(Opening picture: My days of hanging out in Pyongyang bowling alleys and wild North Korean nightlife are probably over.)
Flashback to 2012 and 2013: Life was somewhat different–I was a bit pudgier, a recent college grad, still used a flip phone, and I was obsessed with getting into the world’s most secretive country to see it for myself. This dream manifested as myself and a rag-tag group, including podcast host Jordan Harbinger (now of the Jordan Harbinger show) and renowned photographer Joe Ferris, booked not one–but two epic journeys into the DPRK, recounted on this blog (and the first trip detailed in the 2012 YouTube documentary we edited North Korea Uncloaked).
With photos and media from those trips still used today in articles and stories, and our whole experience being mentioned everywhere from Wired Magazine to CNN–and my blog featured on the BBC, local news outlets, mentioned in the Los Angeles times, and many more places–it was really quite an honor. I actually thought maybe I’d return for a third time. North Korea was such an exciting place to visit, right?
Back then, there was a cautious optimism. Kim Jong Un–whom we affectionately called ‘Lil Kim–was newly inaugurated. There was a sense he might start a process of undoing the cult-like control over the country, and start reforming it into a subdivision of Chinese-style communism. Maybe even close the concentration camps, stop the genocide, and apply some diplomacy to end the famines. We fantasized about returning for our third visit and using Wi-fi at a Pyongyang Starbucks. Just imagine…
We also imagined as a bunch of happy, go-lucky Americans and Kiwis interacting with locals in remote cities like Hamhung and Wonsan–we were spreading goodwill to help usher in those changes. I think we still did spread goodwill and had a lot of fun, memorable times with locals and yes–perhaps opened a few eyes to foreigners (Americans in particular) as not being the Devil’s Henchmen.
Even the second trip, where our reception was a bit more icy, was still a great time, including staying at a resort which was a recreation of an ancient Korean settlement near the border city of Kaesong–where we could walk around freely and enjoy a feeling of traveling back in time.
We were impressed that our trips did NOT seem like we were shown only what they wanted us to see. We witnessed dire poverty in the long, cruel roads beyond the Pyongyang city gates. We were simply given warnings not to take photos so we wouldn’t make the country seem worse than it already was, which I honestly felt was a completely fair rule (although I still got some shots…). Our bus traveled far and wide across the country and it didn’t seem like those restrictions were nearly as bad as we were told.
In fact, numerous times we’d interact with complete strangers, or provide them with Polaroid pictures as most cannot afford their own cameras (and now they finally had their own family photos thanks to a group of crazy tourists). The guides actually thought this was a good idea. I recall our first guide, Mrs. Kim, thought connecting with locals was the most important part of the trip and was quite heartfelt about it.
Not to mention our experience of hanging out with a North Korean top military brass and discussing candidly a future of peace.
Overall, North Korea seemed like a far more interesting, rustic, and authentic experience than anywhere we could go in the South.
While my obsession with travel did send me around the world more than once since those “glory days” of DPRK adventures, I never returned to the Hermit Kingdom. Why? Because those fantasies of reform and better days ahead made way for the grim reality: Kim Jong Un is worse than his father.
Hopes were first destroyed in 2016 from the Otto Warmbier incident. Otto, a young man not dissimilar to myself, booked a trip to North Korea via the same tour company we used for our second expedition. I often fear my expedition could have inspired his–and why not? Based on everything I reported in the above paragraphs, who wouldn’t want to visit North Korea?
Otto Warmbier was, of course, murdered by the DPRK regime. As a recent 60 Minutes Australia special makes it clear, Warmbier did NOT steal a propaganda poster from a hotel–timestamps prove he was having drinks with the rest of the tour group until nearly 3 AM that morning.
In fact, the DPRK regime had plans to select an American tourist to turn into a political bargaining chip. As Otto prepared to leave the country–with my own memories flashing back to my departure from the Yangakkdo Hotel to the airport–he was apprehended at gunpoint at the terminal. He was sentenced to 15 years “hard labor”, with a likely goal to bring American diplomats to the table for other purposes in exchange for Otto.
Of course, this plan didn’t work out so well because DPRK thugs beat and tortured him causing severe brain injuries. He returned on a stretcher blind, deaf and immobilized. He died 6 days later.
To this day, the incident leaves me with horror. I think about myself in place of Otto, with such similar experiences. I remember my mostly pleasant experience leaving out of the small Pyongyang airport back to China… What it would be like for the hospitality to be replaced by an AK-47 in your face, as the smokescreen ends and the evil visage of North Korea finally reveals itself.
Of course, this was a demented plan. In one swoop, North Korea, already desperate for revenue, damned its budding tourism industry–at least with the West. Most North Korean tourism is now from the Chinese who are overwhelming the country . However, given Western and American tourists in particular are playing a roulette game of death by visiting, it’s unlikely anyone beyond China will want to visit the DPRK for a long time (and they would be foolish to do so.)
Kim Jong-Un Falls Deeper into Madness
During Trump’s attempt to work with Un, he lured him with the prospects of reform. Coincidentally, I was in Singapore in 2018 just before their summit. Trump showed Un the Singaporean skyline and commented that all that could be his–hotels and luxuries in a booming Pyongyang like the new Shanghai.
Instead of taking up this offer, Kim Jong-Un decided to double down on the madness.
The following graph, courtesy of BBC, shows how Kim Jong-Un began clamping down on defectors, turning a controlling and paranoid state even more controlling, more paranoid, more murderous, with reports that the military has planted endless landmines, new barbed wire fences, and shoot-to-kill orders as a way to keep North Koreans in their prison.
While the country could be rolling back restrictions, cooperating and reducing sanctions, and building toward an economic reform–Un decided his priority was to make all the terrible parts of the country even more terrible, while he runs it like a mafia–the citizens an unimportant brainwashed addition to the wealth and power of his own inner circle.
Dreadfully, we’re looking at a future where almost no one escapes North Korea.
And then the Pandemic…
Yeonmi Park, host of Voice of North Korea, reports in May 2021 insane COVID restrictions now present in the country (As if you thought it was bad anywhere else in the world.) This includes irrational beliefs that COVID travels in the air, forcing fishermen not to fish–resulting in famine.
As Park further reports, with people expected to slowly starve to death under virus restrictions, it’s bred a perfect environment for insurrection, with even the residents of “well to do” central locations of the country now festering with utter contempt against their government.
The virus restrictions add another layer in regard to the sheer danger of visiting the Hermit Kingdom (if tourists are ever even allowed to enter again). An uprising is probably the absolute best thing that could happen to the country, but if–or when–it does happen–you do not want to be a tourist eating cold noodle soup in the Yangakkdo Hotel. Expect infrastructure to fail, fighting on the streets, and a malicious government with its eyes on whatever unlucky tourists could make emergency bargaining chips.
A Long Way From the Pyongyang Starbucks Dreams
The future of North Korea is no longer optimistic. I do believe, eventually, the regime will fall. But, thoughts of a peaceful reform process, and rational behavior by its cabal of rulers, was extremely unrealistic. I personally predict several ways North Korea will become a free country:
- Kim Jong-Un dies naturally and his successor (for 100% real this time) will create reforms. Unless a heart attack speeds up the process, this would mean sometime between 2050-2080.
- Kim Jong-Un dies unnaturally after an assassination, a faction of the military takes control, and initiates reforms.
- Kim Jong-Un and his cabal go on a self discovery trip to Bali, learn about themselves, do a lot of yoga and vegan dieting, and decide to reform the country themselves.
- An uprising in the country leads to a bloody civil war, and end result is freedom (if by “freedom” we mean a Chinese puppet government is installed after China squashes the rebellion and commandeers the country.)
- UFOs / UAPs land, Zeta Reticuli establishes a global government, Kim family gets vaporized or transported to a moon and forced to farm moon mushrooms the rest of their days.
Or my least favorite option…:
- China invades Taiwan. The United States declares war on China. WW3 leaves 100-500 million dead. North Korea, ally of China, is reduced to rubble. If allies win (and that, my friends, is a big ‘if’) North Korea is rebuilt as a unified peninsula.
If the last scenario seems unlikely, consider this is currently considered likely to happen in the next 6 years by a top U.S. commander.
Among the likely outcomes of the North becoming a pleasant and exciting place to visit–it will be a road to hell to get there. And, unless you’re a war correspondent, you may want to rethink your travel options.