North Korea – Absurdities

I’m back to Dublin after a total of 12 hours on the plane yesterday and after an action packed morning sponsored by TheJetLag, I’m ready to write about some absurdities we found in North Korea. I’m adding some pictures to those – a full gallery will follow probably next week.

1. Amusement Park (“Fun Fare” as it was called by our guide)
In the very middle of Pyongyang, surrounded by communist posters / billboards / portraits / slogans (and whatever else you can imagine as long as it features Kim Il-Sung’s face), is nothing else but an amusement park. Not too big, but fairly modern, featuring a few rides – the equipment is Italian and has been personally tested by the leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-Un (Kim Jong-Il’s son). It was somewhat hilarious, because at every ride we were told where Kim Jong-Un sat when he took the ride.

Our guide was really happy to be there, we could actually see her face beaming with excitement – she kept asking us whether we were afraid as to encourage us to take the rides (or to pay more money for all of this at the end). She got the park’s manager to walk with us and show us to the rides, which was a nice experience as were able to cut the queue before the Korean People’s Army soldiers – there were a whole lot of them in the park! By far it was one of the biggest absurdities – on the one hand you’re surrounded with communist posters, the apartment buildings around you are falling apart, yet the government decided to build an amusement park in the middle of its capital.

2. Kumsusan Memorial PalaceKumsusan Memorial Palace - everyone had to wear formal clothes for this one
Whenever a “great” communist leader dies there’s really only one way you can show respect to him – and that’s by mummifying his body and showing it on public display in a building so grandiose that the leader himself would probably think twice before building it. Anyway, North Korea is no different in this respect from Russia, China, Vietnam (and other countries with mausoleums, I’m actually not sure about the whole list). They have what’s called the Kumsusan Memorial Palace and it’s the biggest of all mausoleums (duh). The experience inside is quite unique… Before you get to see the body it takes about 20-30 minutes to go through all “purification” procedures – your shoes are being cleaned, you go into a wind chamber and also through the halls of sorrow and something else that’s supposed to make you cry and bring back to life the emotions you had when the leader died. You could probably cry out of laughter in there if it wasn’t for the fact that there are soldiers all over the place and I wouldn’t be surprised if you were deported for a desecration of any type.

3. McDonald’sNorth Korean McDonald's - they serve waffles and burgers.
During the trip we stopped for lunch at some sort of a waterfall. The waterfall was quite nice and that helped balance the mood as the lunch was quite terrible – the food we had in North Korea was not of the best sort, yet somehow are guide always managed to ask us whether we though whatever we were eating was “delicious”. It happened once that we actually went to a really, really good restaurant in Pyongyang.

Anyway, after having lunch the guide once again asked me whether I thought the food was delicious. Once again I lied and told her that I quite very much enjoyed it, however I am missing some of our typical western restaurants. Being a fast food connoisseur I mentioned that in particular I am missing a Cheeseburger from McDonald’s. The guide smiled and said that there is a McDonald’s in Pyongyang. As my heart started pumping faster I decided to push this subject and ask her to take us there. I had a feeling I wouldn’t really get my hands on a Cheeseburger, but I sure wanted to see a McDonald’s in North Korea…

We went there the next day. As predicted it was something of an imitation of McDonald’s or a fast food bar – you can see it in the photos.

4. WonsanDuring the trip North Koreans wanted to take pictures with us!
During a trip to Wonsan we went to the beach and had a swim in the sea. Our guide was ecstatic about this since she had about 20 groups of tourists come over to Wonsan, but no one wanted to swim (well, the water wasn’t all that warm). Anyway, the mere fact of actually going to the beach in North Korea was somewhat absurd to us, but the funniest joke was cracked by my friend Bernard – he found a can of Coca Cola in the sea and told our guide that he found an imperialist spy ship floating in North Korean waters. The guide actually smiled for a moment, but quickly regained her composure. What was going through head? What was she actually thinking? These are the questions to which we never received any answer and we might only receive it when North Korea is an open country.

5. Stories about the leaders

  • We were heading to another tourist location and at one point stopped in a field, where some sort of fruit was growing. Our guide proudly told us that many years ago there was nothing growing here, but when Kim Il-Sung was driving pass this field he asked to stop his car and personally inspected the soil. After doing that he determined that it would be good to seed pears in that place and then he ordered the farmers to do it. “And now we have the best pears in Korea growing here” – as the guide told us with a proud face.
  • This is where Mother Kim Jong-Suk killed a bird.

  • We drove to a very nice location somewhere on the east of North Korea and saw a lake with a nice little island with a hut on it. “Nice”, we thought, “finally some nature, without all the Kim Il-Sunginess of the place”. Oh boy, we didn’t know what was coming. The guide told us that the hut and the whole place commemorates the great mother Kim Jong-Suk and the fact that she shot a bird on the little island. Yes, they did build a hut an island to commemorate her shooting skills. At this point a very funny conversation was started by my friend. It went more or less like this:

    - John: Oh, so Mother Kim Jong-Suk killed a bird here. What bird was it?
    - Guide: I’m not sure.
    - John: Hmm… Was the bird white?
    - Guide: Maybe.
    - John: Was it a swan?
    - Guide: Yes, I think it was a swan.
    - Jonh: Oh. Well, killing swans is illegal in Britain. If Mother Kim Jong-Suk killed one in the UK she would go to prison.
    - Guide: Then it probably wasn’t a swan.

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Beginning February 2011 I have started a new job at Google in its EU HQ in Dublin, Ireland. I will be responsible for AdWords-related issues for the UK / Ireland market.

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