Archive | 2009
December 24, 2009

North Korea: The “perfect underground palaces” of the Pyongyang Metro

More footage from our official North Korean tourism DVD. Enjoy the cheesy music, take in the beauty of the Pyongyang Metro, mock our incessant photo taking, and observe our cell phone obsessed guide (Hmm is there cell phone service that deep underground?).

December 17, 2009

North Korea: More footage of the Arirang Festival Mass Games

Eventually I’ll sit down and write another long article regarding my trip to North Korea, but until then here is more footage of the Arirang Festival Mass Games taken from the North Korean Tourism DVD. The first minute is footage of our tour group watching the games, followed by seven minutes of clips from the actual games (which themselves run about 90 minutes). If you ever wanted to see what 100,000 North Koreans can do in the largest stadium in the world, here you go. This far surpasses the clips I previously posted.

December 16, 2009

North Korea’s Funniest Home Videos: U.S. Imperialists aboard the USS Pueblo

Here is the North Korean Tourism DVD footage of our trip to the USS Pueblo in Pyongyang. In this clip you can hear the narrator describe how the “US armed spy ship Pueblo” was “captured by the heroic Korean People’s Army while committing espionage acts”. You can also see us “imperialists” playing around in the wheelhouse of the Pueblo and looking completely bored as the North Koreans subject us to a propaganda film describing various acts of U.S. aggression towards the DPRK. A few of us definitely have “WTF?” looks on our faces.

December 15, 2009

North Korea: Warm welcome to the DPRK!

When our tour group arrived in North Korea, I was a bit surprised to learn that in addition to our driver and three guides/minders, we would be accompanied by a cameraman who would be filming our entire trip. At first I thought this was for propaganda purposes (“Tune in tonight at 7pm, dear comrades, to see footage of American Imperialist bowing before the “Great Leader”!) but the actual reason was much less sinister. On our last night in Pyongyang the cameraman showed us some of the footage he shot and informed us that we could purchase DVDs. Of course, I had to buy one. Where else but North Korea do you get a DVD of your entire trip, complete with the government approved narrative and incredibly cheesy music?

After much trial and error (was having a bit of trouble with the audio track), I finally managed to rip the DVD and cut some footage from it. For those of you who have complained that I’m a biased westerner (yes, I’ve already received e-mails insinuating as much) I’m happy to bring a bit of balance to my narrative of the trip by presenting the North Korean version. 😉 Over the next few months I’ll be posting more footage from this DVD. The footage from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)/Panmunjom is especially interesting.

This first clip is the intro to the DVD and footage from our visit to the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang (which is basically just us taking lots of photos).

December 2, 2009

North Korea: Riding the Pyongyang roller coaster of death

Well, here it is – the only video I have filmed in which I feared for my life during the process.

This is the footage I foolishly shot of our ride on the loop roller coaster at the Mangyongdae Fun Fair in Pyongyang, North Korea. When your harness doesn’t work on a loop roller coaster, perhaps the best course of action is to place your camera in your pocket and hold on for dear life. For whatever reason (some may call it insanity), I didn’t. I figured that if I was going to fall out/be thrown out of the roller coaster, I might as well capture the entire incident on film so that it could be replayed a million times on CNN.

At the beginning of the video you can hear a baffled U.S. Imperialist asking, in reference to his fellow passenger’s harness, “It doesn’t lock down?!” After spotting the loop for the first time, I then ask our guide, “Hey, we don’t go on that loop, do we?” He said no. Obviously, he had no freakin’ clue what I was talking about.

Bonus: You get to hear me scream.

You might want to fast forward the video a little bit as well, because it takes forever for the coaster to climb up the hill. And apologies for the horrible camera work, but, well, you know…

December 2, 2009

North Korea: Dining out in Pyongyang (or the most cooking I’ve done…ever)

Dining like the Koryo kings of yesteryear in Kaesong, DPRK

Some of the most frequently asked questions about my trip to North Korea are “Was there enough food? What did you eat? How was it?” One person even asked me if there was a McDonald’s. When I replied no, there is no McDonald’s in North Korea, they were incredulous. “Really? Not even a McDonald’s?” Yes, many Americans find this hard to believe, but there are some areas of the world that remain free of the ubiquitous golden arches.

One of my favorite things about traveling is eating. I tend to walk a lot wherever I go, and thus must repeatedly gorge myself on questionable, yet delicious, street food such as shawarma served by toothless Azeri men using knives that probably haven’t been washed in several years. Or, if I’m in Tbilisi, stopping at every single cafe just so I can declare which one makes the tastiest khachapuri. But Pyongyang is not like this. There is no Michelin Guide for North Korea and you won’t find Anthony Bourdain wandering the back alleys of Pyongyang with camera crew in tow. Your eating experience in North Korea is, much like your entire itinerary, carefully planned out with no diversions or options allowed. There is no choice of dining establishments – you eat at the restaurants you are taken to. When you get to the restaurants, there are no menus to order from – you eat what is put in front of you. This was quite a departure from my usual experience.

Soju, a Korean liquor. Tasted a lot like vodka.

Our breakfast was always served in the large ballroom of our island communist resort and casino. At the center of the ballroom, laid out on tables covered in crisp white linen, was a large spread of kimchi (yes, even for breakfast), various sandwich meats, and baskets of bread. One morning a platter of donuts mysteriously appeared. Something new! And they were the worst donuts I had ever eaten – thick, and dense, with no sweetness whatsoever – but it was something different, so I gladly welcomed them.

At the far end of the room was an omelet station, where a chef wearing a surgical mask would prepare an omelet with your desired ingredients, as long as you didn’t want anything in it besides onions and tomatoes. They weren’t bad at all, but were a little undercooked. One member of our tour group tried to convince the chef to flip the omelet one more time to have it well done, but his flipping a skillet pantomime was just met with a blank stare and a few words of unintelligible Korean, so he warily accepted the undercooked omelet.

Lunches and dinners presented a bit more variety than breakfast. We often returned to the hotel for lunch, which was held in either “Restaurant No. 1” or “Restaurant No. 2”. I much prefer this utilitarian naming convention to the ridiculous hotel restaurant names you encounter in the U.S. As if “LakeView Restaurant” is supposed to convince us that we’re not stuck in some hotel in the middle of the desert? Right.

When we weren’t at the hotel, we dined at a restaurant somewhere in Pyongyang. I don’t recall any of the names, so unfortunately cannot review each of them on Yelp, but nearly every restaurant seemed to be a replica of the others, with perhaps a slightly different decor and choice of videos playing on the TVs scattered throughout the restaurants. Our favorite was the video of soldiers and missiles parading through Kim Il-Sung Square set to a soundtrack of military music. When a waitress replaced it with a series of horrible North Korean music videos, we pleaded with her to return to the more martial fare.

Nice decor

As for the quality of the food, some of it was good, some of it was bad. Irregardless, at each meal we were served an embarrassingly large quantity of food. Just when you think you’ve finished your last course, the servers bring another one to the table, as if to say “Look! There is no food shortage here!” Of course, we weren’t fooled. They were just trying to put on a good show for the tourists, as this cornucopia is not standard throughout North Korea. In reality, North Korea suffers from severe food shortages. It is estimated that in the mid-1990s up to 1 million people died of starvation. North Korea cannot feed its population, and must rely on aid from the West. At the time of our visit, 8.7 million North Koreans, or nearly 40 percent of the population, was in urgent need of food assistance. But little of the aid delivered to North Korea actually makes it to the Korean people. Most of it is siphoned off by the military and ruling elite while the rest of the population is forced to subsist on 1-2 meals per day if they are lucky. The thought often occurred to me that the rice in my bowl was likely taken from a bag emblazoned with a U.S. flag and stamped “A gift from the American people.”

Many of our meals consisted of kimchi, rice, bread, some sort of fish swimming in a mysterious, unpalatable sauce, and a boiling pot of water commonly known as a “hot pot”. Along with the hot pot we were given a platter of raw meat, veggies, and noodles and instructed to add them to the pot at various times, but left to guess when this concoction was actually ready to be eaten. “Jesus,” I thought every time I poked at the questionable meat floating in boiling water, “I sure hope this is done.” (If you couldn’t tell already, I’m not much of a cook, and only prepare meat with my foolproof George Foreman “Champ” Grill.) Eating the actual hot pot was a feat in and of itself. We were provided with thin metal chopsticks which weren’t very conducive to grasping the slippery noodles. I often just gave up, completely demoralized at my lack of chopstick skills. Finally, the North Koreans had humiliated the American Imperialist.

Hot pot

One day, for lunch, we were served Chinese food instead of Korean food. The main course was deep fried duck (uh, I think) swimming in gallons of oil served with sides of rice and tempura fried onions, which I was drawn to immediately. Onion rings! I quickly devoured all of them.

What’s underneath the oil-soaked napkin?

Ah, fried duck

The best meal we had during our trip was at the Pyongyang No. 1 Duck Barbecue Restaurant. I’m not sure if the “No. 1” is there to denote it from other Pyongyang Duck Barbecue Restaurants (a chain, perhaps?) or to simply declare it the best barbecue duck restaurant in Pyongyang. Regardless, it definitely served the tastiest food we had in North Korea.

We were seated in groups of 4-5 people per table. Built into the center of each table was a small gas grill, which we would soon be covering with raw duck. As with previous restaurants, the servers kept bringing us a ridiculously large amount of food. If they noticed that one of the many plates of duck on our table was half gone, they would bring out yet another full plate for our table. When we told them that we didn’t need it, as we already had plenty, they looked at us perplexedly. The BBQ sauce served with the duck was actually quite good, and the Texan at our table, who is well-acquainted with BBQ sauce, gave it his approval.

Admittedly, by our third day in Pyongyang, visions of Taco Bell Grilled Stuft Burritos began swimming through my head. Oh god, if only I could get some nacho cheese and sour cream. And maybe one of those caramel empanadas. Or a slice of pecan pie topped with vanilla ice cream. I think I saw a Dairy Queen in Beijing. We’ll be there in a couple of days. Thankfully, as a stop gap measure, I had brought along plenty of snacks. I have this habit of loading my backpack with beef jerky, trail mix, and Snickers bars whenever I travel to a communist or formerly communist country. It dates back to my first trip abroad in 2002, when I studied abroad in Russia for a summer and my mom, apparently under the impression that Russia a) had no food; or b) had food, but you would have stand in line for hours to get it, filled my luggage with these items. Of course, I discovered upon arriving in Russia that there was plenty of food, no lines, and you could even buy a Snickers bar there. Nevertheless, I brought all of those snacks with me to North Korea, and was very glad that I did. There are no Snickers for sale in North Korea.

All photos are here.

November 19, 2009

North Korea: U.S. Imperialists ride the Pyongyang Metro

“The metro, a monumental edifice in the era of the Workers’ Party, is providing the people with easy access to different parts of Pyongyang and is very instrumental in their ideological and cultural education.” – KCNA

Of all the things we did in North Korea, taking a short trip on the Pyongyang metro was probably the least interesting. Maybe it’s because I have to ride the incompetently-run DC metro at least twice a day, and so try to avoid subjecting myself to public transportation whenever possible. Or perhaps I just don’t find the concept of rocketing under a city via a sardine can all that fascinating. Nevertheless, a few fun facts about the Pyongyang Metro…

The Pyongyang Metro opened in September 1973 and has a mere two lines, with a total of 17 stations that have names such as “Comrade”, “Three Rejuvenations”, and “Sacrifice in Battle”. Personally, I find metro station names with no reference to their actual geographical location to be incredibly confusing, but I’m sure there is some sort of sound logic behind this decision. The stations – some of the deepest in the world – are over 100 meters underground and can be used as bomb shelters for the city’s residents when Pyongyang is under attack from U.S. Imperialists such as ourselves. At $0.03 a ride, the Pyongyang Metro is also one of the cheapest metro rides in the world, when there is actually enough electricity to run the system.

As with everything on a tour of North Korea, your trip on the Pyongyang Metro is heavily restricted. Tourists are only permitted a short ride between the Puhung (“Revitalization”) and Yonggwang (“Glory”) stations. Our bus driver dropped us off at the Puhung station and then drove to the Yonggwang station, where he waited for us to emerge from the underground. The entire thing seemed absurd.

Upon entering the metro station, our guide directed our attention to a map of the metro. She explained that you could press the button under the name of the station you wished to travel to and the route to that station would light up. I thought this interactive map was a bit unnecessary considering the system only has two lines, but perhaps we could use something similar on the DC metro so the hordes of tourists would stop asking me dumb questions.

Your SmarTrip card is not accepted here.

The first thing I noticed about the Pyongyang Metro was that it looked an awful lot like the St. Petersburg and Moscow metro systems. In fact, it seemed as if the Soviets just rustled up their excess construction material and installed the system for the North Koreans, who then placed murals of Kim Il-Sung where the Lenin ones typically hang.

The long ride down

Puhung station, with Kim Il-Sung mural in the background. Interestingly enough, these metro cars are from West Berlin, built from 1957 to 1965.

I’m not really sure what these metro employees do, but they are there. The same cannot be said for DC metro employees.

While waiting for your train, you can catch up on the “news” via the papers that have been placed in glass cases on the station’s platform. Since I don’t read or speak any Korean whatsoever, our guide started reading the news to me. “Here it says that in the United States there are 3.5 million hungry children. Is that true?” I shrugged my shoulders. “Hmm…I don’t know. I haven’t heard that.” And I thought to myself, what an ironic story to place in a newspaper there, considering over a million North Koreans died of hunger in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, I reminded myself to Google this statistic when I get home. So I did. And it’s true.

Our train finally arrived, and our guides hustled us onto one of the cars which was, of course, free of North Koreans.

At the end of each car are portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, in case you forget who’s in charge.

After a short ride, we arrived at the Yonggwang station, which is decorated with multi-colored chandeliers.

Like the Moscow metro, the Pyongyang metro has thick, steel blast-resistant doors that can be deployed in case of attack.

The Pyongyang Metro also has small booths so that a worker can monitor the escalator.

While riding the escalator, you can listen to the revolutionary music that is piped in to make your journey that much more enjoyable. It really does soothe the soul.

Above ground. The building on the left is the Koryo Hotel.

For more information on the Pyongyang Metro, check out the online version of the official Pyongyang Metro book that you can buy after riding on the metro. The rest of my metro photos are here.

November 8, 2009

North Korea: Air raid sirens in Pyongyang

Just a quick post this time, as I’ve got to start working on various things I have been putting off.

A few weeks ago I posted some photos of Pyongyang in the morning. Here are two videos of Pyongyang in the morning. In the first you can hear the air ride sirens echoing throughout the city followed by several announcements. In the second you will see North Koreans heading off to work as well as schoolchildren (maybe?) waving around some flags while music plays over the loudspeakers.

November 5, 2009

North Korea: Bowing before Kim Il-Sung’s embalmed corpse at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace

It’s yet another early morning in Pyongyang and our tour group is in one of our hotel’s incredibly large banquet halls, picking at the remains of our breakfasts. It’s the same thing every day: kimchi, undercooked omelets, instant coffee, and the most incredibly dense donuts I have ever encountered. One of our guides is scurrying around from table to table, quickly looking over our attire to ensure we are dressed properly. She spies my flip-flops.

“Lindsay, do you have other shoes?”

I pick up the brown dress shoes I carried downstairs with me. I hate wearing dress shoes, so try and minimize the time I have to clumsily walk around in them.

“Oh yeah, don’t worry, got my dress shoes here.”

Our first stop on today’s itinerary is the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, the former residence and office of the “Great Leader” and Eternal President Kim Il-Sung. I guess it’s like the North Korean equivalent of the White House, with one minor difference. When an American President dies, we bury him and give him a nice headstone. The lucky ones might get a crypt or an eternal flame. When the North Korean leader dies, they embalm his corpse, put it on display inside his home, and declare it one of North Korea’s most sacred sites. Very few foreigners, and even fewer U.S. Imperialists, are allowed into Kim’s mausoleum.

Prior to our trip, we were informed that we would have to bring a set of dress clothes for our visit to Kumsusan, as it is a site of great importance to the North Korean people. So, that morning, we were all dressed in our finest, or what passes for your finest when you have to stuff nine days worth of clothes, toiletries, and Snickers bars in a backpack. I was wearing a semi-wrinkled white dress shirt, brown slacks, and brown shoes. I basically looked like I was going to work that morning and had neglected to iron my shirt.

Our bus takes us through deserted streets to the northeastern outskirts of Pyongyang where the palace is surrounded by massive gates guarded by soldiers in dress uniform. We enter a building off to the side of the palace and encounter a bizarre contraption featuring rotating spools of astroturf. After stepping onto a damp pad in front of the machine, we then proceed to walk on the rotating spools, which cleanse the bottom of our shoes. There will be no mud tracked into the Great Leader’s palace.

After depositing our cameras and bags in the coat check room, we were instructed to line up in rows of four and walk to the security checkpoint. I’m not really sure why we have to line up in rows of four, because we were quickly forced back into a single line in order to get through the metal detector and subsequent patdown by soldiers of the Korean People’s Army. But then again, this is North Korea, and if you’re told to get in a row of four, you get in a row of four.

Having been checked for explosives, weapons, and cameras, we then encounter an incredibly long moving walkway. I was a bit surprised to see a standard airport feature in a somber mausoleum. We began walking on the moving walkway, as most people, save the exceptionally lazy, usually do, until we were quickly instructed by our guide that we were supposed to stand still and let the walkway slowly take us to our destination. So we stood there, quietly, and patiently, as the walkway delivered us to…yet another walkway. It seemed like we had traveled for a mile on these things. In fact, I’m willing to bet that, as with everything in the DPRK, it’s the longest moving walkway in the world.

We reach the end of the final segment of the moving walkway and once again line up in rows of four. We’re led into a dimly lit room where we stand in a sloppy formation and wait for our row’s turn to step forward and stand before the the large white statue of Kim Il-Sung, which was bathed in a beautiful pink and blue lighting. We don’t bow here, just quietly stare at the statue looming in front of us while music plays in the background. God, this place is so weird. And we haven’t even gotten to the actual corpse yet.

Before entering the next room, we are each handed a miniature audio device similar to the ones you can rent at museums. This room contains yet another large statue of Kim Il-Sung, and the walls are decorated with bas reliefs of mourning soldiers, farmers, workers, and intellectuals. We march around the room in our rows of four, each of us clutching the audio device which contains a track of an over dramatic man with a British accent telling us how the death of Kim Il-Sung was basically the worst thing to ever happen in the history of mankind.

Finally, it was time to see the Great Leader himself. First, however, we had to be purified, and were led through a chamber with powerful jets of air that blew any specks of dirt off of us American Imperialists. Thoroughly cleansed, we entered a dimly lit room with high ceilings. In the center of the room was a glass coffin containing the body of Kim Il-Sung, which was draped with a blanket so that only the head was visible. In front of us, rows of somber North Koreans bowed before the coffin, under the vigilant gaze of ramrod straight white gloved soldiers clutching their polished Kalashnikovs. My row of four quietly stepped forward and stood at the feet of the Great Leader. We glanced at our guide, who was standing furthest to the left in our row, and followed her lead as she bowed. We then walked to the left, stood at the Great Leader’s side, and bowed again. For whatever reason, you don’t bow at his head, so we just stood there for a moment and then walked over to his other side, where we bowed for the last time. As we left the room I took one last glance over my shoulder to take in the bizarre spectacle. Lenin’s Mausoleum truly has nothing on this place.

The next rooms contain a giant map showing all the places Kim managed to visit during his tenure, as well as his personal rail car and official vehicle. The Great Leader rolled through the streets of Pyongyang in a Mercedes, by the way. Man of the people indeed.

We were then led into yet another room which was filled with all of the “awards” bestowed upon Kim Il-Sung by foreign governments and political parties. Most of them aren’t real awards, but rather trinkets with little value that have been put on display to give North Koreans the impression that their Great Leader was highly respected all over the world. I spy a few Soviet medals that were awarded to millions of citizens and can now be picked up for a few dollars at any souvenir market in Russia. I was quite amused to come across an honorary degree from Kensington University of Glendale, California. I had never heard of this university, so Googled it when I returned to the United States. Turns out it’s nothing more than a diploma mill. I wonder if some North Korean apparatchik saw a Kensington University advertisement in Reader’s Digest and sent away for it.

Having acquainted ourselves with the numerous accomplishments and accolades of Kim Il-Sung, we were then ushered into an extremely large room with several large desks, each adorned with a thick book. Our guide explained that these were guestbooks and that it was customary for visitors to sign them. Since we were such a large group, he suggested that perhaps just one person could sign for the entire group. We all hesitated, hoping someone else would be the first to volunteer. A member of our group finally stepped forward and was led to one of the desks while the rest of us plopped down on the couches lining the perimeter of the room. I wondered what I would write in the guestbook if we were all required to sign. “Dear Kim Il-Sung…love what you’ve done with the place. Your mausoleum is a million times more impressive than Lenin’s. Cheers, Lindsay.” I’m not sure if that would pass muster with the guides. Luckily I didn’t have to find out.

We leave the mausoleum the same way we’ve entered – via the extremely long and slow moving walkways. This time, though, the moving walkway opposite ours is filled with hundreds of North Koreans, most of them in military uniforms, on their way to pay homage to the Great Leader. Some of them stare at us with puzzled looks while others quickly glance away, as if they’ve just seen something utterly revolting. I suppress the urge to smile and wave. We’re not at the funfair anymore, comrades.

After collecting our cameras from the coat check, we head outside to explore the outside of the mausoleum, which is fronted by a massive, deserted square. Off to one side, members of army platoons and work units wait patiently for their turn to climb a set of bleachers and have their group photo snapped in front of the Great Leader’s final resting place. At least now they are smiling.

More photos here.

November 1, 2009

North Korea: Mass Dance videos (aka massive dance party, Pyongyang style)

Here are a few videos I took of the Mass Dance to celebrate the DPRK’s independence day. Our American guide informed us that this music and style of dancing is considered “modern/socialist”. Ain’t no hip-hop in the DPRK, that’s for sure. Also, I’m glad we aren’t required to do this on the 4th of July, because I’m a horrible dancer.