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    September 12, 2017

    Conclusion of My Trip To North Korea

    August 17, 2017

    One of the good things about being on a group tour in the DPRK – you will never oversleep and miss your flight; they will find you and drag you down to the bus to transport you to the airport.

    For half of the guests, this was the last day in North Korea, the other half was going on an extended tour for two more days.

    Unfortunately, I had to do the budget tour.

    We all assembled down in the hotel lobby at 9 am; the ones in suits were going on the extended tour to visit the mausoleum, the rest were leaving – hopefully without complications.

    I gave the two female guides a bottle of Jameson whiskey each.

    I said, “I was expecting two male guides, so I hope you can do something with this whiskey.”

    One of them said, “Oh, yes, we can. Thank you.”

    The other guide agreed.

    I was told by someone who is familiar with the tours that, “It’s sort of like being in prison; they can trade what they have for something that they need.”

    We said our goodbyes to the extended group.

    Yanggakdo International Hotel lobby.
    The Yanggakdo International Hotel lobby.

    We boarded the bus to the airport and were off; our guide handed us back our passports and travel visas that they had kept for almost the entire trip.

    The Dear Leaders.
    The Dear Leaders on the way to the airport.

    The plane was actually a large aircraft, unlike the one we took to Pyongyang; the entire DPRK weight lifting team was on the flight going to compete somewhere.

    I said goodbye to Simon and my guides and I went to wait in line to check my baggage.

    My bag was three kilograms over the weight limit.

    I put my bag on the conveyor and the young ticket lady pressed a button that rolled my bag under an X-ray; two North Korean Army officers carefully inspected the X-ray image.

    They started arguing with each other – All I could understand was “Mak-chu… Mak-chu…” which means beer.

    They said something to the ticket lady and she asked me, “Are you bringing beer back to the United States?”

    Oh, fuck!

    I’m going to do hard labor for smuggling beer!

    “Yes,” I said.

    She asked, “How many bottles?”

    “Four.”

    They started counting.

    “Oh, and a bottle of soju,” I said.

    She translated to the officers.

    They laughed; she sent my bag through and printed my boarding pass.

    Simon was still around and I asked him what that was all about.

    “They are just curious what Americans bring back from their country; it was more of a curiosity thing,” he said.

    Now it was the time to pass through passport control…

    Just like when I arrived, I handed my passport and travel visa over a counter top to a set of eyeballs with a hat on top of them.

    There was a two minute delay as he did something behind the counter.

    “What is your name,” he said.

    “Jeff ….,” I responded.

    He looked at me, took my travel visa, handed me my passport back and buzzed me through the gate.

    My blood pressure returned to normal.

    Unlike the trip to Pyongyang, they didn’t seem to segregate the passengers; I sat right among the North Korean weight lifting team, even passing Koryo burgers and customs forms between them from my aisle seat.

    Back in China.
    We landed back in Beijing without incident.

    Once in Beijing, I managed to travel the 18 hours that it took to get back home.

    Due to the time difference, on August 17th, I was in North Korea, China and the United States on the same calendar day.

    What I learned on my trip:

    Going to North Korea as an American is really no big deal, as long as you obey their laws and customs.

    American tourists are the only interaction that some North Koreans get with their “enemy” – they grow up to hate Americans, but are very friendly and curious when Americans actually go there.

    They like money and gifts, but who doesn’t?

    There is no such thing as “arbitrary arrest” – their laws are strict and strange to us, but you actually have to break their laws for problems to happen.

    If you travel with a great tour company, they will brief you on how to behave and what to expect; don’t go with a horrible tour company that will string you along for a year and boot you off of their trip because one of their previous clients got arrest in North Korea.

    I also have a California accent and attitude; I was told just that by my travel companions – relaxed and humorless.

    When I told my Brazilian roommate Bruno about my psycho-ex who was Brazilian, he said, “Don’t blame that on Brazil, blame that on her being a woman.”

    Bring plenty of toilet paper when you go to North Korean and learn to squat when taking a shit.

    OK, my mission to North Korea has been as complete as I could make it… now I need to get back to diving.

    July 2, 2017

    My July Trip Has Been Cancelled Due To National Origin Discrimination!

    My July trip has been cancelled – not by me, but by the tour group that I was going with, simply because I am an American citizen.

    I jinx all my trips:

    2012 – I bragged about going to Albania, only to have the Polish diving base close. I had to find and hire a student from the University of Tirana to complete my mission of diving in Albania.

    2013 – I went diving in Poland, however, Greg, the guy who was suppose to take me diving had personal issues and couldn’t. He turned me over to another diving group – that was no issue.

    OK, I have not been totally honest with the six people who read this blog – I did not want to jinx my trip.

    Yes, it was a trip to Vladivostok, Russia to go diving.

    Well, it also included a six day tour and diving in North Korea.

    So, here’s the story.

    I work in a cubicle, sort of like a jail cell, in the basement of a building.

    Diving in Hawaii or Fuji, just really doesn’t cut it for me.

    I need to go someplace weird, and when I found out last year that there was the first tour group of its kind, open to the public, to go diving in North Korea, I knew that was the trip for me…

    DPRK SCUBA DIVING
    This isn’t a joke – they have diving in North Korea.

    DPRK Receipt
    In September of last year, I put a deposit down and paid the balance in June.

    For almost a year, I heard how wonderful “The Real North Korea” is and how any negative news that I may hear is just “standard banter between the US and DPRK that has been going on for 70 years.”

    I had to jump through hoops to get a Russian Visa ($385), buy a letter of invitation ($45) and I also went out of my way to become PADI certified, as the tour group did not recognize any other agency other than PADI.

    On June 3rd, I received a confirmation email stating that the trip is on and that we were to all meet in Vladivostok, Russia on July 6, 2017.

    Then, the unexpected happened…

    Otto Warmbier In Custody

    Otto Warmbier, who had been held in North Korea for 17 months, was medevaced to Cincinnati the same day Dennis Rodman landed in Pyongyang.

    Mr. Warmbier arrived in a comatose state and died on June 19, 2017 of unknown causes; his family refused an autopsy.

    On March 16, 2016, Mr. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after he was caught and confessed to stealing a propaganda poster from a staff only area in the hotel he was staying at; he was with the same tour company that was taking me SCUBA diving.

    I agree, that is an unusually harsh sentence, but a man in the United States had been sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing pizza and another received a life sentence for stealing a pair of socks.

    What happened to Mr. Warmbier is anyone’s guess, but I personally think he tried to commit suicide and the North Koreans couldn’t revive him.

    American prisoners in the DPRK are too valuable to be tortured and starved or beaten; something else must have happened.

    After Mr. Warmbier’s death, the tour company started getting a lot of bad press:

    Gung-ho culture at tour agency Warmbier used on North Korea trip

    Boozy tours court trouble in the hermit kingdom

    Then on June 19, two weeks before I was scheduled to leave for Russia, I read the headline, Tour group says no more Americans to North Korea after Warmbier’s death

    Well, luckily, I had already booked and paid for my trip, so this was obviously for future trips.

    That same day, I received an email from the tour group…

    “I wish I was contacting you under happier circumstances, but I’m afraid that’s not the case this week. Due to the recent events regarding Otto Warmbier, we have reassessed our decision to bring American travelers into North Korea and have decided we will no longer be coordinating tours for American visitors to the DPRK, starting immediately. This means that we will have to cancel your booking for the upcoming SCUBA diving tour to North Korea.”

    What the fuck?

    I wrote back, “That sucks. I can understand the tragedy with Mr. Warmbier, but it probably would have happened regardless of nationality. Can’t you make an exception since I signed up almost a year in advance? And no, I don’t have travel insurance. It will cost me not to go.”

    I also wrote about my extensive experience in cold water diving and that I would be an asset to the group.

    “Perhaps you need a staff safety diver? I could do that,” I wrote.

    Three days of silence was followed by the next correspondence:

    “I’ve tried talking to management about still bringing you along but they are very persistent about the finality of the decision. So unfortunately we will still have to go ahead with the cancellation.”

    That was it.

    People can go diving in North Korea, but I can’t because I am an American.

    I told my friend Rick, “I know what it’s like to be discriminated against; I now know what it’s like to be black.”

    Rick said, “You don’t know what it’s like to be black, and everyone thought you were a dick face for even trying to go to North Korea.”

    I have ran into all sorts of problems, on every international diving trip that I have planned.

    To be so close, with what would have been the ultimate mark on my diving bucket list, only to be told that since I am American I can’t go but everyone else can, really sucks.

    I became really depressed and it sent me off into heavy debriefing mode for several days, to the point where my boss told me to “switch your cologne because it smells like beer.”

    I did some research on how I could go diving in North Korea now.

    There are currently four tour companies that will still take American citizens, however after contacting them, they are currently “reassessing” their policies towards Americans.

    None of the four tour groups have diving trips to North Korea, however you can go surfing in the DPRK.

    I am not a surfer, I’m just too fat.

    There is also talk of the United States government making it illegal to travel to North Korea, for whatever stupid reason they can make up.

    So in order for an American citizen to go SCUBA diving in North Korea now, a diving crew from either Russia or China would have to be hired and then one of the approved tour companies that still take Americans would have to put the tour together.

    If anyone is interested in such a trip, I would be happy to look into it further, but it won’t be cheap; contact me if you have any serious interest in such a trip.

    Also, anything the United States government does in the way of travel laws could interfere with these plans.

    Thanks to my friend Mirek, who pointed out that someone called Handel On The Law last Saturday with a similar situation; maybe I can find him and we can do a class action lawsuit?

    Handel On The Law

    It cost me almost $1,000 not to go.

    As one of my friends told me, “You failed and have disgraced the SCUBA diving community. You are lucky you aren’t Japanese because you would have to commit Harakiri to preserve your family’s honor.”

    Harakiri

    I told him, “If I was Japanese, I would be able to fucking go!”

    I will no longer be announcing trip plans, maybe that is part of the jinx?

    Anyway, that ends the best diving trip that never happened… because I am an American.

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