JS 81: Safe Travels in North Korea with Adventure Traveler Jordan Harbinger

October 22nd, 2014 by Jason | Comments Off on JS 81: Safe Travels in North Korea with Adventure Traveler Jordan Harbinger

JordanJordan Harbinger talks to Jason Hartman about his experiences in North Korea and shares a little bit about what you can and can’t get away with. There’s a lot of bad press about North Korea and he says that if you really dig a little bit deeper, there isn’t much to worry about. He encourages everyone to at least consider taking at tour there and learning for themselves what it really is like to be on another planet.

Key Takeaways:

4:10 – North Korea is incredibly safe, you won’t get kidnapped, and it is actually a very interesting travel experience.

11:20 – It’s about $2,000 to $3,000 total trip cost including plane, hotel, food, and more.

16:10 – There are certain things that the Koreans just won’t let you bring into the country depending on the day.

17:45 – There are very few churches in North Korea and, according to Jordan, they don’t really go to church.

22:00 – When you leave the country, you’re left with a lot of thoughts and questions about the North Korean system and the people who live there, which is why it makes for a very interesting place to explore.

 

Tweetables

“You think your home town is safe, North Korea, street crime wise, you don’t have to worry about getting mugged.” Tweet this!

“North Korean customs will let you bring in anything except for stuff that you’d think would totally be okay.” Tweet this!

“You will leave North Korea going, “How much did they really believe?” and you will ask yourself that for the rest of your life.” Tweet this!

 

Mentioned In This Episode:

http://www.howtogotonorthkorea.com/

http://theartofcharmpodcast.com/

 

Transcription

Jason Hartman:

Hey, it’s my pleasure to welcome Jordan Harbinger and I recently was lucky enough to find out that he does something very exotic and very amazing and that is tours to the Hermit Public of North Korea. The most mysterious nation on earth I would say. I think this would be a fascinating discussion. I’ve always had this sort of morbid curiosity about North Korea. I think many other people share that. So Jordan welcome! How are you doing?

 

Jordan Harbinger:

Hey man, thanks for having me on the show.

 

Jason:

How many times have you been to North Korea?

 

Jordan:

I have been to North Korea 3 or 4 times. You got me thinking about it, I’m going to say 3, but I wanna..it’s funny. Somebody asked me this the other day and I was like, “Does that one count?” So I’m going say 3. I’m going to stick with 3.

 

Jason:

Maybe it’s 3 and a half for you in the militarized zone. Maybe you were in the DMZ and that doesn’t count.

 

Jordan:

I don’t think that counts. A lot of people go, “Ohh I’ve been to North Korea.” No, you haven’t. You were at the DMZ, you are in neither Korea, if anything.

 

Jason:

Yeah, right.

 

Jordan:

You’re in a mandated zone between the two Koreas. You’re are not in North Korea. Stop fronting. But, no. It depends on special economic zones and things like that and bridges and stuff like that that are even less, but I’ve made several trips over there and I figure if they’re in close enough proximity, it doesn’t count as a separate one. That’s where I am at with it.

 

Jason:

That’s amazing. How did you get started doing this? Were you just like me or just interested in it? Did you go on someone else’s tour? I mean what happened?

 

Jordan:

I started reading about North Korea and I started sending articles to friends and I was like, “This is so weird, have you heard of this place?” and there were like, “Oh yeah.” It started in law school where friends of my were like, “Check out this Turkmenistan,” or, “Check out this North Korea article.” And then it was just one thing after another with Kim Jong-il just acting and fool and being ridiculous and crazy and doing all of these crazy things. I thought, “Oh my gosh. These are some seriously unique..this is a seriously strange place.” I’m staring at propaganda posters that I have framed on my wall right now of North Korea that I bought there. Hand painting original stuff. I’m thinking, “This is so weird. One day I gotta go there.”

 

I looked up these tour companies and started a dial up with them and there were like, “Oh, you’re an American, you can’t go. It’s kind of an on and off thing, you can’t go right now.” And then, I was like, “Hey, let me know when this opens up to Americans,” and they were like, “Yeah, sure why not.” Thinking, “Yeah right..You and everybody else who has written to us over the last 5 years.”

 

So me and my buddy Sailor Joe, who is a frequent mentioned character on the Art of Charm podcast. Him and I are travel buddies to destinations that other people won’t go to. So he wrote, “Hey man, I’m going in May. It just opened up to Americans. Here’s the tour I’m going on. Are you in?” I was like, “I’ve got so much stuff going on. There’s no way I can make it.” He goes, “Well, I might go again in the summer.” And I said, “You know what? I’ve heard that before. There’s never a next time. Let’s just do this.” So I booked a trip to North Korea. I brought a bunch of my friends who are ballsy enough to go with me and we had a life changing experience.

 

Jason:

Wow, that’s amazing. So I just returned to Peru. That was my 73rd country.

 

Jordan:

Jezz.

Jason:

I thought I had been to a lot of places. I have…

 

Jordan:

You have!

 

Jason:

I have been to Cuba.

 

Jordan:

Yeah, Cubas great.

 

Jason:

Cubas very, very cool, but North Korea. Were you fearful, were you scared at all? I’d be a little worried.

 

Jordan:

You worry a little bit only because of the you’ve been exposed to. If you were just walking in the place, it would be eerie, but it wouldn’t be terrifying. A lot of people are pretty terrorized because they’ve read lots and lots and lots on the subject and watched a lot of Fox News or whatever, but I’ve been reading articles for so many years that I was like, there’s not really much incentive here for anything to happen. Also, the place itself. You think your home town is safe, this place, street crime wise, you don’t have to worry about getting mugged. It’s not. All the criminals are dead.

 

Jason:

Wow.

 

Jordan:

In labor camps.

 

Jason:

Yeah, I’m not worried about that. I mean, in the soviet union it was the same way. The subways were perfect. Things like that. Singapore is like that. I’m more worried about the government obviously. That’s what you should be worried about in a place like North Korea.

 

Jordan:

Yeah, you’d think. So, our tour partner has taken thousands of Americans and has been operating for 20 years non-stop inside the country and they’re British. So it’s kinda like, “Hey..We’ve had thousands of people go every year for 20 straight years and we’ve had zero incidents.” I’m like, “But what about all of this stuff!!” Back then there wasn’t really much to go on. Now it’s like, “But they kidnapped this guy!” And it’s like, but then you read the actual articles from news sources that aren’t just like trying to scare people and it’s like, he had been working there for awhile with a non-profit, then got deported under a fake name, and then started handing out bibles and stuff like that.

 

It’s not like, “LadeeeDaa, on a tour, plucked from the tour bus.” Even the closest that anybody’s come to that was this Korean war veteran who got in, from what I’ve heard from inside and outside sources, got a little too drunk, started talking about the Korean war, mentioned he used to train anti-government guerrillas, all of whom has been executed 40 years ago, and asked to go visit them.

 

I mean, talk about ignorance and not preparing your tourists..And! He wasn’t with our tour partner. He was with some yitz, one off, “Sure, I’ll take you to North Korea.” type of outfit that normally does one tour a quarter. They didn’t go with a reputable company and that place didn’t vet the tourists.

 

When you go us, I go with the tour partner that’s been going for 20 years, like I mentioned, and I vet everyone. I call everyone on the phone. I make sure you don’t have a weird past. I make sure you’re not going to do something stupid. Usually it’s everybody I know personally. These are catered private tours, I mean sorry, these are curated private tours that are with guides that I’ve known in the past. Could anything happen in a place like that? Yes. The odds however are much greater that you’re going to get hit by a car walking outside your house and/or get stabbed in Peru, for example, then you’re going to get abducted in North Korea, especially for minding your own business. I mean, it just hasn’t happened.

 

Jason:

Okay, so, you and I are both podcasters, we say a lot of things. What I’ve said something negative about North Korea on my podcast, maybe what I even said to you would be interpreted that way and the North Korea government will find a reason to take your freedom away?

 

Jordan:

Right, yeah.

 

Jason:

No? Crazy?

 

Jordan:

Here’s where I do it. I talk about my experiences in North Korea honestly where I say, “Wow, this is clearly a place that needs a lot of work to catch up with the neighbors around it.” People who live there, they know that. They don’t go, “We’re the richest nation on earth!” They go, “The standard living, living around here. It’s not up to travel. We’re working on it. We want to be a strong unified Korea.” I’m not saying anything they don’t know. What I won’t do, what I haven’t done I should say, is have somebody on the show who’s like, “Down with blah blah blah.” You know, doing that stuff, because one, it’s not educational, it’s just boring. It’s like, politically inflammatory.

 

Yeah, sometimes you gotta work within certain parameters, but am I going to sit here and be like, “No, it’s a really great place. It’s awesome. Everything is great. They don’t have any problems.” No, I’m not going to do that. I’m not even going to down play what is wrong over there, but I’m not going to make it a point just so I sound like I’m being “fair and balanced” if you see what I did that. There’s no reason to do that and then jeopardized my ability to go in there and engage with local people. One of the chief criticisms is, “Shame on you. You’re giving your regime money and they’re using it to buy nukes.”

 

Have you looked at a price for a nuke lately? They’re pretty expensive. A tour with a few tourists in it, if you look at the money that’s going in there, a lot of it is going to the regime there’s no doubt about it. I’m not going to sugar coat that one at all, but what are the costs, the price, or benefit..better, of engagement with local people who, maybe, have never met anybody from your neck of the woods. Maybe the children have never seen that. I mean, to some degree, they want to limit your contact with locals, because they’re kind of afraid of that, right.

 

On the other hand, how much does it help to understand a place like that? Honestly, your tourist dollars. You’re worried about money going to the regime? I mean, look at the amount of aid that’s brought in by your very own home country and your tourist dollars will pair in comparison to the things you’re getting from other countries, China, and yes, the United States. Regardless of whether or not that’s in the Fox News article that you read or not.

 

Jason:

So why do you say it’s a life changing experience. I mean, what were some of the big revelations you had there?

 

Jordan:

It’s just such a place where like you’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know mean like, my eyes have been opened to the sunshine to the great..no. I mean, when you see a place that looks like China circa 1952, except it’s 2014, you’re rubbing eyes thinking, “What’s going on here? How is this possible?” There’s no capitalism that’s overt whatsoever. I mean, you can’t keep capitalism out of humans, period. So you’ll see an old lady selling cigarettes and your guide will be like, “Get outta here.” You know. Or they’ll guide you around around it because they don’t want you to see things like that, but it’s not hidden to the point where you don’t see any resemblance of it.

 

There’s billboards all along the main highways and all they have are giant posters of either revolutionary slogans. They’re completely blank. Or in the city, they’ll be a poster and it’ll be like, “Check out this car.” and it’s a joint venture between South and North Korea and it’s just a picture of a car. Nobody who sees that sign is gonna be like, “I should pick one of those up.”

 

Jason:

Like what is it a Kia or a Hyundai?

 

Jordan:

No. It’s a Pierce. It’s called Pierce and it’s actually made by North Koreans and South Koreans in North and South Korea. It’s a joint venture.

 

Jason:

Wow. Interesting. I didn’t know those countries had any diplomatic relations or trade or you know..

 

Jordan:

They have a lot. Not as much as normalized relations would have, but yea. South Korea. That’s why it’s such, when people are like, “Shame on you.” It’s like, shame on me? South Korea pumped billions into this economy, FYI. You know, my $2,000 tour. Half of which is spent on air fair, cry me a river.

 

Jason:

Okay, so that’s interesting? How much is it? How much does it cost to go?

 

Jordan:

You can go there for $2,000 to $3,000 bucks including spending money and including air fair, so it’s really not that expensive. That includes flights, food, hotel, and everything. The only thing it doesn’t include is spending money, you can’t even try to spend money there. If you go to a hotel, literally, there’s no place to buy much of anything. You can go to restaurants every day. The ones that are in the hotel are includes. The ones that aren’t, you’re going to spend $13. You know. You can get, you could drink from morning to night, a liter an hour, and you’d probably $10.

 

Jason:

That remains me how it was in Ukraine. Everything was so cheap. Breakfast is like 50 cents. It’s amazing.

 

Jordan:

You can’t spend money there. Even if you’re getting ripped off at a hotel bar, you can’t spend money there.

 

Jason:

Right.

 

Jordan:

It’s tough. Think about it, people from rural China go there to buy things, because it’s cheap. If they have things, usually they’re just importing things there, of course, because they don’t make anything there. I mean, these are imported good from China and they’re marked up 1000%, but it’s still 48 cents. It’s insane.

 

Jason:

Yeah. Okay so, what do you do? Tell us how long a tour is and like, what you do? What’s the typical itinerary?

 

Jordan:

Sure, so if I go to our site, which is Howtogotonorthkorea.com you can pick from a lot of different types of tours and most of what you’re looking at is like anything from national monuments to the beach to some mixture of shows and performances. You’re going to see a ton of things like that. I’ll just jump on and look at a sample itinerary.

 

Jason:

I’d love to go. I mean, I’m so fascinated with this country. I watched the Netflix movie about how they do those giant mask games.

 

Jordan:

Yeah!

 

Jason:

I mean, I would love to see one of those live.

 

Jordan:

We go to the mask games in August. You’re invited. Come with us. We’re going in August.

 

So yeah, there’s a tour that we’re running right now September 30th through October 4th or the 5th. It’s 4 nights in North Korea plus one on the train going home. It’s not even 1,400 euros and it’s the Chinese national day tour, so basically, celebrating China’s national day by exploring it’s esoteric neighbor, North Korea. We’ll show you what’s happening in Pyongan, Kusong, which is near the DMZ, including the DMZ, you’ll see all the mausoleums where Kim Jong-il and Kim-il Sung are buried in state, which means they’re in..I’m not kidding, a glass box filled with Oregon gas, so it looks like they died yesterday. This is some Star Wars stuff.

 

You’ll also see tons of..we go to museums, which by the way are a completely different experience in North Korea. It’s not just, “Look at all this stuff.” Everything is charged. It’s 100% propaganda the whole time. That’s what’s fascinating about. You go to micro-brewing and statuaries and art places and things like that. We go all along the Western part of the country including the Capital. It’s really, really fun. It’s wild, there’s no internet. People have never seen Facebook. They don’t text on their blackberry. It’s really, really fascinating to see a culture that doesn’t have any of the weird influences or normal influences for that matter that any of us had.

 

Jason:

That’s how I felt going to Cuba. It was like going back in time to 1959. It was just weird. It was a really cool experience.

 

Jordan:

Cuba is similar, but take Cuba and remove any of the sunshine dancing music stuff and replace it with completely robotic obedience.

 

Jason:

Wow, wow. That’s just crazy, man. That’s just so interesting. So what do you do? Take a train in from South Korea?

 

Jordan:

No. There’s no border control, which means you can not cross from South to North Korea. If you cross into South into North Korea you never coming back or you’re probably going to step on a landmine anyway, but no. You have to fly in from China. You fly in Pyongan. There’s one airport with one terminal. You go through customs. They’ll let you bring in pretty much anything except for stuff that you’d think would totally be okay. That’s the thing, people are like, “Oh my god. I don’t want to bring something bad.” It’s hard to mess this up. You’d have to bring in a briefcase full of bibles and then try and sneak it in. They just take things and hold them at the airport that they don’t think are things you should have.

 

Jason:

That was an interesting statement you just made. You said, “You can bring in anything except what you think is okay.” Or what did you say just then? Give us an example.

 

Jordan:

Yeah, yeah. Things you’d think would be okay like, if you’ve got a camera and you’re like, I’ve got this really good lens..Yeah you can’t bring that in, because it’s too long range. It’s too spy-ie. Right, but what if your camera has GPS on it? Not allowed, depending on the week. They don’t want you to take photos of anything and having it plotted on a map giving it the GPS location.

 

Jason:

So you couldn’t bring an iPhone.

 

Jordan:

You can! That’s the other thing. You can totally bring an iPhone. No big deal.

 

Jason:

Well..Well, that has GPS.

 

Jordan:

It does. I don’t make the rules.

 

Jason:

Okay, well.

 

Jordan:

If you bring an iPad and it’s got maps on it. They say, “GPS?” and you say, “No.” And then they look at the map and go, “Where is this?” and you say, “Canada.” And they go, “Hmm.” And they look at it for a few more minutes because they’ve never seen a map of Canada and they give it back to you. But, the first time I went, you couldn’t bring your cellphone. Now you can bring in your cellphone and you can buy internet for your cellphone. You can’t let anybody else use your cellphone or use the internet, but you can use it yourself.

 

You can bring in books of all sorts unless they’re in Korean. In which case, you better speak Korean and have a damn good reason for having a Korean book with you. It better be something pretty normal. I brought in a copy of a best selling novel for a friend of mine, nobody had problem with it. You know what I mean? But, it wasn’t a political novel. It was a novel novel. It didn’t matter.

 

Jason:
What about the guy who’s being accused. He’s going to stand trial really soon. He’s been accused of leaving a bible in a bathroom and he might go to North Korea hard labor camp for years and years.

 

Jordan:

Yeah, I mean. Here’s the thing. The guy had been warned several times, from what I understand, I’m not trying to be an apologist. I’m just going off what I heard from sources inside and outside, published and unpublished. The guy had been warned few times. He left bibles in multiple locations, not just…and this isn’t, he left a bible in a bathroom, because he was reading it in the bathroom. This is, a guy who left Korean language bibles all over the place.

 

Why? Why did he do that? He speaks other languages. He, in fact, speaks other languages probably better than he speaks Korean. What’s the deal there? Another guy had done it and he left a French bible in many different places and they went and said, “Hey man! You forgot your book. Looks like a bible. No big deal.” But, when you leave a Korean language bible and you leave it everywhere you go. What are you really doing? What’s the deal?

 

Jason:

So, do they not have any religion at all just typical communist dictatorship type country where they’re afraid of religion?

 

Jordan:

Yeah, they have that. Now, there’s a church there and there’s apparently a Russian orthodox or something person there, but the thing is I’ve heard it’s kind of like, “Yeah, not very many Koreans go there…Do you know any?” “No.” And of course, the Russian embassy compound has you know, 55 people that go there everyday or every whatever day. There’s a lot of Russians and expats that live there that might go to that church.

 

As far as Koreans going in there, question mark. You see in documentaries that there are, but you gotta question what’s up with a lot of the documentaries, especially the ones made by guys like Vice. My friend took Vice to the country and they were like, “There’s No One Here. Look around.”

 

Jason:

Okay, so explain what Vice is. I mean, that’s the guy that snuck in with a camera, right? Tell us about that.

 

Jordan:

Here’s the thing. I can film there and so can you. If we go in August, bring a video camera. It doesn’t matter. You can film pretty much anything. They don’t care. He went in there being like, “This is a secret film session.” Sometimes it was a secret film section, but really he was more being rude than he was really filming something they don’t want you to film. You can film statues. It doesn’t matter. He was just pissing off his guide. He’s like, “Look. There’s no one in here. There’s no customers in here.”

 

But, my friend ran the original tour that he went on and there were well over 40 people with him. He would just go to a building before everyone else or wait till everyone else left and start rolling and be like, “There’s no one in this entire restaurant. Look at them people food on the table and no one’s going to be here.” Sorry man, they’re preparing for the rest of your tour, that you kind of are sweeping under the rug, is with you.

 

You’re on a group tour, just like everyone else. Don’t act like you’re there privately and that they’re being weird about it. North Korea is weird enough. You don’t need to exaggerate it, because that’s what this guy did because it’s better news for Vice. It wasn’t real journalism, honestly. The thing is I love a lot of the stuff that Vice creates. I think those guys are awesome. I was just kind of wondering, “Why are you exaggerating something that’s already the weirdest place ever?” It just doesn’t make any sense.

 

Jason:

I’m not sure, just in like a nutshell really quick, how did it change you? I mean, it was just such a different world or…

 

Jordan:

It’s so different that it completely resets expectations. Like for you when you went to Cuba, you were probably like, “Wow.” Totally different mindset of the people. These people grew up with Capitalism sorta being swept under the rug. Strong ideology that you can sort of mirror like, “Oh wait, Americans kinda have this too.” except our ideology is, “I can have whatever ideology I want, damn it!” And that’s our ideology, but that’s not really that different from what they have in Cuba, except it is because you don’t have any choice. That sorta thing except  for take everything, every freedom that a Cuba has and just flush it down the toilet.

 

Jason:

Wow.

 

Jordan:

And you have something completely different. You know, Cubans. They get American TV from Florida here and there. They listen to the radio. They’ve got relatives in other countries that can call them on the telephone. They can be sent money in packages. They’ve got people who have gown and traveled around the world. If you meet a North Korean that has been outside of North Korea, her parents are diplomats, period. There is no other..or they worked in some foreign company because her parents are very, very important people inside the regime and that’s probably true as well for Cubans and things like that that have been traveling around.

 

But you look at things like, their athletic teams and things like that and you read accounts of how they’re acting outside the county and it’s completely different than how any other sports team behaves. It’s completely…I mean, the rational they have for different activities and behaviors internationally is completely foreign. No pun intended. Completely outside the realm of rational behavior for pretty much any standard and that continues well inside the country. From asking people questions, I mean, you will leave that country going, “How much did they really believe?” and you will ask yourself that question for the rest of your life, because you can’t tell. It’s so deeply ingrained. A whole society built on that is something alien and that’s what makes it so damn interesting.

 

Jason:

Fascinating stuff. Well, Jordan Harbinger thank you so much for telling us about North Korea. I mean..Wow! What a mind blogging place. Give out your website and tell people where they can learn more of you.

 

Jordan:

Sure, so if you just go to howtogotonorthkorea.com we got our tours for 2013 and 2014. Nice up to date website, but they’re pretty the same. If you write us, I can tell you how to get there. It’s really easy. The only nationalities that can’t go are South Koreans and even then if you have a good reason it’ll work and journalists of any country, but we’ve gotten in plenty of journalists that aren’t political writers.

 

Like I said, I’m going in August on a curated trip, you should come with me, but I run tours with our tour partner there pretty much every single month multiple times. It’s not that expensive and honestly..guys, if you’re just interested in stories like this, I tell a lot of stories about North Korea and I even have some North Korean only episodes on the Art of Charm podcast, so since you’re listening to a podcast, you search out the Art of Charm and go to our website or look on iTunes for North Korea, you’ll find us talk us..we did a show from North Korea.

 

Jason:

WOW. You guys are crazy.

 

Jordan:

Yeah, we did a show from North Korea and then we did the second half of that show when we got home and it’s pretty bizarre.

 

Jason:

Good stuff. Jordan Harbinger thanks for joining us!

Jordan:

Thank you.

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