A Journey Through Pyongyang, North Korea
Pyongyang is the capital of one of the most secretive and strange countries on earth. There are 3.2 million inhabitants according to the 2008 census and it is by far North Korea’s biggest city. Despite the huge ideological gulf between them, Pyongyang and Seoul are only 120mi/194km apart.
In many ways, Pyongyang is similar to any other city in the world. There is a metro system, pretty good public transportation in general, car traffic, traffic lights, restaurants, parks, sports facilities, etc. But as is often the case in North Korea, there’s more to the story.
I’ve been to dozens of capital cities on earth and Pyongyang has a fraction of the automobile traffic of even the least densely populated capital city you can think of. Cars driven by North Koreans are generally produced by the North Korean Automotive Industry. There are foreign cars on the road, but they were usually driven by diplomats or aid agencies. When we drove from Pyongyang to Kaesong to visit the demilitarized zone, we saw only a handful of vehicles on the highway during the two hour drive. Pretty crazy.
Despite the lack of traffic, a staple in Pyongyang city life is the traffic lady. Said to be among the most desirable single females in town because they are chosen for their beauty and visibility, these ladies (though I did see some men as well) stand in a circle in the middle of intersections and direct traffic. While this job is generally obsolete thanks to Cleveland’s own Garrett Morgan’s invention of the traffic light nearly 100 years ago, North Korea suffers from severe shortages of electricity. When the electricity goes out, these traffic ladies spring into action. Even when the traffic lights are working, they orchestrate a theatrical show. They constantly move their heads back and forth to look at the traffic in a choreographed manner, leaving simpletons like me mesmerized that someone could put on a show like that day in and day out for years. Keep in mind that the temperatures in Pyongyang can reach bitter lows in the winter, like -20C/-4F.
Here’s a video showing a bit of that rhythmic traffic watching as well as a changing of the guard!
And here’s a North Korean blockbuster on this topic…
The Pyongyang Metro has two lines and we got to ride through several stations. The stations are nicely decorated, though with images of propaganda and party imagery. The trains were donated by the former West Germany (yes, West Germany, not East Germany as you might expect) and North Korea is slowly producing its own, modernized trains. We saw one of the new trains but didn’t get a chance to ride in one. It is one of the deepest metro systems in the world at an average depth of 110m/360ft. They double as bomb shelters and due to their depth they maintain a stable 18C/64F temperature all year.
The metro carries around 300,000-700,000 riders per day. I think equally popular are the trams in Pyongyang. They also have predetermined routes and run by an attachment that connects to overhead electricity cables. From what I understand, a ride costs about 5 Won. At the market exchange rate of 8000 Won per US Dollar, that would mean $1 nets you 1600 rides – two rides per day every day for more than two years. The North Korean economy is more complicated than that, but in general public transportation is quite affordable.
North Korea is awesome at making statues and monuments. Really. So much so that some countries ask North Korea to build statues for them via this group.
Arc de Triumph
This monument is 10m/33ft taller than its inspiration in Paris. It was built in honor of Korean resistance to the Japanese from 1925 to 1945. Only the arc in Mexico City is taller than this one. This Arc de Triumph is made of 25,500 granite blocks, one for each of the days Kim Il Sung had lived up to that point when he inaugurated this monument on his 70th birthday in 1982.
This monument, created in 2001, commemorates reunification talks initiated by Kim Il Sung. The monument is in southern Pyongyang on the Reunification Highway, which heads south to the Demilitarized Zone and will hopefully link Pyongyang and Seoul in a unified Korea. Each angel represents a half of Korea coming together.
Juche is the name of the ideology Kim Il Sung created. It is purposely vague and has come to mean self-reliance. I read about Juche before going and found it hard to understand. When I got there and asked my British guide about it, he said it is inherently hard to understand because it is so vague. The ideas are graspable but the practicality is lacking.
Anyway, as above, this was built in honor of Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday in 1982 and is also composed of 25,500 blocks.
From the top you get great views of the city as you can see below.
Monument To Party Founding
The Soviet’s had the hammer and sickle, and North Korea extended this one further to include a calligraphy brush. The hammer symbolizes the workers, the sickle symbolizes the farmers, and the calligraphy brush symbolizes the intellectuals. The bottom of the monument says “Long live the Workers’ Party of Korea, the organizer and guide of all victories of the Korean people!” This monument was completed in 1995 to commemorate 50 years of the Workers Party of Korea. It is 50 meters tall for the same reason.
This is the most important monument in all of North Korea. On the left is Kim Il Sung and on the right is Kim Jong Il. When built originally in 1972 only Kim Il Sung appeared. After the death of Kim Jong Il, in 2011 he was added and the statue of Kim Il Sung was given a makeover.
Visiting these statues is a big deal for North Koreans. They generally wear their finest clothes if they visit and often lay flowers in front of the statues. Lines form and people bow out of respect in unison. There are monitors there making sure there is no horseplay near the monuments. We were specifically told to make sure that any photographs of the statues contain the entirety of both statues. If people come to Pyongyang from out of town, they generally stop by these statues to pay their respects.
Victorious War Museum / Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
This museum with two over the top names commemorates the war with the US. Outside the museum are statues as well as the wreckage of downed planes and helicopters. Inside the enormous museum is an interesting view of the Battle of Daejon. You sit on a bench and the walls are painted with scenes of war. Then the lights dim and the center starts slowly rotating in a circle. As the platform you sit on rotates, the painting comes to life via lighting, LEDs, and integrated videos. It was impressive.
In general, North Koreans didn’t use Anti-American language or anything like that. Even at this museum, they weren’t Anti-American per se, but they always referred to the US as “US Imperialists” or “American Imperialists.” To be fair, they did the same for the Japanese.
The great prize on site is the USS Pueblo. North Korea captured this US ship in 1968. Somehow it entered North Korean waters and was captured. This happened on January 23, 1968 and the sailors weren’t released until December 23, 1968. The USS Pueblo is the only still-commissioned US ship being held captive.
You can go inside the ship and see the bullet holes and fighting that took place. There is a heavy propaganda video that you watch on board as well.
Kim Il Sung Square
Kim Il Sung Square is the largest square in the country. If you’ve seen military parades in North Korea, it took place here. See below for an example.
Pretty impressive, right? Well, check out the pictures below. All those dots are where someone should stand in a parade and the numbers help keep everything organized. These marks and numbers are painted onto the ground year-round.
The most impressive structure in Kim Il Sung Square is the Grand People’s Study House. I’ll talk about that next. Otherwise, a couple other pictures.
Here are some views of Kim Il Sung Square from the Grand People’s Study House.
Grand People’s Study House
The Grand People’s Study House is basically the national library of North Korea. Guess what… it was built to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday. Sound familiar yet?!
There is 100,000 square meters of space (1.1m square feet). Much of it is occupied by books, but there are also classrooms. We visited a classroom during an English lesson, for example.
There is also an area that has foreign books. I’m almost certain that these are kept off limits. That’s now how it was portrayed, but the books are kept separate from the Korean books. When we approached the desk with our North Korean guides, they said there are English and German speakers on the tour. A minute or so later, a tub full of English and German books came shooting down a track. One of the books was a Harry Potter book.
One of the things they really focused on, proudly, was how one of the leaders (Kim Jong Il I think) decreed that those who are there studying shouldn’t struggle to read. So they made all desks adjustable in terms of height as well as angle.
Sports are big in North Korea. As everyone knows by now, Kim Jong Un is a big fan of Basketball. If you’re curious to see a documentary about Dennis Rodman’s trip to Pyongyang, there is one on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Rundrago 1st of May Stadium is the biggest stadium in the world. It seats 150,000 people! I don’t know if it’s true, but my British guide said that the North Koreans were angered that South Korea was awarded the 1988 Summer Olympics. So, to spite the south they built the world’s biggest stadium in the north.
The stadium isn’t used for much. Its main use is for the annual Arirang Festival where gymnasts and artists put on huge show. Huge doesn’t do it justice. These performances have over 100,000 participants and these events are recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest performance in the world.
We also visited some random sporting outlets like shooting ranges and bowling alleys.
Mirae Scientists Street
As the monument to party founding showed, intellectual pursuits are held in high esteem in North Korea. As you might imagine, the nuclear ambitions and achievements of North Korea’s scientists are held in high esteem.
Pyongyang’s newest and nicest street, by far, is built to house these esteemed scientists and engineers. Apparently the whole street was built in about a year, which is remarkable given how tall the buildings are. For nicer pictures and images of Kim Jong Un taking a tour, click here.
Science And Technology Center
This science center was built in the shape of an atom. I’m sure you can guess what that is in honor of. The museum is built around a rocket that carried North Korea’s one and only satellite into space. The center is part museum in honor of North Korea’s scientific achievements, part science center with fun activities for kids, and part adult education with computers hooked up to the North Korean intranet. Yes, intranet. North Koreans do not have access to the internet that you and I are used to. Instead, they have a carefully curated small network of government-approved (and created, probably) webpages as well as educational resources.
There was a shop in the basement selling souvenirs like postcards and books. But there were also some electronics for sale in a country where they are completely unneeded. For example, HP printer ink was for sale, a 10/100 Ethernet switch, and most confusing of all a wifi router. Most North Koreans don’t have a computer at home, let alone non-existent internet service.
Yes, this part is a bit weird. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il both have flowers named after them. Strangely, it was an Indonesian who named the flower after Kim Il Sung and a Japanese botanist who named the flower after Kim Jong Il.
We got to see these flowers in a greenhouse of sorts. It was a display inside a building kept a humid enough temperature for the flowers to thrive. Kimilsungia is a hybrid orchid and Kimjongilia is in the begonia family.
Sadly, North Korea is infamous for the famine that may have killed between 240,000 and 3.5 million of its citizens in the 1990s. Numerous factors went into this disaster, chief among them the collapse of the Soviet Union – a key source of aid. Today things are better, but still not perfect.
On our trip we had access to good, hygienic food. I don’t think anyone got sick while we were there. We had classics like Pyongyang noodles (called cold noodles locally), kimchi, bibimbap, Korean barbecue, etc. At one lunch we were even treated to some Karaoke as you can see below.
Mangyongdae Children’s Palace
I don’t really know what to say about this place. It was just weird.
Pyongyang has several after school places for kids to go. These places occupy their time and teach them something new. We got a chance to walk around and see practices taking place, and then an hour-long performance the kids put on. I think we all couldn’t help but wonder if the kids are there because they want to be or because they have to be. I don’t know how to describe it, but it almost seemed too professional for kids. Of course there were mistakes and small errors here and there, but overall it seemed too rehearsed. I think that’s where the doubt came in because kids in these kind sof performances shouldn’t be this synchronized. The smiles of the kids practicing just didn’t feel genuine, for example. Maybe I’m projecting though. I’ll never know. You can search for Mangyongdae Children’s Palace on Youtube and you’ll find many videos of these performances. Below are two short clips I recorded when I was there.
This infamous hotel, where construction started in 1987 and stopped in 1992, towers over the city. At a height of 330m/1080ft and 105 floors, it’s the tallest building in North Korea. The goal was to finish it by the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989. Had it been completed, it would have been the tallest hotel in the world until Dubai’s Rose Tower was completed in 2009.
After the Soviet Union collapsed and North Korea fell into economic ruin, the building’s frame was erected but there were no windows or interior furnishings. Construction briefly resumed in 2008 and the exterior was completed in 2011. No progress on the interior has been made, however. It’s a cool-looking building, though I suppose when there were no windows and it stood as a bare concrete structure for years it must have been quite an eyesore.
Yanggakdo International Hotel (Where I Stayed)
The hotel I stayed in was the second-tallest building in North Korea. It is on an island on the Taedong River. There are many amenities in the hotel, like a bowling alley, massage facilities, several restaurants including a revolving one on the top floor, a swimming pool, a billiards room, a casino, and a barber shop.
The rooms have everything you’d want in a hotel room, but it felt dated. Still, no complaints here at all. On The Happy Nomad Tour I stayed at all kinds of places, and this hotel was way above average!
In the lobby there was a media center where you could send letters or postcards to loved ones. But it’s the 21st century so you could also make phone calls or send emails as well. This is North Korea though, so it’s not so easy. A phone call cost around $6/minute to call the U.S. I opted to send an email to calm my mom’s nerves at home and let her know that everything was going well. There was no logging into Gmail or something like that. Rather, you typed an email in Microsoft Outlook Express and the email is sent from the hotel’s email account. You cannot get replies. It cost $3 to send an email 🙂
This hotel is also where Otto Warmbier, the American college student who was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, committed his crime. He is said to have gone onto a floor of the hotel he wasn’t supposed to go to (presumably the 5th floor since the elevator doesn’t give this floor as an option and there are numerous rumors about what is on this floor) and stole a propaganda poster. What made it even worse was the presence of one of the leaders on the poster – and the poster tore. Ripping a poster with a leader on it is a huge offense there. We were even instructed not to fold a newspaper or magazine that had a picture of the leader on the front page because it would be seen as offensive to North Koreans.
One bright spot about my stay was that the hotel had a few international channels on the TV. While I don’t watch much TV in everyday life, my Cleveland Cavaliers were making a run at the NBA Championship and I really wanted to follow along. There were two channels in English – Al Jazeera English and another channel that played movies. Ironically, the movie channel was playing the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot when I flipped to this channel. This was my only connection to the outside world while I was there, and obviously these outside channels are not available to the North Koreans who stay in the hotel. Only my group occupied my floor, the 35th floor. Our guides stayed in the hotel as well, though on a different floor. We were not monitored while in the hotel, but we were not allowed to leave the hotel grounds on our own. We had to be with our North Korean guides at all times.
This was a long post but it’s hard to distill all the things Pyongyang had to offer. I’ll go into more depth in subsequent posts about my experiences in North Korea.
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