Archive | 2009
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.


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.

north_korea_satellite_dark_2
Credit: globalsecurity.org

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.