Random observations of Pyongyang and North Korea

July 21, 2012 by Joshua
in NorthKorea

Pyongyang could become beautiful

I think when the city opens up it has the potential to become very beautiful. So much of it is held back from lack of maintenance. But it also has grand open spaces. If advertisers and developers don’t get to it first, they could be made beautiful and accessible to the public.

Department store oddness

Our tour took us to a department store, or at least something that looked vaguely like one if you didn’t look too hard. I couldn’t tell who managed it or how, but they didn’t get it right. The stocked the shelves with products, but nobody working there did what people in stores are supposed to do, as far as I could tell. Many employees just walked around with clipboards taking stock of things. I only saw them doing make-work. Many products had layers of dust on them.

I couldn’t figure out what the store was for. It couldn’t impress foreigners, only confuse them. It couldn’t make a profit — it had more employees than customers.

How many channels should you have with nothing to watch?

North Korea has one channel with almost nothing to watch. The U.S. has a thousand channels with almost nothing to watch. Which do you prefer?

Personal risk in the military

In which military do you think a soldier risks their life more — the U.S. military or North Korea’s? I would bet the U.S. military is riskier.

What does that say?

Drugs, wars, and wars on drugs

The North Korean government makes and distributes meth and heroine. The U.S. government has a war on drugs.

Putting aside for a moment what you consider right or wrong. Which government do you think has created more opportunity and profit in drug trade — in absolute or per capita terms?

Purely representational art

I grew up doubting the value of abstract and expressionist art. I couldn’t tell what it was, so what value could it have.

Seeing a nation with nearly exclusively representational art, you see the value of alternative modes of expression, of ambiguity and emotion rather than rational expression.

What less do you need?

People in North Korea who materially clearly had little still seemed happy. Maybe the government shielded us from people who had yet less, but we saw people with a lot less  materially than nearly anyone in the U.S.

What is the minimum you need to feel happy or reward?

What can you do without?

Crowd control

Our guide said that while we were amid the big crowds, the cell phone system shut down. I understood her to say they turned it off, not just that it was overwhelmed.

I don’t think the government likes freedom of assembly there.

Fresh vegetables

On one of the last days I had fresh vegetables in a small salad. Just something leafy — like a kind of lettuce. Not eating meat, I came to characterize their vegetarian cuisine as “oil soup with a bit of vegetables in it.”

I can’t tell you how good that fresh salad tasted. By that point I was starting to dread eating. Most places had a similar smell. I don’t know how to describe it, but I came to associate it with forcing food down that didn’t taste good and tasted like every other restaurant that served almost the same thing.

That said, for a shorter stay, I would have enjoyed the food. Around a week it got to be too much. Last time I had that orange I had brought from Beijing and forgot about. Man, did that orange taste good!


You heard it here first.

In the giant display house that showcases the gifts other countries gave the Kims (I think they gifts went to the leaders personally, not the country), there is a gift from Jimmy Carter. The card reads

From Jimmy Carter, Ex-President of the United States of America and his wife.

Notice the missing comma? Not that big a deal, but it is about one of the few gifts between two nuclear powers.

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