RtW Cities: Pyongyang (prequel)


Welcome to one of the more interesting cities I think I'll ever get the chance to write about in this series of posts: Pyongyang (평양), the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, a.k.a North Korea). However, based on the reactions I got when going (mostly: "Why on earth would you go there!?") plus my own predispositions, I don't think I'd be able to do it justice without a warmup post of what it took me a few days in the city to realise - that, for most part, it's not as insanely different as other countries.

Sure, it's a military-focussed single-party state with a family-based dictatorship (i.e. a Monarchy?), with a particular dislike of America (it seems the feeling is mutual), a dependence on country-level propaganda and harsh punishments for disagreeing. As it turns out, if you look at most countries with the belief they're evil, then you'll find bad stuff. Except Australia, cos we're awesome...if you overlook the detention centers, and general racism, and ...ok, so maybe not 100% awesome.

And that's just it - if you look at DPRK and think "ooh, it's North Korea, crazy!" before everything then what you get out is most likely going to be heavily influenced from the bias you come in with. So while your first thoughts when I mention the subway might be "ooh, is it actually used?" or if I show a photo of locals and you think "Do they know about their leadership propaganda?" or "I wonder if they've tried starbucks" then the answers are "Yes, I don't see why it wouldn't...", "Probably, but they seem fine with it" and "No starbucks, but lots of tea and a few coke cans from China".

So, seriously, it's just a city, and for the large part, the general populace are just like any other general populace. The picture on the right includes an amusement park (in use, we visited it one night), plus a radio tower - as it turns out, over 2 million Koreans use the 3G network, a number of locals in front of us at the mass games were taking photos on their cameras. While the politics, ideology and history are really interesting, and quite a change from what I'm used to in Australia/Switzerland, the rest of the city really seemed not (or, at least, no longer - I'm not sure of the past) as secretive / dangerous / degenerate as the picture painted to me before visiting.

I mentioned it at the start, but to reiterate - it took me a few days of being in the country before stopping to wonder about the validity of everything or how crazy it was to be in Pyongyang; so I doubt a single blog post will have the same effect, but if you do read the actual Pyongyang post, keep track of how often you think the same things, and see if they're valid or just a learned response (and, by all means, visit the city yourself!)

Not really related to the above, but here's an interesting thing pointed out by a member of our tour group: read the US travel advisory for North Korea:
"The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens about travel to North Korea" - because...
- "The Government of North Korea has not only imposed heavy fines on, but has also detained, arrested, and imprisoned persons who violated DPRK laws, such as entering the country illegally" and
- "If North Korean authorities permit you to keep your cell phone upon entry to the country, please keep in mind that you have no right to privacy in North Korea and should assume your communications are monitored.".
Now, replace "North Korea" with "the USA" and see how it reads :) I'm sure there are other reasons not to go, but imprisonment of illegal immigrants and government surveillance are an interesting two to pick.



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