10 Surprising Things about North Korea

 

north korea

Chris Helali visiting North Korea

10 Surprising Things about North Korea

Guest Post By: Christopher Helali

North Korea is one of the most secretive countries in the world and a visit here certainly surprised me. I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to visit North Korea from October 9th – 14th 2014 and mark the 69th Anniversary of the Founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. North Korea is a living museum, a testament to the failures of the centrally planned economy and a traumatizing example of what totalitarianism does to normal people living under it. I can describe it as a blend between an ancient Korean dynasty and Stalin’s USSR with Soviet style music and communist kitsch at every corner. In a way, North Korea is a window to another world; a place frozen in time where the Cold War is still alive and fear still reigns supreme. It was the most bizarre place I have ever been to and the only place where I have ever felt “culture shock.”

Here are 10 surprising things about North Korea.

north korea public dancing

Chris enjoying the strange sensation of public dancing in the streets of North Korea

Public Dancing

While our guides spoke eloquently about the “spontaneity” of public mass dancing, there is no such thing. The en masse public dancing is carefully choreographed and executed by the government itself. It is however very fun to see and join. The dancing is somewhat eclectic and anachronistic, with a blend of revolutionary melodies and influence from Eastern Europe and Russia. The male dancers are mere carbon copies of one another. They wear dark leather shoes, dark slacks, a long sleeve button up (usually white or blue), the pin of the leader(s) and a red tie. The female dancers wear a traditional Korean style dress. However, each one has its own unique colors and designs. I joined in the dancing and the local students seemed somewhat uncomfortable but eventually smiled and enjoyed the moment.

Circus

Who goes to the Circus these days? I had forgotten all about the circus until I was suddenly catapulted back to my childhood spending an afternoon at the circus in North Korea. It was a festive occasion, filled with all those costumes made of spandex and glitter along with the leaps, jumps, twirls and laughs. The thing that caught me most by surprise was the crowds clapping. We think of North Koreans clapping nonstop at their leaders and basically anything related to their leader, the revolution and their country. What struck me was that the clapping really exists. It is not merely some crude caricature but the entire crowd would start clapping, quickly drifting into perfect synchronicity and harmony. Totalitarianism makes clapping an art.

North Korean communist propaganda

Wear your Sunday Best

Walking the streets of North Korea, especially in Pyongyang and other urban centers, you see the elites, merchants and higher level workers always dressed in their “Sunday best.” Women are always in western style business dress or traditional Korean dresses and men are sporting a western style suit, “Mao” style suit or a military uniform. The women’s clothing, if traditional is vibrant and colorful. Mostly, the clothing is drab and depressing in terms of color with black, blue, olive and tan being the main (and probably only) choices.

Non Stop Music

I want you to imagine Christmas music playing all day for every day of the year. I know. You are horrified now. Well that is what North Korea is like except it’s not Christmas music, but revolutionary songs and the finest military anthems from the 80’s. It’s a nonstop revolutionary dance party. After a while, you tune out the music all together.

Skyline from the Monument to Victorious Fatherland Liberation War

North Korea’s capital Pyongyang’s skyline

No Internet

Internet is basically nonexistent in North Korea, save for a few elite who have access to it and the few Koreans who allegedly used to hack the wi-fi networks of local embassies and missions. The only internet we had access to was located in the lobby of my hotel, the Yanggakdo International Hotel and it was charged per kb and from what I hear, it makes dial up look like DSL.

Vans with Loudspeakers

Psychological operations use military vehicles outfitted with large speakers to blast messages or simply disorient and disturb the enemy. North Korea outfits vans to blast propaganda and revolutionary music to continue to brain wash its society. These vans are straight out of a dystopian novel. Reminiscent of the heyday of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and other ex- or transitioning authoritarian states, these vans are everywhere, usually with two or four massive speakers that blare non-stop music and messages.

Roads almost empty of traffic in North Korea

Foreigners Cannot Use Local Currency

Foreigners are not allowed to use the local North Korean Won to purchase anything while in the country. Even to possess it is frowned. Tourists can purchase a complete set of older bills for about €7. However, to get the new currency, there is nothing a little bribery can’t solve.

Amusement Parks and a Bowling Alley

For a country with famine and rampant starvation in most urban areas and nearly all the rural areas, Pyongyang has all the comforts of a modern city. This includes a bowling alley, roller coasters, water slides and even a drop tower. The Koreans I met, while sober in composure as is generally the case, were genuinely happy from what I could see. Laughing and screaming filled the air as people went flying through the air or back and forth on some vomit inducing pendulum. The cues to go on the rides were long but foreigners were pushed to the front. Caution, there was no ice cream or cotton candy to be found. The bowling alley was straight out of the 1970’s and I felt as though I was in the North Korean version of the “Big Lebowski.” Multiple rolling power outages dragged out the one game I played with my friends by about an hour. Naturally, there was propaganda plastered on the walls.

north korea bowling alley

Chris bowling in North Korea

Dog Meat Soup is real!

Want to try dog meat soup? That will be €5. My three fellow travelers on the trip who all tried the soup (I am vegetarian) were repulsed by the bad smell. They eventually gained enough courage to try it. The result: it tasted “okay” and was “nothing special.” Well…there you have it.

The Grand People’s Study House computers run Windows OS!

Yes, you read that correctly. The massive library complex known as the Grand People’s Study House in Pyongyang uses Windows OS on their computers. What happened to the evil capitalists and American imperialists? I asked the tour guide about the computers and why they were running Windows and she said plainly “Of course we run Windows” as if I was the crazy one who asked. Well, with all the talk about the “dear leaders” and how they excelled at everything and provided “on the spot guidance” on issues ranging from building dams and monuments to solving the nations agricultural problems, I am surprised no one has asked why there isn’t a “Kim” operating system. Well, the person who did probably ended up in some North Korean gulag. Didn’t Kim Il Sung invent the internet?

Sigh.

This Guest Post was bought to you by Christopher Helali who is currently a China Government Scholar at Huazhong University of Science & Technology in Wuhan, China. His insatiable wanderlust has taken him to almost 40 countries and he has no plans of stopping now.

Monument to Three Charters for National Reunification, Pyongyang, North Korea

6 Comments

  • Steph; Stephen Geil Devincenzi says:

    Hi Charles. Very interesting, depressing article. One thing I would love to know is how you went about being granted access to the world’s most authentic dystopia? Thanks, Steph.

    • Anna says:

      Hey Steph ☺ thanks for checking out the blog. I’m not totally sure how he did it but I do know that you can go on tours to North Korea (I don’t think it’s possible to travel their independently) One I know of and have heard good reviews is Koryo Tours. You interested to go?

  • Steph; Stephen Geil Devincenzi says:

    Thanks Anna. I am interested to go everywhere! However I thought it was nigh on impossible to get there. Have heard of a few people going but always curious. Perhaps you have to be lucky to be ‘selected’. But there are more important places up my list at the mo. Thanks, Steph.

  • Marc says:

    Funny thing I thought you can’t travel to North Korea as a US citizen. Well, I guess you can. Besides, It’s strange that you can’t use the local currency to buy goods.

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