For many Americans, the words “North Korea” might bring up thoughts of nuclear weapons, an out-of-touch and oppressive Communist regime and privations so harsh they cause many citizens to try to escape.
But for Joseph Ferris III, originally of the small central Maine town of China, North Korea stirs different emotions entirely.
“I enjoy it a lot. I enjoy the people there. To me, they’re very friendly people. They’re shy, they’re funny. It’s like going back in time. It’s really old-fashioned,” he said Friday in a phone call from Seattle, where his research vessel had just docked. “It’s the only thing like time travel I can think of.”
And Ferris knows what he’s talking about. The 1994 Waterville High School and 1998 Maine Maritime Academy graduate has been on voyages and expeditions that have taken him all over the world, from the icebergs off Cape Horn to Antarctica to the Yangtze River of China. This year, he became a partner and guide with Young Pioneer Tours, a group based in the country of China that specializes in cutting-edge travel to countries including Iran, Cuba, Myanmar and North Korea.
He works for seven months of the year as chief mate of the research vessel Melville, which is operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. During the other five months, Ferris indulges his passion for world travel. He said he has been to more than 90 countries in the past 13 years.
He stresses the fact that he isn’t an apologist or advocate for the regime of Kim Jong-un, but still finds North Korea a fascinating destination. Beginning in 2011, North Korea allowed Americans to come to the country with tour groups, but the U.S. Department of State is continuing to warn American citizens about travel to North Korea. The warning, dated March 14, states that travel to North Korea by U.S. citizens is not routine, and some Americans crossing into North Korea have been subject to arbitrary arrest and long-term detention.
But the warning doesn’t faze Ferris or his travelers.
“You see things you don’t see anywhere in the world,” Ferris said. “There’s the possibility of seeing something amazing there, every time you go.”
Last spring, during a period of increased international tension with North Korea, he guided four different groups there. Despite the apparent heightened nuclear risk coming from North Korea, he and his groups of travelers — which included some fellow Americans — had a great time north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
“I really enjoy being where the people are. I enjoy holidays and mass dances,” Ferris said. “There’s the conception that if you go there, you’re not allowed to meet the real people. You actually can, but you have to go there with the right attitude.”
That includes being open-minded and willing to have some fun — he advises against wanting “to prove to yourself that it’s a bad place and no one’s happy.”
He has visited modern amusement parks, where he has been free to sit next to Koreans and duke it out with them on bumper cars. He has spent time in the country, where he has seen people tooling around in the backs of pickup trucks that are powered by wood gasifiers. He has visited kindergarten classrooms, where he watched dance performances by smiling children. He has developed an appreciation for the Pyongyang traffic girls, comely ladies in military-style uniforms who direct traffic in the absence of lights.
“During preparations for my first trip to the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] I watched all of the online documentaries I could find, from dreary hit pieces on the DPRK Government to over sensationalized video travel guides, and common to them all was the depiction of a sad, colorless, and lifeless North Korea,” Ferris wrote on his travel blog, americaninnorthkorea.com. “But by coming to the DPRK myself I experienced something different; I found Pyongyang to be a clean, bright, colorful, and orderly city, with a people that smile, laugh, and despite the language barrier, interact with foreigners with a shy curiosity.”
He wrote that he wants to use his photographs and writing to present a different perspective on North Korea.
“I don’t deny that there are human rights violations, but there’s already plenty of material out there to explore on those issues,” Ferris wrote. “Instead I wish to pass on what I observed during my travels in the DPRK: that despite the hardships and pressures the North Korean people endure (whatever they may be), they remain a very human people, and just like us they love life and share the simple hopes and dreams common to all humanity.”
Capt. Larry Wade, who taught Ferris at Maine Maritime Academy, said that his former student’s experiences in North Korea and elsewhere show how an MMA education can be put to diverse uses in life.
“When they want to change careers — they just do it,” Wade said Saturday of the program’s graduates. “They’re not afraid to just change.”
Ferris said that he tries to get back to Maine every couple of years, and that while his family no longer spends much time in China, he has brought something important with him from his time growing up there.
“It was such a small town that I really wanted to see the world,” he said. “Maybe that had an influence on me.”