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>>>Best North Korea Selection – May 2004, Day 3&4

Following on from Day 1&2, here’s Day 3&4. Again, I’ve included captions below the pictures and translations of the propaganda in pics 82,86,98 and 102 would be appreciated. Enjoy.

Day Three

Perhaps ‘The Grinning Leader’ would have been a better name for Kim Il-Sung instead of ‘The Great Leader’.

Me in front of the Great Leader’s birthplace at Mangyeongdae, the ‘cradle of the revolution’. Although he apparently spent his childhood here, it’s obviously a replica of the original and you might actually question its authenticity entirely bearing in mind the regularity with which the discovery of new locations relating to his life are made (presumably to add more interest to propaganda that reports the same news everyday.)

As with all ‘historically significant’ Kim Il-Sung locations the hordes descend en masse everyday to pay their respect. Here comes an army battalion.

‘All aboard!’ Our tour bus, complete with Sony Betamax video player and mini chandeliers. One day the Korean tour guides decided to play an animal fighting video showing animals being mauled and mutilated for our entertainment, but they were forced (much to their bewilderment) to switch it off after ten minutes because of strong protest from most of the tour group. Much to my disappointment, I never did find out whether that antelope beat the ten tigers that had encircled it…

Another of our tour guides, Mr Li (no relation to the other tour guide, Miss Li), was keen to show us the cutting edge technology employed in the Pyongyang subway system. Press the station button below and, hey presto, its location on the map is indicated by a light!

The magnificent Puhung Station interior.

The city’s subway trains were purchased from East Germany in the 1980s and are home to probably the only examples of graffiti to be found in the DPRK, where East Germans engraved their names all over the windows.

Marble pillars and subway train at Yonggwang Station.

The world’s deepest subway at over 100m underground, the Pyongyang Metro doubles as a massive air raid shelter network. It’s also possibly the only subway system in the world where there’s an absence of groin-damaging deterrents to stop people sliding down the escalators, which I think is a good indication of how ordered North Korean society is.

Of course no public place would be complete without some Kim Il-Sung imagery. Here the grinning workers unite for the good of the nation.

A ‘Subway Girl’ in front of the 24m x 4m ‘A Morning of Innovation’ mural at Puhung Station. If the best looking women become Tour Guides and the second-best looking become Traffic Girls, I have no idea what ranking of appearance you need to become a Subway Girl…

A nice ideological reminder outside Yonggwang Station.

Downtown Pyongyang street scene outside Yonggwang Station. The trams have star ratings on the side to indicate how many kilometres they have travelled without crashing and stars are removed after every accident. Most of them have a rating of 8-10plus but we did see one which had had all its stars removed.

Changwang Street, where our hotel was located. Known as Restaurant Street, this area takes the Communist idea of propaganda department stores (full of old items nobody can buy) to another dimension with its propaganda restaurants. There were around 10 restaurants, all brightly illuminated (though curiously lacking in patrons) until around 10pm when they closed; apparently the restaurants have no menus, only serving what they can get their hands on (though since their purpose is predominantly to show Pyongyang citizens how affluent the DPRK is, as opposed to the enjoyment of cuisine, it’s probably not such a big problem.)

This is actually one of Pyongyang’s main streets, though you wouldn’t guess from the amount of traffic on the road. This time it’s the evening ‘rush hour’.

‘It’s grim up north.’ I heard that until as late as the 1970s, North Korea had more money than the South (rivals China and the USSR provided a constant source of finance, as well as a guaranteed marketplace for the DPRKs shoddy exports, in their attempts to influence Kim Il-Sung’s loyalties); In the 1990s however, after Communism collapsed in the USSR and China embraced a more market-driven economy, the DPRK’s cash flow dried up and the nation was crippled by the floods, famine and collapse of its economy that still affect its citizens today

In stark contrast to Japan, the ultimate ‘throwaway society’ (where you never see cars more than 5 years old on the road*, and where its cheaper to buy new electronics than have old items repaired), North Korea is a ‘make do and mend’ society where nothing is upgraded, repainted, repaired or renewed until its totally deteriorated/broken and useless. Even though Pyongyang compares favourably to Beijing in terms of cleanliness and orderliness, there’s no concealing the fact that the place is falling apart.

*Japan’s cars are amongst the nations many old and unwanted exports (including bicycles, refrigerators, microwaves and TVs) that end up in North Korea, China and Russia because they are regarded as worthless by Japanese citizens.

One of a handful of billboards which recently appeared in Pyongyang, marking the debut of North Korea’s first ever commercials. Although it’s for Fiat cars, they can only be bought by work groups and not by individuals as personal car ownership contradicts Communist ideals.

The Okryu Bridge, one of the main bridges over Pyongyang’s Taedong River.

This closer shot of the Okryu Bridge is further testament to how little traffic there is around.

The first American military vessel to be captured by enemy forces since the USS Wake (PR-3) was captured by Japanese forces in 1941, the USS Pueblo was apparently the subject of an all-out assault involving Mig fighters, subs and gunships but the North Koreans claim it was captured by one gunboat. As you can probably imagine it’s quite a trophy, but probably the most interesting thing is the fact that it was captured on the east coast and transported overland to Pyongyang in the west. Check out and USS for more info.

Our guide at the USS Pueblo, one of the many girls in uniform that make the DPRK the top holiday destination for cosplay fans.

After being taken round the boat, the tour of the USS Pueblo was concluded with the viewing of an unintentionally hysterical propaganda video condemning the ‘American Impurialists’ (the narrator’s poor English pronunciation coupled with his bizarre Lord Haw-haw-esque English aristocratic accent provided ample mirth.)

The video’s credibility was unfortunately further blown by its heavy-handed assertions about the US’s role in the Korean War and the dubbing of the captured crew members’ English-language testimony into pro-DPRK English (with English accents) which was blatantly phoney – the video’s claims that the crewmen happily repudiated the US government are disproved by this great pic I found on the Net which shows the crewmen discreetly giving their captors ‘the bird.’

Following the capture of the USS Pueblo in January 1968, the North Korean authorities forced false confessions out of the crew and insisted that the US government apologise for their espionage activities, as you can see here.

North Korean tourists wait to board the USS Pueblo to hear about crimes committed by the American infidel. Out of shot to the right of the group was a big pile of this group’s belongings where they’d been told to leave handbags and possessions unattended, further illustrating how ordered North Korean society is (I’m sure life imprisonment or execution is sufficient incentive for good behaviour.) In stark contrast to the average group of Japanese tourists, note the total absence of cameras.

Our guide for the visit to the Museum of the Korean Revolution in front of…guess who?

The Museum of the Korean Revolution was another chance to force a cack-handed account of Korean history down our throats. The first day of the tour was relatively propaganda-free (instead focusing on the almost hedonistic participation in May Day celebrations, largely fuelled by soju rice liquor), while the daytrip to Panmunjeom on the second day was surprisingly lacking in the kind of political rhetoric that dominates tours of Panmunjeom from the South Korean side of the DMZ. On the third day though, we were hit with an all-out bullsh*t blitz.

Kim Il-Sung giving ‘on-the-spot guidance’ to North Korean generals during the Korean War. During the tour group’s frequent perusal of propaganda (i.e. all) literature in the DPRK, we were amused to find excessive reference to the Kims’ ability to provide so-called ‘on-the-spot guidance’, also known as ‘field guidance’. These references to their almost superhuman feats included the ability to advise complete revisions in practice/strategy/attitude etc in everything from ballet to heavy industry which resulted in vast improvements – only to be expected though, from the two men credited with writing the majority of the books in the library of the Grand People’s Study House! I guess it’s one of those ‘you had to be there’ jokes, as it’s probably impossible for people to imagine the earnestness and absurdity of such statements without seeing them in context.

‘Aw, shucks Dad’. The International Kim Il-Sung prize goes to (surprise, surprise) his son, Kim Jong-Il. Not that I’m suggesting any bias on behalf of the judges of course. Perhaps winner of the World’s Cheesiest Grin award would have been a more appropriate accolade however.

The stamp shop on Restaurant Street, fascinating even for non-philatelists on account of its selection of stamps bearing propaganda messages.

Every possible opportunity is taken by the government to reinforce the dominant ideology by ‘unobtrusively’ exposing people to it in their everyday lives. In addition to government-controlled media such as TV, radio and newspapers, stamps are an ideal way to convey messages such as anti-US/Japanese sentiments, as these examples illustrate. Unfortunately you can’t see it clearly enough here but the middle right stamp depicts Richard Nixon (upside down) but the likeness is actually the spitting image of George W Bush (although it has the issue date of 1969 on it).

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in 2002. I wanted both of these stamps, but the top one was cheaper and better so I decided to buy only that one. When I handed over a 2 Euro coin to cover the 1.2 Euro price tag however, there was no small change in the cash register so I was offered the bottom stamp to cover the 80 Cent change, despite the stamp’s 1.6 Euro price tag.

This exchange was fairly typical of purchases made within the framework of this fledgling Communist tourist industry, which appeared to be ill-equipped to take money from foreigners desperate to offload cash at every given opportunity. At a very basic level, this inadequacy (of course only to be expected from a country yet to embrace Capitalism like neighbouring China) manifested itself in the form of absence of opportunities to buy soft drinks/snacks at tourist locations where our tour group (as well as the scores of Chinese tourists) was visiting. However, the best example of this was in the hotel bar, where change was often given not in the form of coins but in the form packets of Wrigley’s Double Mint gum!

Propaganda posters make great souvenirs.

View of Pyongyang from the Children’s Palace, with Pyongyang Grand Theatre in foreground. Only North Korean films are shown here, and like the other media I suspect there’s endless repetition of the same old themes, such as workers uniting for the good of the nation, the threat of evil American ‘Impurialists’, and the greatness of Kim Il-Sung.

Note the cranes dotted along the skyline; I saw quite a lot of cranes in Pyongyang, but from a distance so I couldn’t tell whether new buildings were being constructed or whether they’d just run out of cash and couldn’t take them down, as is the case with the aforementioned Ryugyong Hotel

Statue of Kim Il-Sung posing with schoolkids outside the Children’s Palace. Perhaps as a result of Japanese colonialism, there’s a big emphasis on after-school club activities in North Korea (as there is in Japan and former colonies South Korea and Taiwan) and the country’s most talented and promising school kids are selected to join the Children’s Palace, a kind of elite academy which assists the propaganda machine. Most foreign tourists visiting Pyongyang are brought here, and we were shown talented child musicians, artists, writers and the next generation of computer hackers before being treated to an amazingly choreographed music, dance and acrobatics performance.

Duck bulgogi 'food porn'. Bulgogi translates as ‘fire meat’ and is known in Japan as yaki niku, or barbecued meat to the English-speaking world. Wrapped in lettuce leaves and dipped in sauce containing sesame, garlic, chilli and/or bean paste, bulgogi is a popular dish served throughout the Korean peninsular (and all over Japan, though minus the lettuce). This duck bulgogi was well nice, and was accompanied by an alcoholic blur involving the majority of the group snorting soju (rice spirits) and a bout of impromptu sumo wrestling between Iain of Canada and Lars of Sweden which involved them knocking into meal tables as the restaurant staff grinned nervously. As with the tour group, I’m sure the evening left a lasting impression with the staff as it can’t be too often that they have the ‘opportunity’ to watch two half-naked foreigners attacking each other with their beer guts.

Double trouble. Posing with nasty beer and vile soju.

Two bottles of filthy Chinese beer left over from the first leg of the train journey to Pyongyang, Five Star All Malt Beer and Bull Beer. One of my lasting impressions of my first (albeit brief and limited) trip to China was that the beer and rice were served at the same temperature. The rice was cold by Japanese standards and the beer was warm (even by English standards), though even chilling these two bad boys did little to disguise the rank flavour resulting from the excessive amount of rice used to brew them.

Despite the rancid nature of the remaining Chinese tipple, the beers were nevertheless consumed before heading down to the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel’s basement karaoke bar for a last night leaving bash.

The interior of the karaoke bar. There were actually about 40 people in the bar when I took this photo, but unsurprisingly the dance floor was empty.

A few last-minute snaps to try and document just how kitsch and outdated the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel actually is, although I don’t think photography does it justice. Here’s the lounge area in the bedroom suite, with the type of carpet you only find in grandparents’ houses these days. For all the North Koreans’ hatred of Japan, interestingly the hotel was replete with Japanese products and fittings: lights by National, elevators and TVs by Hitachi, toilet/bathroom facilities by Toto etc.

The delightful dining room, noteworthy for its intriguing light fittings and flower paintings depicting the Great Leader and Dear Leader’s very own flowers, the kimilsungia and kimjongilia varieties of orchid. An interesting account of the history of North Korean petal propaganda can be found at

A shot of part of the hotel lobby, where I appear to have unwittingly snapped Kim Jong-Il strolling in to survey this small part of his Communist utopia.

Mmmm, mirrors… The second floor of the lobby, home to a book shop, bars and a lot of mirrors.

Another mural depicting Mt Paektu, the ‘spiritual birthplace of the revolution.’

Entertainment for foreign tourists. In Japan pachinko is a hugely popular variant of pinball as it’s the only ‘legal’ form of gambling apart from lotteries and horse racing (as it conveniently exploits several loopholes in the law.) I bet these Western Hero pachinko machines were ‘all the rage’ when the Pyongyang Koryo Hotel was opened in 1985. However, it doesn’t look like anybody’s played them since (if ever at all).

Some more cobweb-gathering entertainment.

The hotel souvenir shop – the closest thing to a supermarket that we experienced in North Korea, though ‘inconvenience store’ would be a more appropriate moniker. In a typical example of the Communist ideal of creating jobs for everyone, making a purchase involves 3 staff: First you select what you want to buy from the shelves (prices are shown in Euros) and take them to the counter, where Girl 1 writes a ticket for every item. Take the tickets to Girl 2 in another part of the shop and she takes your Euro, coverts them into North Korean Won, gives you change in whatever currency they have some coins for (usually Yen, Dollars or Euro though sometimes a mixture of more than one currency) and writes another set of tickets for your goods. Find Girl 3 and exchange Won and tickets for another set of handwritten tickets for each item. Finally, return to Girl 1 with these tickets and exchange them for the items you purchased. Total transaction time, 5-15mins depending on the number of other customers in the store!

The ‘latest’ consumer goods available to those with hard currency, in what basically amounts to a classic example of the Communist propaganda department store. Unfortunately we were told by our Korean guides that there wasn’t enough time to visit Pyongyang’s finest (propaganda) department store, although from what I’ve read, this souvenir shop illustrates the same sentiments – outdated merchandise that nobody wants or needs made to look like it represents some kind of consumer paradise.

Amazing! Quite why anybody staying in a 4-star luxury hotel would need a 6lb,70z/2.920kg tin of tomato sauce is beyond me. As with the sizeable array of Russian medicine for sale, I suspect it was probably taken from an aid package.

Day Four

The Pyongyang Airport Duty Free Shop, another place apparently frozen in time.

After failing to bribe customs officials with packs of Marlboro Red, persistent nagging paid off and we finally managed to get our passports stamped. North Korean customs are notoriously reluctant to stamp passports, apparently because of prejudice faced by those in possession of a North Korean stamp in their passport at US airports though probably simply just in keeping with the low profile the DPRK seems to favour with all international relations. My stamp earned me an extra thorough once-over from Japanese customs officials at KIX (in a private room, though thankfully not involving rubber gloves) whose attitude noticeably changed upon learning I’d come from Pyongyang, going from suspecting me of drug smuggling (as usual, since I’m a foreign male travelling on my own and must be up to no good) to thinking I was a shoe bomber/biological weapons smuggler.

Air Koryo’s finest, a 30-year old Soviet Ilyushin Il-62M. In dire need of a refit (TV monitors or headphones would be nice), it has endearing features such as the seats (which fall forward when touched from behind) and the overhead luggage stowage (actually just a rack, like on a bus or train) which allows luggage to fall down whenever the plane encounters turbulence. Needless to say, I was elated when we touched down safely at Beijing Capital Airport. Any plane spotters out there can check out Air Koryo’s full fleet at

Fortunately I didn’t have to spoil this quaint reminder of my ‘thrilling’ experience with Air Koryo by depositing my ‘refuses’ in it, despite having a spot of food poisoning from the undercooked duck bulgogi which derailed my Beijing sightseeing plans. Still, after the intensity of the North Korean tour (out of the hotel 10-12 hours a day and covering a lot of ground) a day in bed was actually welcomed.

3 Posts
An absolutely fascinating read! Superb commentary and pictures!

I am really intrigued into going to North Korea at some point. Seems like another world.

Did you get close to the Ryugyoung Hotel at all? I've heard the guides are slightly less keen on talking about it, even to the stage of denying it's existence!

101 Posts
Thank you so much for breathtaking pictures and brilliant commentaries. This thread, along with your previous one, taught me more about North Korea than anything else in my life.

As a Korean, I really would do anything to be allowed in this trip. What a fascinating trip it must've been.

45 Posts
Indeed very very fascinating.
How much has your stay in North Korea costed?
And is it possible to travel from seoul to pyongyang?

Don Pedro-Lorenzo
917 Posts
thx for sharing..
north korea is a so mysterious country for foreigners...the capital looks clean and enough well developped, but there is nearly nobody in the street :shocked: ...a strange impression.

face up
859 Posts
pierre-laurent said:
thx for sharing..
north korea is a so mysterious country for foreigners...the capital looks clean and enough well developped, but there is nearly nobody in the street :shocked: ...a strange impression.
I think so :)

The urban zone looks neat & beautiful but I dont think the People're really happy ( My feeling is that: When the photographer takes his photos, the NKorean wear on their best clothes with the smiles on the lips :) )
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