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No. 12 - Sometimes You Just Have to Risk It

Weifeng Zhong, Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center at George Mason University
Weifeng Zhong, Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center at George Mason University
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This is the first of a two-part series on North Korea and open-source intelligence. It was originally published as a guest column at The Ewing School. Stay tuned for part 2.
My North Korean tour guide instructing us not to take photos during the bus ride (August 2010).
My North Korean tour guide instructing us not to take photos during the bus ride (August 2010).
I grew up in China during its era of rapid market reforms, which the country’s ideologues termed “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Back then everything in China was about hustling, even if that meant breaking a rule or two. In fact, China’s economic reforms started in 1978, when starved villagers in a collective farm broke the rule of socialism and started to farm their own plots of land to survive.
So I always wondered what true socialism was like. That is, socialism without Chinese characteristics—say, in North Korea.
One day in 2010, when I brought up my curiosity about life in a truly socialist country for the umpteenth time, my dad, who had lived in pre-reform China and knew socialism too well to want to experience it again, suggested: “Why don’t you join a North Korea tour and see for yourself?”
That’s a great idea, I thought.
This mysterious, backward country always welcomed the Chinese, and a weeklong, all-inclusive vacation there only cost the equivalent of about $500. I was a graduate student at Northwestern University with a decent stipend at the time, so five Benjamins sounded rather reasonable.
I knew North Korean authorities sometimes detained visitors from the West without reason, and I didn’t want to end up in North Korean prison. But as a Chinese national, I thought chances were good that I would make it back in one piece. So off I went without thinking twice.
Sometimes you just have to risk it.
North Korea
As soon as my group landed at the Pyongyang airport, we were greeted by a designated tour guide with a serious look on her face. She’s clearly a spy—and not a very good one at that, I thought.
She announced right out of the gate: “No photos during the tour unless I tell you otherwise!”
What I heard was: “Good stuff is coming up. Get your camera ready!”
She took us to a tour bus that would take us around the country throughout the weeklong trip. During the ride, the tour “guide” specifically instructed us not to take pictures and said photographing North Korean soldiers was strictly prohibited.
So, obviously, I sat in the back of the bus and quietly took tons of photos, including those of North Korean soldiers. In case you are wondering, the soldiers were not in very good shape.
I had fun playing spy all week and was pumped about my secret treasure trove of photographs I wasn’t supposed to take. That is, until I was back at the Pyongyang airport for my return flight.
Nicely “accompanying” the tour group all the way up to the security checkpoint, the “guide” said casually, as if she were asking for our tickets: “Please hand in your cameras so we can inspect the photos.”
What do I do with the two SD cards full of photos?
I thought about the famous photographer Jeff Widener, who took the iconic photo of the Tiananmen Square “tank man” blocking a column of tanks as the Chinese military brutally cracked down on the 1989 protesters. Widener, knowing that he would be facing a security checkpoint when leaving his hotel, gave the film to an innocent-looking American student, who smuggled it out in his underwear.
Jeff Widener, working for the Associated Press, shot this version of the "tank man" (June 1989).
Jeff Widener, working for the Associated Press, shot this version of the "tank man" (June 1989).
I looked innocent too. But I wore boxer briefs.
Sometimes you just have to risk it.
I hid the SD cards inside my shoes and walked through the scanner, barely lifting my feet. I gave a sigh of relief when I didn’t hear a beep. (Their scanners were not in very good shape either.)
Was I out of my mind doing something like that? Perhaps. But this was in 2010, before American student Otto Warmbier’s high-profile arrest in 2016 at the Pyongyang airport for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.
And, more importantly, I grew up during that time in China when survival meant you had to be enterprising and boundary-busting. When nothing would happen if you didn’t take risks. So I was used to watching my six and twelve and everything in between.
If nothing else, I would still end up with a good story to tell.
United States
I moved to the Washington, DC, area in 2015 to pursue a career in policy research. I’m now a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
I follow the same principle of taking risks and enjoying the journey in the public speaking bootcamp Bob helps run at Mercatus. Nothing happens if we “just give a talk,” he tells us. So I get out of my comfort zone and talk about my personal experiences.
Sometimes you just have to risk it.
I told this story about my trip to North Korea at our recent public speaking contest, and it won me a shiny trophy. The checkpoint scare was totally worth it!
Weeks after I got out of Pyongyang, I visited a US consulate to get my visa renewed. The officer noticed the North Korea visa stamp in my passport and looked a bit perplexed. “You went to North Korea?” he asked, staring at me.
Let’s have some fun with this, I thought. So I risked it again.
I nodded. “It’s quite interesting. You should go sometime,” I told him, as if I were recommending a Chinese restaurant.
He looked visibly terrified by my remark. “Oh no, we’re not allowed to travel to North Korea!”
“I know,” I said smiling. “I was just kidding.”
The officer surely could have denied my visa because of my mischievous joke—luckily he didn’t. But seeing the shock on his face made the risk totally worth it.
Years later, my North Korea trip would teach me an important lesson about espionage.
Clandestine operations—the professional equivalent to my little spy play—may be exciting, but as a way of collecting intelligence, they are increasingly behind the times. What’s badly needed instead is intelligence gathering using publicly available data.
I will continue with the story about my North Korea trip and what it taught me about intelligence collection in this newsletter. Sign up to stay in the loop!
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Weifeng Zhong, Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center at George Mason University
Weifeng Zhong, Senior Research Fellow, Mercatus Center at George Mason University @WeifengZhong

Welcome to my personal newsletter on US-China relations. I believe nuance matters in understanding United States’ economic and geopolitical relations with China, so it requires that we take a second look—to think again—when delving into a topic. For example, as discussed in my inaugural issue, China’s move into Afghanistan might not be something to fret about if you look deeper into the challenges in investing in the country’s mineral resources.

You can find my research at You can also follow me on Twitter @WeifengZhong and check out the Policy Change Index at, my machine-learning project that predicts authoritarian regimes’ policy moves by "reading" their propaganda.

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