DPRK Travel – 2005

August 15, 2006 was the 60th anniversary of the end of world War II.  In North Korea this date is known as the “Victory over Japanese Imperialism,” when the Great Leader, President Kim il Sung, defeated the Japanese colonialists and liberated the Koreans from servitude–or something like that.   In honor of this auspicious date Pyongyang hosted the Arirang Mass Games. 

As an American, I could not travel as a tourist to see the games.  Therefore, to see them I had to be a member of a cultural delegation (visas issued by separate ministries).  So despite what had happened on my previous visit, I signed up to join the KFA on another delegation trip.  The irony is that starting in October 2005 the North Koreans began allowing American tourists to enter the country to see the Mass Games, and they have done so each year since.

Aside from my pictures, here are others from Naerna (1,2,3,4), Bjornar’s, and some othersMana Sapmak has good pictures taken on the KFA business delegation shortly after my trip.  Jason LaBouyer was interviewed at Berkeley.  Someone with Koryo tours also took these photos.  Also, the KFA wrote all about it in their defunct publication, Lodestar.

As in the previous year, I left Beijing on an Air Koryo flight to Pyongyang.  This year, I tried to get some pictures of the stewardesses (which is not easy). The only memorable event on this flight was the ENORMOUS French (or Belgian) man sitting across the aisle from me.  He was so fat that his meal tray could not be lowered over his voluminous stomach.  The poor stewardess did not know what to do when it came time to feeding him.  I am not sure if he even got to eat his generous Air Koryo meal.  When we landed in Pyongyang, I was one of the last to leave the plane.  While waiting for a bus to carry me to the terminal, I noticed an interesting way that Air Koryo staff supplement their incomes…

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Since this was a celebration event, there were many DPRK solidarity groups, of which the KFA was just one, we stayedin the Yangdakdo Hotel (A big improvement over our stay in the Sosan Hotel the previous year).  At the Yangdakdo Hotel, there was a ceremony to present gifts to the Leader, and several members of the KFA did just that.  The senior members of the KFA also sang a song.  What was interesting to note was the attitude of the Koreans to this spectacle.  Many foreigners made long speeches when they presented their gifts, but several Koreans were literally complaining about all the hot air coming out of these foreigners’ mouths.  They were literally of the opinion “Come on, no need to talk so much.” All of these gifts will someday be on display in Mt. Myohyangsan International Friendship Exhibition, including David’s miniature Statue of Liberty!

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1. This picture was taken at the KFA meeting in Beijing, which I did not attend.
2. KFA members are into wearing as many badges as they can.  Photographed here is the coveted “Gold” KFA membership badge, reserved for the KFA leadership-Alejandro, Bjornar, Jason, and Mana.

Grand People’s Study House
The next morning, we awoke to discover that the “senior” KFA members had all left town to fly to Mt. Pektu for the commemoration of a new monument.  This left everyone else in the group to get to know each other out from under the watchful eye of the senior KFAers.  There were plenty of other KFAers there taking notes on us, however, and this was fine with me–all part of the experience.  (Once I got the details afterwards, the trip to Pektusan did not sound like much fun).  The first tourist stop for those of us “left behind” was the Grand Peoples’ Study House.  It was fun to visit again and see the place for the second time.  We walked into an English class being taught by a Canadian.  She was paid in Euros and lived in the central district.  She was recruited from China apparently.  Check out the notes from one of her students below.

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Kim Il Sung Square
Since it was summer time, the “good” school children were out in the square practicing for a march in October.  They were already pretty far along.  In the few minutes I watched them, they accomplished several complex transitions.  One of my guides, Mr. Han, said “you can do this with a very organized society, and Korea is very organized.”  No doubt.  These kinds of activities keep children occupied in groups throughout their summer break.  Idle hands, after all…

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1. “100 battles, 100 victories”
2. “1000 times-don’t waste good abilities–protect and use them”

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1. Long Live the Dongjie (Comrade Kim Jong Il)

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National History Museum
Afterwards, we visited the Natural History Museum on the square.  Nothing too memorable about it except they had a mock up of the world’s first iron clad ship.  Also, I got a chance to practice with the children briefly out on the square.

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Moranbong Middle School
This trip to Moranbong was not as memorable as last year’s visit.  School had already let out for the day, so the place was half empty.  The children did put on a small show for us.  I think I even recognized a few (I still have not compared the pictures).  I tried to convince the girl playing the guitar to let me borrow it so I could play some songs, but she would not let go of it.  I was a little disappointed.  I doubt these kids have heard any “Nirvana,” and I was itching to jam with them.  One other interesting note, Pyongyang’s neighborhoods still burn all their own refuse.  I guess this is why I never saw a garbage man or a landfill.  We did see a burning facility outside the school next to a playground.

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1. “Celebrate”
2. “Lets everybody support the slogans and be good students in school” “Let’s learn from Kim Il Sung when he was young”


1. Ten rules students should have to know: 1.  Revere Kim Il Sung and Kin jong Il 2. think about the group as the most important 3. You have to love your “Dongmu” 4.You must be very respectful 5.We have to use respectful language to each other 6.You have to be respectful in public 7.Remember the traffic rules 8.When you are in school you have to obey the rules 9. You have to always be clean and keep your area clean 10. You have to act like the new generation of Juche Korea

2. The Juche Idea is shining through the whole world.  The 21st century is the Kim Jong Il century.

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1. The world of physics

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1. Lets be like young soldiers loyal to Kim Jong Il

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1. Lets finish our drama quickly

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Pyongyang Circus
The Pyongyang circus was on my 2005 wish list, so I was happy to see it.  I sat close to Mr. Han, who explained some of the humor to me.  It was interesting to hear him describe a skit about a ration coupon without actually knowing how to convey the idea of it in English.  The acrobats were fine, but required safety strings–something that would never fly at Ringling Brothers.

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1. The everything circus

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Pyongyang Maternity Hospital
The maternity hospital was also on my wish list for the trip.  To be honest, I thought it was a show piece.  The doctors would all put on their hats and look busy when we entered the room.  The patients all had makeup and did not think it was strange that a whole flock of westerners were walking in to examine them, unlike the rest of the entire population.  Additionally, the rooms all had western (sitting) toilets, which the guides told me Koreans did not use.  Also, a lot of the equipment they showed us was not being used.  So I was skeptical about it all.  Then I spoke to a friend that I trust and was assured that it was a functioning hospital because this person had been treated there.  So I guess it serves several purposes after all. 

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*”I want that you work hard for the people” Kim Jong Il

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Book Shop

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*A picture of me visiting Sinchon in 2004-posted on the wall in a Pyongyang book shop


Children’s Palace
As in the previous year, I visited the Children’s palace near Manyongdae.  This visit was better because I saw a whole range of activities I did not see the year before (when the place was a mad house and we had just gotten back from Nampo).  We saw children playing piano, drawing, practicing tae kwon do, and dancing in different styles.  The visit was capped off with a performance as was done the year before.  It seemed exactly the same, except maybe less obvious propaganda.

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Manyongdae Children’s Fun Fair (part 2)
I had visited the fun fair the previous year, but to my surprise I discovered the park is much larger than I thought and it has two entrances.  This time around, I visited a completely different part of the park.  Whereas the roller coaster was the big show last year, this time it was the log flume.  I always thought of log flumes as particular to logging in the US, but maybe they use/d them here as well.  Anyway, no one was at the park this year, so the whole place had a bit of a ghost-town feel to it. 

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Tower of the Juche Idea
We visited the tower of the Juche Idea again.  This repeat was also worth it because like in Kim Il Sung Square, people were training for the October parade.  It was interesting to see them drilling.  I got my picture taken with the huge portraits of the leaders (below).  About four or five of us got pictures like this, and then one of the men in charge of the training came and chased the group away.  Looking down at the people from the top was very interesting.  Also, I climbed up on the wall of the tower for a better picture of the torch.  Mr. Han got very scared when I leaned back over the edge.  I told him I used to rock climb all the time and I am not scared of heights.  He replied, “but if you fall, I will be in big trouble.”

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1. Lets be like brave soldiers for Kim Jong Il

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Party Foundng  Museum
The monument to the party founding was also on my wish list.  If I remember correctly, the guide at the monument told us that Kim Jong Il asked the workers to finish this monument in a single day…and they did.  WOW…You can’t really tell from the pictures, but this thing is BIG.  It is also lined up directly with the statue of Kim Il Sung on Mansu hill on the opposite side of the river. 

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*Long live the Korean Workers Party!  It will lead us to Victory!  100 wars 100 victories!

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1. lets follow our leader even 1000 [miles?]
2. Spirit of Paektu
3. Lets use our hands.  we are self sufficient.

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We also made a trip to Nampo to see the West Sea Barge.  Here is a little advice to future DPRK travelers:  The trip to the barge is not worth the time.  You drive for a significant amount of time to Nampo (a restaurant along the way was serving US rice food aid to tourists–sorry, I lost the picture a fellow traveler took)-you get out of the bus on top of a hill, look down at the barge, watch a hysterical video with Jimmy Carter visiting the construction of the barge, then get back in your car for the return trip.  You are much better off staying in your hotel drinking all manners of North Korean alcoholic beverages and asking your guide which he prefers and why.  Another person who was traveling in the DPRK at the same time as me also sent me photos of private street vendors selling fruit (below).  He saw them when his bus got lost. 

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Mansudae Hill
I visited Mansu Hill again and forgot to take a picture of the Great Leader and I (again).  I did walk down the hill and up the street to the Cholima Horse, then took a back trail to the top of the hill.  I met an old woman and a little girl who were cleaning the path.  All I could do was smile and say “hello.”

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Supreme People’s Assembly

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Chollima Horse

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1. All the military and people are united.  Lets show our power.
2. 60th anniversary of our country’s independence from the Japanese
3. 60th Anniversary of the party founding.  Lets do what the slogans tell us and put everyting into it.

Reunification Meeting
Thankfully we did not have to attend much of this.  There were too many speeches from representatives of such upstanding nations as Belarus and Cuba.  The (American) man who represented the US at this meeting seemed to have no other platform other than that he hated Jews and Israel.  I sat in my chair and studied for my comprehensive economics exams (which I had to take for my masters degree the day after I returned home).  It was fun because one of our guides was an economist who had studied in Singapore.  He was looking at copies of old exams I had and trying to answer the questions himself.  While everyone else was talking about imperialism, we were talking about marginal utility and constraint maximization functions. 

The meeting was covered in the pro-DPRK press.

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Spy Ship Pueblo 
The visit to the Pueblo the second time was not memorable.  It was full of tourists.  The thing that was most memorable was the fact that there was a huge Dodge Van parked out front.  It was so huge and out of place, everyone was looking at it and gawking.  The “Spy Ship Dodge Van”…

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Tomb of Tongmyong
This place did not do much for me largely because it was recently reconstructed (looked brand new) and it was empty.  One thing that I did notice were the beautiful trees around it.  I had realized at that point I had been in the city so long that I was surprised to be surrounded by trees again.

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Pongsu and Catholic Church
Several members of the group asked our guides if they could go to the Catholic Church on Sunday morning.  The group was scheduled to visit another remodeled tomb and then on to the closing ceremony of the reunification meeting listed above.  When I heard that some people were going to church instead, I asked to join them.  How often do you get to go to church in Pyongyang?  When Sunday morning rolled around, me and the small group of Catholics climbed into a small bus.  When we arrived at the church, I recognized it immediately as the Pongsu Protestant Church.  The pastor came outside and met us.  We all chatted for a bit.  Finally, one of the catholic members of the group insisted that we needed to go to the Catholic Church, not the Protestant Church.  The Koreans were embarrassed by this slip so they gave everyone the option to stay at Pongsu or go to the Catholic church.  Since I had seen this one, I decided to go to the Catholic Church.  Why see one when you can see two?  So then they took us across town to the Catholic church.  We missed most of the mass, and they did not offer communion because they do not have an ordained priest on staff.  They only perform communion when a priest visits from the south.  All other times a deacon of sorts officiates the service.  The crowd was mostly women and they were not wearing their Kim Il Sung badges.  They put them on immediately after the service was over.  Even though the church is state-owned, they took a collection.  I helped an older lady collect the prayer books when the service was over.

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March for Reunification
As in the previous year, there was another “March for Reunification” (“Tongil” in Korean).  Unlike last year, there was actually a large number of foreigners present.  The bizarre group from the year before must have looked silly to the Koreans, but this year there were several hundred imperialists among them.  All of the disparate groups from around the world supported by the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries came to participate this time.  Two things happened here that I will always remember.  The first is that I hate political speeches, no matter who is giving them.  The foreigners here were all giving dreadfully long speeches and were literally saying the exact same things.  I could not handle it, so I was chatting with some Korean friends who had no interest in listening either.  One Japanese man passed out in the heat, and Dr. David “Studly” Borenstein jumped to the rescue.  He began to treat the man for heat exhaustion and encouraged him to drink fluids.  Eventually a Korean doctor showed up and injected the man with some kind of “upper” she had.  I asked another guide what the injection was and she did not know the English name for it.  She mentioned that she had also been given a shot of this in the past when she fainted at a political rally.  This makes me wonder how often Koreans keel over at political rallies. This diversion was welcome–I was lucky enough to miss a whole speech while fanning the man to cool him off.  Also, we saw an elite North Korean girl use a cell phone.  The day before our guides told us cell phones had been collected for security reasons.  They just smiled and shrugged when I pointed it out.  They said “she must be special.  We are too ordinary.”  

David “Studly” Borenstein was also interviewed by Anna Fifield from the Financial Times, who was covering the week’s events.  He asked her out.  She said “no.” Surprised?

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Kamsusan Palace
Kamsusan is a very sacred place to North Koreans.  When I came here the previous year, I was touched by all the North Koreans crying.  This year, the place seemed more festive.  There were so many families and groups out in the courtyard spending time with each other and enjoying themselves.  It was really great to just hang out with them and take pictures.

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Changwang Street
This street is known as “Restaurant Street.”  It is home to the Koryo Hotel and what expats call the “Forbidden City”–executive apartments for family of the Korean Worker’s Party Central Committee.  I was hoping to get some time to see and eat at one of these restaurants.  Unfortunately all of our meals were in the hotel and I did not get to try any of them.  These restaurants charge North Korean won, but take market prices into account.  Although the official rate in the hotel is 100KW per $1US, the market exchange rate is closer to 3,000KW per $1US (which is the rate at the Tongil Market).  At the price of 3000 KW for dumplings (price at one restaurant), that is a $30 plate of dumplings at the official hotel rate. A more reasonable $1 at market prices.

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We had a banquet with Kim Yong Nam.  I did not take a picture with him, but Alejandro did.  Kim Yong Nam is the official head of state, and he had some very nice things to say about the KFA.  The Soju was smooth also.  I took the bottle back to my room and was yelled at by some other foreigner for being greedy as I walked out of the restaurant.  Mr. Kim, my guide, had to assure her it was ok.  Tim Beal managed to get an attendance list.

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Art Studio
We went back to the Mansudae art studio.  The previous year, they had an awesome brass-looking statue of a gorilla wearing boxing gloves.  My picture of it did not come out.  Unfortunately, it was not there this year.  Ces la vie!

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*Lets revere our son of Paektu mountain

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1. Lets revere comrade Kim Jong Il.  He is the brain of our revolution.
2. 56 days until the 60th anniversary of independence.  Are you doing your work for it?

Gala in Kim Il Sung Square
Because of rain, this Gala (and the Mass Games) were delayed one day.  As a result, this gala was held on August 15 (Liberation Day) and the Mass Games were held on the 16th.  This delay messed up many people’s schedule because they had made plane reservations for the morning of the 16th to return to Beijing.  So this gala was the only form of celebration they saw.  I had a great time.  It was thrilling.  I will never forget walking out to the crowd, turning around and seeing the enormous Grand People’s Study House illuminated in the dark.  It was truly incredible.  And so many North Koreans to dance with…how could you not have a good time!

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*60th celebration of independence

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Sinchon and “Indignation Meeting”
The evening before “The International Indignation Meeting Against the US Crimes in Korea,” I was up until the middle of the night first drinking with the Koryo Tours group who happened to be staying in the same hotel, then drinking with three of my Korean guides in their room.  Great conversations all around and an experience I will never forget.  But the next morning, I seemed to be the only one that was hung over.  Since the Sinchon museum was a repeat visit for me, I also knew what the drive would be like.  So I remembered to bring a pillow along so I could sleep on the bus.  When we arrived at the museum, I just sat outside not feeling well with our guides and some other KFA members that were preparing to give speeches.  They were each given their speeches to read, and since the English translations were quickly done by the Koreans, they suffered from severe “Konglish” problems.  So one KFA member tried to plead with the Koreans that he could not read his speech as it was written because everyone would start laughing.  The Korean in charge of the speeches did not understand this.  It took a lot of convincing to get the Koreans to agree to let him rewrite the speech because they did not understand why it was funny and they were worried that they would not have time to accurately translate it to Korean. 

The meeting was brutal.  All the foreigners talked and talked.  It never seemed to end.  All of the Koreans who could crouched in the back under the trees (including the girl with the cell phone), other less-fortunate citizens stood erect in the sun for over an hour.  It was enough to make me livid.  All those people forced to stand in the sun to listen to foreigners droll on and on.  After the event, I complained to my guide that stuff like this could be done indoors, or at least with people sitting, but this kind of input did not strike him as particularly important.  One KFA member tried to tell me that everyone who was hot was jointly “sacrificing” for the revolution, including himself.  I thought this was silly as I define sacrifice as the assumption of risk for a higher probability of a direct reward.  This was useless sacrifice, and the only time I ever lost my temper in Korea.

They claim to have sent a letter to the UN Commission for Human Rights.

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Mass Games (Arirang)
Since Kim Jong Il was there, no cameras were allowed.  The below picture is from Naenara, covering Kim Jong Il’s attendance.  I was sitting not to far to the left of this picture.  The Mass Games were performed by 100,000 citizens, and the performance was something you have to see to believe.  In the future, I will post some pictures others took on nights when cameras were allowed. The games were also covered by the Choson Ilbo.

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Trip to Wonsan
The trip to Wonsan was particularly sad this year because our guide, Mr. Han, who was about my age and let me call him “dongmu” drowned while swimming.  Mr. Han was an only child of a DPRK diplomat with the Foreign Ministry.  He had lived in Europe for a long time, spoke British English, and had hoped to study at Cambridge.  He went out into the water and never came back.  We all ran up and down the beach looking for him, to no avail.  There were several folks on the beach with binoculars, but they were not supposed to be watching the water.  They were supposed to watch us.  We were later told that Mr. Han’s body washed ashore in the middle of the night and that his family had been notified.  There were several little inconsistencies in the story as it was explained to me, which led me to believe that his body had not been recovered.  But I understood that the Koreans as good hosts were trying to ease our minds and assure us that everything had been resolved.  As a note to future tourists, there are several things to note about the beaches in Wonsan: 1.  There are no phone lines.  If you are in trouble, you are on your own.  2.  There might be some netting in the water in which you could get tangled.  One member of the group claimed to have gotten his foot caught in some netting under water.  I have no idea if this is true or not.  3.  The last is that “under toes” or “rip tides” can be strong even when the water does not look fierce.  If you are being pulled away from shore, swim parallel to the beach, not towards it.  If you swim parallel, you will get out of the rip faster and can then swim back to shore.

Even though the day was particularly sad, I did have a great experience in Wonsan before we noticed Mr. Han was missing.  I walked out on the pier with a bunch of DPRK teenagers, and one of them asked me where I was from, in English.  I told her “America.”  After she told all the others they all showed instant interest in me and surrounded me on the pier.  This was the only time that I had ever had access to North Koreans who could speak English without a guide present.  I asked them a few questions and told them about myself.  Particularly that there were lots of Korean restaurants in the Washington area I enjoyed and that my judo instructor was from Seoul.  They wanted to take a picture with me, but could not find a camera on the beach.  While they were looking for a camera, a security agent came and yelled at them for talking to me.  Then he turned and yelled at me.  I knew exactly what he wanted me to do (return to the foreigner’s side of the beach), but I stood there and played stupid to let the Korean kids see it was their security people who were keeping us apart.  Afterwards, I grabbed them, brought them to the foreigners side of the beach, took their picture with my camera, and got their mailing addresses.  I sent them the pictures, but have no idea if they ever got them.

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1. The Great Leader Kim Il sung will always be with us

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*notice the Nike swoosh?

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1. Lets do what our party is saying

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Hanging out at the Taedonggang Diplomatic Club
I have spent more time than I could imagine at this diplomatic club.  You can get alcohol, play pool, Chinese checkers, and karaoke.  I met an interesting employee of the UN World Food Program he told me 6 million North Koreans depended on food aid.  Also, he told me that cigarettes are rationed for ordinary North Koreans.  You can’t just go buy them, apparently.  We all sang and flirted with the girl behind the bar.  She was surprised to hear I owned a car.

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Yangdakdo Hotel Pics
The Yangdakdo is on an island in the Taedong river on the south side of town.  It is nothing special, but it is way better than the Sosan.  It has BBC news, Chinese television, and a Japanese channel.  The tailor who made some North Korean clothes for me, however, can only pick up the main state channel in her office.  She is so sweet.  The hotel has a bowling alley, pool, health clup, bordello, and CASINO!  It is run by a Macao-based firm and lots of Chinese were down there.  No pictures are allowed. 

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1. If our Great Leader is here, we will always win
2. Everybody in the party, military, and all people have to be like one to keep our revolution -kil Jong Il
3. Lets make our things of higher quality to sell to the foreigners -Kim Jong Il

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*These two images are of me visiting in 2004 on display in the hotel lobby!  This same picture was also posted in a book store!  Never have I seen such celebrity!  The guides thought this was funny.  

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Random Pyongyang photos:

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1. Lets do what the slogan says keep the military strong and unify the party to receive the anniversary


1. Our revolutionary brain that unites the military and the people.  Follow the Ranam torch.  Lets do what the party says.
2. The road is the face of the country, so lets keep it clean and make it better.
3. Everybody-lets do our work for the anniversary.
4. don’t worry about if there are roads.  we will take care of it.  

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1. Lets do what the public slogans say.  It is the revolutionary spirit and idea.

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1. The Great Leader Kim Il Sung will live in our hearts forever
2. The “Whistle”-locally produced Fiat
3. Spirit of All Military revolution

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1. Lets fight for our revolutionary brain
2. The 21st century is the Kim Jong Il Century

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1. In our generation, lets make the country united

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1. Whether we live or die, we will support the revolution

2. Long live Kim Jong Il (Used to be Kim il sung).  Long live the glorious party.

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1. Long live the plan for reunification.  It will not fail.

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1. the Great Leader Kim Il Sung will live in our hearts forever 


15 Responses to “DPRK Travel – 2005”

  1. Zhou Jinglu says:

    a good destination to visit…..um….
    but not very easy to approach……

  2. Zhou Jinglu says:

    haha, if the DPRK Embassy arrange the visit for media in Shanghai, that would be very much easier….

  3. Charles says:

    Please post your pictures to http://www.panoramio.com/ with lat and longitude so that they will show up on Google Earth.


  4. NKeconWatch says:

    Thanks, Charles. I started tonight.

  5. CTIRP says:

    That must have been an amazing experience. Your pictures are a fascinating view into their culture.

  6. Philip Grütter says:

    Dear Curtis Melvin,

    Thanks for these precious insights you provide me with. Though I only skimmed through for the moment I look forward to dig deeper into your webpage, which I surely bookmarked. It seems to me that you pursue a way of opening up unknown areas and thinking, that I appretiate. It strives for ideology free information. I think the only way of gaining trust in any form is by total openness. I sht up now before I bore someone.

  7. season says:

    Your website is very interesting and thought-provoking.
    Do you have some published papers or books about NK economy?
    Can I quote some materials on your website in my blog? Thanks a lot.
    South Korea

  8. Daniel says:

    I love these pics. The more I hear about North Korea the more I wat to see it. When I hear of some of the things that happen with thetourists and the restrictions I think again.

  9. Kevin says:

    There are public slogans to tell you to listen to other public slogans!!!

  10. i´ve just read, “corean diaries” or “diarios de corea”(in spanish) a book by Bruno Galindo, it seems he was with you in the 2004 travel, I just wanna tell you he explains all his journey in this book, but he never mentions the real names of the people he was with (I guess that includes you)…though I knew he was with you ´cause he explains the situation of the american whose tapes are confiscated….  Awesome book, awesome blog yours here. congrats to all. a very beautiful country…but so restricted it gives shivers down my spine!.