Exploring North Korea and Running the Pyongyang Marathon

Exploring North Korea and Running the Pyongyang Marathon

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The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), aka “The Hermit Kingdom”, has always seemed like a mysterious land. The timing on my lap through Asia worked out perfectly, and I decided to check it out for myself – and to run the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon in the process. In short: exploring North Korea was an interesting look into an isolated kingdom, I ran my best marathon ever – 3:34, and took over 2500 photos and 3 hours of video, edited and presented below.

Accessing North Korea

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To get into North Korea as a tourist, it’s necessary to join a government-sanctioned tour group. Normally I tend to plan my own solo travel, often planning only a day or two ahead – so joining a tour group was a bit of departure for me. However it’s really the only way to do it, and actually, it was a great experience joining a proper tour group – even if our every move was overseen by a group of government guides.

I traveled with expert tour operator Uri Tours, and specifically did their Pyongyang Marathon Beijing Departure Long Tour option. Before deciding to go to the DPRK with them, I did a bit of research on all of the companies running trips, and decided on Uri Tours for a number of reasons: They had a marathon-specific tour, which included both entry into the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon, as well as a more typical tour component. They seemed like they were a smaller company, with a bit more of a personal touch – my pre-sales emails were handled quickly and with a personal vibe. Finally, their CEO Andrea Lee seemed like a genuinely cool person, and took responsibility for leading the tour herself. During the trip I got to know her a bit, and it’s obvious that she puts everything she can into making these tours great. I’d certainly recommend Uri Tours for any of their itineraries. (Uri Tours Pyongyang Marathon Photo Album)

My experience exploring the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – North Korea

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During my time in North Korea, I took close to 2500 photos, and around three hours of video. After a bit of editing, I’ve narrowed it down to 150 key photos, and a long video collection. This photo essay is a bit longer than my normal photo essays – I’ve chosen to include more images than I normally would, to give room for the many, many interesting aspects of the DPRK.

I was shooting on three cameras – an Apple iPhone6 smartphone, Sony RX100mk3 compact point and shoot camera (which I love very very much), and a GoPro Hero 4 Silver Action Camera. Photos from all three cameras are mixed into this collection. (Also on Flickr)

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Video from inside North Korea

Throughout my trip, my group was flanked by a North Korean videographer, who tracked our every move on camera. At the end of the trip, he delivered a tripped out video diary, complete with a voiceover narrative, and the real star of the show, the synthy North Korean theme music, overlaid on most of the video. In the old school style of trip videos, this one is long long long and is mostly raw footage of me and my group exploring various parts of the country. The voiceover is a great example of the kind of stories and vibe that the tour had.

DPRK Playlist – all videos, and raw clips of almost everything….

Running the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon

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The main attraction for this trip was to run the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. This was the second year that the marathon was open to foreigners, so it was a fairly new experience for everybody involved. It’s such a new thing for North Korea to be opening this to foreigners, that in the weeks leading up to the even, they actually suspended foreign entries, as they worked out the kinks in the system. In addition to my group from Uri Tours, there were also a bunch of other tour groups there – totalling about 200 foreign runners in total. For details on the exact marathon route, be sure to check out the Uri Tours Pyongyang Marathon Route post.Uri Tours Marathon Promo Video

During the first two days of my exploration of North Korea, I worked with filmmaker Justin Martell to shoot a brief promo video for Uri Tours. It includes footage shot by Justin, Matthew Galat, and myself.

DPRK Tourism Video

Photos – Exploring North Korea

captTo get to North Korea, I flew with my group from Uri Tours from Beijing, China. Our first initial meeting as a group was the night before at a restaurant in Beijing, and then most people stayed together that night in Beijing in a hotel. A few more people joined us at the Beijing airport, and by the time the flight was boarding, everybody was assembled at the gate. it’s worth noting that this was a six day trip – I typically pack fairly minimally – and I had a 12kg, 40L backpack as my only luggage. I was a bit surprised by how much some of the other tour memebers packed. Lighter the better, I think..
Checking in at the Beijing Airport. Air Koryo is North Korea’s airline, and they have their own desk space in Beijing. Checkin went smoothly, just like any other airline. Here you can see me with my Osprey Exos 48 backpack, and Air Koryo boarding card.
Departing Beijing for Pyongyang. Air Koryo flies a small fleet of new and old airplanes, all Russian-made. I flew on an Antonov AN-148. Overall the flight was just fine – the plane was by no means brand new, but it ran just fine, and the flight was comfortable.

From Wikipedia: The An-148 aircraft is a high-wing monoplane with two turbofan jet engines mounted in pods under the wing. This arrangement protects the engines and wing structure against damage from foreign objects (FOD). A built-in auto-diagnosis system, auxiliary power unit, high reliability, as well as the wing configuration allow the An-148 to be used at poorly equipped airfields.

From the gate in Beijing, I was transported by bus out to the aircraft, which was parked on the tarmac. The wide open tarmac boarding scene gave some great views of air operations in Beijing, as well as a good look at the somewhat unusual AN-148.
Our entire group, except for one person, assembled at the gate. In order to travel to North Korea – the DPRK, you must be a part of an official government-sanctioned tour group. No individual tourists are allowed – although I did see a single guy doing a private tour accompanied by his required two government minders/tour guides and forieign tour guide.

The one woman we’re missing in this picture decided to skip the flight, and instead took a few days to ride the train from Beijing to Pyongyang. According to her report, the long train ride was fairly uneventful. Once the train was inside North Korea, the car doors were padlocked, and nobody was allowed off until it arrived in Pyongyang, where she was greeted by government “tour guides” to take her to the hotel to accompany the rest of the group. It certainly sounds like a unique and interesting way to enter the DPRK.

I did a bit of research before choosing to go with Uri Tours. Ultimately I decided to go with them because of their good track record, history of working with a few higher profile clients, and personal communication with the owner, Andrea Lee. Andrea and her friend/business partner Christna are doign a great job of continuing to build Uri Tours. They were responsive to my pre-sales questions, and were a pleasure to hang out with while on the tour. Although not everything was totally smooth, they did a great job at dealing with the day-to-day issues we encountered, and generally staying upbeat an awesome.
Boarding the plan – goodbye China!
Inside, I sat with my friend and roommate for the trip Nick. As soon as I sat down, I was handed a “Korea Today” magazine, which is filled with articles and photos describing life in North Korea, some issues of the day, etc. Of course if had the pro-DPRK spin, and was certainly an interesting read – the first waves of propaganda hit before I even left China – before the doors of the aircraft were even closed!

Nick and I had both been traveling solo for a time before our tour, and were both going to be paying an extra “single supplement” for the tour, to account for us each occupying a double room. Instead, Andrea of Uri Tours considerately introduced us to each other, and put us together as roommates for the trip, eliminating the extra charge for singles. It turned out to be great on all fronts – the trip was less expensive for both of us, and we each made a new friend.
Departing Beijing. I took this picture to capture the dense, newly built landscape surrounding Beijing – massive housing complexes spring up everywhere, with industry and factories on the outskirts.
Getting ready to land in North Korea. The difference between the outskirts of Beijing and Pyongyang are stark. There are essentially no suburbs or sprawl of Pyongyang – it simple stops and gives way to open land. There are a couple of housing blocks, but almost no cars can be seen, nor can any real activity on the ground.
Landing at the Pyongyang airport. This massive terminal with the red letters isn’t actually being used. It’s an empty building, which they’re supposedly still building. Instead, a small building next to it is used as the main terminal.

In front of the large empty terminal is a row of Ilyushin Il-62 jets, all with storage covers in the engines, and no activity happening around them. In fact, the only activity on the tarmac was surrounding our incoming flight.
Inside the terminal building of the Pyongyang airport.

Once I passed immigration, getting through customs was a bit of a process. My bag was XRayed, and all of my batteries, electronics, and cameras were scrutinized. I was required to turn on one of my cameras (the GoPro), and the security officer simply looked over the rest of it. The check was actually a lot less thorough than I had imagined – and the security officer didn’t handle my gear very nimbly. I was expecting for an electronics expert to look through some of my photos, and do a closer check – but in the end, as with many security checks, it appeared to be more “security theater”.

Immediately after departing the secure area and handing my Passport and Visa over to the government guide, there’s a large board on the wall which goes over the many triumphs of the DPRK, showing glossy photos of the great leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. There are also the standard portraits of the former leaders on the wall in the main part of the terminal building, as is standard for public spaces.
Koryo link is North Korea’s cell phone network. Most citizens don’t have cell phones, the the few who do use the Koryolink network. The network is notable because for North Korean citizens, it’s a closed network, unless special permission is given. People can call each other, but can’t call out. There’s also no data-link to the outside world. However, for foreiginers with a specially designated SIM card, there IS internet access on Koryolink, and the ability to call outside of the country. With a huge black market operating in North Korea, I’d be interestested to know what a visitor SIM card would go for. This Koryo link kiosk is inside the main terminal at the Pyongyang Airport.

From Wikipedia: Koryolink (Korean: ????, styled as koryolink), a joint venture between Egyptian company Global Telecom Holding and the state-owned Korea Post and Telecommunications Corporation (KPTC), is North Korea’s only 3G mobile operator. The Egyptian company owns 75% of Koryolink, and is known to invest in infrastructure for mobile technology in developing countries. It covers Pyongyang, and five additional cities and eight highways and railways. Phone numbers on the network are prefixed with +850 (0)192. Despite being a 3G network, there is no Internet access for domestic users although as of April 2014, mobile internet access for foreigners with limited speed or traffic amount is available at a comparably high price [1]
The main event of the trip was running the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. After departing the airport, the first stop of the trip was outside of Kim Il Sung Stadium, in downtown Pyongyang. The outside of the stadium is adorned with massive mosaics of Korean athletes, and of course the requisite portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Opposite the stadium lies the truly massive triumphal arch, celebrating Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945. It’s the second largest in the world – although during the tour I was told that it was the absolute largest. Also visible in this panorama is the tip of the triangular Ryugyong Hotel.
The main lobby of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. The decor was extravagant in a soviet-70’s way. Large golden chandeliers hung down from the sloped ceilings, and giant murals of majestic forests rose above the elevator bay entrance. Although the hotel was filled, it was only filled with tourists – no locals, or other non-tour people. Normally for such a large hotel I’d expect to see other groups, local families and groups on vacation, and handfuls of business travelers. However here, the entire place was staffed purely for us (and the other marathon trip groups). I wouldn’t be surprised if as soon as the foreign tour groups left, the entire place shut down completely – the vibe with the space, furniture, signage and staff felt very temporary, like it could be turned on and off at a moment’s notice.
While on the trip, photos were strictly regulated, and I was only officially allowed to take photos in pre-determined directions in pre-determined spots. However, I made efforts to get as many other photos as I could. This one was taken out the back window of our moving bus. The arch is a brilliant and grand symbol, instantly recognizable from the far corners of town. It also made for a great distance marker the next morning while running the marathon. Part of the marathon route goes through the traffic circle surrounding the arch.

The triumph arch is lit brilliantly at night, however as you’ll notice, not a lot else is. There are a few street lights on the main street, but they quickly fade away into darkness. There’s very little nighttime illumination in public areas, aside from monuments and billboards.
Checking in at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. This hotel in the heart of Pyongyang is massive, and features a rotating restaurant on the top floor. My group arrived the night before the marathon, along with a number of other marathon groups. Everybody seemed to check in at the same time, and because of this, the elevators were severely overloaded. With so many guests, the elevators were not large enough or fast enough for everybody – especially since only a few of them were working.

The checkin desk was very basic. There were computers at the desk, bu tI never really saw any of them being used.
This tablet computer was setup prominently at the edge of the front desk of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It looked brand new, with the stickers still on it – and it didn’t do anything except tell the time. Nobody at the hotel used it for anything, and it was not connected to anything. Simply a piece for show.
Next to the techy tablet computer was an old school landline telephone – and this was actually connected to the phones in the rest of the hotel. Basic, but it worked.
This backlit sign had obviously been posted for years, and had severely faded – so much so that the graphics had started to fade away completely. Next to the sign were four fish tanks, each containing a number of small sharks. Certainly an ostentatious extravagance that really completed the very frozen-in-the-70’s vibe of the whole place.
Inside the Yanggakdo International Hotel is a well-stocked book store, with numerous books in english and other languages on every topic, including the writings of the North Korean leaders, accounts of history, and even children’s books.
This is the main dining hall of the Yanggakdo International Hotel. the neon accent lights and majestic murals of mountain scenes completed the surreal, frozen in time vibe of the place. Beside my tour group and the other marathon groups, there was nobody else eating here.

Food was fair. Typical Korean dishes, but using very low quality ingredients. Meat was fatty, and the overal selection was limited, however in good quanitity. The impression I got was that they cooked up whatever they could acquire in enough quanitity. So some nights there were tons of onions and potatoes, and some nights tons of other random dishes.
Groups ate together, and my table ordered a round of local beers.
Day 2 – marathon day. In the morning I woke up, got a quick breakfast at the hotel, and then loaded on the bus with the rest of my group to be transported back to Kim Il Sung Stadium.

When I arrived, I noticed that the tourist groups were kept distinctly separated from the Koreans. Everybody was in good spirits in general, and each tour company was working to sort out its group members.

It’s also worth noting that in this picture you can once again see the portraits of the leaders. I was given strict instructions for my photos that if any photos include portraits of the leaders, the portraits must be shown in full, and not cutoff or obscured in an way. I certainly didn’t adhere to the the entire time, but I believe my government minders would consider this photograph as compliant.
The Pyongyang Marathon was held on a Sunday, and lots of locals showed up for the big event. I’m not sure how people are selected to go to the events, but the overall vibe of the crowd entering the stadium wasn’t as enthusiastic as I’d expect going into a major sporting event. There was both the marathon as well as a soccer game on the agenda, and I would have expected these spectators to be a bit more jubilant about going – for free! Perhaps it was because it was somewhat early in the morning, or perhaps because they’re being forced to attend – I simply don’t know. In addition to this photo, I captured a bit of video of these guys, who got energetic as soon as I approached and shook their hands. It felt like we were all grateful for some sort of connection to the other side.
Upon entering the stadium before the race, I was given 10 minutes to wander around and take photos. Being in the middle of such a huge stadium with people filing in is an incredible experience.
A group of kids, with their supposed coaches, about to enter the stadium. These kids had a great energy, and I think they were more interested in my camera than they were interested in me. Everybody in the background is staring in my direction because I was on the side of the tourists – we were all checking each other out.
Locals in their assigned spots in the stadium. All of the cheers throughout the event were led by cheer leaders at the front of the crowd, and it all seemed very rehearsed and orchestrated. Strangely, the mood of the crowd seemed to calm to an almost sleep as soon as they were done cheering – and then perk back up when it was their time.
Girls in the crowd all wearing the same uniforms, with matching allegiance pins.
Between cheers, people quieted down significantly.
A guard stands next to the tourist bleacher area in Kim Il Sung Stadium.
Here I am coming around a corner during my run of the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. Both tourists and professional Korean athletes ran at the same time – so the entire time I was running, I was being passed by the pros!
Only the professional athletes had timing chips that worked with this timing mat. Everybody else simply got a finishing time, done by hand. Since I certainly wasn’t competing with anybody but myself, this was totally fine.
Coming around the final turn inside Kim Il Sung Stadium to finish the Pyongyang Marathon. Entering the stadium with everybody cheering was a powerful experience.
With about a week of training, I finished the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon (26.2 Miles) in 3:34:47.
These women presented the trophies to the winners in each category. They’re wearing Hanboks, the traditional North Korean National Dress. Everybody is also wearing the double-portrait “Kim Pin”, in varying styles.
After the marathon, my group returned to the hotel to clean up and have lunch in the rotating restaurant. The view from the top is spectacular, with Pyongyang stretching into the distance. The haze in the air is smog blown in from China.
The Pyongyang Marathon award ceremony.
Looking out the top of the hotel, many unfinished buildings are present. Although our government tour guides told us that these buildings were under active construction and were symbols of North Korea’s strength and prosperity, I saw very little actual building work done the entire trip, and this building site looks barely active to me.
Driving through Pyongyang, I frequently saw rows of shanties and tents, housing what looked like workers and military personnel. Surrounding many of these shanty villages were large fences, obscuring the areas from view from the street.

In the distance the Yanggakdo International Hotel, with circular revolving restaurant, can be seen.
One of the elements that struck me as I was being driven through Pyongyang was the lack of advertisements, signage, or any other colorful expression. Really the only public messaging was in the form of government-built propaganda signs, and general public encouragement and rallying messaging. Lots of signs like this one, flags, and other posters, but absolutely no 3rd party advertisements, public art except for official monuments and installations, or any other signs.
A typical street corner in Pyongyang, with citizens walking to an elevated crosswalk. Although there were a few cars on the road, most of the people walk everywhere.
A four-sided elevated crosswalk. One element of Pyongyang traffic that was notably absent were the traffic ladies. I saw a few, but nowhere near as prominently as I was hoping.
Public transportation seems to run well in Pyongyang, with all buses I observed full of people. The underground metro also seemed quite popular.

In the background, the balconies of apartment buildings can be seen. Although these buildings are in good repair, it really doesn’t look like anybody lives there. No laundry hanging to dry, nothing in the windows, and at night there are almost no lights on inside of apartments. The apartments I saw that did have lights on appeared to have one single florescent bulb burning.
At the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, the huge statues of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung dominate, flanked by war memorials. During my stop here, I watched as a few member of my group deposited flowers at the base of the monument.

Monuments are everywhere in North Korea, and at night, they’re some of the only public spaces that are illuminated, They take the most prominent spots in town, and truly are grand – and numerous.
At the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum, I was led around by a well dressed tour woman, wearing a military-inspired uniform. She gave a tour to my entire group, including a walk through some relics from various wars, and of the US Navy Ship Pueblo.
Looking at various bombs that have been dropped on North Korea in recent years. Hearing the guides accounts of the wars was fascinating, with an obvious pro-DPRK spin on everything.
GER-2, the USS Pueblo. This is a US Navy Banner-Class Environmental Research Ship, which was captured by North Korea in 1968. To this day, the ship is a still-commissioned US Navy Vessel, but is now held captive in North Korea, and used as a museum. I actually got to go aboard!
AGER-2, the USS Pueblo. From Wikipedia: USS Pueblo (AGER-2) is a Banner-class Environmental Research Ship, attached to Navy intelligence, which was attacked and captured by North Korean forces on 23 January 1968, in what is known today as the Pueblo incident or alternatively, as the Pueblo crisis.

The seizure of the U.S. Navy ship and its 83 crew members, one of whom was killed in the attack, came less than a week after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “State of the Union” address to the United States Congress, just a week before the start of the “Tet Offensive” in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and only three days after 31 men of North Korea’s “KPA Unit 12” had crossed the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and killed 26 South Koreans in an attempt to attack the South Korean “Blue House” (executive mansion) in the capital Seoul. The taking of Pueblo and the abuse and torture of its crew during the subsequent 11-month prisoner drama became a major Cold War incident, raising tensions between the western democracies and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and People’s Republic of China.

North Korea stated that the Pueblo deliberately entered their territorial waters 7.6 miles away from Ryo Island, and the logbook shows that they intruded several times.[1] However, the United States maintains that the vessel was in international waters at the time of the incident and that any purported evidence supplied by North Korea to support its statements was fabricated.[2]

Pueblo, still held by North Korea today, officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy.[3] Since early 2013, the ship has been moored along the Botong River in Pyongyang, and used there as a museum ship.[4] Pueblo is the only ship of the U.S. Navy still on the commissioned roster currently being held captive.[5]
Inside the heart of the Pueblo, the secret code room. Now open to the public, and still technically commissioned.
Exploring inside the Pueblo was fascinating. It’s setup completely as a museum ship, with many of the crew’s artifacts in cases.
Inside the Pyongyang Military Museum, a giant statue of Kim Jong Un.
During my trip, my group got lots of great korean meals. This table full of food was fairly typical for us – although given the conditions seen outside, I felt a small bit guilty at times. Still, it was an interesting and tasty dining experience.
The lobby of the second largest operating hotel in North Korea, the Koryo Hotel. After encountering the masses at the Yankkado hotel (the largest), we decided to move to this less-busy, but still grand hotel.

Entering tourist-oriented interior spaces in North Korea is a fantastic experience, with over-the-top decorations, shiny surfaces, lots of lights, majestic murals, and serene aquariums everywhere.
This Songaliquor is the local North Korean rice wine. A bottle cost about USD$2, and it’s guaranteed to give you a wicked hangover. Luckily, I gifted this bottle to a friend in Beijing before I could get around to drinking it.
The massive gift shop and supermarket at the Koryo Hotel. Inside this palace were sections of clothing, jewelry, groceries, medicine, and anything else you might need.

It certainly was shocking seeing so much stuff in this very mirrory room – however most of it looked like it was purely for show.
European-labeled packaging on Haribo Gummy Candies in North Korea
This is the food isle in the gift shop. I bought a number of these snacks, and was interested to see non-korean labels on almost everything. For example, a bag of Haribo gummy candies I bought had normal German labels on it, and was clearly labeled for sale in Europe, not Asia. It may be that these foods are taken from air packages, or something else.
A few boxes of medicine on sale at the Koryo Hotel gift shop. Given the international labeling and random selection of the medical supplies on sale, it very much seemed like these supplies were scavenged from various sources – not planned and ordered for retail sale.
Another buffet meal in another hall of mirrors at the Koryo Hotel. Each dining hall we ate at was similar to this, with bunches of flowers everywhere, and lots of mirrors and lights.
Ouside my window at the Koryo Hotel was an almost-symmetrical stand of buildings, connected by a common plaza.

The neon signs on the outside of the low buildings are for restaurants – however during my entire stay there, I never saw any of these shops open, nor anybody go in or out. The windows were all darkly tinted, and I actually saw basically no signs of life from these buildings. At night, a few of the lights in the apartments would go on, but only one light per window. The neon signs would turn on around sunset, but turn off around 10pm every night – still with no activity at all. It very very much felt like this entire group of buildings was setup purely for show, with no real activity happening here at all. There were items on the balconies, but it was either a pot of fake flowers, or a solar panel. The entire vibe of the street outside, despite being in the middle of Pyongyang, was silent and empty feeling.
Crossing the river in Pyongyang. Despite barely seeing any cars on the road, there are a good amount of people walking and riding bikes everywhere.
On the fourth day, I headed out of Pyongyang, westward into the country. There’s one wide, paved road that leads west out of Pyongyang, into freshly-planted farmland. Although the road was paved the entire time west and south to the DMZ area, the road was in dire need of a refurbishment – this picture of the pavement was fairly typical for almost the entire drive to the DMZ.
Approaching the DMZ area, there were lots of giant, colorful posters promoting unification of North and South Korea. The posters really were wonderful works of art – even though the only ones to see them are tourists.
Another interesting propaganda poster, found in the DMZ gift shop.
One of my government minders/guides, Ms. Lee, explaining to my group the layout of the border, and nearby villages. On this day, Ms. Lee wore her dress – but most other days she wore jeans and a blouse and leather jacket.
Before going to the the actual line, a guide explains the layout of the “Joint Security Area”, which is the neutral zone which surrounds a particular section of the “Military Demarcation Line” that is the actual border between the north and the south.
To access the Joint Security Area from the north side, there’s a long, isolated road that leads from the common parking area to the actual JSA. On both sides of the road is open farmland, with regularly spaced trenches, boulder fields, and other impediments to vehicles and troops – this is all to make the border harder to cross for enemy troops. Lining the open road is a series of giant concrete blocks, perched delicately on a ledge above the road. Each concrete block is balanced at the edge of a ramp which guides the block onto the road. The entire block is supported by a single wooden wedge. It appears that the system is rigged so that if the road becomes compromised and needs to be completely blocked, a small group of men can go out there with hammers and knock out the wedges, letting the massive blocks fall into the road and obstruct it. Simple and effective.
Entering the Joint Security Area. I had been to the JSA from the south side just weeks before – and this time, although security was still tight, the DPRK Guards were much more at ease.
Our guide leading me down the pathway in front of the northern building, and down the steps to the actual Military Demarcation Line. The feeling was light and jovial – but with the undertone that it could turn serious quickly.
As I approached the steps leading down to the blue buildings at the JSA, a group of DPRK guards exited their security building, and arranged themselves in formation around the MDL Line and blue buildings. The guards were arranged so nobody could pass to the sides of the blue buildings and over the border to the south.

Notice also in this photograph that there is an absence of any guards from the South Korean side. The US Military runs the JSA area from the south, and when I visited the JSA area as part of a US Military-led USO Tour, there were American guards giving us the tour, as well as South Korean guards guarding the buildings, AND North Korean guards monitoring the same spaces. The JSA is a neutral zone, and so guards from either side are freely allowed to walk around.

When I was there visiting from the north, there was absolutely no sign of anybody from the southern side – no guards, no US Military tour guides, no other groups, or anybody. I’m sure there were actually guards from the south watching us, but there was no sign of them.

Also in this picture is the main building on the southern side. While I was on the tour coming from the south, I was told that I was not allowed to turn around and take photos of this building. Interesting to see all of the surveillance equipment on the top.
This photo is of the North Korean guards inside one of the blue buildings. I had been in this exact room a few weeks prior, and in addition to the South Korean guards, there were also North Korean guards. However, the tone was completely different from the Northern guards. When I visited from the south, the North Korean guards wore completely different uniforms, with large korean letters on their helmets, imposing dark RayBan sunglasses, and an extremely stern, tense pose. This time, the guards were upbeat and friendly, and there was no sign of any guards from the south.
Walking back from the MDL back to the north. The two guards facing each other in the background are standing right next to the actual line, a raised concrete strip.
Looking from the second floor balcony of the main building in the north, the layout of the entire JSA can bee seen. Of note, there are a bunch of surveillance instruments on the top of the building in the south. During my visit to this area from the south, I wasn’t allowed to turn around to take pictures of this building.

Also visible is China’s large weather tower.
The south’s main building at the JSA.
Driving from the DMZ area Westward towards the coast, I went through a number of small towns. Kaesong in the south did have a bit of life – and was generally a bit more upbeat than Pyongyang – although there were still very few cars on the street, and it seemed almost deserted, except for a few decorations and people walking around.
Strolling around the Koryo History Museum.
At the Koryo History Museum, I got to speak briefly with our guide about life in North Korea. She was also wearing a beautiful traditional dress – as well as her red pin. The pin I’m wearing is the Explorer’s Club pin.
Stamp collecting is a big thing in North Korea, and upon browsing through a few stamp books, I was delighted to find a special edition Antarctic stamp.
Sunset, as seen from the Nampo Dam Lighthouse.
Women in North Korea had a beautiful 70’s vibe to their looks, and cared a lot about their makeup, fashion, and presentation. This woman working at a ginseng gift shop was beautiful, and very friendly.
Outside of Kaesong, I noticed this goat farmer coming in from the fields with a few of his goats, and a load full of pine branches. As soon as I started to snap this pic, my government minders got a little edgy, and came running at me to tell me to stop taking pictures. The farmer was seen as a negative sign, and they didn’t want photos taken of him.
Another great lunch in a grand dining room – complete with idyllic mural.
These epic paintings of the leaders were everywhere, and displayed proudly.
Driving from Kaesong westward towards the coast, the bus passed many small villages, which seemed like a more “normal” spot for people to live. This pic is fairly typical of the buildings that looked truly inhabited by people, and not just setup for show.
Back in Pyongyang, I had the opportunity to ride the Pyongyang Subway. This is one of the deepest subway systems in the world, and the long escalator ride down was distinct evidence of that. Again, there was a notable lack of any kinds of advertisements or signage – with the only signs being public announcements, directions, and newspapers for viewing.
The Pyongyang metro stations are grand, with each one having its own artistic motif. These subway cars are soviet built, and seem to run well – even though they’re seriously old.
Each station has its fare share of epic mosaics, depicting the leaders in a variety of triumphant poses. This one of Kim Il Sung with common people was particularly grand.
A mosaic in the Pyongyang metro of Kim Jong Il standing in a grassy field. Epic.
In the station, there are central displays with the day’s newspaper.
This woman is reading about the marathon, which I ran the day before. Notably absent in the article about the marathon was the mention that any Americans had run it.
The metro has two lines, which intersect in the middle of town. This handy light up board was the main directory for the station.
Of course on each train car is the portrait of the dear leaders. Friend Justin Martell poses with them.
Riding the Pyongyang metro was a great opportunity to interact with some of the locals. Here, I’m sitting next to a group of school girls, who are getting nervous while practicing their english skills.
Dinner at the Koryo Hotel – another psychedelic room in the DPRK.
Overall, the food in North Korea was great. It was traditional korean food, and almost all of the meals except for the buffet meals were delicious – including this bibimbap at the Koryo Hotel.
Dinner with my group.
This flower show was held in commemoration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday – and featured an entire hall filled with some of the most intensely arranged flowers I’ve ever seen. There are even special breeds of flowers created especially for the leaders.
On one of the last nights in Pyongyang, we were taken to the Taedonggang Microbrewery. Although this room was setup to look like a bar room, it was contained inside a fairly lifeless concrete building. When I arrived with my group, the lights in the building turned on, and everything seemed to start up. However after about 2 hours of relaxing, my group was told that the place was closing, and everybody was ushered out – it seemed like the entire building shut down right after that. So, it was a nice place to grab a drink, but was a complete setup just for the group, not an actual functional establishment. This was the vibe throughout much of the trip.
I relaxed with a few of my trip mates in the grand spa in the basement of the Koryo Hotel.
The iconic Juche Tower. From Wikipedia: Completed in 1982, the Tower is situated on the eastern bank of the River Taedong, directly opposite Kim Il-sung Square on the western side of the river to commemorate Kim Il-sung’s 70th birthday. Although his son and successor Kim Jong-il is officially credited as its designer,[1] interviews with former North Korean officials contradict this assertion.[2]

The 170-metre (560 ft) structure is a four-sided tapering 150-metre (490 ft) spire
Mount Myohyangsan is a beautiful mountain, and I had a great time hiking up it with the group. Throughout the trip, there was a Korean videographer tracking our every move on tape. At the end, I was sold a very old school video documentary of the trip. However, I’m sure that’s the only place the footage went.
A typical scene on the streets in western North Korea. Of note in this picture is a the woman on the right hand side selling flowers on top of a cardboard box. This is a small example of the illegal North Korean Black Market – and although innocuous looking, there’s been lots of talk about private enterprises like this recently.
Another lunch. This time, after our servers were finished bringing out food, they all went to change into costumes, and then performed a very sweet, very weird song and dance karaoke routine. Entertaining for sure.
My cruise over to the Nampo Dam started in this small port, surrounded by rusty fishing boats.
Traveling out to the sea port on the west side, I passed a number of residential buildings with people hanging out front – this seemed like where people actually lived.
On my way to the Nampo Dam, North Korea.
Sailing across to the Nampo Dam.
Inside the Nampho Dam (P’i Do) Lighthouse is another great portrait of Kim Jong Il, posing in front of the dam.
When I arrived at the Nampo Dam area, there was a large group of people gathered around a central stage, having just finished practicing a dance routine. The next day was Kim Il Sung’s birthday, and everybody had been spending the day preparing.

Also at the top of the hill, the Nampo Damn Lighthouse, shaped liken an anchor.
Inside the Nampho Dam (P’i Do) Lighthouse, I was treated to a video detailing the construction and operation of the dam. The mural on the wall showing the layout of the dam was a great work of art.
After a day on the water, my group arrived at the remote Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort. The main selling point of this resort was that the hot spring waters contained “health giving”, “therapeutic” RADON. I politely passed on taking a dip in the Radon Hot Springs.
Seen here is the concentrations of various minerals and dissolved chemicals in the hot springs water – including the concentration of Radon. Kinda scary.
Another strange dinner at the Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort. The main building at the resort was dark when we arrived, and a few lights were turned on for us. It was still freezing cold inside, but we at a decent dinner in the empty ballroom.
My bedroom at the Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort. It looked like it was built 30 years ago, and not update since. The entire building was solar powered, and because of this, only two dim LED lightbulbs were actually plugged into power. All other outlets and light sockets in the place were unpowered, and a broken window had been covered with thin plastic sheeting.
An early morning drive from the Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort back to Pyongyang was beautiful.
One of the tubs of the Ryonggang Hot Springs Resort, stained from years of Radon Hot Spring waters.
I traveled mostly on a tour bus in North Korea, as dictated by the tour group. Overall it was comfortable, and Ms. Lee, my Korean guide, talked on the mic the whole time.
The Juche Tower in central Pyongyang, symmetrically positioned.
Ms. Lee, my guide/minder pointing out the location of the Nampo Dam.
In Pyongyang, I made a stop with my group for lunch at a restaurant right across the street from the giant Ryugyong Hotel. I was scolded for having this picture taken of me, because it shows the shanty village that surrounds the giant uninhabited building.
Passing through small farming villages on my way back to Pyongyang.
After viewing the bodies, I was released into the large gardens in front of the palace, where lots of other people were assembled, all taking photos.
I was fortunate to be in North Korea for the birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung. On this day, I went to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed bodies of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are on display in glass boxes. After a lengthy security check, I was escorted through the interior of the massive palace and into each room containing the leaders. Each room was protected from dirt by a vacuum corridor which I walked through on my way into the room. The rooms were illuminated by dim red lights, and lying in the middle of each room was one of the leaders – their bodies perfectly preserved, and in plain view inside a glass coffin. I was put together by a guard with a group of 3 other people, and the four of us were led around the coffin, where we bowed deeply on each of the four sides.

After departing the rooms with the bodies, I was given a tour of the rest of the palace, which contains the rooms full of medals and awards given to each leader, as well as a few of the leaders vehicles. Vehicles on display include a boat, a train car, a golf cart, and a couple black mercedes limos.
A british news crew filmed a news segment in front of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun.
Me, posing in front of the flowerbed leading to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, Pyongyang, North Korea.
Me with one of our Korean government minders, as well as Uri Tours CEO Andrea Lee on my left, and Uri Tours guide Cristina Park on my far right.
Schoolchildren came out for the event, and seemed to be having a great time walking around in the sun, even as they were corralled by their teachers. Very cute.
After lunch in Pyongyang, I watched as roommate Nick played soccer with a small group of guys. This is in the middle of Pyongyang, and notice the lack of any signs or advertisements.
Showing my high-tech camera to a couple of kids in Pyongyang.
On Sunday in Pyongyang, everybody goes to the park. I took a wonderful stroll through the park, and got to watch the locals dance and play in the water.
Locals dancing together in the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Pyongyang.
On Kim Il Sung’s birthday, many large groups of people got together for coordinated dances like this one.
At Mangyondae, Kim Il Sung’s birthplace, young kids with their military groups wait in formation before entering the leader’s original house.
Dancers in matching outfits celebrated excitedly in the center of Pyongyang.
Women wait for their bus in front of the iconic Pyongyang Ice Rink.
Pyongyang has lots of performing arts, shows, and other extravagances, despite the economic situation of the country. On a Sunday night, I had the opportunity to attend the Pyongyang Circus – a sight to behold.
To finish the celebration of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, Pyongyang was treated to an amazing fireworks display over the river. I walked through the darkness with my group to the viewing location along the river. On my way back, I was surprised to find that there were almost no streetlights at all – the only illumination at night was for the monuments, and almost none of the public walkways had any lights on.
Me outside of the Pyongyang Circus.