Workers Statue, Pyongyang

by Gabriel Mizrahi on February 1, 2014

Workers Statue by the Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea

The Workers Statue (Juche Tower)

Pyongyang, North Korea

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Photograph by Gabriel Mizrahi


North Korea, inventor of soft drinks

by Gabriel Mizrahi on December 16, 2013

North Korea Soft Drink

Via the Korea Central News Agency:

Pyongyang, December 13 (KCNA) — The Korea Kuryonggang Trading Company in the DPRK has recently developed a new kind of soft drink.

The anti-oxidation drink is made of selenium, vitamin C and other abstracts from grains, vegetables, fruits, medicinal herbs, etc.

Light yellowish brown in

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color and sour and sweet in taste, it helps keep up good health conditions.

Good in promoting metabolism in human body, this drink is believed to be efficacious for several diseases like arteriosclerosis, myocardial infraction, cerebral thrombosis and tuberculosis.

Better drink the kool aid efficacious mystery soda.

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Update on Merrill Newman’s Arrest in North Korea

by Gabriel Mizrahi on November 30, 2013

We woke up this morning to new reports about the mysterious arrest of Merrill Newman in North Korea. As you’ll recall, we suspected in our North Korea travel warning update that more information would emerge to explain the shenanigans.

Now it has. The New York Times is reporting that North Korea has accused Newman of “war crimes, saying he was involved in the killing of innocent civilians during the Korean War.”

Which is basically another way of saying he was in the Korean War.

Because you have to go pretty far to get in trouble in the DPRK, we had a feeling Mr. Newman crossed a pretty serious line during his “difficult” discussion with locals. Who knows what went down. Perhaps he bragged about the gnarly stuff he did on the peninsula. Maybe he spilled about the brutal POW situation. We don’t know for sure, of course, but we can read between the lines. What we do know is that Korean War vets visit the DPRK all the time, and none of them has had a problem.

According to North Korea, Newman “masterminded espionage and subversive activities against the D.P.R.K., and in this course he was involved in killings of service personnel of the Korean People’s Army and innocent civilians.”

Note the order of the atrocities. Songun much?

‘‘During the Korean War,” read Newman in a prepared apology, “I have been guilty of a long list of indelible crimes against DPRK government and Korean people as advisor of the Kuwol Unit of the U.N. Korea 6th Partisan Regiment part of the Intelligence Bureau of the Far East Command.”

Sounds like they had their A-list writers on that one. “Indelible” is one of the DPRK’s favorites.

Reuters adds that Lee Newman, his wife, told CNN that her husband went to North Korea to “put some closure” on his

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time during the U.S. military. It was “an important part of his life,” she said.

Heartbreaking stuff. We’ll keep breaking it down for you. In the meantime, it’s business as usual in the DPRK. Tours are up and running. Loads of travelers are having a safe and enjoyable time. Could it be that the biggest lesson learned here from this tragedy is not to brag about your time in the Korean War?

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As you’ve probably read, the State Department has issued a new North Korea travel warning urging people not to visit the DPRK in light of some recent shenanigans. As always, we want to share some updates and insight with you to help put these latest developments in perspective.

Based on the available information, two recent events seem to have led to the new travel warning. The first is the 2012 detention of a man named Kenneth Bae, who was leading tours in the special economic zone of Rason. The second is the recent arrest of a man named Merrill Newman, an American veteran from Palo Alto. For anyone thinking about visiting the DPRK, these must seem like strange times.

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But as you know, we at The North Korea Blog like to get to the bottom of things. There tends to be a great deal of hyperbole and misinformation about the DPRK, and we instead hope to point you, like a Pyongyang traffic cop, in the right direction.

Pyongyang Flight

Our round-trip flights from Beijing to Pyongyang have always run safely and without surprises. 5,000+ tourists enjoyed a trip to North Korea last year.

First, a trip down memory lane.

When Bae was detained in 2012, the world (understandably) frowned on the arbitrary detention of a U.S. citizen in North Korea. For reasons we still don’t understand, the western media didn’t really pick up on the actual story — which was that Bae, in total violation of local laws and cultural norms, was handing out bibles to locals and telling them to rise up against their government. Not a wise move in a country like North Korea, in which the rules, for all their quirks, are anything but vague. Bae’s situation is tragic, of course — but it was entirely avoidable. As are most of these mix-ups: We find that people who get in trouble in North Korea are almost always looking for it.

So let’s take a moment to remember that when you go to North Korea, leave your bibles at home! If you must bring them, don’t force them on unsuspecting citizens. And most importantly, don’t tell them to go all Winston Smith on Big Brother. There are more interesting things to do in North Korea! The fun fair in Pyongyang, for instance. It’s really very fun. It’ll get you up close and personal with locals without inciting a revolution, we promise!

Second, some new information came out today about Newman, the latest man arrested in North Korea.

Based on the latest reports, Newman was on a nine-day tour with Juche Travel Services, a smaller tour company that is not a travel partner of ours. “Everything was going very well,” the New York Times quotes his son as saying, until Newman had a “difficult” discussion with a group of North Koreans about his experiences during the 1950-53 war. “That,” quotes the New York Times, “was the only hiccup.”

Hiccup, indeed. On the surface, this seems like an arbitrary detention of an older American tourist. But in our partners’ 20+ years of operating tours on the ground, something like this has never happened. We’ve seen our tourists disagree with North Koreans about their version of history, we’ve seen heated discussions break out, we’ve even seen other Korean War veterans point out their battle scars to their North Korean tour guides — and not one of them has ever run into trouble.

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The truth is, you have to go pretty far to get in trouble in the DPRK. (Handing out bibles, running away from your guides, defacing a statue, that sort of thing.) Differences of opinion don’t get you thrown in prison there. It is, after all, a Confucian society that respects its elders, even when they fought on the other side. We find the DPRK to be a remarkably straightforward place. Not always fair in an absolute sense, but definitely clear.

We take these developments very seriously, and we want you to know that they are extremely rare and clearly avoidable. Our partners stay in close contact with the Western embassies in Pyongyang, and none of them has suggested we stop running tours. We have a bunch of tourists there now, all of whom are having a safe and awesome time. In other words, it’s business as usual in the DPRK. Stories like Newman’s, just like Bae’s, often reveal that something more was happening. We won’t be surprised if more information comes out soon that makes sense of this unfortunate event. Until then, we’re confident that travelers who follow the rules are safe in the DPRK.

As always, we encourage you to check out the State Department’s latest travel information, but we want to take a final moment to review the facts.

“Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine,” says the State Department — though over 5,000 westerners visited in 2013.

“U.S. citizens crossing into North Korea, even accidentally, have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention” — and yet there is nothing arbitrary about being arrested for slipping into a closed country. It’s wonderfully easy to get a tourist visa to North Korea. The process couldn’t be more straightforward.

And as you know, our partners arrange tourist visas for all of our travelers as part of our North Korea trips.

Besides, we seriously doubt that North Korea wants to detain foreigners. The paperwork alone is a drag.

So let’s stay informed, and let’s stay calm! We love you guys and want travel to the DPRK to remain a safe and illuminating experience. Because it is.

As always, hit us up with any questions. We’re always here to answer them.


Photograph by Joseph A. Ferris III


Malcolm Gladwell’s New Book (aka nailed it)

by Gabriel Mizrahi on October 10, 2013

Malcolm Gladwell's new book

True story.


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My North Korea Gremlins

by Gabriel Mizrahi on September 7, 2013

They appear a few weeks before I leave.

Quiet and skeptical at first, a little weirded out by the news. Eyebrows raised, feet shuffling, silent hmms. Then they speak up. “Are you really going there? Now? I mean — c’mon. What if something happens to you? Aren’t you scared? I’d be scared.” As I’m packing my bags and setting up my Gmail autoresponder (“Currently traveling through North Korea. Write you if I get back, lol!”), it reaches an evangelical pitch. “Look around you. Watch the news. Look what’s coming. What do you have to gain? It couldn’t possibly be worth it. Do not go. It’s not right.” No more questions now; just commandments. Not even advice. Just listen.

I call these people my gremlins. My North Korea gremlins.


They’re the people who get in my head about traveling to the DPRK every time I go. One trip, the first time — fine. They can wrap their heads around that. Chalk it up to wanderlust. Every curious twenty-something is entitled to that. But a second time? A third? That’s just indulgent. That’s you being ignorant, flippant, proud. That’s you being an idiot. Stumbling into a war zone. Walking into the lion’s mouth. Signing up for live-action M*A*S*H, minus Alan Alda’s awesome hair. Choose your metaphor: In the weeks leading up to my last North Korea trip, I was basically a VICE segment waiting to happen.

[click to continue…]


Reports The Guardian:

Joyful Executions North Korea Screenshot

Norwegian studio 8-Bit Underpants has become the latest mobile games developer to fall foul of Apple’s App Store approvals rules on political grounds, with its game Joyful Executions.

The turn-based survival title is pitched as “a parody

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game on North Korean propaganda for children and a satire on our willingness to accept morally questionable acts through gamification”, and puts players in charge of a firing squad tasked with killing protesters on the streets.

8-Bit Underpants’ Fredrik Nordstrom tells Pocket Gamer that the game was rejected by Apple

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after a month within its approval process due to flouting paragraph 16.1 of its App Store guidelines: “Apps that present excessively objectionable or crude content will be rejected.”

Funny how much North Korea and gamification seem to be tangoing lately. First that racing monstrosity (but low bar, right?), and now North Korea as content for western games. Also funny that this propaganda parody/satire/commentary thing launches to illustrate our inculcation-by-gamification… only to be rejected. Viva Android, I guess.

But anyway. Am I the only one who feels like the real story is a studio

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called 8-Bit Underpants?

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North Korea and The Observer Effect

by Gabriel Mizrahi on August 5, 2013

You can’t walk in with cameras and expect the real thing. I mean, you can, but the place will quickly set you straight. Another thing you can’t walk in there with — if you’re going to continue expecting the real thing — is a deep resume. The sort of qualifications that make people cover North Korea for public consumption (journalism/filmmaking/etc.) are

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precisely what prevent them from getting the real thing. And so the people most qualified to get the story are the most likely to miss it. Ride in on a journalist’s visa and point your camera, and you’ll find no shortage of innuendo, misdirection, subterfuge and whatever else is in the Potemkin

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handbook these days. (More of a pamphlet, really.) That’s why blogs like this one, and this one, often get the place more right than the pencils and their notepads (even the sharp pencils, the great notepads). North Korea’s funny like that: It bends and waves in response to the visitor. Be open, and it opens. Listen, and it speaks. Talk, and it doesn’t. Point a camera, and it hides. In few countries does the observer effect apply as strongly as it does in North Korea: The act of observation literally changes the place. And just as in particle physics, it is usually the instruments — the camera, or, more precisely, its owner — that are responsible for altering the phenomenon.

North Korea Phones

Is it any surprise that the place continues to mystify?

[click to continue…]


Carrie Pilby is coming to the big screen!

by Gabriel Mizrahi on June 30, 2013

Are we plugging the awesome Carrie Pilby because Caren Lissner’s “heroine is utterly charming and unique, and readers will eagerly turn the pages to find out how her search for happiness unfolds?”

Or because “her words are insightful, Caren’s sense of humor is witty, observant and dry, and this is a book women and men should read?”

Or because the novel “was such an unexpected pleasure and change from the typical ‘chick’ stuff Red Dress has printed in the past?”

Yes, yes and yes. And also because I read this book on my last trip through North Korea — not the obvious choice in literature for a trip through the people’s paradise, but that made it all the

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more interesting — and when I remember the DPRK, I also remember this book. In detail. Because I fell in love with it. And you will love it too.

And now it’s being made into a movie! With our help! The brilliant people behind this project — we’re talking Suzanne Farwell (It’s Complicated, Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday), Susan Cartsonis (What Women Want, Where The Heart Is), and Susan Johnson (Mean Creek, Eye of the Dolphin, Beneath the Blue) — are going to turn Lissner’s wonderful novel into a truly awesome movie.

So take a second a donate to the campaign! Every little bit helps. As of today, the team has raised more than $20,000, and they need our help to make it to the finish line. There are lots of projects you can support out there, but this one’s special.

Donate now. Like today. Like now! Like why wait? Let’s help Carrie Pilby leap from the page and onto the big screen. We can totally make this brilliant movie happen.

And when it gets released, I’ll smuggle some copies into North Korea and share them with our friends there. Imagine that: Carrie Pilby in North Korea. Actually, scratch that — don’t imagine that. Plan for it! By donating now :)

(Big ups to Caren, Suzanne, Susan and Susan for your vision and hard work! We’re rooting for you and Carrie Pilby!)

Check out the Carrie Pilby Kickstarter page >>>

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Remembering North Korea

by Gabriel Mizrahi on June 25, 2013

So it was my fault obviously for drinking that medium Sumatra from Peet’s after bootcamp class, but you should know before you read this post that I’m more jittery than Kenneth Bae waiting to be sentenced for handing out bibles doing some vaguely weird shit in the DPRK. (You should also know that I just pronounced DPRK as “D-P-R-K!!!” like it’s a Kesha chorus or something. Unsure why.)

But surrusly, something about too much caffeine, man. Pulsing raging yummy sunny Montana Avenue brew coursing through my veins, and I’m like — flashbacks. Yanggakdo 34th floor, what? View of the Taedong and I’m rolling Communist chic once again.

Fun fact: Yanggakdo is the name of the island on which the eponymous hotel stands. Means “sheep’s horn,” like the shape of the island, and that’s where they put the foreigners who visit the capital. Unless you’re balling State Dept or give-me-all-the-NoKo-frills style, in which case you’re holing up at the Koryo Hotel closer to the center of town. Haven’t had the pleasure of staying there yet (it’s not a Starwood property, lol j/k) but I picture lots of Brooks Brothers suits and early bedtimes and none of that signature lobby bar madness that makes Pyongyang what it is.

[click to continue…]

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