Visiting North Korea Fall 2008

I went on a 7D6N tour to North Korea organized by Universal Travel in the last week of September 2008. My primary aim in going was to see the Arirang Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance but impressive as the Arirang games were, it was the rest of the country which made a greater impression on me.

Getting There

The first challenge is getting there. No free-and-independent travellers; strictly group tours only, and flights to Pyongyang are limited to say the least, but it turns out that Singapore is now the third largest source of tourists to North Korea and Universal Travel managed to charter two direct flights on Air Koryo between Singapore and Pyongyang for the Arirang season. Not SQ for sure, but we made it.

Arirang Games


I’ve put some more photos up on Picasa  but my pictures really don’t even begin to do justice to the show. When they say it has a cast of 100,000, I can definitely believe it ! The obvious comparison would be with the Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies. Both were dazzling, but I think the difference is that while the Beijing ceremony impressed by juxtaposing China’s long history with modern special effects and very polished artistry, the Arirang Performance was very much a demonstration of physical conditoning, teamwork and discipline on the part of the North Koreans. The Koreans also had to repeat their performance every night for two months ! 

The Arirang performance was previously staged in 2002, 2005 and 2007. Regrettably for those who have missed it, the games will not be held again until 2010 at the earliest. The Rungnado May Day Stadium has a capacity of 150,000 but somewhat more than half of the seats were occupied by flash-card performers or closed off for other reasons, which still leaves space for almost 70,000 people. So even half-full, the stadium seats more than Singapore’s National Stadium, or even the proposed Sports Hub. One interesting observation that our Singapore tour leader, who had been to North Korea 12 times previously, made was that there was now lighting outside the stadium. 


In 2007, the grounds surrounding the stadium had been pitch-black. This year, they were still pretty dimly lit by foreign standards, but far better than last year. It would appear that either foreign aid oil shipments have increased or the economy has improved since last year. Still no street lights in Pyongyang, though, and I must admit several harrowing moments when the bus driver seemed about to run into a pedestrian or cyclist on the road at night.  One of my fellow tour group members has posted some photos of Pyongyang at night on flickr. Other than monuments and billboards of the Great Leader which are lighted, everything else is pitch-black, including the apartment buildings.