral resources others want in the north they may have a point.

    Would they leave? It is estimated that 30,000 have left since 1953. Out of 23,000,000 that is not many. I have asked them that but the responses are interesting. They want to visit Paris or the historic sites but they would never leave Korea. That is where their ancestors are and that is where their people are. Why do some leave? I think when their family is dead and when they have no familial infrastructure they have no support and they have to leave to survive. North Korea is impossible to survive in without a family. Koreans here tell me something similar. Family is everything. They love the land and that society.

    Borders - I have been to the Yalu southwest of Mt. Paekdu and there is no border other than a creek. The Chinese truck road is on the other side. There are no fences or guards. You could walk it easily but where do you go in China other than into slavery? It is guarded near the city of Dandong. There is plenty of smuggling going on near the border.

    Some say that Korea is a racist society and I think that is not true. I believed that because of their primitive notions of race until I began meeting people who were half-Korean leading normal lives in the North. They were accepted. We ran into a Caucasian on the metro and we asked her about not looking Korean. She said her grandmother was Russian. A high party member I met and traveled with was half Caucasian. I think he was a war orphan but really high in the party. The other guides were afraid of him but he was great to speak with. I also know that some of the Korean women like western men. I never expected that in North Korea. If race were so important, why do we see mixed Koreans and affection going beyond what we would expect? Race as a factor may be overplayed. It is there but a closer look may find it to be not as large a factor as we think.

    { xtom }
    I also know that some of the Korean women like western men.

    How is this made clear? Are there women hitting on tourists or something?


    Zaruka
    The women occasionally hit on the tourists. They have said how handsome we are and pay attention. We also know there have been incidents. I don't want to go into more but it is happening. I think it is no different than any place really. Twenty something women leading tour groups sometimes give in. It happens. I can also tell the attention paid by some of the women at times in other places. It is happening more.

    { xtom 6 points }
    "We also know there have been incidents."
    Damn. I think that might be the absolute pinnacle of pursuing "exotic women". Would there be a punishment if they got caught(for both the visitor and N. Korean woman)?


    Zaruka
    I worry more about them. I would not touch them. Andrew Holloway sometimes gets close to his relationship in his book - http://www.aidanfc.net/a_year_in_pyongyang_1.html

    He will not say much. I know it goes on but I think the risk for the locals is too high.

    { peppermint_dickables }
    Thanks, as this is a bit mindblowing to the average westerner (me anyway). I took a course on Japan in college so at least have a little backdrop for the very different social traditions of the East.

    I used to think they were a nation held hostage and starved by a corrupt dictator. Am not really sure what to think now - it sounds as if they don't have any frame of reference re: human rights, and aren't suffering to the extent we assume they are.


    Zaruka
    Well there may be plenty living normal lives - BUT i see plenty with marginal diets. I have seen kids with hair falling out, bowed legs and bloated bellies. You might see that in the Congo but this is also in North Korea. There is starvation right now in Haeju. There are no human rights in North Korea at all. There is no tradition of human rights there.

    Think of Japan in the 1930s - that is more of what North Korea is today. I have seen bad things there and despite nice people, beauty etc those bad things do exist. In the countryside some have good lives, simple lives but it could all change.

    I am not saying things are ok, it is just that some are doing alright. I still see people struggling. The society needs changing and even the guides will tell you that changes are needed.

    The first rule is that this is Korea and many of the cultural norms are not the same. That is hard to understand until you are there a while. Understanding Chinese norms helps understand the place.

    { istara }
    I thought that (most) weren't allowed to leave, even if they wanted to?


    Zaruka
    The average person cannot leave legally but many travel to China. These would be the more elites of society and traders send by factories or farms. For example if a cooperative farm were to purchase a tractor a few of them would go to China. It is not unheard of at all. We always ask if anyone had traveled and some guides and some people at factories have been overseas. Many at the art studio have worked on overseas monument projects. It is not impossible, just unlikely. Those living near the border might do some black market trading. In Dandong you can see North Koreans with Kim Il-sung badges on. It is getting a bit easier but that is relative. It varies from time to time.

    { Gawr }
    Thanks for doing this ama, I've been interested in North Korea for a number of years and I really hope to go there some time in the future.
    1. What tour company do you use?
    2. Have you ever been in a situation were you felt like you were in genuine danger? You're obviously not scared about visiting North Korea seeing as you have visited it so much, but has there been any situation/s in which things were very tense?
    3. You say you cannot bring in GPS devices etc, do they perform vigorous searches of all your belongings to ensure you do not bring in contraband? You mentioned you should bring a torch, could you hide a GPS device or a phone inside the torch and get away with it?
    4. Do you think there are bugs (as in they are monitoring you) in the hotel rooms you are staying in? Have you checked?
    5. Have you ever been allowed to purchase something from a 'korean' shop, as opposed to shops designed specifically for tourists?
    6. Have you ever seen a situation where a North Korean citizen is being punished for something? e.g. being 'taken away' for not bowing at a statue
    7. Are there many cars in North Korea? Who typically owns a car? Is there a typical manufacturer for the cars?
    8. Likewise, are there petrol stations - how do the 'buses' obtain fuel? Is the fuel expensive?
    9. Have you seen any instances of advertising? Whether it be corporate or just regular people, 'car for sale' etc
    10. What is the wildlife like in North Korea? Do you often see animals wandering the streets etc?
    11. Typically, what do you bring as gifts for the tour guides? Would you give each of them a gift every day? Do they request gifts? i.e. you show them a selection of things and they pick out what they want
    12. Are there televisions in hotel rooms? Are the channels state controlled? What would be on the channel/s?
    13. Have you ever had a guide/North Korean citizen act astonished about an object you have? I remember seeing a picture detailing how they brought in an iPad and the guides surrounded it in awe

    I didn't realise I had so many questions! Thanks for your time.


    Zaruka
    1. Koryo Tours from Beijing. They are British and get the best access to the country.
    2. Not danger (other than a narrow winding road, bad breaks etc) but I was overphotographiing and I was "warned." I have been hollered at. I was worried they would seize my photos and they do delete on occasion.
    3. They Do not search much at all so you could bring in that kind of item. They do scan things but I have never seen anyone have things confiscated. You can hide things in that way. I will not do it because I want to go and be there.
    4. I do not think there are bugs. We have seen the surveillance room and it is four cameras in the lobby. There are not enough people who speak other languages to man such a surveillance system. The tour agency would tell you that. We have not seen it and I have seen that in the USSR.
    5. Yes. I have a pair of worker's boots from a farm cooperative store. We have been to kiosks on the street but since we cannot have DPRK Won as a currency it is hard at times. We have been to Korean shops. That has gotten easier over the last two years. The shop above the bowling alley is for Koreans, I have been there alone. I have been to three department stores, two of those for normal people.
    6. I think I have seen this at least once. One family was moving in a town called Sinchon and they did not look happy about it. Not everyone moving is going to the Gulag. Some towns are used to put people in. There is a hierarchy of towns and I have seen some bad ones. You can be assigned to a town that is not that great. I have seen people admonished for inappropriate behavior toward a foreigner. I think the place is more relaxed. They do not for example wear their Kim Il-sung pins all the time. It is more for work. During hiking or exercise or in the house they do not. No one is telling them not to.
    7. Cars. If you check my photos you can judge for yourself. I posted this one today http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/6492825315/in/photostream It is not like an Asian city, there is far less. On sunday regular transportation is banned. This is Pyongyang. There is traffic but not that much. They drive fast. In the towns of Wonsan and Hamhung there is traffic but not as much. Nampo has less traffic. I have seen the rise of traffic each year and this year was the most. I was even in atraffic jam after the soccer game DPRK vs Tajikistan this year. That was a first! Cars are owned by state factories, farms and party functionaries. There are privately owned cars by sports stars rewarded but that is the exception. If you look at my photos you may see a few.

    8. Petrol. I saw a guy once carry a petrol can on our airplane flight from Samjiyon to Pyongyang. Petrol is in short supply. Here is my set of petrol station photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/sets/72157624985046050/with/4950794583/ Fuel is about what it is in the states but no one can afford it - if they owned a vehicle. We are seeing more motorbikes in the last year.
    9. Advertising - The car manufacturer Pyonghwa Auto Works is in Nampo. I have seen the factory and they "advertise." Here is a advertisement for cars: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/3402476938/

    Buses go to locations were petrol can be found, even if it is in cans.

    You do see postings as advertising. This man has set up shop and has advertising of sorts: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4932880356/in/set-72157625703074586

    10. Wildlife. Like Germany and other populated places all the wildlife is gone. You see cranes but not many other kinds of birds. No road kill. The only "wild" things you see are "range" dogs outside villages. They eat those. We keep looking for wildlife and there just isnt any. I did get to pet an Asian deer in a cage. I have been to a wildlife are but I did not see any. They said it was there but I think now the birds are slowly coming back.
    11. Gifts - I have friends now so I bring them things they can use - soap, hand cream, underwear, booze for the guides, gold watches, stuffed animals, candy, chocolate, clothing, toys, iPods, flashlights. I would bring a 20 kilo bag of rice if I could get away giving it to someone. Cosmetics are hot. They do not request gifts. We give them a 5 euro per day tip at the end of the tour. That is split among the guides. Still they like small things. I like to give the museum guides things because they do not get the same benefits of seeing foreigners often.
    12. TV - it is the All Kim Channel every day forever. In Pyongyang at the foreign tourist hotels you get BBC international. Anywhere else it is Juche TV - all Kim all day forever. You get used to it and learn Korean at the same time. The problem is I have seen so much of it that I am numb. In Pyongyang they have a Chinese channel or two, Japanese tv, Russian TV and BBC along with Juche TV. I am in North Korea I will watch North Korea TV.
    13. Yes - iPad. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4908376962/ When that appeared in 2010 they loved it. Since we cannot take Cell Phones in any new gadget they will love. They are curious about anything new. I think they know the outside world is different. Now - they are getting small cameras and they are taking photos of us and I mean normal Koreans. It is funny when it happens. "No Photo!" then the locals bring their cameras out. You get the giggles. Strange things can happen.

    { Gawr }
    So on Sunday, regular transportation is banned. Is other stuff banned on Sunday too? Is it regarded as a certain 'holy' day in which everyone 'rests'? If that is the case, how do tours happen on Sundays if the country has been brought to a stand still?


    Zaruka
    Party cars, tourist buses and some vehicles are moving. Sunday is sometimes "voluntary labor day" where people go out and do projects in the neighborhood. The place is by no means at a standstill. Curbs are washed and clean up is done. Living in North Korea is a full time job. I have seen teenagers digging ditches on Sunday. People are out so the society is not at a standstill, it is more to preserve petrol. It is not much of a day of rest.

    { platypusmusic }
    "I was worried they would seize my photos and they do delete on occasion."
    Delete or delete? It seems like a lot of DPRK visitors already know about this and just restore the pictures once they are back home. I did it for a friend who took some pictures of the mysterious "secret" 5th floor.


    Zaruka
    Yeah the 5th floor of the Yanggakto Hotel. I have been there but it is not that mysterious. You expect more. The top floors are more impressive. Yes, they do know that you can restore them. I have never felt that I needed the photo back. I know some people do but chances are I have five more just like it in my library somewhere. The ones deleted this trip were a person pulling a cart. I agreed and apologized. Why not? Stay good with the guards. I have a laptop and software ready to go if I want them back. I also encrypt and have USB drives and some other methods but I have not had to use them.

    { x3n0s }
    What's on the top floors and what makes it impressive?


    Zaruka
    These are the VIP suites for special visitors. A group of us went up there and it looked like a surreal place. Plosh and unlike anything seen in the hotel. There are a few floors like that - they are not all accessed by elevator. We cheated and used the stairs similar to the 5th floor. I do not recall taking photos but it looked really strange. Plush carpet, overstuffed chairs. Decorated in the upper crust North Korean way. I understand what the defectors are describing when they describe this stuff. You can see it sometimes in other buildings.

    { XiamenGuy }
    Have you been to any of the "example" cities that are supposed to be what all should be like? what are they really like?


    Zaruka
    Yes. I have seen the one on the DMZ and it is deserted. Samjiyon has buildings that have no function except to be there. There is nothing inside. The homestay village in Mt. Chilbo is a make-believe village. It is fake but they have it for tourists to stay. I know one family has lived there five years at least but it was built and families moved in for show. It is Disneyland for tourists.

    I have been in real homes and that is much more normal.

    { HadACigar }
    Is there a black market in North Korea? For a society that is very impoverished, I have to wonder, what do the people do for fun? Is there a lot of prostitution? Do they have the same recreational drugs as us? Do they sell liquor, or is that only for the higher-up party officials and tourists? Same thing for cigarettes


    Zaruka
    There is a black market and it is growing. I used to live off the black markets in Eastern Europe so I know what to look for. It is growing and is getting more tolerated so people can survive. In 2008, nothing. 2009, you could see it. In 2010 most everyone on the street had some foreign currency ( allowed) and was moving goods. Now everyone is dealing. They are more reserved and will not hit you up but people will change currency with you or buy something. The activity is going on and I have done it. Korea was so honest years ago, now there is more going on. At every tourist stop you could make a deal under the table. Liquor is EVERYWHERE. Soju is the liquor and it is sold and consumed in every town village or home. Now Koreans know the good stuff, that is reserved and not found. I brought a bottle of Jack Daniels and held that back for the right "favor" and got it. I have seen drunk women during the holidays dancing and wow, can they drink! No, it is available. Good stuff is hard to find. Hennesey is supposed to be loved by the Dear Leader so it is for sale in every hotel. At the Duty Free shop in Beijing near the Air Koryo terminal you see Hennesey for sale. Cigs are available everywhere but more Chinese brands. We bring in Marlboro and they love that. I make sure my guides get taken care of with cigs.

    { Gawr }
    By 'for the right "favor"' do you mean you bribed one of the tour guides with the bottle of JD so you could like take a perhaps controversial photo or two?


    Zaruka
    Well I wanted him to back off. Guides are different. Some do not care what you take a photo of. This year it was crackdown on photography. I know I am one of the highest, if not the highest profile photographer of the DPRK on the Web. They know who I am. I bring gifts to smooth things over. If I paid them would they let me photograph Military, Markets and Misery? No way. I just would like some photos of small towns and people at work. Photography can be trouble depending on what it is. You photograph the wrong building and you could be locked up not even knowing what you did - so I do go careful. I will not shoot what they specifically tell me not to shoot but if I see something i will try to get it. They delete. I know a direct bribe will not work.

    { HadACigar }
    So is liquor legal for the general public then? As well, are you aware of recreational drug use? Do they import anything from china or the like?


    Zaruka
    Liquor is everywhere and it is cheap. Acorn Soju is the cheapest liquor. Recreational drug use. Well, yes. We came to a garden one day and took one look and said, "that is weed!" We went over and sure enough they were growing marijuana. It is used for medicine and I had heard that but finding it was interesting. There were not fields of it, just people growing it locally. Crystal meth. If I say I do not know about this I would be lying. I am not sure "recreational drug use" covers this. I think it is more to cope with the pace. I used to work in ERs and we have encountered people who are using meth. I have seen a few in North Korea who are using it. It is hard to say how widespread drugs would be but in this economy where people are struggling to survive it is doubtful that anyone has the disposable income to spend. Most everything you see is imported from China. The trick is to find something made in North Korea. In the department stores most everything (like the rest of the world) is made in China. I have some items made in the DPRK - pottery, boots, dolls, bottles, and propaganda paintings.

    { Ricktron3030 }
    Do you ever feel you are being manipulated for propaganda purposes?


    Zaruka
    I think that sometimes it can become that. A friend of mine appeared in a North Korean magazine and others have give interviews in the North Korean press. I was once interviewed for Chinese radio in 1985 - that was still not quite manipulation. If they asked me what I thought and I spoke glowingly of the revolution - that would be manipulation. Once I was put on the spot among a group and asked what I thought of a very poor exhibit. I spoke glowingly of it to please the museum staff. That is what you do to be polite. At that moment I was being used but the effect did not go far. I have not seen myself on NK tv yet and would decline to appear. I am trying to just study, not influence. They do not want me to take photos of many things. I am trying to show the outside what that country is like. It is odd to explain that to them when they have no concept of what we on the outside think of them. They see photographers as a threat.

    { Ricktron3030 }
    Thank you for the thoughtful response. You have been much more reasoned in your answers than many other AMAs of people who love/love to visit NK. Sometimes you get the feeling that some of those people are drinking too much of the KJI kool aid. I would say your approach is the most reasonable one. Acting as a documentarian, or an objective observer, rather than a 'fan'.


    Zaruka
    KJI Kool aid. I have met them. I have been accused of that as well. If we do not hate the place we must be nuts. I see it as a bit more complex than that. I would rather go and document the place. Sure, there are plenty who lead reasonably normal lives but I think for millions it is really difficult. It is like rural China. Does it have to be that way? Like many regimes this revolution went on too long. I get that feeling in Cuba as well. Save the good and move on. In Korea they could do that. Juche philosophy could adjust well to capitalism. Many think it would work but others in the party say one step back from socialism would be a denial of the revolution. It is an endless argument. Liberalization is taking place without the regime. This year was a real eye opener in terms of fashion and free market selling.

    As I say to the true believers, this society sits between China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and farther away Taiwan. It is an economic basket case in the midst of prosperity. WHY? These people are educated and hard working. Free up this (just as I saw in China in the old days) and the sky is the limit. When I went to Hong Kong I knew that multiply this by all the cities in China and the nation would rule the world. North Korea could rapidly move forward with the resources they have. There is a rumor of oil off the coast near Chongjin. They need to lose the Confucian baggage as well. This society is more Confucian than any other and some of the bad aspects that China dumped still exist in the North. The individual has no standing in the society. This has to be reformed as it is slowly being reformed in China.

    No one like the regime but it is what they have to work with. The Korean people are incredible to meet and interact with. I really like that and want to keep going. It is an interesting place unlike anywhere else. To see it through the eyes of the Cold War, communism or utopianism is crazy. It is much like Imperial Japan in the 1930s.

    { fuhobo }
    wait did you mean to say that no one in NK likes the regime? Is that really true, because it doesnt make sense to me?


    Zaruka
    What I mean by that is that they really are nostalgic for the Kim Il-sung years and this regime is an inheritor. You can tell by the nuanced ways people will speak about the current situation. They know it could be better and are disappointed. They have some embarrassment because many know it was much better in the early 1980s. It is nuanced.

    { asthmadragon }
    "It is nuanced."
    This is probably one of the most important thing anybody needs to realize when trying to understand a society so unlike our own. It is too easy to project our own ideas on to another people that we forget their culture and society is a completely different shape than ours. Of course someone growing up in Ohio would resent such conditions and such repression, but oftentimes when you just sit down and listen to the people who come out of such societies, (obviously more extreme in DPRK, but you can see this to a lesser extent in former communist bloc countries like Russia, China, Poland), you realize that they're not deluded, they're not brainwashed, they're not mindless drones who have lost touch on reality, they're just people who happen to think differently


    Zaruka
    Yeah it is hard. I would say that gossip is a great news source there. I remember getting off the plane to be hit with "Did Chris Hill leave yet?" They were asking about the US nuclear negotiator. We knew all about it, they did not. There is a deficit of information there, that is for sure.

    I remember coming into Mongolia for the first time in 1985. I was on the train from the USSR and the first person, an obvious Mongol, got on the dining car. A big man he was carrying boxes. He opens up the box and says, "Heineken beer here, one dollar." I knew that Mongolia was not that isolated.

    I can get a Coke in Wonsan. There is some isolation but many have knowledge of the outside. They certainly think differently and I love to engage them to understand their perspectives and priorities.

    { lupefiasbro }
    What do they think about the South and reunification?


    Zaruka
    That is usually thought about in the political realm so you get grand statements that do not mean much. I have a long conversation with a party member that said it would happen over a very long period of time. "It must be done in the Korean way and not forced." They make a cult out of a unified Korea and I do not thing that it is the North dominating the south any longer. That reality is gone. 23 million in the North and 48 million in the South - that says it all. They do worry about being swallowed up by the South or China. They know it will come some day. They want unification.

    { yang_gui_zi }
    Have you been to either Sinuiju or Chongjin?

    Have you been to Yanbian/Yonbyon in China?


    Zaruka
    I have been to Chongjin. Chongjin was opened this year to tourism. This was one of those "Real North Korea" places. We were not allowed to take photos - I know why. The factories are a rusty mess. The place is falling apart. This was one of the places hit by the 1997 famine. It would be like taking a tour of some of the worst factories in India or China. I am glad I got to go. I am hoping to take the factory tour next September or October near Nampo. I have not been to Yanbian/Yonbyon in China.

    { platypusmusic }
    What are the chances that this AMA gets tracked backed by DPRK and causes negative consequences for you or others?


    Zaruka
    They know some things on the internet but I doubt it. They will just watch me closer. The amount of information out there is large. It is a possibility. I will not be going for a long tour from now on, just short focused tours.

    { spaetzele }
    How's the food?


    Zaruka
    Well I lost 20 pounds over 17 days but I am getting to like Korean food. The Kimchi is incredible and I like the various forms of it. I do not like squid but some of the other dishes like duck or occasional pork are great. The rice is how I like it - sticky. I miss raw vegetables, something that you do not get much of. They are there and as a tourist you get overfed in comparison to the locals but you do notice the difference. I am there to see the country so I take beef jerky with me in case it gets rough. I also bring 10 cans of coke but occasionally you can find coke, sprite or fanta. 50 cents a can.

    { ALGUIENoALGO }
    "lost 20 pounds over 17 days"
    I need to go there


    Zaruka
    Yeah and I gained it back. Ugh. I just do not like water and squid. That and no salt, sugar or oil.

    { wishinghand }
    You say you get to see more every time. Why is that?

    You're also photographing more. How come the paranoia doesn't kick in with someone they've gotten comfortable around and are letting see more. It just seems that a government famous for their secrecy and whitewashing would still be wary of a Westerner who comes back year after year, seeing more and more than the typical tourist.


    Zaruka
    Time in country allows you to see more. On a short tour you are too hurried and you do not get time to study or relax. You have a number of questions after your first few visits but the longer you stay the more you can test your observations. You begin to see more that you had missed or had mis-interpreted. They are loosening up to a great degree. We are finally getting to see more each year as they get more comfortable with tourism.

    They are famous for their secrecy and whitewashing. Things are falling apart so whitewashing is not working as well as it used to. More tour groups are going in each year.

    Why do they let us back in again and again? Money. They need the cash. I meet people who are going in annually like myself and talk with them. Some wait a few years but they are letting us do it. That said - I have been warned by the Koreans to cool the photography. They do know me but they have so far not pulled my visa application. I am not typical and I expect to have a problem some day. Here is they way it works. If you publish a story or a book then they will not allow you back. I am putting up photos but that has not counted - yet. I think it may in the future. Professional photographers and journalists are prohibited BUT last year AP opened and office and more professional photographers are going. Also a journalists tour was allowed in. I think they are slowly opening for 2012 (100 years since Kim Il-sung's birth.)

    { albinocheetah }
    Do you ever worry about having a problem like getting thrown in jail there? Or would that just be too much trouble for them?


    Zaruka
    The answer is yes. They want the money so they will put up with quite a bit from us - yet there is the threat. I have been told to cool it or..... But for the average tourist, the first timer there is no problem at all. I know when I go again they will look at me closely. There are some that have gone in 50 times so it does depend. I do not shoot much video so they are not so concerned. They hate video and westerners who speak Korean.

    { monstarjams }
    This is really interesting. I've been in SK for the past 3 years now, and try to study up as much as I can on NK.

    You may have mentioned it before, but do you speak Korean fluently? If so, do you have a SK dialect or the NK dialect? I've read accounts of them being shocked sometime when somebody with a southern dialect speaks to them. Especially when they say 한국 or 대한민국.

    Any insight on this?


    Zaruka
    I do not speak fluent Korean but as I work on my Korean I find that there are some differences in word use. The languages are moving apart in the way things are expressed. It is as if there was a deliberate effort to make each side different. I have a friend who studies this and there are numerous examples. I wish I could speak more on this but I will keep studying Korean.


( Continued below in part 2 )


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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Sun Jan 22, 2012 6:19 pm

Part 2 ( continued from part 1 above )
    Zaruka
    I will add this. Below are some of my favorite photos taken in North Korea. it is hard to pick a favorite if you have so much but these were interesting:

    Traffic girls out of the over 1000 photos of traffic girls these are my favorites: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/6172236534/in/set-72157627726855210 * http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4924931325/in/set-72157608054087019/

    Transportation -
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4965510092/ Wood-gas vehicle
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4964928081/ Travel by truck
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4965262736/ Railway yard in Kowon
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4918803370/ Ox cart on the farm
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/6181875200/ Bicycle in Chongjin Wonsan
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4939808613/in/set-72157626422428147 a guide - symbolic of North Korea I think

    Workers -
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/2945430370/in/set-72157626422428147 workers in Pyongyang
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/3952712567/in/set-72157626422428147 Drying corn near Sariwon
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/3947276358/in/set-72157622313414387 Agriculture - guarding the corn fields
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4907780499/ A manual laborer building a wall - many of the women dress well for even these tasks.

    Proof that kids will be kids http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4272364862/in/set-72157626422428147/
    This was taken at the mass games. The kids will cut up if you go before the performance.

    { Fibblesteaks }
    Excellent group of pics.

    How did you take the one of the kids playing with each other at the mass games? I hear there are very tight restrictions on how long of lens you can bring with you. I doubt I'll ever get to go to North Korea, but I do a lot of my shooting with my trusty 75-300mm lens, which I hear I would not to bring into the country.

    EDIT: Never mind.... you took that one at only 70.2mm. Given the size of the stadium I figured you were much further away.


    { xdig2000 }
    Just watermark your pictures.


    Zaruka
    I have done that with some. I have hidden some as well. I should have a good watermark strategy.

    { xdig2000 }
    Just make the watermark big and a bit transparent maybe at 10%. If you want to know who's using your images drag & drop an image in google image search:
    http://www.google.com/imghp?hl=en&tab=wi

    Zaruka
    I have used tineye.com to track some photos. Some bloggers grab them and if they use my name that is fine - to a point. Some Asian bloggers rip them. I will give that a try. Thanks Ray

    { Otoao }
    Thank you so much for doing this, just made my account so I could ask you a few questions:

    Have you ever talked to any of your guides about Joe Dresnok, last American defector in DPRK (Crossing The Line) ? If so, what have they said? Have you seen him or have the guides mentioned him since you are an American?

    What do you think of Kim Jong-Eun? Do you think he'll be like his father considering that he studied abroad in Switzerland (IIRC)?

    Also, what was your biggest misconception, if any, about the country and its people after your first visit, and how did it change during all the other subsequent visits?

    Once again thank you so much! And please take a lot of pictures during 2012!!


    Zaruka
    Each year I check to see how Joe is doing. I check in with Nick Bonner who knows him and see how he is doing. We cannot meet him as that is his request. His son married his Korean girl friend, another interesting thing. Joe was alive but his health was failing. The guides do not see him but Nick does.

    Kim Jong-un is now seen all over. Last year we were trying to find anything, now he is on the news every evening WITH his father. He does not do anything singularly really. We are seeing more of him.

    His future may be interesting. Kim Il-sung was worshiped. Kim Jong-il has somewhat less power but he is the son of the Great Leader so he is revered by heritage. The third generation, well he is revered as a descendant and heir apparent but we will have to see. He will not have the same level of power. There are three players - the Kim family, the military and the WPK "the party." How this moves forward is a problem. Geriatric military members, a strident party and the family. I think Kim Jong-il's sister Kim Kyong Hui. I have been to her businesses and restaurants. Again you have to remember this is a family organization. She is a real power there behind the scenes. It will be the family taking charge. Kim jong-un is the person trotted out for parades. We will see if he has a power base. Think monarchy - an Asian monarchy.

    Well, i think there are many who have a better grasp on that. I just see things from below and generally do not comment on leadership. We do not know much really. I almost got to see Kim Jong-un on September 9 but they hid us away during his appearance. I was not happy.

    Here he is on the tv looking at things: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/6247557469/

    I have newspapers with him and his father.

    Misconceptions. Wow. I read everything I could find before going and you have to understand I had read so much in college. When I got there I had to get oriented. I knew what to expect in the USSR and much of that was verified. Nothing in North Korea was. One visit did not do it for me. I was impressed how people treated Americans. They really did try very hard to please us but you could see how difficult things were. It just was not as bad as I had thought. As I went back again and again I found out what people were talking about in terms of harsh living conditions. I had to think about what I would tell people so I would not seem crazy. I know others say that the press lies about North Korea but it is more like only half the story. Human rights - a disaster to be sure but I know South Korea was also a harsh dictatorship for decades. What is Korean? What is attributable to the regime? What is it that the populous desires? These are hard questions. I know they want order with a capital O. I tend to think that some of the oppression is brought on from below. Do they tell on their neighbors for fear or do they want to uphold the public order? Who can do polling in a place like this? It was really not until this year that I finally saw the real hard side of the society. You got glimpses in the past, this year it was there in the smaller towns. In Pyongyang you might think things were normal. It depends on where you go. This is Korea so much of the place can defy reason. Understand it from their perspective. Well I think I have it but I cannot say it is a desirable state to live in.

    I will keep shooting in the future. 2012 will be the banner year.

    { Otoao }
    Thank you for the answers!

    Going back to the American defectors; has Nick ever mentioned how Joe feels being the last American in the DPRK? If so, even though his relationship with Charles Robert Jenkins wasn't a great one, does he miss having him in the DPRK, maybe not as a friend but as a fellow American with whom he could relate?

    Also, Have you read Jenkins' memoirs: "The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea"? If so, what do you think of it?


    Zaruka
    I have not read Jenkins' memoir and I should. It sounds like good Christmas reading. Joe did not get along with Jenkins as he indicates in the documentary. Nick did not mention that.

    { wishinghand }
    I'm a type 1 diabetic. I need vials of insulin, a little digital device that tests drops of my blood with a lancet and either syringes or another digital device that holds reservoirs of insulin and slowly injects it into me over the course of a day. I cannot go without this medication and equipment. Would they let me bring this into North Korea if I wanted to book a tour?


    Zaruka
    You can take anything in of a medical nature. They really exclude cell phones, radios etc. Food or medicine is allowed in any quantity so if I were you I would bring about one month's worth for a week, just in case. Could you get insulin at the Friendship Hospital? Yes. I would just bring in what you can. Also, there is really not much sugar in the society at all. When you go in you go without sugar (you could buy some) salt and oil. A great diet.

    { mmmdontchaknow }
    Two questions: I met a Russian girl that lived in Pyongyang. She said the craziest thing she saw was a car that was retrofitted to run off wood. I`m not even sure if that is possible. Any truth to this?

    Also, I have heard rumours that North Korea has more attractive women (spoils of war) than South Korea. True?


    Zaruka
    Cars retrofitted to run on wood. Wood gas was popular in the UK during WWII. Indeed there are wood gas vehicles in North Korea. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4965510092/ * http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4988684882/

    We see them all the time in the north of the country, the east coast and some in Nampo. They are not seen in Pyongyang. Most tourists would not see them. Cars, I have not seen a car fitted with wood gas. It is generally trucks. I suppose you could. If you look up wood-gas on the web you can see how that works.

    There is a phrase that I think you are misinterpreting. In the North the women are beautiful and in the south the men are handsome. That saying goes back long before the war and has nothing to do with the war. I think the casual observer would say that is true because of all the great looking women you see in Pyongyang. I submit they have never been to Chongjin. People look different in different parts of the country but I think it is a generalization in both the north and the south. In the states they say the girls are more beautiful in California (Katy Perry notwithstanding) but that phrase goes back long before Katy and the Beach Boys. It is one of those kinds of sayings.

    { Wreckedified }
    Are you planning on writing a book anytime soon?


    Zaruka
    Yes. There are two approaches under consideration. One of comparative socialist states since I have been to most of them in the old days or one on North Korea.

    I have been in discussions on the DPRK book but I have to clear it with the tour agency. If I do that I cannot go back as the Koreans will not let you back in if you publish. It is being written but I am holding because I want to go again. You cannot stay current and get a behind the scenes look if you do not go. I have seen area experts go in for the first time and have no idea of the meaning of the sites or what they are looking at. Book reading goes just so far. Think of it as studying the middle ages. You cannot go there. So many area experts cannot go there and if you check to see if your North Korean expert has set foot in the country you might be disappointed. I prefer the ones that at least admit they have never been there. I have degrees in Soviet history and one in East Asian political science. I have a masters studying human rights and international law in WWI. I read Kim Il-sung in college and took Korean history as well as many courses in China under Mao. I went to China in the old days and wanted so much to get into North Korea. That was the holy grail as no one goes there. One trip and I knew I had seen nothing. The next year I was offered a special trip into the countryside during harvest and it was fantastic. For an American it was rare to go twice. Now I just go annually to view changes and get deeper into viewing and understanding the country. New questions are always coming up and answered questions need to be verified. You also want to see the country in different seasons and in varying weather. We had a typhoon come ashore and the place is far different under that kind of stress. A five day propaganda tour just does not cut it if you want to see behind. There are layers of this society, many they do not want to show you. You might think ill of them, the society or the leadership. It is cultural and they would do that if they were a capitalist society. You do sense insecurity in many about their situation. They try so hard to portray their society as a good one but it rings hollow so often.

    I will write over the winter but I still want to go back in the centennial year of 2012.

    { dougiebgood }
    I've wanted to visit North Korea, kind of to just say I did it, but one thing that's stopped me is that I wouldn't want to give my money to that regime in any way. I understand that North Koreans themselves can be great people, but to monetarily support a regime that enslaves children in prison camps is just something I couldn't bring myself to do.

    I understand you're taking more of a journalistic approach to your trips, but has the thought ever crossed your mind about the kind of government you're giving your money to?


    Zaruka
    I understand this. I have had long discussions with the tour operators of two companies about the issue. They are the primary conduits for western currencies going to the regime via tourism. What percent goes to the regime? What percent goes to support the families of the Korean tour company? Do you have an effect opening up North Korea when you go?

    I think we are opening up the country. There is no going back for the regime when outsiders come in and they are seen by the locals as being normal and not the monsters they are portrayed to be. http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/6197397279/

    If we show children that Americans are not the bastards the regime portrays them to be, what is that worth? What are we doing to end that kind of thinking?

    Children in prison camps? Yes, that is true. Confucian thinking is what causes that. Three generations of people are rounded up. They believe in mass guilt. The individual is not recognized as having free will in the sense we know it. To root out crime or political malcontents then everyone goes to prison. A closer look at this shows that this does not happen at the first sign of a problem. There are towns where people are moved to if they lose privileges through transactions. There is a hierarchy of location - as well as the prisons such as Yodok. Consider Chinese prisons or the practices in other undeveloped holes of the world. Is North Korea different from Malawi, Iran, or other awful places? Why North Korea? Is it because of communism? What about horrible tribal practices?

    Long ago I decided to go and it did not matter the price of admission and the reason was so I could educate people on the places they would not go. People said the same thing about the USSR - oh the money goes to the regime, there are gulags etc. Yes, but unless you go what do you really know about the place? I saw one gulag up close in Ulan Uda in 1985. Syria is the same way. I went there and some of the money goes to the Assad regime. I want to observe. What is the causal link between you going and people in prison? I think the purchaser of a pair of high-end tennis shoes does more for child labor than a tourist does for supporting prisons in North Korea. You can look at shopping at WalMart the same way. How much of that goes to the Chinese Communist Party supporting oppression in Tibet? This is a large world and going or not going is not going to make a huge difference. If we thought like that we would protest stamp collectors who buy North Korean postage stamps as supporters of the Kim regime.

    If you go, send a donation to a charity sending food into North Korea or one helping refugees from the North. Better yet, make some friends in the North and give them western currency. Help them from the inside. You will do more to end the regime than not going.

    It is a moral choice and not an easy one. That is a very good point.

    { JPalmz }
    Really great pictures! I'm just curious, are you allowed to buy things in North Korea? (whether it'd be souvenirs, food, etc). Also, have you ever given anything to anybody? I'm pretty sure you aren't allowed, but some of those pictures are really depressing.. I'd want to give those people some money or something.


    Zaruka
    Yes but we are not allowed to use North Korea Won if that is what you mean. We use Euros, Dollars, or RMB - the Chinese Yuan. The trick is to find something to buy. Looking for things of local manufacture is a trick. We buy soda, beer, snacks and souvenirs. We have gone to Kiosks and purchased a few things but the Kiosk has to have a foreign currency - funny they usually do. Many locals are carrying foreign currency. It is not illegal for North Koreans to have western currency.

    I have given things to people. I will not say more but I do have friends there that I bring things to. I do give things to my guides and former guides also. That we can do but we are not permitted to give anything to people at random. It causes problems for them.

    Some of the photos are depressing. I see some of the same things in China and of course India also has some depressing things. I have seen things not photographed that are worse.

    What we have to do is figure out what is political and what is cultural. Is it political that prisoners are treated so cruel or is it cultural? Was alcoholism in the USSR from socialism? That was claimed. Well alcoholism today in Russia is awful and socialism is gone. In Korea this is really difficult because so much of what you see is Korean Confucianism run wild. What would a more open Korea look like? Probably like the South. My friends in the south say there are some very weird things that go on there too because of the way things are done in Korea. The place is Asia, it is poor and it was closed for 1000 years so much of what you see was going on 100 years before the Kim family took over.

    The problem as I see it is that if the country would change it would be far better off. They tell us they cannot because they will lose their culture - that is the greatest fear. They say they will loose the freedom to be Korean. I know that sounds weird but they want to preserve village life, fishing, customs, the old Korean ways, dancing and their distance from the outside. They have a point and most of us standing there realize that but at what cost? Malnourished children? I am not sure it is worth it.

    I do give them money directly and I mean some of the friends I have. How can I not do that? The society will change some day, it just scares me every time I hear someone want to nuke Pyongyang. Murdering a huge number of civilians in Korea will not solve anything.

    { menthol239 }
    You mention that you would like to live in China one day. Can you speak any other languages?


    Zaruka
    I think my problem is that I try to learn wherever I go so it is knowledge of many languages but none fluently. One of the attractions of living there would be to be forced to learn. Chinese was taught in elementary school where I went to school and it is not that foreign to me. Spanish, some German and Italian, and I studied Turkish. Korean is my latest fad. I think language training is probably the best thing one can do. Spoken Chinese is what I am starting with but I find that while there it gets easier if you just pay attention. Listen and concentrate. I need months of living there but I notice I get better. I carry dictionaries and learning materials. Mango is what I use in the states but I am signing up for some intensive classes. Spanish is what I did in college for my undergrad and grad language requirement.

    { cancer1337 }
    do you speak korean at all?


    Zaruka
    I learn all the time but no. I did not take Korean in college but I take it now and try while there. That said - they really do not like non-Asians who speak Korean. That is a sign you could be a spy. Do not raise suspicions while there - a good rule.

    { Epicman }
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/4907780499/
    This woman is amazing. Absolutely gorgeous.

    So much so that I am inclined to agree with the comment saying it was a staged work scene and she was meant to stand out for good photo ops.


    Zaruka
    I wondered about that except.... I have been back. The others I did not photograph were not as attractive. The other woman in the sequence was still there a year later doing labor. She was just the most attractive. I think it was a labor project for everyone in this area. They worked at the rest stop. Other labor crews I have seen some of the women were dressed well. Koreans sometimes dress well even in the fields. If I see them a year or two later they still have the same clothes on.

    { digimer }
    I know this is fairly old now, but I wanted to ask in public in case it's a question of interest to others.

    I had wanted to go last year, but couldn't afford the time off work. I had planned now to try and go later this year, but with the death of Kim Jong Il, I am not sure if it is wise.

    So;
    1. What are your feelings of travelling to DPRK now? Do you think there will be stability in the short/long term? So you plan to go back this year and have your plans changed at all?

    2. I'm vegetarian, and I know Asian culture in general is relatively unfamiliar with the concept. In Japan, I had a somewhat hard time of it, and I had freedom to choose where and what I ate. Have you been with vegetarian visitors? Do you know how well they (or vegetarians in general) get by while visiting? Should I abandon hope and just accept that being vegetarian isn't feasible while visiting?

    Thanks again. If you ever find yourself in Toronto, Canada, let me know. I would love very much to talk at more length on DPRK. I know that so much I've learned over the years is based on propaganda and political spin... A chance to chat with a neutral observer would be wonderful. Smile


    Zaruka
    1.There will be stability in the short term and possible longer, say 2 years. I am going back - I have to. There was a regime change. We have been watching for any signs of regime change everywhere. Now we have it so we have to gauge the effects of that change. I say it will be none for a while. 2013 I think will tell.
    2.I have been with vegetarian visitors and it can be difficult. They are unfamiliar with it. If you state that to the waiter going in or when you sit down they will accommodate you. You just have to tell them. It is not a huge problem.

    I am neutral depending on who is reading. I understand there are some hard feelings here - but I find the Korean war vets are curious and the ROK students just want to see it. I am not a great fan of the regime but I really like the countryside and the people. Yes, I do presentations and lectures. Many of those in the groups are Canadians.

    { digimer }
    Thank you for taking the time to answer. My thinking was that, if the regime survived the first few weeks, it would remain stable for 1~3 years. Come spring, I'll see about continuing my plans to visit.

    As for neutrality; I plan to check my ideals at the door. Of course, I want very much for life to get easier in DPRK, but it's not my position to speak my mind. I just want to see what life is like in such a completely foreign society, relative to my experiences.

    Safe travels. Smile


    Zaruka
    I think for the short term things will be the same but yes, lets see where the economic policies go in 2013. That is when I may go back for a longer tour because that is when the new leadership (collective) will be on their own.

    { didgameta }
    This might be inappropriate, but what is the average North Korean's sex life like? I've read somewhere that officially, the DPRK is accepting of homosexuality, but in reality is quite intolerant. I assume this is due to general Korean cultural norms. Is per-marital sex something that happens or discussed?


    Zaruka
    Ok, well that is a great question and I was talking to someone about that today. North Korea is a real puritanical society but more pre-marital sex is happening according to what I read. Bruce Cumings discusses this in his book on North Korea and from what I know I agree. These Korean norms are back about 50 years so it is very reserved. Homosexuality is still a taboo and I wonder how it is handled and have no information on that. I think we need to find out more. It is not the place to party because the costs to the locals can be high at least with foreigners.

    { Drewcifur }
    I will be jealous of you forever, I wish I could go, even if they just forced me to see the propaganda parts. Korea is amazing in my eyes, and I want to too see the good and the bad!!!!


    Zaruka
    It is hard to see the bad and what I mean is that they do not want to show it directly but you see it indirectly. Going five days shows you very little. Take a long tour and you can get a sense of the place. The propaganda parts are seldom but on one tour it was constant. That does not happen much at all but as I said to one person, "Isn't that why we come here?" it can be fun. To see Korea you have to go to the Korean counties of China, North and South and some of the Korean communities around the world. It is fascinating.


LINK TO ORIGINAL REDDIT AMA:
http://www.reddit.com/r/northkorea/comments/n8ysx/i_travel_to_north_korea_annually_ama/

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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Thu Jan 26, 2012 10:47 pm

All that content. If anyone has any further questions let me know. You can ask here. Lots of lively discussion there and I continue to answer questions daily. Some things I have had to clarify as some statements were made late at night.

Thanks for reading the rant and checking out the photos.
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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Fri Jan 27, 2012 8:50 pm

"Some things I have had to clarify as some statements were made late at night"
LOL

I guess I would ask - since from birth it seems like the NK people are constantly fed propaganda about how evil and warmongering Americans are, what does the average citizen feel when they meet Americans in person? I'm sure they are polite to tourists, but I wonder how they really feel after a lifetime of anti-American slogans and teachings. Is it even possible to know this, given that tourist agendas are controlled and monitored, and with the language barrier?
I do think it is good for them to see in person that maybe Americans aren't exactly who they have been taught they are.

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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Sat Jan 28, 2012 12:59 am


I do think it is good for them to see in person that maybe Americans aren't exactly who they have been taught they are.

IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII
Ever since I sat through a propaganda session in the USSR in 1982 where a babushka would hit you with a stick if you so much as moved I have wondered how much effect the propaganda has on a population. I have been all over the east bloc and seen some of the propaganda fed to the people. When an American would arrive it was party time! I was treated so well that it was embarrassing. I would stay up late at night taking politics.

What you found in the Soviet Bloc was that it really just narrowed perspectives but it never worked. The other problem was that the BBC and VOA were listened to by everyone. They were patriotic but skeptical. Remember - they were western enough. In the USSR they were also Russian so cynicism was rampant. A great space program but bad shoes. In Cuba I found everyone had a real grasp on reality. How do you live in a tropical nation that cannot feed itself? Hell the communist party members were saying that. The Cubans have a good understanding of their problems and want to deal with it.

Move east. China in the old days of Deng xiaoping was interesting. There was a small bit of hatred of foreigners still around. That of course is gone now (well sort of). You could tell the Chinese were fascinated by the US as I had learned and they never really viewed the US as a great enemy. Knowledge of the outside began to blossom in the 1980s. More foreign magazines were making their way in but still you could tell knowledge was narrower.

The DPRK lives in total isolation. The only knowledge sources are as controlled as if you were a tribesman in New Guinea. This is really different. But does it work?

On my first tour I was getting into a 2 hour lecture by a very Stalinist lecturer. She was in her 20s slamming "American Imperialist Aggressors." It was vicious. We were 45 minutes into this hard hitting lecture, just the seven of us. With pointer in hand she was explaining the aggressions on the DMZ by the foreign aggressors when she stopped and said, "I think we shoot down American helicopters because the men are so handsome." We looked at each other and said, "Huh?" In an instant she turned into a blushing teenager who could not keep to the script. She knew who we were. She could not do it. It went on like that for the next hour.

The lectures can be severe. Then after they can come to you and begin asking human questions about make-up, relationships, beauty, what we do for fun etc. Secretly, they do not hate us. I have never seen it. I saw some film once of someone attacking a cameraman but that is so atypical. When encountering people and telling them who we are they are even more friendly. That is not state policy - they used to shy away. That was the original state policy.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaruka/6197397279/
"It's fun to play capture the American Bastard!"


I remember one woman grabbing me and holding my hand through the entire conversation. Even the guides were taken back.

Propaganda will work to some degree. People are patriotic but they also know how far you have come to see their country and they are grateful. In this land where mass guilt is taught (you are guilty because you are an American) I just do not think it works. I watch the effectiveness of propaganda here but there I think people are a bit more sophisticated. Remember - they are Korean, they love that country and the leadership that has taken them to where they are. They will defend it from the outside. Still I think there is a compassionate side to Koreans and I see that. I also know there is a hard side.

When we were in all American groups we were treated like diplomats. It was kind of strange. We did get to hang with some higher ups. I miss that but still people treat us very well.

How controlled are the tours?

The answer is less than you think and more than I would like. I know why because I have see what they are trying to hide. This last tour was a real bucket of cold water.

The society is in failure. If you take a bus from Pyongyang for the three to four hours depending on road conditions to Wonsan, how much do you see? The answer is plenty. If the road is under repair and you detour through a village you see what others do not - the rural areas are in decay. They want you to see Pyongyang - nice clean and under construction. They want you to see the DMZ, they want you to see the mountains but they omit the rural poverty, the work gangs etc. It is there but you have to go for more than the standard tour.

Tours have failures. You arrive too early or too late and see something unexpected. A wood-gas vehicle being fixed next to the hotel, girls practicing military drills, a young teenage group digging ditches in a "voluntary" labor brigade, college students struggling to move dirt in a horrible rain storm with no rain gear. The dirt was literally flowing from the hill. Some things can be seen if you are not asleep on the bus.

People are human everywhere on this planet and I think when you encounter the DPRK it tends to change you. You can see the humanity beneath the nonsense.

The language barrier is a bit of a problem but within every group there are a few that speak Korean. What do you do while there but learn Korean? It is not that hard. I will say that they really do not like non-Koreans who speak Korean. I did not expect that at all. They tend to think you are some kind of spy. Korean Americans they love and let them do about anything. That I found was fascinating. I guess I am not a member of the club.
The translations are good. Sometimes it is nuanced but not that much.



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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Sun Jan 29, 2012 1:49 am

You give good answers, very descriptive and thorough.

You say that on your first tour you were sitting through a 2 hour lecture. So is it required that all visitors to NK need to sit through propaganda lectures? Even the Chinese tourists? Or just tourists from the Western bloc?
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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Sun Jan 29, 2012 11:16 am

The North Koreans do not do that as much any more. A museum tour may have a video, say 20 minutes, but the more intensive study was done for Americans years ago. I understand the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) under Alejandro does this. With mixed tours they do not do this any more.

The ideology of the DPRK is Korean and not for export. While they will explain it they are not trying to convert anyone as was the case of Marxism in the Socialist world. I must say that even in the old days the doctrinaire socialists the conversion efforts were not very convincing.

The Koreans have a traditional view of reality. They would put you in a room and harang for an hour because that is they way they do it in Korea. Now they will show a video, something we can relate to more than a lecture that has no give and take. We do not see all wisdom as coming from the party or the leadership. We have a free exchange of ideas and they do not. Reality is set (by the party and leadership) and we can discuss how wonderful that is but not the basis of the reality. It is like being in a strict religious group. The reality is not questioned.

Tourism is lightening up and the propaganda is getting lighter. I think we got it heavy because we were Americans and because the second tour Americans had a deeper interest. I am really glad I saw it harder a few years ago. I also think they were trying to impress the higher ups.

The Museum of the Revolution is not shown to most tourists and it is a total propaganda fest.



Getting to see that is important because the general tourist has the impression that Kim Jong-il is only seen with his father and that is not true. There is a cult of Kim Jong-il but you have to look for it. Son has the wisdom of the leader. The new son, Kim Jong-un, will have his own room in the museum and I am anxious to see it. I may request a visit this year and ask to see it.



The tours are filled with ideological tidbits and you can let it go over your head or study it. I like to compare and contrast the messages to see changes over time (very little) and see is the message is nuanced for Americans vs Europeans (it isnt). If you go long enough you can tire of it. I think I tire of the "we cannot do this" nonsense when it is on the tour itinerary. I understand, it happens. Such is the nature of the DPRK. You have an itinerary then it is ripped up when you arrive and you figure out what you can do. This does lead to opportunities.

The Hamhung Revolutionary Opera is pure propaganda.





Tell O'Forest is about the Japanese occupation. It is allegedly written by Kim Jong-il and to see this live as the audience weeps for the characters really gives you insight into the North and how they view the world. The mass games, the opera, the museums, the monuments, and the tourist sites all are propaganda. You cannot go anywhere without the regime being present. On the most remote farm the regime is present in a mural, immortality column or in a home. It is so pervasive in everything that you cannot avoid it.

Here is a home I entered on a cooperative farm



The calendar is similar in most homes but on the right is a floral image. That is the flower Kimjongilia, another regime symbol. If you know the symbolism of the regime you see it everywhere. In a sense the entire tour is a massive propaganda tour.



In this Mass Games photo you can see some of the symbolism. Upper left is the Kimjongilia flower above the stadium. Left side floral is again Kimjongilia with the Kimilsungia flower. The mountain you see above the human pixels is Mt. Paektu, the holy mountain of Korea. Kim Jong-il was born near this mountain and you see it as a symbol. Above the mountain (not illuminated in this photo) is the torch of the Juche idea. Juche is the ideology of North Korea.

Plenty of propaganda around for sure.
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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Sat Feb 18, 2012 2:47 am

Hi Zaruka,

Great thread! I just read the whole thing and if you're still willing to take questions I have two that haven't been asked yet.

I was wondering if you had any insight on how the regime propagandizes the country's rural poor. I imagine many of the country's poorest do not have televisions, but what about radio and printed material? Are those methods typically used in rural areas? Would the rural poor generally have access to North Korean news like Rodong or KCNA?

Also, have you ever talked to any North Koreans about September 11th? The English KCNA website published a brief article shortly after September 11th 2001 condemning the attacks and terrorism generally. Do you think this opinion is shared by the people of North Korea and do you suppose the regime takes the same position in its Korean language propaganda?

Thanks!
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PostSubject: Re: North Korea Tourist AMA (Ask Me Anything)    Wed May 22, 2013 9:29 am

Sorry I did not get to this. I am heading back in three weeks to the rural northeast of the country and I will report.

I was wondering if you had any insight on how the regime propagandizes the country's rural poor. I imagine many of the country's poorest do not have televisions, but what about radio and printed material? Are those methods typically used in rural areas? Would the rural poor generally have access to North Korean news like Rodong or KCNA?


The rural areas depend on the communal speaker at the village center. This was true in China and rural Japan in the old days. The propaganda van (See below)



is an essential part of disseminating news and information as well. The speaker will run in some areas from 5am continuously until 11pm. News from newspapers and local village news, in the form of naming criminals, is constant. Remember something - they think this is they way Korea should be. They have no other points of reference.

Television is widespread as many sets were given as gifts from the regime or as rewards for work. There are two stations in Pyongyang and one in the other cities. Rural areas have a weak signal but it is all the same. Videos lauding the Kim family, the military and life in the countryside. News shows industrial progress, dams or happy people working. I must say I love the farm interviews and spots on goat production or fish farming. It can be personal but in all cases one must thank the leadership as you would the king.

There is the constant bombardment or mural propaganda and the schools are all teaching about the great achievements of the Kim family.

The first time I went I was asked about 9/11 and they do know about the terrorist attacks. They think terrorism in general is really bad. Now, that said you have to understand that anything they do against Japan is retaliation for the cruelty of the occupation of Korea. They believe that Japan is guilty for unpardonable sins and any attack is justified. Also if they blow up something in South Korea they would think that is acceptable as the south is still occupied and they are fighting against those who collaborate.

Do they take the same position domestically as they do on KCNA?

Indeed that is why it is so stilted and ridiculous. They have some funny ideological rules and one is literal translation and another is domestic and foreign are essentially the same. That is why is is insane at times. You have to understand Korean culture, one of exaggeration and formal hyperbole. I have sat for hours being harangued about American Imperialist Aggressors with threats of nuclear attacks. Then you go to eat and enjoy a warmth and comradeship that you would see nowhere. I grew up with Koreans and you have to understand Korean culture.

The rule with any socialist society was simple - understand that which is political from that which is cultural. Is the practice of condemning three generations in a crime political or cultural? Is the practice of dividing society into three classes and 57 sub-classes political or cultural? What do you see in the ROK about extreme loyalty to the regime or company and how does that apply in the DPRK? Political or cultural? Alcoholism was rampant in the USSR. The USSR went away and how is alcoholism in Russian today? Was rampant alcoholism in the USSR caused by socialism? With the DPRK this is so mixed up that it is not easy to understand. We see red flags, communism and the trappings of the Cold War so we see the society through those eyes. I think it is totally bankrupt.

Rules: This is Korea, all other rules are thrown out.
There are no experts on the DPRK. Anyone professing such is a liar. I have sat for long discussions with WPK members and they do not know what is going on. Most of the talking heads making a career out of the DPRK have never been there. Dismiss them. Andrei Lankov is reliable and experienced. Many of the books are padded with junk. Many of the observations are not based on an understanding or Korean culture. Some are outright anti-Asian. Some will always have a piece of truth but there is too much trash floating around.

This is a closed society that we know very little about. After you go there the first time you understand how little you knew. As one person said, "You know nothing until you are there."

I traveled the Soviet Unions from the south to the Arctic, from Minsk to Siberia. That society was knowable and accessible. The DPRK takes extensive study in country. You go, you listen, you look, you listen more. Understand their viewpoint. Listen to the lessons. Read their founding literature, something I studied in college. Most of what I knew was trash and I had to relearn and get rid of my preconceptions. If you begin with a clean slate it will become a bit easier. I read Brad Martin's book and it is filled with junk. Refugee literature has a place but it depends. ROK resident refugees tell a different story than those in China or those residing elsewhere. Why is that? Why would 50% want to return? Learn Korean culture and have respect for it. Understand that there were differences between north and south prior to 1945. Understand the Koryo dynasty then look for the strains of that experience in North Korea today. It is not black and white and indeed no society is.

Ask more and I will answer if I can before I head back.
Ray
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