This is the second episode of Stereo Sunday, a little Stereo app-sponsored experiment we’re doing live in front of a studio audience of you! We will be live on Friday, November 27th at 2 p.m. PST, so download the Stereo app for iOS or Android here and follow along with us next time!
On This Week’s Stereo Sunday, We Discuss Travelling to North Korea (Part Two Can Be Found Here):
- Gabe and Jordan traveled to North Korea (aka Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — or DPRK) together several times between 2011 and 2016.
- As bizarre as you’ve heard North Korea can be, the reality is probably even weirder.
- Do Gabe and Jordan have regrets about spending their tourist dollars in a country that routinely tries to goad the United States into nuclear confrontation and imprisons hundreds of thousands of its own citizens in slave labor camps?
- What are the dos and don’ts they lay out for Western tourists in orientation?
- First impressions of the airport and the island-isolated hotel where foreigners are kept.
- Travelers are accompanied everywhere by a guide/minder.
- Why tourists shouldn’t argue with the locals about differing accounts of history.
- Is everything a tourist is allowed to see in North Korea just an elaborate “show?”
- Does everyone who lives there believe what the regime tells them?
- Download the Stereo app here and participate with us live on Friday, November 20th and 27th, at 2 p.m. PST!
- Connect with Jordan on Twitter at @JordanHarbinger and Instagram at @jordanharbinger.
- Connect with Gabriel on Twitter at @GabeMizrahi.
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Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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Resources from This Episode:
- iOS & Android | Stereo App
- Charles Ryu | Confessions of a North Korean Escape Artist Part One | The Jordan Harbinger Show
- Charles Ryu | Confessions of a North Korean Escape Artist Part Two | The Jordan Harbinger Show
- Liberty in North Korea
- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Official Page)
- North Korea | Central Intelligence Agency
- Three Myths About North Sentinel Island | The Spinoff
- FAQ: Can Americans Travel to North Korea? | Koryo Tours
- 10 Things You Might Not Know About North Korea | Mental Floss
- Koryo Tours
- Cost of Living in Pyongyang | Expatistan
- 10 Things Tourists Should Never Do While Visiting North Korea | The Culture Trip
- The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier, American Hostage | GQ
- Yanggakdo Hotel | Koryo Tours
- North Korea 101: The History of North Korea | Liberty in North Korea
- Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s Power Structure | Council on Foreign Relations
- The Truman Show | Prime Video
- Mansudae Art Studio | Wikipedia
- Mansudae Art Studio Gallery, Beijing, China | Atlas Obscura
- What Is the DMZ? A Look at What Separates North, South Korea | Time
- Ryugyong Hotel: The Story of North Korea’s ‘Hotel of Doom’ | CNN Style
- How the North Korean Economy Works | Investopedia
- Top 10 Documentaries About North Korea | Cinema Escapist
- Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Transcript for Going to North Korea: Part One | Stereo Sunday (Episode 435)
Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. And if you're new to the show, we have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts, entrepreneurs, spies, and psychologists, even the occasional North Korean defector.
[00:00:22] And I chose that to label because we will link that in the show notes. We had Charles Ryu who escaped from North Korea, not once but twice. And if you haven't heard that, you'll want to go back and listen to that one.
[00:00:33] Each episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:00:43] This is Stereo Sunday's number two, it's live in the Stereo app. If you're listening to us in The Jordan Harbinger Show podcast feed, we are live Fridays during the month of November. The next one is going to be Friday, November 20th, at 2:00 p.m. Pacific time. Go and grab the Stereo app.
[00:00:58] Today, we are talking about the four years that Gabriel and I traveled to and wrote about North Korea. We were in the country numerous times. We'll talk about what the country was actually like, what we took away from our experiences there. This is the second episode again of Stereo Sunday is this little experiment. We're sponsored by the Stereo app. We'll be live again Friday, November 20th, and Friday, November 27th at 2:00 p.m. Pacific time.
[00:01:24] So download the Stereo app for Android or iPhone. Follow along with us live next time. I think this is a lot of fun to do it live. There are questions You can ask questions of us anytime. We'll be listening to them at the end. Use the little question bubble at the bottom of the Stereo app. You can record a message and we'll play it and we'll answer your question and it doesn't have to be about North Korea. It can be about anything, relatively that you think Gabe and I are qualified to answer, or you want us to take a stab at. So don't worry if you don't have a North Korea question, it doesn't have to be about that at all.
[00:01:54] And if you're wondering how we managed to book all the great guests we have on The Jordan Harbinger Show, a lot of that comes from the networking skills that we have built. We have a course on networking that is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. It's called Six-Minute Networking because it doesn't take that much time each day. And most of the guests on the show, subscribe to the course or contribute to the course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company.
[00:02:17] Again, we'll have Q and A at the end of this, about 15, 20 minutes or so, so just use the Stereo app to ask away. All right, here we go.
[00:02:23] Now, Gabe, this is a very random topic for The Jordan Harbinger Show. A lot of people are going to be surprised that we're doing an episode on North Korea, but. It also happens to be one of the most requested topics that I think that we get for the show. People are always asking me to talk about my time in North Korea. And most people probably don't know that you actually came with me. Was it the first time I went?
[00:02:47] Gabriel Mizrahi: That's right. Yep. In 2011, I believe it was — was it April 2011? I think we went —
[00:02:52] Jordan Harbinger: Sounds about right.
[00:02:52] Gabriel Mizrahi: Or was it summer? Maybe it was summer, late summer, yeah.
[00:02:55] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That was a literal trip.
[00:02:57] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah.
[00:02:58] Jordan Harbinger: So 2011, Gabe and I went to North Korea for the first time and we ended up doing several more trips from 2011 to 2016. So this is —
[00:03:07] Gabriel Mizrahi: That's right.
[00:03:08] Jordan Harbinger: — before the US banned travel to the DPRK, which is also North Korea. So if you hear us say DPRK and you're like, "What are you talking about?" That's North Korea's Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Notice whenever you have to lean into whether something is democratic or belongs to the people that is the most restrictive society ever, right? Like the People's Republic of China.
[00:03:30] Gabriel Mizrahi: Good point.
[00:03:30] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, sounds friendly, ugh, restrictive. Democratic People's Republic means you can't vote. You have no choice and you could go to prison for life for sitting on a picture of someone.
[00:03:39] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah, it just has a better ring than undemocratic leaders' Republic.
[00:03:43] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Exactly. God-King Republic of Korea and North Korea is a very unusual place in many, many ways. We ended up getting a very unique glimpse into the place. We saw things and had conversations most Westerners never get access to and even Westerners that were inside North Korea before on tours — I still think, I still know — we had better access than many/most of them because going back multiple times gets you better access. The guides trust you a little bit more. You get to see different things. You can make your own itinerary. They figure out you're not a CIA spy at some point. And they talk a little bit more freely. I mean, it's just a different experience every single time that you go. Of course, there are some constants like them trying to feed you the same fish every single day for a week. But we'll get into the food and things like that, that we had there as well.
[00:04:35] Looking back, Gabriel, these trips were some of the most formative experiences at least of my life.
[00:04:41] Gabriel Mizrahi: I agree.
[00:04:41] Jordan Harbinger: They were just wild. And even now you and I are talking about how these trips informed so much of what we do and how we see the world. And it's a unique comparison that most people don't have. So when someone says like, "Oh, this is terrible, this is going to happen." Or like, "We should do this policy." We're like, "Well, they do that in this other place and it's horrible. So there are pitfalls." It's a measuring stick most people never get to see. So we thought we'd make our second Stereo Sunday episode about the five years that we spent traveling through the least visited country on earth. And is it really the least visited? It has to be.
[00:05:16] Gabriel Mizrahi: It's definitely top five or 10, but sometimes people say it's least visited. I'm sure there are like the Andaman Islands have never been visited with outsiders —
[00:05:23] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, the Sentinel Island or something where outsiders are not able to go.
[00:05:26] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah. Yeah. Where like you step on the beach and somebody harpoons you the second you step off the boat.
[00:05:30] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:05:31] Gabriel Mizrahi: If you discount those, if you ignore those countries, North Korea is probably the least or one of the least visited countries, I think. When we were going there in 2011, Jordan, I feel like the number was what in the low, like 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 people a year from the outside world, if you don't count visitors from China, I think it was like 2,500 Westerners a year.
[00:05:49] Jordan Harbinger: Something like that. That sounds right. And the reason we don't count numbers from China is because China actually has a lot of almost like discount tours where you can get on a bus at a moment's notice without a visa, pretty much. And hop on and just drive into North Korea from China, or jump on a boat and slide into North Korea. And it's kind of like a, "What should we do this weekend?" "Let's go to North Korea. It's right over there. I've never seen it. It's kind of weird." And so you'll get these tour agencies that only take Chinese people and a lot of Chinese tourists go there because it's really cheap.
[00:06:23] In a way it's kind of like Mexico is to the United States where we'll go there and you can go there and stay at the Four Seasons and stay at a really dope beach hotel. Or you can go, "Hey, I'm a teenager. I'm on spring break, I've got 600 bucks in a plane ticket. Can I go to Mexico?" And it's like, yeah, stay in a youth hostel. Go to this crappy part of the beach, where they have 40 cent beers and get wasted and get arrested a couple of times and then thrown back into the sand. So North Korea is kind of like that for the Chinese —
[00:06:50] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah.
[00:06:50] Jordan Harbinger: — without the partying.
[00:06:51] Gabriel Mizrahi: North Korea basically — it's the Cabo of Far East Asia.
[00:06:55] Jordan Harbinger: Maybe, yeah, maybe even the Cancun, right? Without the partying.
[00:06:58] Gabriel Mizrahi: Without the partying, without a lot of it, yeah.
[00:07:00] Jordan Harbinger: More Gulags, less parties.
[00:07:01] Gabriel Mizrahi: Exactly. It's sort of depressing Pune to Dallas or something, but let me rewind the tape a little bit. In 2011, one day I picked up the phone, you were calling me, and I remember literally, you were like, "Hey man, this is going to sound really weird, but I want to go to North Korea. Do you want to come with me?" And I'm pretty sure it took me about 10 seconds to be like, "Absolutely. Yes." Then I spent a few days googling it and figuring out if it was actually possible. If it was legal, if it was safe, all those things that you want to know before you go to the DPRK. But I was initially just totally intrigued by the invitation.
[00:07:35] I know you had been doing research on it for at least a year before we went. It was your idea and you had found out that it is totally possible to go. Even though back then, most of us didn't know that it was possible to go to North Korea, at least not legally, but it is legal. It was legal until the travel ban a couple of years ago. Basically, the requirements are very simple. You have to have an official visa from the North Korean government, which you can pretty much only get by going through one of the handfuls of licensed travel agencies. The biggest one being Koryo Tours, they're based in Beijing. They're great at what they do. They've been doing it the longest of all the travel agencies. They ended up becoming our main travel partner when we went back and forth. But if you have that visa and you can get yourself to Beijing, you can basically go to North Korea. No problem. Back in 2011 and then I think that ended in 2016.
[00:08:22] So that was the invitation originally from you. And I have to admit that I was very ignorant about the country the first time. I mean, I did my homework and I did some basic research because I wanted to know about the country before we got there. I didn't know anything that we ended up learning or all the — you know, we went down a huge rabbit hole after that first trip and got really nerdy about the country. But our understanding of it was very basic before we went. It was really going there. That was the most eye-opening experience, I think. The whole trip was just stepping foot in the country and realizing that we were in a very, very unusual place.
[00:08:55] Jordan Harbinger: The way I got the idea. I'd been reading weird news about places like Turkmenistan and North Korea, just reading the BBC while I was in law school. And I had a friend, I still have a friend named Sailor Joe, and he travels all over the world and he goes to all these crazy places and he rescues people from hurricanes and stuff — he's just an adventurous guy. And he said, "I'm really, really interested in reading about this. And I would send him these articles like Kim Jong-un renames the calendar months or stuff like that and I just started sort of sending him these articles and he'd go, "You know, I'm going to go check that place out." And I said, "Is it legal?" And he goes, "Not right now, but the rumor is they're going to open it up." And then like two years later, I get this ICQ message or AOL instant messenger message, you know, to throw it back.
[00:09:37] And he said, "Hey, I'm thinking about going in May, do you want to go?" And I said, "I don't think I can. I'm in law school. Like, I don't think I can make it happen. I'll go next time." And he goes, "You know, I don't know if there's going to be a next time because it's North Korea. You just never know." And I said, "You know what? You're right." So he ended up postponing his trip, thankfully, but we did end up going and he ended up going. And looking back, we bought tours from Koryo Tours. And we'll link to them in the show notes because they're a great company to work with British company based in China. But the first thing that I remember is just reading all these crazy stories on bbc.com and thinking, "None of these are probably real." Like these are exaggerated. This place can't be that bad. It's just going to be one of those pet places where journalists like to write about it, but they don't have all the facts. And it turned out to be far more bizarre than any of the news stories could ever have explained.
[00:10:31] So it started off as curiosity and intrigue, and later it became this real desire to understand the place and share it with people. We talked about it on the podcast, on old episodes. We blogged about it and there really was almost like a movement among show fans to just like, "We all want to go there. We all want to check it out." I brought a bunch of show fans there. You know, Gabe, I have to ask. A lot of people will ask us, "Hey, didn't you have any conflict? About going, you know, you're supporting this horrible place. Yeah. You go once, maybe you didn't get it, but after you go and you really do a deep dive, isn't there something sketch about giving a country that has nukes and uses them to threaten people and throws people in Gulags? Like, why are you supporting this? Isn't tacit support for the regime when you go to a place like this."
[00:11:12] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah, I think it's a totally fair question. It's one that you and I have talked about many, many times over the years. Look, it's obviously a bizarre place to want to visit. I have had people ask me point-blank. "Would you visit Nazi Germany just because it was interesting?" And you know, that's an interesting question and they're making a fair point. The conclusion I've come to is this the money that you spend in North Korea as a tourist, which honestly, even if you went buck wild in that country for two weeks would still be in like the low American US dollars, like low thousands, I would say is like a pretty liberal estimate. That is a drop in the water for any country, but it's a drop in the water for this particular country.
[00:11:51] It's not like you're going to be propping up an entire nuclear program or funding a Gulag somewhere if you spend a little bit of money in the bar at the hotel in Pyongyang. You know what I mean? So just in a very practical sense, I don't happen to believe that being a tourist in North Korea is tacit support of the regime as long as your intention in going there is to learn and understand as opposed to like, "I want to go there because I'm dying to climb the hierarchy of the government in North Korea and try to finagle my way into some advisory position. So I can cozy up to technocrats who are doing all this horrible stuff. And I want to be celebrated for that as like the one Westerner who actually believes that the Kim family is the reincarnation of God and they're doing God's work on earth and Korean —" Like that's a very—
[00:12:33] Jordan Harbinger: Craziness, unless you're crazy. Right.
[00:12:35] Gabriel Mizrahi: That's a very different proposal. I mean, I think if you're going there as a foreign tourist because you're curious because other people are curious about going and you're leading them for a week at a time. And your intention there is just to grow and learn as a human being and not to try to express some supporters inadvertently helping them in some way, then I think you're good. But it's a fair question and honestly, you and I have thought about that a lot. I think it really comes down to what's your intention and going, if you're being curious and if you're learning, great. That does not equal support.
[00:13:03] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I think also the amount that I've talked about North Korea and described how to threaten, realistically, what can be done to engage them that has outweighed the amount of money spent in the country.
[00:13:16] Gabriel Mizrahi: Right.
[00:13:16] Jordan Harbinger: And the people that I've brought there, who are now voting and talking about it and donating to relief organizations that get refugees out and things like that. It's a very different scenario than going there. When you go there, you're not going to nightclubs and drinking and partying and spending a lot of money. You really are sightseeing and so it's a very much an educational experience in the truest sense.
[00:13:39] So you get your visas through a licensed travel agency. We got to Beijing and there was an orientation. Gabe, do you remember this?
[00:13:47] Gabriel Mizrahi: Oh, yes. There's always an orientation before any trip to North Korea. That's one of the highlights before you even go, you sit down and whoever is arranging your visa will sit you in a group and say very bluntly, "Here's what you can do. Here's what you can't do. Here are the rules. Here's the Korean etiquette. Here are the things — the practices, the customs that you need to know." What I remember about those orientations specifically, was them being super blunt about the fact that. You cannot steal anything in North Korea, you cannot walk down the street and proselytize. You can't pick a fight with somebody about who actually won the Korean War or who was right. You can't, for example, fold newspapers with the leaders' faces on them because that is a crime in North Korea. And you will, at the very least, get a stern talking to and could find yourself in a little bit of more hot water. Those are the highlights from that orientation session. What do you remember?
[00:14:36] Jordan Harbinger: You're definitely right about those things. I do also remember, they said don't bring anything that looks like maps and don't bring anything that has a GPS on it. So if your camera has a GPS on it, they were like, leave it in the tour office because —
[00:14:48] Gabriel Mizrahi: Or covered up with a sticker.
[00:14:50] Jordan Harbinger: Or covered up with a sticker, which they're probably onto by now. But back then, GPS-enabled cameras were pretty new. And also, this is no longer the case or was not the case last time I went, but in the beginning, when we started going, you weren't allowed to bring your phone —
[00:15:03] Gabriel Mizrahi: That's right.
[00:15:04] Jordan Harbinger: — at all. You had to leave it at the airport.
[00:15:06] Gabriel Mizrahi: Right.
[00:15:07] Jordan Harbinger: So you'd turn it off. They'd give you a literal piece of tissue paper. That was your receipt and it had some Korean on it. And you know, you'd turn in your iPhone. But I mean, I remember going there and they had never seen iPads. They had no idea that cameras had GPS enabled on them. They were blown away by iPhones. And this is 2011. Like people had seen iPads. People had seen iPhones everywhere, but North Korea, but they were absolutely just totally mind boggled because they didn't really have mobile phones if memory serves. There was no mobile phone network in the first year we went.
[00:15:39] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah. Or if it was, it was pretty bare-bones and they were using flip phones for sure.
[00:15:43] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:15:44] Gabriel Mizrahi: I think the phones they use now are probably produced in the country actually or they might be produced in China, but the software, the OS is Korean based. But absolutely. I remember between 2011 and 2012, there was a huge difference in the way that they responded to the stuff that we brought into the country. The first time they looked through every book, they checked out my iPad. They looked at the apps to make sure I didn't have anything sketchy or threatening on there. The next time they practically waved me through. So something big happened between 2011 and 2012.
[00:16:11] You know, the other thing I remember about those sessions is just how clear it was that you have to go so far out of your way to get in trouble in North Korea. Yes, they have a ton of rules, but the rules are so explicit. They tell you to your face, like, "Absolutely do not do this. Here are the things that are not okay." So that's very interesting because when you see the stories in the news about people who get in trouble in North Korea, you know, it seems so scary. And it seems like they're very eager to lock anybody up who does something that they don't like. And the weird thing about Korea is that it's very hard to get in trouble once you're there. But if you do get in trouble, the punishment is wildly disproportionate to the crime.
[00:16:54] So, you know, if you think about Otto Warmbier, that guy who got, I think, put into a prison camp for stealing a propaganda poster from the hotel. Like he didn't deserve any of that for stealing a poster, but they told him from the start, you absolutely can't steal stuff from North Korea. Like that's not okay. And the same thing applies to the guy who was handing out Bibles. It applies to people who pick fights with generals at historical sites about who was really responsible for the war or whatever it is. It's just very interesting to me that the people who do get in trouble kind of seem to be looking for it. And I'm not defending them. I'm not defending the people in Korea who inflict those punishments. I'm just saying that that's an unusual thing about being there as a foreigner.
[00:17:32] Jordan Harbinger: You mentioned no folding newspapers with the leaders' faces on them. On the airplane, of course, you get magazines and you get newspapers. And they only have the leaders' faces on them. They only have — there isn't like, "Hey, this happened in sports on the front page, the second page." No — everything is military or the leader. And I remember I didn't fold it, but I got a magazine that had probably at the time Kim Jong-il. So not Kim Jong-un, I think we're still in the Kim Jong-il era, had a big photo of him and I laid it on the table in the hotel room and I had some chains from China, like coins. And I throw it in the ashtray. And then I put the ashtray and I had ended up somehow moving it on top of the magazine with the leader's face on it. And when I came back to my room, my hotel room, everything in the hotel room was made up, but the magazine was gone. It wasn't, the ashtray got moved off of it. It wasn't that everything was stacked up. It was straight-up gone. They took it out of the room.
[00:18:28] Gabriel Mizrahi: Wow.
[00:18:28] Jordan Harbinger: And I found that weird because the magazine itself is not valuable. They're everywhere. They're in the lobby. They're on the plane. You can't get rid of these magazines. They're just everywhere. And of course, they didn't throw it away. There's no chance that's happening, right? That you don't put things with the leader's face on it in the garbage. So I think they literally took it out and they were like, "This guy's going to get himself in trouble with this thing. So I'm going to move it out of his possession."
[00:18:51] Gabriel Mizrahi: Oh, interesting.
[00:18:52] Jordan Harbinger: That's my theory. So I thought that was kind of interesting.
[00:18:54] Gabriel Mizrahi: I also happen to remember in the subsequent years after our first trip, I was leading some groups of tourists to North Korea. And I remember a woman on one of my trips accidentally folded the newspaper and put it in her suitcase. And when they went to clean the room, they noticed it and she did not get in huge trouble, but one of our tour guides, her tour guides pulled her aside and they had to have a very discreet, polite chat about it. I think that's usually what happens. They take that stuff seriously.
[00:19:20] So let's talk a little bit about what happens once you get there. So you fly from Beijing into Pyongyang. The flight, if I recall, is about an hour and a half. You land in Pyongyang. You go through that customs process. We just talked about the security check, take a bus from the airport to one of the handful of tourist hotels that are usually for foreigners. Usually, they put people in the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is still one of my favorite places in North Korea. How do you describe the Yanggakdo Hotel, Jordan? It's like —
[00:19:47] Jordan Harbinger: It's like freaking bizarre. So first of all, you get on this bus at the airport. You know, when you land in an airport, you look around, you see all these other planes and then you see like the jet bridge comes out. When you land in North Korea, you see absolutely freaking nothing.
[00:19:59] Gabriel Mizrahi: Big, old field, yeah.
[00:20:00] Jordan Harbinger: Big old empty field, and it's not even good tarmac. It's like a freaking playground at the school. That's several years old. The runways are probably in decent shape or the one that international flights land on is, but everything else is totally wrecked. And when you get off the plane, all you see is a minimum of three to a five-story tall picture of the leaders and there's one for each one.
[00:20:22] Gabriel Mizrahi: If I recall correctly, it was Kim Il-sung smiling down at you when you arrived.
[00:20:25] Jordan Harbinger: I think now it's Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung now. They put another one up.
[00:20:28] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah, it could be both. And I also know that the year or two after we went that first time, they built a new airport and it's now like this glass and steel structure. It's much less weird. That first time we stepped off the plane and that's the only thing you see, no other plans, no terminals, no transportation vehicle. None of that is just a huge long-distance between your plane on the tarmac and this like — it looks like a movie set of a Western of just the faces painted onto the three-story high building. And then you just basically walk through this shoddy structure to get to security and then you're out.
[00:21:01] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:21:02] Gabriel Mizrahi: So yeah, that, that was one of the vivid memories in my mind is that image. And then you get to the hotel.
[00:21:07] Jordan Harbinger: Right. You get on the bus, you drive to the hotel, there's no street lights on the way to the hotel. So we were driving and I was like, "Where are we? There's nothing — I can't see ahead of us." And, you know, your headlights would see people just walking in the dark in the absolutely pitch-black along this road because they had to go somewhere and there's no street lights and there's no flashlights and there's no batteries. So you're just sort of lighting the way driving by. You get to the hotel and you pass a military or police checkpoint. The Yanggakdo Hotel is on a freaking island in a river, in the middle of Pyongyang. So you're essentially in an Alcatraz hotel and you cannot leave that island without permission, not even permission without the guides with you. You can't walk around the city on your own. There's a gate, there's a fence. Unless you plan on going for a swim, you're not getting off the hotel grounds. In fact, even if you go out the front door of the hotel, if you start walking down the driveway, the doorman will be like, "No."
[00:22:00] Gabriel Mizrahi: No.
[00:22:00] Jordan Harbinger: "Where are you going? You're not allowed to do anything."
[00:22:02] Gabriel Mizrahi: That's on purpose. I'm sure. I mean, they put you on this like — Yanggakdo literally means I believe sheep's horn island and it's like a sheep horn that sticks into the Taedong River, which runs through Pyongyang. And they put you there because it's easy to know where all the foreigners are. If they put you on a little island in the middle of the river. It's not nefarious. It's just easier for them, I think, to keep track of everybody and make sure you don't just wander out the front doors and end up in, like, I don't know some underground restaurant for diplomats, half a kilometer away.
[00:22:29] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, exactly. Not that anybody would let you in anywhere on your own anyway. And the Yanggakdo Hotel has all the things that you would expect from a ridiculously overblown Stalinist place. There's a bowling alley. There's karaoke. There's a dressmaker that makes suits in Korean, traditional Korean dress. There's — I don't know if there's a pool. I haven't seen one. There are definitely multiple restaurants. Most of which are closed at any given time, multiple bars. There's a rooftop restaurant. Does it spin or did I just imagine that?
[00:22:58] Gabriel Mizrahi: That is absolutely correct.
[00:22:59] Jordan Harbinger: Okay.
[00:22:59] Gabriel Mizrahi: It's a revolving restaurant and that one is usually kind of open it's like half-open if there are people and it slowly turns around, which is actually very cool because it gives you a glimpse of the entire city and you really get a sense of the scale.
[00:23:10] But yeah, it's funny. It's like that and a number of other things in North Korea are kind of cheesy in a certain way. Like everything kind of has like a throwback vaguely Soviet vibe. The revolving restaurant is like that. That karaoke lounge is like that. The casino and the spa and the basement of the hotel are kind of like that.
[00:23:28] Jordan Harbinger: There's a casino. Oh my God, the casino — so the casino was like one room. And when you go in there, the dealer who was just like at any given time reading or something, you go in there and they're like, "Oh, you want to play like Bacharach — baccarat, I mean, and you're like, "Uh, I don't know."
[00:23:43] Gabriel Mizrahi: You could also probably play Burt Bacharach if you want.
[00:23:47] Jordan Harbinger: If you ever go in there and there's Chinese people in there, they're throwing down like $20,000 bets on this crappy, like a dented table. And they're doing like roulette and stuff and they're yelling and the whole room is filled with smoke. And you're just like, this is the weakest casino. And yet people are throwing down sums of money in there. That is just ridiculous. So you can play like Black Jack, I remember, and they were like, "Okay." And they just thought we were aliens because we were betting like five dollars or something. Whereas a lot of times these Chinese guys were really just throwing down like real big money in this really lame casino. And I remember how filled with smoke it was.
[00:24:25] I also remember during our orientation, they said, "Look, a non-smoking room in North Korea is just a room that is not being smoked in at that particular point in time. That's all that means. They smoke everywhere. The other thing that really tripped me out about the Yanggakdo Hotel — and the karaoke room missing the latter half of the alphabet. Like they just lost the book that had M through Z. So you can only go for the first half of the alphabet.
[00:24:51] Gabriel Mizrahi: That's why we're stuck with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
[00:24:55] Jordan Harbinger: Because there's nothing left in the backside — like they'd lost the DVDs. And then they were like, "Oh, I guess we can throw this book away with the numbers in it. Like we just don't have the rest of it." That was ridiculous. The other thing that really tripped me out about the Yanggakdo Hotel spinning restaurant was if you go up to the top and you're thereafter I think 9:00 p.m. every light in the entire city of Pyongyang, except for your restaurant and the train station goes out with one exception, all of the statues of the leaders are still illuminated. And then after I want to say like 10:00 p.m. or midnight — I can't remember now — the restaurant lights stay on and the train station lights go out, except all the propaganda signs that say like Korea's strong or whatever and all of the statues of leaders, those are illuminated 24/7, all of the other lights go out. So if you're at home and you have your lights on because you happen to have electricity and you happen to live in Pyongyang, you don't have power at night after that hour. You just have to go to bed. And that was bizarre to me.
[00:25:53] I remember going, "What just happened? I just saw the lights go out. Power failure?" And then it was like every night at 9:00 p.m. same thing. And I realized, "Oh my God, they turn the power out just on everyone at that time." Like, "You don't need electricity anymore. Go to bed."
[00:26:07] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah. And I think they, we even found out that they rewired the grid or something to prioritize this electricity to certain sectors so that they could keep the lights on those monuments, which is wild.
[00:26:17] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:26:17] Gabriel Mizrahi: As you're describing all of this, bring that feeling of landing and Pyongyang, like for the first time, it's this feeling of yeah, being off the grid, for sure especially with that first year when we couldn't bring phones, but really it's that feeling of being somewhere you're not "supposed to be." You know, like you feel a bit yeah, for lack of a better word, a bit naughty. Like you feel like —
[00:26:36] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:26:37] Gabriel Mizrahi: You're not in danger. There's, nobody's coming after you. You're perfectly legal. Your status is fine, but you just kind of feel like you're someplace that everybody told you you're not supposed to be. And I remember being that feeling of being very intoxicating in a certain way and it's not just because it's like, "Oh cool. I'm in a place where my mom doesn't want me to be," which was actually kind of true, especially after that first trip. But it's really the feeling of being somewhere that is so beyond the pale of your normal life. Like almost everything these days, especially because of technology and just the way that Western culture has homogenized so much. It's one of the last few places where you truly feel that you are in some other dimension. That is stuck in space and time to some degree. It's sort of like being in the '50s while also simultaneously being in the '80s. But then at the same time, you're in this totally alternate reality where the Confucianism and the Korean inheritance of thousands, yours is merging with a very retrograde version of what the future could have been. And that's large because of the Korean War and how it decimated the country and how they had to rebuild. But it's also because it's so close to the outside world. I just remember that weirdness of stepping foot into a place like that.
[00:27:45] Jordan, we should talk for a moment about how everybody who goes to Korea, every group is accompanied by at least one, usually, two government-appointed tour guides. These are people who are somewhere in between traditional tour guides and government minders, frankly. Their job is to guide tourists, but it's also to keep an eye on them, right? To make sure that they're not wandering off or doing something they shouldn't do. And that dual role was very interesting and it ends up being one of the best parts about traveling there because you actually get pretty close to these people.
[00:28:16] Jordan Harbinger: I do remember that. And I remember the tour guides being quite nice, but I also remember how weird it was that they — they're not scary. Right? They're quite friendly and you're making a relationship with them. But they themselves seem to have a very strict set of rules.
[00:28:33] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yes.
[00:28:33] Jordan Harbinger: And they try to not let you necessarily see those rules. But if you cross the line, they absolutely will. And when we've gone — were you with me? When we went on that holiday, there were tons of different tour groups and some of them were just absolutely despised by the tour guides. Were you with me on that trip?
[00:28:49] Gabriel Mizrahi: No, I think that was the second one you did without me.
[00:28:51] Jordan Harbinger: Right. So I went on during the 100th would-be birthday of the leader that had died in 1994. I went on, this is maybe 2012 or 2013 and there was a group of Europeans and they just hated these Europeans. And these Europeans would come back every day and go, "They wouldn't let us take photos. They wouldn't let us go inside this. They wouldn't let us go do that." And I would remember thinking, "Oh, we did all of those things." And so it really does depend on how much the guides like you and how much they trust you. And if you have somebody on your tour that won't stop taking photos of military officers or tanks, they can really lock you down. And there was a time when I brought somebody. I don't remember if you were on this trip or not. I had brought a guy once and he was such a pain in everyone's butt that they were like, "You can't bring your camera." And then he didn't bring his camera. And somehow, he still managed to cause trouble. And they said, "Look, if you keep causing trouble, we're leaving you in the hotel tomorrow." And they meant it.
[00:29:50] Gabriel Mizrahi: Damn.
[00:29:51] Jordan Harbinger: And they don't just leave you in the hotel to like run around and do whatever you want, because then you're going to cause trouble for the hotel staff. They were quite clear that he would be locked in his room and fed meals by the staff.
[00:30:01] Gabriel Mizrahi: Wow.
[00:30:02] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:30:02] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah. And it's interesting. I think a lot of people go to North Korea, especially I'll say some Americans in particular and they feel this need to like debate the people on the ground about political issues or it's a sort of like, defend the version of history that — I mean, honestly, the Americans are usually correct about history because we have to access more information. But it's really hard when you're there and you're hearing their side of things, which are usually at best they're incomplete. And at worst, sometimes they're just outright lying. It's very hard for a lot of people to just sit there patiently and sort of forgive them for that and just listen and try to appreciate why they believe what they believe.
[00:30:40] I have seen my fair share of tourists, basically, get into fights with Koreans, especially the tour guides and it never works. They never changed their mind. They're not going to — even if they did agree with you, they're not going to say it out loud on a tour, right?
[00:30:53] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Well, let me go to a Gulag by agreeing with this point that you have like, no, thanks.
[00:30:57] Gabriel Mizrahi: Exactly. What's sad about it actually is that you end up missing the more interesting point, which is, let me just understand what this person believes. Why she arrive at the conclusions she arrived at? Why the school she went through lead her to believe these things? How do you think and how do you act when you don't have access to as much information? That's a more interesting thing. It's not about telling her the truth or whatever. It's not going to change anything, but there's still every single trip. There was always somebody who did that, which I thought was interesting. But the other unfortunate thing about it is that it does damage the relationship with the tour guides and then it affects what you can do and what you're allowed to see.
[00:31:29] So I think on that first trip, Jordan, I went in there with such — I don't know, I would say like an openness, right? Like we were there to learn and understand as opposed to setting the record straight with these people or derive some weird sense of satisfaction from telling them the truth and like blowing their minds with reality or whatever. And if you do that, if you go in there without openness, then your experience in North Korea is so wildly different. Like you will get to see things that other people don't get to see. You'll be allowed to take photos of things. Other people are not allowed to take photos. The best part is after hours when the day is done and you're sort of hanging out in the hotel and you're having a beer from one of the breweries, the beer that they produce in the country. And that's a whole thing that they love. At the end of the day, when you're sitting there talking, they will start to open up to you in ways that you didn't expect if they feel safe with you. And that's where you get some of the most interesting insights. And we'll talk about that a little bit more in just a sec.
[00:32:19] Jordan, a lot of people ask us, "Is North Korea all fake? Like, is it all a front? Is it just a show for the outside world?" What's your take on that after going there a few times?
[00:32:28] Jordan Harbinger: Sure. So before I get into that. If you have questions, there is a question button in the Stereo app if as you're listening to us live. If you're not listening to us live, you can catch us live Fridays during November at 2:00 p.m. Pacific, go to the Android or iOS App Store and download the Stereo app. And we broadcast these Stereo Sundays. These are live on Fridays confusingly at 2:00 p.m. And they, of course, are in The Jordan Harbinger Show podcast feed on Sundays as Stereo Sundays.
[00:32:54] So yes, we do a lot of interesting things while we're there. A lot of its touristy as you might expect, but of course, it's all very bizarre and different because it's in North Korea. But yeah, a lot of people think North Korea is all fake. Like it's the Truman Show. If you remember that movie where the whole world was constructed and it's a big Potemkin village. And some people think it's all real and that there's no artifice going on. I don't really know how many people like that. There were definitely people on our tour that were like, "Oh, the place is fine." And I was like, "Dude, we've gone to six museums. Do you live in a museum? Do you see —?" When you're looking at the Yanggakdo Hotel revolving restaurant and you see people living in decrepit buildings and alleys and stuff like that, like with broken-down machinery, that's probably where most people live. And this is the main capital city. Come on.
[00:33:37] So the truth is that it's both, which is actually even more bizarre. It's actually both artificial — and so some are real and some are fake. It's like part of everyone's lives in North Korea is about keeping up appearances and putting on a show to some degree, especially when there are tourists around. Absolutely. I found that when we went — when we were driving from place to place, one of our tricks, one of my tricks I should say was I go, "I have to pee really bad. Anybody else?" And like you or one of the other guys on the tour who was in on my trick would go, "Yeah, I got to pee so bad," and they'd go like, "Ugh, all right, fine." And we'd pull over near some village and we'd all get out and go to the bathroom and you would see these farmers or these people working in a field or something like that. And they would just look at us and then they would just leave the area. Most of the time, not always. Sometimes there'd be a group of women just resting in a field and they would just stare at us and giggle and push one of them to come and talk to us. And they would never because they're so shy. They never see foreigners, usually in their entire life, and not even on television. So you're basically an alien.
[00:34:37] But a lot of the things that were fake and that were affront, that were also just bizarre where — remember, Gabriel, going to the bookstore and you knock on the door. And the woman comes out in a jacket, unlocks the door, turns the lights on, and clearly is like just been napping.
[00:34:53] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yes.
[00:34:54] Jordan Harbinger: And like the store is not open.
[00:34:55] Gabriel Mizrahi: Totally.
[00:34:56] Jordan Harbinger: She's just like, "Oh, I got to open for tourists. Uh, okay." And so the lights — there's no heat —
[00:35:00] Gabriel Mizrahi: Right.
[00:35:01] Jordan Harbinger: — there's no running water. Like I always asked to use the bathroom everywhere that we go.
[00:35:04] Gabriel Mizrahi: That was the trick
[00:35:05] Jordan Harbinger: So that I can walk through it and they're always like, "Ugh, fine." So there's almost always no running water, nothing. It's just wild. What have you seen?
[00:35:12] Gabriel Mizrahi: There are lots of little examples like that. And there's some of my favorite moments because it's almost when you like putting your hand through the mirror and realizing that you're kind of in this alternate reality where things are not quite what they seem. I remember when we were at the main art factory in Pyongyang. This is like a huge, huge sprawling factory compound kind of place where they produce all of the statues, the paintings, the murals for the entire country. All the political artwork that happened happens at this place. And in this place, they always take you to the ceramics department.
[00:35:39] I don't know if you remember this, Jordan, there's like a wing of this compound where they just make vases and pots and stuff like that. And I remember they're always the same very, very young ceramists who are working on these detailed clay pots. But while they give you the tour and they explain to you how they work; these people are just like, they're sort of drawing on the pots with like these very fine writing implements, these little sticks that they draw on. And if you look closely, they're just tracing over the work that somebody else has already done. And once they wrap up the tour part and all the tourists, leave the room and go down the hallway — you and I started doing this thing where we're like, "Oh wait, I just want to see that real quick." And we would pop right back into the room, like 20 seconds after we had left. And you would find the people hanging out in corners of the room and they would run back to the pots, like pick up where they left off to make it look like they were really the ones who were working. They weren't the ones who made the pots. They were just sort of extra hands to help around the compound, I guess. And part of their job and aspect of their lives is pretending to be these artists who are making the things for our benefit.
[00:36:40] And those are the weird little things. It's not like those people are actors. Like they're not paid full time to pretend to be that person. It's just an aspect of their jobs whenever someone comes around to do it. And I think that's what you meant by saying, like, it's both, it's real and it's fake. And you see stuff like that everywhere. There's a department store, a very high-end department store. It's kind of like the Neiman Marcus of Pyongyang.
[00:37:00] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, sure.
[00:37:01] Gabriel Mizrahi: If you can even compare it, it's their Neiman Marcus. And there's nobody in this department store, no matter what time of day you go like I've never seen anybody there. And every time I've been in the store, the clerks at the checkout area are just ringing up goods for nobody, or just have a big batch of items. And they're just scanning it through the thing. And you hear like the bop, bop.
[00:37:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Beep, beep.
[00:37:23] Gabriel Mizrahi: But I think they're just doing that to make the store look busy and you can kind of tell the way they're doing it. That they're like, "Ugh, I don't know. This is annoying. I have to do this because there are Westerners around." So those are some of the more, I would say the creepier moments, although it's not like in your face creepy, it's subtle, it's subtler creepy.
[00:37:38] Jordan Harbinger: This is something I thought was a good metaphor for North Korea, this element of North Korea, I should say. Look, I respect the people there. We've met a lot of great people there. I feel bad for the people that have to live there. They are essentially in a prison, but one time — and I don't remember where this was. Some museum — surprise, surprise — I go to the bathroom as I always do. And I'm taking a leak in a urinal and I hear like this water hitting the floor and I go, "Oh, is there a leak?" And I look, and I'm pissing in a urinal and the drain just drips onto the floor underneath the urinal. It doesn't go into the wall. It just drips on the floor and then I'm going, "Oh, this one's broken. Let me switch." All of the urinals were just dripping onto the floor and then going down the drain in the center of the floor of this bathroom —
[00:38:25] Oh beautiful.
[00:38:25] That was it. And I was like, "Oh, they installed these and they don't have plumbing other than this drain, which probably just runs outside. So they just drip right onto the floor." But you have a urinal there and I'm like, "Why? What is the point?"
[00:38:39] Gabriel Mizrahi: I mean, Jordan, they don't call it the people's paradise for nothing. You know what I mean? There's a reason.
[00:38:44] Jordan Harbinger: Indeed. Indeed. Does everybody believe what the regime tells them? I think that's a good question that a lot of people have about this. The short answer is no, you do hear murmurs of people. Like I remember one of our foreign guides, so a British person telling me that she, you know, they've gone to the country hundreds of times at that point, working for these tour companies. And she had said something like one of the guides who were very privileged, her father was like a general or something or a colonel. Once they were in the bathroom, you know, and they'd been hanging out over and over and over again, 50 plus times in the country. And she said something in the bathroom that was like, "I really wish we didn't have all this Kim Jong-il stuff. We just want to be normal like the rest of the world." That's an offense which you can absolutely go to prison —
[00:39:29] Gabriel Mizrahi: Wow.
[00:39:29] Jordan Harbinger: — in North Korea. And she had mentioned that to our friend. And so that shows you that — look, she's privileged. So she's probably seen other countries in the outside world, but whenever you're around foreigners, you have to know — and I've brought this up with our guides — you have to know that something is wrong. And I remember bringing this up to one of our guides and saying, "You know, that North Korea is very different? And she'd go, "Yeah. But we also know that you're privileged because you can travel." "Okay, you got me on that one," but their idea of "We're privileged so that we can travel," is very different from theirs. I remember asking, "Do you think it's weird that you can't travel and that you can't get a passport?" And she goes, "No. The standard of living is not up to the standard where we are able to travel currently." That was like their answer. Right?
[00:40:11] Gabriel Mizrahi: Not an answer.
[00:40:12] Jordan Harbinger: And I said, 'But we can travel. Don't you think that's weird?" And she's like, "Well, you're privileged. You're the upper-class." That's not exactly true. I mean, in a technical sense, yes, maybe the people on these trips are in the top 50% or 60% of the United States that can travel and have a passport, but we're not diplomats. Right? None of the Rothschilds were on the trip with us. You know you don't have to be a millionaire to fly to China and go to North Korea. You really don't. And that's kind of the idea that they had, which is that they're only viewing us as like the top 0.1 percent because in North Korea, nobody you know has ever left the country. And if they have, they went to China for two days and they came straight home and they never left the hotel.
[00:40:53] I met one North Korean guide. She had been to China. And I said, "What'd you do there?" And she said, "Oh, we had a meeting. I never left the hotel." And I'm like, "Are you even telling me the truth?" And they drove there over a bridge or something like that. Or maybe they'd flown — I can't remember, but I remember her telling me she took the train, so it could be misremembering. She never left the hotel. What does that tell you? Either that you're so scared to leave the hotel or that you're with government minders and you're simply not allowed to. And that's kind of where I was leaning with that one.
[00:41:21] Gabriel Mizrahi: It's interesting to see the mental gymnastics that they have to make to try to justify why they can't do very basic things that they know other people in other countries can do very easily. They sort of speak around it or they'll give all justifications like, "Oh, you know, yeah, we can't travel and we can't get passports because our country really needs to preserve its resources for more important things." And it's like, "Yeah, you going to Beijing is not going to affect your country's ability to engage in trade with Belgium." Like that has nothing to do with anything, but in their minds, that's sort of like the party line that's been fed to them, and they kind of parrot back. And if you dig into that, if you ask a couple of follow-up questions, you realize very quickly that they kind of know deep down. Or they know quite consciously and just can't get into it with you openly, that there is something wrong. And that secret communication, that sort of like subtext that you have to listen to, to understand how people actually feel, that is one of my favorite things about traveling there.
[00:42:14] And I don't mean to be flippant. I just mean that you don't really get to understand how people communicate or beat around the bush or try to tell you something without actually saying what they mean until you go to a country where they can't actually say what they mean. I remember there was one moment. Jordan, I don't know if I ever told you about this, but there was such an interesting moment that happened on my last trip to North Korea. So this would be 2015, 2016, something like that. We were down in the demilitarized zone. So for anybody who doesn't know, this is a section of land that separates North Korea from South Korea. And it's the demilitarized zone that the two countries set up. It's kind of a hangover from the armistice of the Korean War. The armistice actually is one of the interesting things that the Korean War never actually ended. There's been no treaty. There's been no truce. It's just an armistice that says that both sides will stop fighting.
[00:42:59] So technically the Korean War is still ongoing, which is kind of wild. Every tour, most tours in North Korea will take you down there because historically, it's a very interesting site and they have a building set up where you can peer into South Korea and you can see the soldiers staring at each other across the demilitarized zone. And you see the buildings where the armistice was signed. And in this building where they signed the armistice, there is a table with a felt tabletop and these two flags. On one hand, a North Korean flag and on the other hand, a UN flag that both sides signed when they signed the armistice. And there was a general, a Korean general there who is giving this tour and he turned to our group and he's saying in Korean that the North Koreans had a lot of pride and they felt that they won. So they signed their own country's flag, but the Americans were so embarrassed by the defeat. So humiliated by the fact that they couldn't win, that they refused to sign their own flag and so they signed a UN flag.
[00:43:52] So let's pause right there. That kind of story that I just shared with you is like you hear that sort of thing in Korea all the time. Like they tend to read into details that probably don't have as much significance.
[00:44:04] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:44:04] Gabriel Mizrahi: They spin it into a way to show how their countries really came out on top. And it's amazing. And how the imperialist dogs in America, like had all this shame because they messed up the war. They're not entirely wrong. It was a pretty humiliating, terrible war, but I doubt that that flag had as much significance to that. But the reason I'm telling you this story is this. He's speaking in Korean, the tour guide who I spent the last seven days with is translating into English for our group. And when he gets to this part about the Americans signing the UN flag because they were so embarrassed. I was like, "Wait, wait, what? Like, did they really say that?" And he's like, "Yeah." And she repeats it. He's like, "They had to sign the flag because they were so embarrassed. They wouldn't do it on their own flag." And I just gave her a little look like kind of furrowed my brows and was like, "Really?" And then she turns away from this five-star general, looks me in the eye, rolls her eyes, and walks away. In an ordinary circumstance like if that happened in line at Starbucks in LA, you would just be like, "Whatever, that means nothing. People roll their eyes 20 times a day. And there's plenty to be upset about." Right?
[00:45:03] But in North Korea for a licensed tour guide who grew up. In the capital city, probably because her parents were well connected to the party who grew up pretty privileged, who has a lot at stake in keeping this job and keeping up appearances for her to take a moment and signal to an American that she knows that, that's bullshit is pretty wild. And it's those little facial gestures or a word here or there, or a look or a dismissive glance, those things tend to speak volumes. And usually, that's the most meaningful information that you can take away from a conversation with somebody in North Korea.
[00:45:36] Jordan Harbinger: It seemed like you're misinterpreting this, but I assure you that there's a lot of little moments like this, where we will see somebody or hear some story. And then later on the bus, I'm like, "Okay, look, Miss Yu, this just doesn't make sense." And she'll just start laughing because she's like, "I know, I know." Like, "Yes. We said that the ostrich farm is there to feed everyone. No, I've never eaten an ostrich." So then, "Why do they have the ostrich farm?" And she's like, "I don't know. And she has just started laughing. Everyone knows that it's just such a load of crap.
[00:46:07] And you know what Gabriel, what I'm seeing here is we could go on for a long time and we have a lot more. Let's do like part two of North Korea next week because I want to get to these questions that are in —
[00:46:16] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah, let's start.
[00:46:16] Jordan Harbinger: — the queue. One thing I want to leave off on. Before we do, why do people go along with this crap in North Korea? One, you go to prison if you don't, but if you live in Pyongyang, you're well off. You're going to buy into the system because it's served you, you have a lot more to lose. And if you live in some tiny fishing village, along the Tumen River, by China, with zero infrastructure and little food. Not only have you not been indoctrinated nearly as much as somebody in Pyongyang, you know, but the government is also failing you.
[00:46:46] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yes.
[00:46:46] Jordan Harbinger: Not only do you see it with your own eyes, but in addition, you might know people or you yourself may also smuggle contraband in from China. You might cross the frozen river and bring things. You might bribe soldiers to let you into China to come back with American movies and South Korean dramas on USB flash drives. You might even get cell phone service from a Chinese cell phone tower. Therefore, you can make phone calls and have the internet if you have a smuggled cell phone for some reason.
[00:47:12] So there's the official story that everyone tells about their country, even if they don't believe it. And the further away from Pyongyang you are, and the closer you are to China, the more likely it is that you know, that it's a bunch of crap and there they have a lot of leakage coming in from China, both information and goods, and that is very dangerous for the North Korean government and they have a lot of problems with that, but I want to get into that next week. I want to talk more about elite North Koreans and North Korean comedy, the downsides, what we learned there, but I think we have to do that next week.
[00:47:43] Let's pop in our AirPods here for Stereo. And really get to some of these questions here. By the way, if you're listening to us on the Stereo app, great. We'd love to hear your questions in the question bubble, down at the bottom of the app. If you're listening in the feed on The Jordan Harbinger Show, go grab the Stereo app in the iOS App Store or the Android store and come join us live Fridays at 2:00 p.m. Pacific during the month of November. And you can join us here, live on the Stereo app, and you can ask questions.
[00:48:10] Stereo Questioners: When it comes to North Korea, I think you have to listen to what most of the North Koreans talk about when they have run to South Korea. It is a poverty country. They have no freedom. They get arrested just for having anything that resembles the Western countries. And the dictator pretty much tells them what to believe, when to believe, and they have to do what they're told or else they get put in either war camps or get killed.
[00:48:43] Jordan Harbinger: Ah, yeah. I mean, you're fairly accurate. Gabe, you want to take that one?
[00:48:46] Gabriel Mizrahi: No, I mean, I think you're right. I think the best source of information we have about what North Korean life is actually like is listening to defectors. They have stories to tell that are incredibly rich in detail. They're brave. They've seen things on the ground that journalists can access. They know the truth about the country beyond the clever, you know, an exterior that they project to outside people. Like the version of the country that they try to tell people like us basically. And there have been amazing books written about defectors by defectors and the stories that they tell are just incredible. So, yeah, I agree with you. I think their stories are very meaningful and they're probably some of the most important, I don't know if you were bringing that up because you felt like we were defending it or dismissing it. We weren't doing either of those things, but I agree with you that people who leave — people like Charles Ryu who Jordan and I had on the show in an amazing — I believe it was a two-part episode, right, Jordan?
[00:49:39] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. It was a fairly —
[00:49:40] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah, it was a long one. He just told incredible stories that really pull back the curtain. So I'm with you, man. And if you're curious about that, I would definitely go check out that episode.
[00:49:49] Stereo Questioners: Hi, Jordan and Gabriel. It's Seth here. Just want to thank you guys for doing this Stereo session. It's very nice to listen to you guys live. I have a question about Iran for you guys. Now I know you guys haven't been there at least as far as I know, but having been to Korea several times, what is your take on like — if you were to have an outside opinion about Iran, what would you think? Because I feel like Iran is also subject to a lot of the blind journalism that North Korea gets, but it's a little more open. Of course, it's not as secluded and the population is very young. They go out of the country a lot and come back and bring ideas. But I want to know as outsiders who have experienced a closed culture, what is your take on Iran? What do you think when you hear the name—?
[00:50:45] Jordan Harbinger: I think he ran out of time. So I almost went to Iran in 2010 and it's a huge regret that I didn't go. I skipped it for a speaking event that ended up — they like failed to promote it. And there were like four people there. I was super pissed because I gave up this trip to Iran. And now you really shouldn't go if you're a foreign tourist to Iran, from what I understand. I would love to go there. I think it probably is subject to a lot of that negative — I don't want to say bias necessarily, but slant of reporting because the government, our enemies, the Western government, and the government of Iran is essentially an enemy of the Western and of a free society.
[00:51:22] However, most Iranians that I know who travel are like, "Ugh, we live in this theocracy. It's ridiculous. I don't understand why it has to be this way. And a lot of people have had family and friends that have fled. I do occasionally online talk to the Iranians that love their theocracy, but I almost feel like those people are the shills that get paid. Like how China has the ultranationalist 50-Cent Army that just posts comments everywhere. Because I find a lot of the same, the super pro-government Iranians are almost constantly posting on YouTube videos and they're really inflammatory. I'm not saying they're not real people, but I'm saying that a lot of that seems a little sketch. I think most Iranians who live in Iran to have — that I've talked to, happened to have a much more nuanced opinion of what Iran is like and why the government is not great.
[00:52:10] And they tell me things like, "Yeah, there's parties and drinking, and yes, you can go out with women," but then you kind of don't do it super publicly because there are religious police and everyone hates them. It's obviously not true that everyone hates the religious police. It's just true that the people in the cities who are educated think that those people live in the stone age because they do. And if you live in a random village in the middle of nowhere, you probably think, "Oh good, now everybody in the country is sort of forced to be at the same level as me."
[00:52:35] Iran's a tragic place because from what I understand, it's being sort of forcibly kept behind not only by the rest of the world but by the government that runs it because that's how they maintain power. So that place to me is fascinating. I really wish I had gone there when I had the chance.
[00:52:49] Stereo Questioners: Jordan, Gabriel, is there anything that you think that the Western world can take away from North Korea? Whether the devices or attitudes. It does sound like hell on earth but anything that we could actually benefit from.
[00:53:03] Jordan Harbinger: Great question. Gabe, what do you think?
[00:53:05] Gabriel Mizrahi: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that for all of the country's weaknesses and for all of the countries, sadness, and tragedy, the people who live there are, for the most part, really remarkable human beings. They are mostly kind, deeply, deeply kind. They're really cool. They're patient, they're loving. Their understanding of friendship is almost quaint because it hasn't been influenced by social media and Facebook and Twitter. And they don't have 5,000 friends. They have two good ones, you know, they're close with their families. It's a weird thing that when you grow up in a place like this, that holds you back in so many ways, in other ways, I do think you get to hang on to certain values that we have just — if we haven't lost them completely, it's just a struggle for us to hang on to them. That's what I take away from my time there. It just like a certain intimacy and connection and like patience that most people in the rest of the world don't seem to have, including me. When I left North Korea, I did try to take a little bit of that back into my own life. And I struggled to hang on to it, but I do try to. To hang on to that a little bit because I think it's special. What do you think, Jordan, was there anything else?
[00:54:12] Jordan Harbinger: I think there's a solid answer. We have a lot of questions coming in, so I'm going to get to the next one here.
[00:54:17] Stereo Questioners: Hey guys, I appreciate you all giving us insight on North Korea. I've been always curious as to how a country so secluded can operate. So I don't know if you guys have any insight, how did they make that money? I mean, are there obviously through trade and so forth, but I don't think many countries were willing to do business with them based on their views. And then also, I believe, I saw on YouTube, some guy, I think he's like Russian and he went to North Korea. It was a dope documentary, but he pointed out that some of the buildings, even though they look beautiful, they weren't structurally, like they weren't actual buildings that supported people like the floors or windows were just windows that didn't really reflect rooms and so forth. So I don't know if you guys saw any of that and could talk about it. Thanks, guys.
[00:55:06] Jordan Harbinger: Gabe, I think what he's talking about is probably that 110-story building that doesn't actually support an elevator and isn't really built. There's a huge building. I can't remember exactly what it was, but at the time it was the tallest building either in the world or in Asia. It's long since been eclipsed.
[00:55:26] Gabriel Mizrahi: You're thinking of the Ryugyong Hotel.
[00:55:29] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. Yeah. And like there's —
[00:55:31] Gabriel Mizrahi: That pyramid-shaped skyscraper.
[00:55:33] Jordan Harbinger: Correct. And it's been airbrushed out of many skyline photos of Pyongyang because it was shameful. And Egypt telecom, I believe they came in and built a cellular network in North Korea. And part of the agreement was they had to "finish" that building. And so what they did is they, they put an exterior on that giant concrete hulk. And then they threw windows in there to make it look like it's something. And I believe you can go up to like the first, second or third floor, but I don't really think it's a good idea to do that because there's a lot of talk about how that building was never finished. Isn't structurally sound? It could collapse. Possibly not very safe. So there's a few buildings like that. I'm sure. But that's the main one that he was probably talking about in the documentary. Am I missing anything Gabe?
[00:56:20] Gabriel Mizrahi: No, that's right. As for the other question about how does North Korea actually make money? That is a fascinating and complicated question. And if you're interested, there are a couple of really great docs. You could find them on YouTube or on Netflix about the North Korean economy. People have tried to figure out how they're making money and we probably don't have enough time to get into all of it here, but I will give you some of the cliff notes. One of them is that — first of all, North Korea, since its inception has been subsidized first by the Soviet Union and then when the Soviet Union collapsed primarily by China and the subsidies come in the form of very, very cheap oil, free or very inexpensive food, any goods they need basically come from a handful of countries. And China's probably the biggest trading partner and they give them ridiculously good rates. Now, in the last few years, China has changed its policy. So it's not as easy for North Korea to skate by in that way. But all the rest of the money that they make, I mean, the GDP of North Korea was, I want to say it was in the 20 billion. It was like $28 billion basically. So compared to other countries it's pitifully small and they make a tiny bit of money within the country.
[00:57:26] And so the big question that a lot of people ask is, "Where are they actually getting all the money to fund their nuclear program to keep the government going? When sanctions are levied against them, how do they keep the lights on?" And it turns out that they are engaged in a whole bunch of very shady, dark businesses. If the experts are to be believed, that's a lot of weapons, manufacturing, and possibly even manufacturing of drugs. People say meth is one of the biggest exports. The reporting on that is interesting. And there are people who know a lot more about it than we do, but I would Google North Korea exports, North Korea weapons, North Korea drugs, and see what comes up and you'll figure out pretty quickly how North Korea is actually making its money.
[00:58:04] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, it's a fun fact. If you're a diplomat from North Korea, you don't really get paid to be a diplomat, you have to self-fund. So a lot of diplomats from North Korea have been busted, selling drugs, smuggling things into the country, using diplomatic pouches, et cetera. Basically, they're not given money to run the diplomatic mission. They are put into say Australia, and then they have to smuggle heroin in or something like that in order to fund the diplomatic mission. So it's a giant mess to say that North Korea is essentially a big criminal syndicate is an understatement. All right, let's go to the next one.
[00:58:37] Stereo Questioners: Hi guys, very big fan of the work you do. I'm very interested in seeing what else you guys create in the later future. But with relevance towards this, I was wondering how you guys feel about the certain people that have escaped or supposedly escaped North Korea and how other journalists have criticized their stories.
[00:58:59] Gabriel Mizrahi: I'm sure that there've been defector stories that turn out to be not totally true, turn out to be exaggerated, certain details might not line up. I don't know. I think that's true of anybody who tells any story. So that's probably a huge challenge for journalists who are covering the country to figure out what's real. How do you verify somebody's story? Who said that they walked across the Tumen River into China made their way over months and months and months, and tried to get into South Korea? Like how do you even call somebody who met them in the middle of the forest to verify that they were there at that time? I don't know. That's probably a challenge of any reporting, but I do think that a lot of the stories, especially in the book, Nothing to Envy, books like that are just so rich in detail. That you couldn't make them up. So I think in most cases, people are probably telling the truth or very close to the truth. And there are cases where somebody was out like outright lying, I should say, are probably the exception.
[00:59:50] Jordan Harbinger: All right, next up.
[00:59:51] Stereo Questioners: This is not so much a question as it is an observation. My observation is like when you're looking at these countries, I see that you're looking at it from a Western view and the standpoint, which to me seems very ethnocentric. And that is kind of an objection. I have some of the comments you've been making about both Iran and North Korea.
[01:00:15] Jordan Harbinger: Cool. I mean, I like open and free societies that don't torture their people to death for folding pictures of their leaders. Gabriel, do you have another take on that?
[01:00:22] Gabriel Mizrahi: Yeah, I think it's pretty much the same. And we're telling stories as two Americans who went there. So it's hard for us to speak as anything other than Americans, but like I said, our goal in going there was to try to understand and open our eyes as much as possible. That's the spirit that we travel anywhere.
[01:00:37] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, exactly. Without stepping into let's be woke and see how things go from their perspective. Ask somebody who's born into a concentration camp or is stuck in a concentration camp for folding money, the wrong way. I mean, I don't really see any sort of way you can look at that, that doesn't scream horrific things about the place that's doing it. Iran has plenty of people that love it and plenty of people that hate the government. But the difference is in the United States, if you don't like the government or any Western country, for that matter, you can go out and say something. You can form a political party and do something about it. In Iran, you will die. If you do that, there are numerous, numerous, numerous instances. In which somebody who speaks out against Iran or even travels to the United States is executed after being forced to go back to the country and their family is executed too. We don't do that in the West. And that makes us a better system of government. So if we want to talk about ethnocentric, yeah, I'm guilty. I think that free societies are better than closed ones. Next.
[01:01:35] Stereo Questioners: Hey guys. So I wanted to ask if I heard right. It sounds like you all actually felt pretty safe there because the rules were so explicit. Were there any times that you actually felt unsafe?
[01:01:45] Jordan Harbinger: Ooh, great question. Gabe, what do you think? Did you ever feel unsafe?
[01:01:49] Gabriel Mizrahi: Trying to think about moments where I felt unsafe? I honestly can't point to any of them. I think it's more a sense of like, if I acted out right now, something really terrible would happen to me, but there was never a sense of like, immediate danger or danger looking around the corner, huge risks we're taking. There is one thing that I do remember we were driving. Jordan, do you remember when we're driving on our first trip — we're taking a bus down the highway, and we came upon a traffic accident. There was a car that was jack-knifed on the road. It was very bizarre because I think we had pulled up to this jackknifed truck probably 10 seconds after it had flipped. I mean, the guys in the truck were — well, one of them wasn't cleaning out. I think he was badly injured, possibly dead, but one of the other guys was climbing out of the truck. Like it had literally just happened. And there was nobody around for miles and miles and miles. And the bus that was driving us did not stop to help these guys. And when we asked our tour guides like, "Hey, shouldn't we stop? And like, see if they're okay." He's like, "No, no, no. In North Korea, everybody takes care of one another. Like, it's going to be fine. They're going to be fine." And then we just kept driving on. And that's not, you know, something that put us in immediate danger, but it made me think about what happens to you in North Korea when you get into a scrape like that. And you're in the middle of freaking nowhere, and there's not like a call box on the side of the road or police station nearby. And your cell phone might not get service. Like what would happen if the bus tipped over? So that's the only thing I can think of. But other than that, I don't remember being in any extreme danger.
[01:03:18] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That was freaky because I remember them saying that the tour guide saying, "No, no, no, the police are on their way." And we said, "What are you talking about? We're an hour away from wherever we last saw anything that would have police." And then they said, "No, no, no. The locals will take care of them." We're like, "The locals? Look around. It's farmland as far as we can see there's mountains ahead of us. What locals are on the way?" And I just remember seeing like the guy — there was one guy on the hood of the car, just sort of like, I think that guy was dead. So that to me was weird. And then when we got back to the hotel and I tried to ask more about it, they were like, "I don't remember." And I'm like, "Are you kidding me? You're just going to lie that you didn't see the dead body." And I let it go because it was so clear that they were like, "Bro, we're not dealing with this." Who knows what goes on? Maybe they have to report it or maybe they have to maybe then there's responsibility for them just having been around that. I don't know, but they were really, really made damn sure that we just pretended, like we didn't see that. And they pretended like they didn't see that. That was weird as hell. To this day I'm like, "Why did they do that?"
[01:04:19] I'm still thankful people stuck with us for this. I really want to do part two next time. Are you cool with that, Gabriel? I was going to do a different topic, but I think this is a fun one. And I think people are going to dig it. Look, we're going to be live next Friday at 2:00 p.m. Pacific. That's November 20th. We'll also be live on November 27th. Friday at 2:00 p.m. Pacific. Download the Stereo app for iOS or Android. Join us live next time if you're listening in the feed. Links to all of the people and things that we talked about will be in the website in the show notes as well. Please do use our website links if you buy the books that we've talked about or anything. Worksheets for this episode are in the show notes. Transcripts are in the show notes. There's going to be a video of this going up on our YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. You can also hit me on LinkedIn.
[01:05:08] Gabe, where are you on social media?
[01:05:10] Gabriel Mizrahi: @GabrielMizrahi on Instagram and @GabeMizrahi on Twitter.
[01:05:14] Jordan Harbinger: We're teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Dig the well before you get thirsty. Most of the guests on the show actually subscribed to the course and the newsletter. So come join us, you'll be in smart company.
[01:05:32] This show is created in association with PodcastOne and my amazing team, including Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Ian Baird, Millie Ocampo, Josh Ballard, and Gabe Mizrahi. Again, thanks to the Stereo app for letting us go live. Go to the app store and download the Stereo app and join us next time. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know, somebody's interested in North Korea or crazy travel stories, please share this episode with them. Hopefully, you find something great in every episode of the show. So please share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
[01:06:14] I wanted to give you a preview of one of my favorite stories from an earlier episode of the show with Jonna Mendez. She was the chief of disguise for the CIA in Moscow during the latter part of the Cold War. We really get into the weeds on how they hid people and his spy gear in one of the most hostile espionage environments, anywhere in the world.
[01:06:32] Jonna Mendez: We've invented a technology that didn't even exist yet. The small batteries, for instance, they're in our watches and our phones, all of that stuff today.
[01:06:41] Jordan Harbinger: You're kind of like Q from James Bond, but it's the CIA.
[01:06:44] Jonna Mendez: We could create any kind of character over your face. Masks that came out of Hollywood. And we'd say, "Great, go down to the cafeteria and have lunch." This is at CIA headquarters where everybody knows everybody in the cafeteria and they would go and discover that no one paid any attention to them. You go, "Wow, I'm hiding in plain sight."
[01:07:05] They were following us just every minute. The case officer would step out of the car. The driver would hit a button. This dummy would pop up wearing the same clothes as the guy that had just left. Trailing surveillance would come around the corner and they follow that car all night. They never knew. And if they could get to those people, they would execute them. They were feeding people into these crematoriums, feet first alive.
[01:07:29] Jordan Harbinger: Unbelievable.
[01:07:30] Jonna Mendez: A really valuable agent said, "I'll work for you on one condition. And that is that you give me the ability to take my own life. Eventually, everybody got arrested." So they arrested him, and we had put that "L" pill we gave him in the cap of the Montblanc pen. It was cyanide and he knew where it was. And they said, "We want you to write your confession." So they brought him in his Montblanc pen.
[01:07:54] Jordan Harbinger: For more with Jonna Mendez, including some incredible spy stories that will really perk your ears, check out episode 344 of The Jordan Harbinger Show.
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