Archive | October, 2009
October 31, 2009

North Korea: Mass Dance in front of the Tower of Juche Idea

After visiting the Juche Tower, we stuck around for an hour to watch the mass dance that was taking place to celebrate the DPRK’s independence day.

Americans head down to show off their imperialist dance moves.

Which the North Koreans find thoroughly amusing.

Dance over, everyone back in formation.

More photos here.

October 31, 2009

North Korea: Tower of Juche Idea

Designed by the Dear Leader himself, the Tower of Juche Idea was completed in 1982 to commemorate Kim Il-Sung’s 70th birthday. That’s quite a gift to present to your father for his birthday. By comparison, the books and t-shirts I send my dad now appear to be quite inadequate.

At a height of 557.7 feet, the Juche Tower surpasses the Washington Monument by a little over two feet. Honestly, Juche Tower doesn’t appear to be taller than the Washington Monument, but if the North Koreans say it is, it must be so. They would never lie about something as inconsequential as their monument being taller than a U.S. Imperialist monument, right? Right.

The Juche Idea, which the tower takes its name from, is the official state ideology of North Korea:

The regime emphasizes Juche [Juché, Chuch’e], a national ideology of self-reliance. The regime justifies its dictatorship with arguments derived from concepts of collective consciousness and the superiority of the collective over the individual, appeals to nationalism, and citations of “the juche idea.” The authorities emphasize that the core concept of juche is “the ability to act independently without regard to outside interference.” Originally described as “a creative application of Marxism-Leninism” in the national context, juche is a malleable philosophy reinterpreted from time to time by the regime as its ideological needs change and used by the regime as a “spiritual” underpinning for its rule.

Plaques donated by Juche study groups and regime supporters throughout the world. Yes, there was even one from the United States.

The Juche Tower is topped with a tacky red flame sculpture that glows a bright reddish orange color at night until it is shut off.

For the sum of five euros you can take an elevator to the top of tower for an amazing 360 degree view of Pyongyang. When we got to the top of the tower, a member of our group jokingly asked the tower’s tour guide if anyone had ever fallen off. “No!” she replied, with a confused look on her face. “Why would you even ask such a question?!”

Ryugyong Hotel and Kim Il-Sung Square.

Mass dance being held below

May Day Stadium where the Arirang Festival Mass Games are held.

Ryugyong Hotel

North Koreans paddleboating on the Taedong River

Our island hotel

Statue of a worker, peasant, and intellectual. Quite similar to Vera Mukhina’s “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” statue in Moscow.

Locals watching the mass dance.

More photos here.

October 30, 2009

North Korea: The Paradise Bar & Microbrewery

I like beer. A lot. So when our guides announced that they were taking us to a “local bar” after dinner one evening, we were pretty excited. While our hotel bar was more than adequate, we would rather stay in the city for a few more hours than be confined to our island hotel for the rest of the night.

Brewing equipment

To describe the Paradise Bar as a “local bar”, though, is a bit of a misrepresentation. A majority of the clientele were foreigners (NGO/embassy workers), followed by a handful of North Koreans lucky enough to have access to hard currency (prices were in euros). These patrons, who were likely high ranking bureaucrats, definitely weren’t representative of the typical Pyongyang resident.

Most of the patrons weren’t in the actual bar area, either. Instead, they had secluded themselves in small rooms where they could drink and converse with each other in private. Save for two North Koreans, our group of U.S. Imperialists had the entire bar area to ourselves.

The only locals were these two North Koreans

I ordered the fruit beer, and after 20 or so minutes (service was a bit slow), I finally had a half-liter of green liquid sitting in front of me. Despite its bizarre appearance, it was absolutely delicious. It tasted like kiwi, which surprised me because I never imagined that someone would brew kiwi beer. Everyone at my table ordered different beers so we could trade with each other and sample the microbrewery’s entire selection. All of them tasted excellent. Definitely the best beer in Pyongyang, if not the entire country. Watch out Belgium, these guys could be a contender if they ever get their act together.

Kiwi beer. A delicious half liter for 50 euro cents (around 70 cents US).

Some blueberry liquor that could “stun an elephant.” It was horrible.

Having visited the Paradise Bar & Microbrewery, I now hold the ultimate trump card in the beer snob wars. Whenever some dude starts bragging about some craft beer he had in Belgium or wherever, I’m going to say, “Oh yeah, dude, you should totally visit the Paradise Microbrewery and try a few of their beers. Pretty easy to get there, you just gotta hop a flight to Pyongyang.”

More photos here.

October 28, 2009

North Korea: Pyongyang at night

Several weeks ago I posted some daytime shots of the Pyongyang skyline. This is a similar view of Pyongyang, but at 1am in the morning.

Remember those joke postcards you could buy that were completely black and would say something like “Los Angeles at night”? That’s what Pyongyang reminded me of when I would stick my head out of the hotel window and peer into the complete darkness of the silent city across from our hotel. It felt like I was the only person there.

Incidentally, when I went down to the hotel gift shop to buy postcards for friends, I picked up the “Pyongyang at night” postcard set that ironically depicted the city in all its illuminated, blazing glory. Suffice it to say, they did not have any joke “Pyongyang at night” postcards, because that would have been to close to the actual truth.

The 3.2 million residents of Pyongyang receive only 1-3 hours of electricity per day. Keep in mind that only the crème de la crème – the citizens most loyal to Kim Jong-Il’s regime – are allowed to live in Pyongyang. Just three hours of electricity per day for the country’s elite.

North Korea’s electricity woes are starkly illustrated in the below satellite image of the Korean peninsula. Notice the difference between North and South Korea.


As with everything else in North Korea, the electricity shortage is due to the actions of the U.S. Imperialists:

The U.S. should own responsibility for having caused such acute shortage of electricity in the DPRK and brought enormous economic losses to it and make compensation for them in any form.

This is an irreversible principled demand and a legitimate sovereign right of the DPRK, the victim.

If the U.S. does not fulfil its commitments but persistently pursues the policy of stifling the DPRK, the DPRK will be left with no option but to go its own way.

Then, it will be too late for the U.S. to regret for its act.

Not to worry, though, as it looks like the DPRK is going green and getting into wind power. I’m sure they will have a surplus of electricity in no time.

October 27, 2009

On Stalin and Obama

This is for all the illiterate idiots (hello, Glenn Beck) who invoke the names Stalin, Hitler, Kim, and Mao when discussing Obama. Pick up a goddamn history book for once and realize what you are actually saying. From “A Trip to Chon Tash”:

The crimes of the old regime were on exhibition to those swearing an oath to uphold the new order. In the museum at the site the possessions of many of the victims were displayed with some biographical details. Documents from the archives of the NKVD/KGB showed the trappings of legal formalism that accompanied the brutal deeds, every murder judicially authorized with a sentence stamped and sealed. The execution of the sentence was scrupulously documented. And on one wall was a simple display that spoke powerfully: a portrait of Stalin, and below it a skull, resting on stones taken from the pit.

In America today, the name and image of Stalin are invoked heavily by fringe critics of Barack Obama. The critics disagree with his policies on health care and see in it the basis for increasing power of the state. The role the state will play in the healthcare system is a legitimate political issue on which well-informed citizens can have different views. But the comparison to Stalin makes clear that these critics really have no inkling of who Joseph Stalin was, what he did, and why his name lives in special infamy at hallowed spots like the pit at Chon Tash. This frivolous use of his name and image cheapens our nation’s political dialogue, and it is also a mark of disrespect to his victims. And it points to the fundamental crisis of which Aitmatov wrote so powerfully: the failure to know the past, to be informed by it, and to distill guidance from it. The age of the mankurt, alas, has not passed.

October 25, 2009

North Korea: The traffic girls of Pyongyang

There are plenty of traffic lights in Pyongyang, but no electricity to power them. Instead, the few cars that exist in Pyongyang must obey the commands of the “traffic girls” posted at various intersections. They stand underneath large umbrellas in the middle of these intersections, directing cars with military precision. According to the Korean Central News Agency, these platforms with umbrellas are a rather new addition to the intersections of Pyongyang, having been set up only weeks before I arrived in North Korea. They were provided, of course, by the Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il.

The female traffic controllers are commanding the traffic with a bright face on the platform under the umbrella even in the hottest period of summer.

Passers-by stop walking for a while to see the new scene.

They say it can be seen only in the country led by Kim Jong Il.

The traffic controllers are moved by the warm affection shown for them by General Secretary Kim Jong Il who saw to it that the platforms with umbrellas are being set up this time after raincoats, rain boots, sunglasses, gloves and cosmetics as well as seasonal uniforms were provided to them.

Rush hour

Here are a few video clips. In the background you can hear little kids yelling at us. I have no idea what they were saying. While we were taking photos of the traffic girl they would slowly sneak up behind us to get a better look at the U.S. Imperialists. When we turned around they ran away screaming their heads off.

October 24, 2009

North Korea: Driving through the streets of Pyongyang

One of the most covered topics at our pre-tour briefing was photography. We were told that we could only take photos when granted permission to do so, and that photography from the bus and taking photos of soldiers was strictly prohibited. As we soon discovered upon arrival in North Korea, however, some restrictions on photography are really at the discretion of your guides. Our guides were pretty mellow, and would encourage us to shoot photos of various things (i.e., the traffic girls) as we drove by. One guide actually became quite annoyed when we kept inquiring if it was OK to take photos from the bus, and asked us “Why do you keep asking me if you can take photos?!” We couldn’t help it, it was just contrary to what we had been told at the briefing and we didn’t want to get in trouble. I later discovered that we had been quite lucky to have landed these guides, as some other tour groups who were staying at our hotel with us had very strict guides. In fact, I can only remember two instances when we were told we couldn’t take photos. The first was when we arrived at the army building right outside the DMZ and were instructed not to take photos of the entrance. The second time was when we were driving through a rural area outside Kaesong and our guide told us to put our cameras away, as photography was prohibited in this particular area. I’m not 100% sure, but I think it was because we were passing by various military fortifications. Or at least that’s what they looked like.

Anyways, with hardly any restrictions on photography, everyone in our tour group took tons of photos. Since I had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of memory cards and batteries, I would sometimes just hit the video record button and let the camera capture whatever was going on outside our bus as we sped by. Here is the first clip. You’ll see a lot of commieblocks, propaganda, and incredibly wide streets with hardly any vehicles.

October 22, 2009

North Korea: Arirang Festival Mass Games videos

Here are a few short video clips I took of the Arirang Festival Mass Games. In the first video you can see the background, which is composed of 20,000 schoolchildren holding flipbooks, changing scenes.

October 22, 2009

North Korea: U.S. Imperialists visit Moranbong Park where an impromptu dance party with Pyongyang locals ensues

After completing our obligatory visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument, we were off to the nearby Moranbong Park. Since it was a national holiday in North Korea, the park was full of Pyongyang locals enjoying one of their few days off. They were all gathered in circles, grilling meat on small barbecues, drinking beer and soju, and singing folk songs. There were several elderly women who had setup a table and were selling squid jerky, popcorn, beer, and, surprisingly, cans of Coke.

One of the pavilions in the park

Family posing for a photo

Our guides were incredibly relaxed at the park and allowed us to wander around and mingle with the locals. Since none of them spoke English, however, there wasn’t much conversation, just a lot of gesturing, nodding, and grinning. Asking permission to take a photo would inevitably end up with you being invited to sit down with them while they shoved meat in your mouth and handed you shots of whatever moonshine they had managed to acquire. Overall, an incredibly hospitable group of people.

One woman started banging on a drum she had brought along, which prompted one of the men to get up and dance. He was quickly joined by the other members of the group, who started grabbing random Americans as dance partners. We had suddenly found ourselves in the midst of an impromptu dance party.

This guy was absolutely hilarious.

I have absolutely no idea what I am doing here

The lady on the right grabbed me and twirled me around about 50 times. I am embarrassed to say that she completely wore me out. I blame the jet lag.

Our dance party attracted a rather large group of locals who looked on bemusedly as we tried to mimic the dance moves of our Korean partners. I’m glad we could provide them with a bit of entertainment.

More photos here. Video will be posted eventually.

October 21, 2009

North Korea: The Mansudae Grand Monument to Kim Il-Sung

Following an evening of Mass Games, drinking North Korean beer, and exploring our bizarre hotel, we were up bright and early for our first full day of touring Pyongyang. The first stop on our itinerary was the obligatory visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument, a 65 foot bronze statue of the “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung. Of all things you will do in North Korea, visiting this monument is perhaps one of the most controversial. While planning a trip North Korea, one must keep the following things in mind:

1. A visit to the Mansudae Grand Monument to Kim Il-Sung is obligatory. This is one of the holiest sites in Pyongyang, with thousands of North Koreans paying their respects to the Great Leader each day.

2. Your group is expected to purchase bouquets of flowers, lay them at the feet of Kim Il-Sung, and then bow in accordance with local customs.

3. When taking photos of the Great Leader, do nothing “cute” like mimicking his pose. Ensure that all photos contain the entire statue of the Great Leader. Do not take any photos that would crop the Great Leader (i.e., showing only his feet).

Since we had received all of this information in our tour packets, and it was further reinforced in the pre-tour briefing in Beijing, we were all well aware of how we were expected to act at the Grand Monument. Obviously, bowing to a statue of a ruthless dictator is not something you want to do, but if you are set on visiting North Korea, this bizarre gesture is a requirement that many simply accept as the price of admission.

The monument was erected in 1972 to celebrate Kim Il-Sung’s 60th birthday. Rumor has it that the statue was originally coated in gold, but this was removed on the insistence of the Chinese government, which was heavily subsidizing the regime.

Flowers in hand, we hopped off our tour bus and walked a short distance to the monument. Spread out before us was a vast open space with a huge bronze statue of Kim Il-Sung front and center and two large socialist-realism sculptures to the left and right of the statue. Music blared from large speakers as groups of soldiers, schoolchildren, and families lined up before the statue and solemnly bowed. Our guide pointed out a man carrying a large video camera. “He is from the news channel, and here to film you.” Oh great. Our visit was being turned into propaganda for the masses. I could just imagine the evening news anchor announcing: “And here are the U.S. Imperialists bowing before the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung…” Well, there goes my future political career.

He’s from the North Korean version of CNN.

Our guide led us to the front of the statue. Members of the group who had purchased flowers stepped forward and laid them at the feet of the Great Leader. Once they had returned and taken their place in line, we followed the lead of our guide and bowed. Compared to the North Koreans, who were bowing in perfect unison, we were all quite disorganized. Some members of our group had a long bow, some had a quick bow, others bowed twice. I’m sure the Koreans watching the news that evening got quite a laugh at the clumsy U.S. Imperialists. What can I say, we just aren’t accustomed to bowing before statues (or preserved corpses, as I will detail in a later entry).

Our obligation to the cult of personality fulfilled, we were then free to wander around the area and take an excessive amount of photos.

Unfortunately, no American pose here.

This kid has his own military uniform.

The rest of the photos can be found here.