Archive | 2009
November 8, 2009


The NYTimes has an excellent series of articles commemorating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was only seven years old when this happened, but can still remember watching the news reports showing Berliners attacking the wall with sledgehammers as they were sprayed with firehoses. What an amazing moment in history. I’m looking forward to visiting the city, hopefully next month.

Günter Schabowski, a member of the East German Politburo, was designated to announce the new travel regulations at a news conference in the late afternoon. I had no way of filing to the paper from East Berlin, so even before he finished I rushed back to get through Checkpoint Charlie ahead of the mob of newsmen. All through the evening there were reports that people were gathering at checkpoints on both sides. As midnight approached, I was writing away in my room at the Kempinski Hotel in West Berlin when there came a knock on the door. It was Victor Homola, my translator from East Berlin.

“I’m busy, Victor,” I snapped.

“But, Serge…”

“Not now! Not now…”

Wait! Victor was an East German. He was not allowed to cross into the West!

He’d never been to the West! And it was midnight.

“Victor, what on earth are you doing here?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Serge. The wall is open!”

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.

November 1, 2009

Skeet shooting with a tank

I love this commercial.

November 1, 2009

School in the DMZ / Yankees in North Korea / Potemkin picnickers

Over the past few weeks there have been several interesting articles about North Korea. The first, “Soldiers, Mines and Sounds of Children Playing” is actually about the South Korean Taesung Elementary School, the only school inside the Korean DMZ.

Kim Han-seul, a fifth-grader, attends a most unusual school. Each morning, his school bus picks him up at a bustling town outside the Demilitarized Zone that separates South and North Korea. It drives through wire fences, tank traps and military checkpoints along a road flanked by minefields.

After a 50-minute drive escorted by a military jeep with a blue United Nations flag, the bus unloads Han-seul and a score of other students at Taesung Elementary, the only school inside the Korean DMZ, a heavily armed no man’s land guarded on both sides by nearly two million troops facing off in an uneasy truce.

The second article is from NPR’s Louisa Lim, who spent five days in North Korea and basically had the exact same itinerary as my tour group. In this article she details the DPRK’s misrepresentation of history at the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the USS Pueblo and interviews U.S. tourists who were visiting the country while she was there:

For those few American tourists — about 300 so far this year — who visit the Hermit Kingdom, the experience can be discombobulating. The Americans are segregated from other tourists, even at mealtimes, and often feel they are given a hard sell on the evils of American imperialism.

Scott Nguyen from California said the message was clear.

” ‘You evil capitalist swine pig. You screwed us over, and you’re continuing to screw us over. If I had the opportunity, I’d punch you right now.’ That’s really the feeling that I got,” he said, adding that even after leaving North Korea, he was still feeling the effects of the relentless barrage of propaganda.

“In some sense, I have to retrain myself to call it United States of America, and not Imperialist America, because that’s all we heard,” he said.

But Frank Cruise from Detroit, who was in the same tour group, said he hadn’t felt any personal animosity against him.

“Maybe some people were more suspicious than others, but I liked the people very much,” he said.

I dunno, maybe they had different rules in place after our group left, but the part about Americans being segregated from other tourists is false. Yes, there were no non-Americans in our tour group, but that was only because other nationalities are not as restricted as Americans (i.e., you can stay for longer than five days and take the train out of the country rather than fly). All tour groups, American or not, eat breakfast in the same banquet hall, and when we were confined to our hotel for the night we hung out with plenty of non-American tourists.

As for the experience, yeah, it’s quite “discombobulating” as she puts it, but I didn’t personally feel any animosity from the North Koreans we interacted with. Or at least I didn’t get the impression that they wanted to punch me (who knows, maybe they did, but they certainly put a smile on their face while they fantasized about it). Rather, it seemed to me that the long-winded speeches on U.S. Imperialism were basically lines that the guides had memorized and were required to recite at various points throughout the tour. There was no emotion behind the speeches. I was amused when, during our trip to the DMZ, one of our guides actually apologized ahead of time that the North Korean officer would be using the phrase “U.S. Imperialists” several times. The propaganda videos, museums filled with artifacts from wartime exploits that never happened, and anti-U.S. rhetoric never affected me because I knew it just wasn’t true. It was just depressing that the entire populace was being lied to.

The third article “Picnic in North Korea” describes another tourist’s recent trip to North Korea and her suspicion that the picnic of joyous locals was staged:

To get to the beach, you walked a path where a young boy sat painting a picture of the waterfall — it was almost too picturesque. The locals had spread out a feast of kimchi, bulgogi, mounds of fat purple grapes, cold bottles of beer. Soon some of the picnickers were cheerily exhorting us to join them, even picking up food with chopsticks and depositing it straightaway in people’s mouths. Beer was poured; songs were sung. It was the first time I’d seen North Koreans smile wide, toothy grins.

After a while the tour guide sauntered over and reminded us that we weren’t supposed to talk to locals. She didn’t sound convinced of her own words. I suddenly started to see everything anew. Why were the picnickers here in the middle of the workday? Why was their food, those perfect pyramids of fruit, untouched before they pulled us over? Even the boy; I peered at his easel as I walked back and saw he was using a kind of paint-by-numbers kit.

This article was rather timely, as over the past few weeks I’ve had several friends ask me if our “impromptu dance party” with the Pyongyang picnickers was really that impromptu. My gut feeling is that it wasn’t staged (and there were several big differences between my experience and Ms. Lee’s), but truly I just don’t know. I suppose the government could have rounded up hundreds of its citizens, placed them in a park with food and drink, and instructed them to be hospitable to the group of 16 unimportant American tourists who would soon be walking through the park. I certainly wouldn’t put it past the regime. But then again, we’ll never know.

November 1, 2009

Twitter Weekly Updates for 2009-11-01

  • coffee +NYTimes = Sunday bliss #
  • Just read idiotic Thomas Friedman column. No longer in state of bliss. #
  • Baking desserts with my big oil comrades #
  • Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Wal-Mart #
  • Eh, go Phillies? #
  • Drinking organic fair trade whatever coffee in my Barack Obama coffee mug, and then proceeding to go work for Big Oil #
  • I think the Pyongyang metro has better on-time performance than the one in DC. When they have electricity, that is. #
  • We need a Guy Fawkes Night celebration in DC #
  • Supposed to be studying for my Russian mid-term tomorrow… #
  • One month from now I will be back in California. For three days. #
  • @mjanderson lol, saving vacation days for a possible Europe trip over Xmas in reply to mjanderson #
  • Bad decision, dude! RT @LiberateLaura: An NK propagandist's wet dream: 30-y-o SK resident defects to the north via DMZ. #
  • Malls are depressing #
  • Henceforth, I will now write all dates in Juche format. 28 October Juche 98. #
  • Yes, I'm going to vote for Creigh Deeds. NOW STOP CALLING ME! #
  • Hello, Thursday. So nice to see you, but I wish you were Friday. #
  • @pointerj I would recommend the British English -> American English function on Google translate in reply to pointerj #
  • Dude seriously creigh deeds stop calling me!!! #
  • Drinking elitist beer at rfd #
  • Looking forward to brewing beer and breaking clays this weekend #
  • The best microbrewery in Pyongyang…or all of North Korea for that matter #korea #dprk #
  • I wish all kitchen appliances came in camo #
  • Brewing beer with @pointerj #
  • DC is the only city where you will see someone dressed up as a UN peacekeeper superhero for Halloween #
  • I'm not sure of this dude is supposed to be an Asian Robert E Lee or a member of the Beatles. So confused #
  • It's true, our Berlin wall costume was the best this city has ever seen. Embassy trick or treating next year…it's on #

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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.