Through the looking glass

The NKEconWatch site carries a lot of interesting reports on North Korea, including this one on conflicting reports of the food situation in North Korea. So is the DPRK going to have a bumper harvest this year or are millions facing starvation (again) ? For foreign tourists, food was plentiful and varied. Ironically, the only mediocre meals we got were at the Yanggakdo Casino Hotel in Pyongyang. Other than those, I would rate all the meals as 7-8.5 out of 10.

I must admit that very often we were served more food than we could finish, and the thought did cross my mind that this would be really sinful if reports of famine in the countryside were true. 

So, how bad are things really ? I certainly did not see any fat people in North Korea. It wasn’t obvious at that time, but looking over my photos, I realize some of the performers at the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace were pretty skinny. Sign of poor nutrition or just to be expected given their rigorous training and the propensity of show business, even or especially in the West, towards anorexia ?

In a previous post, I highlighted the number of street stalls that we saw on our tour. In Pyongyang and Wonsan, at least, people appear to  have sufficient discretionary income to spend it on snacks, drinks and so on. According to this report,

North Korean food wholesalers have become the suppliers of rice for markets since the government ceased to ration foodstuffs. They now contract with farms, paying in advance of harvest seasons so that the farms can use the funds to purchase fuel and other supplies necessary for preparing and transporting the food.

It would seem, therefore, that they have gone the Chinese route of first freeing up the farm sector to raise production. And after reading this, I better understand why the Chonsam farm was so responsive to our demand for persimmons. They are not neophytes to capitalism. In fact, they are headed way down the slippery slope.

So what’s going on ? The UNWFP reports that areas in the Northeastern provinces and the West Coast are facing food shortages. We didn’t go to those areas and it’s not inconceivable that some parts of the country are in fact in trouble even though others are doing ok. One of the remarkable things about North Korea was the number of people we saw walking along the highway even in rural areas. With insufficient fuel/transport, I would imagine that if you’re a farmer in the hills and your crop fails, you’re pretty much on your own.


One place we did not see any street stalls was Kaesong. This is surprising because Kaesong is a Special Economic Zone and the site of several South Korean-owned factories. On the face of it, one would expect people there to have somewhat higher disposable incomes than people in other regions. But no street stalls. Was this because of tighter ideological control due to Kaesong’s proximity to the DMZ and the very presence of the South Korean factories, or were the stalls just deemed to be eyesores and hidden out of sight ?

Kaesong was also very curious for other reasons, too. Some other blogs by visitors to North Korea mention having to wear blue name tags and I noticed that some other Western tourists in the Yanggakdo hotel had them too, although our group didn’t. Different practices by different organizers, or are Singaporeans just deemed to be safer ?

This picture was taken outside the Thongil Restaurant in Kaesong. If you look closely at the Asian tourists in the picture, you will notice that they too have those blue name tags. The girls in orange jackets and holding walkie-talkies are not tourists. They were not there when we arrived, but when we came out after lunch, they were there and clearly tasked with ensuring that foreign visitors not stray. My guess is that this tour group is a South Korean group, which would explain the tighter security measures. Despite the cancellation of South Korean tours to Mt Kumgang after a South Korean tourist was shot and killed there in July, tours to Kaesong were allowed to continue.

Renovations were taking place in the Thongil restaurant so presumably there is sufficient business to justify the expense. Overall, in fact, the tourist business seemed to be doing well. Our tour leader commented that there were new souvenir shops where there were none previously, and I noticed renovations at the Sandowon hotel in Wonsan as well.  There was a building under construction opposite this restaurant, although I don’t know whether that is tourism-related. See this article for a DPRK-watcher’s views of the impact of S Korean tourism on the North.

New World Order ?

I didn’t take either of these images, but this post is called “Through The Looking Glass”, isn’t it ? Satellite TV was available in the Yonggakdo Casino Hotel, and there was definitely something surreal about watching a live broadcast of China launching a space-walk mission on CCTV and then flipping to BBC and hearing about the collapse of Washington Mutual amidst the financial crisis emanating from the US. Of course, at the same time, the melamine adulteration scandal was widening in China and the US was on the path towards electing a black president. So who knows ?  Maybe nothing is what it seems to be.

Natural Scenery

I had originally signed up for the tour just to attend the Arirang games and I must admit I didn’t think there would be anything much to see beyond that. My preconceptions of a grey, dreary place like that of many descriptions of former communist countries turned out to be completely incorrect. For better or for worse, the lack of development means that there is no pollution and a lot of beautiful unspoilt landscapes.

Inner Kumgang

Mount Kumgang is divided into Inner Kumgang, Outer Kumgang and Sea Kumgang. Outer Kumgang and Sea Kumgang are accessible from South Korea (or used to be, until tours were suspended following the shooting death of a South Korean tourist). The Singapore tours via Pyongyang go to the Inner Kumgang region.

Opening the economy ?

One of the many surprises of North Korea was the number of blue-and-white stalls selling drinks, snacks and other tidbits set up by the roadside. According to our Singaporean tour leader, these were new, as she had not seen them in her previous trips to North Korea including one as recently as Spring 2007. Our Korean guide told us that these were state-owned and it is true that all of them did follow the same blue-and-white colour scheme and many of the ones we saw in the towns did seem to be extensions of existing state-run stores. In the smaller villages outside Wonsan, however, several of the stalls  looked more like they were independently-run outfits.

Wonsan outskirts

Drive-in beer stand !
Setting up shop seems to be a family affair

The density of stalls seemed to be higher in Wonsan than Pyongyang despite much higher population density in the latter. A sign of looser ideological control in the provinces, or just a natural consequence of Wonsan being closer to the farms ?

Cityscape Wonsan

After spending 3 nights in Pyongyang, we moved on to Wonsan for another two nights. Wonsan is a port and according to Wikipedia, has a population of 330,000 compared to Pyongyang’s 2.5 million. The interesting thing about Wonsan is that the buildings actually have lights ! The bright line running diagonally across the bottom are the headlights of a car.  They still don’t turn on their street lights, though.

More photos of Wonsan by day are at Wonsan looks like it could be a very pleasant seaside town if (when) they open up to the outside world.

The beaches are gorgeous and for now, completely unspoilt.

The Hotel Songdowon is definitely not a modern hotel and has the feel of a 1960s Soviet-era Beach Resort. We were told that the hotel had just been renovated and while that wasn’t obvious from the condition of the bathrooms, some construction work was still going on (see workmen in photo below).

There is a fairly large ball-room and many other function rooms with table settings fully laid out but while we were there I didn’t see any other paying guests besides our two Universal Travel tour groups (~60 people/35-40 rooms out of “more than 100 rooms.” On the other hand, it’s pretty late in the season for a beach hotel and we foreigners are probably paying many times their normal rate too, so perhaps they are doing ok after all. [Another foreign tourist, Eckart Dege was also there, but in early September. Compare his 1988 picture of Wonsan from almost the same vantage point in Hotel Songdowon.]

Another interesting thing about this hotel is that there is a sign at the reception desk apparently offering currency exchange service. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to actually try exchanging any money. It’s still illegal to take North Korean Won out of the country but I don’t think they are as strict any more on prohibiting locals from using foreign currency.

Cityscape Pyongyang




The Yanggakdo Casino Hotel (left) where we stayed in Pyongyang, is located on an island in the middle of the Taedong river, together with the Pyongyang International Cinema House and the Yanggakdo football ground. Depending on how paranoid one is, I suppose one could view this as a shrewd way of keeping decadent foreigners isolated and safely away from the general population, or one could view this as picking a scenic location for a downtown hotel.

Either way, the Yangakdo Hotel’s location makes it an ideal site from which to take panoramic views of the city, such as this one, facing North, towards the May Day Stadium and Tower of Juche.

This view, facing South shows the International Cinema House and football ground.

Sunrise over Pyongyang was surreal. Admittedly, this image is what I got after clicking “Enhance” in iPhoto, but even the original was very nice, with light just breaking over a mist-shrouded city.

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.