“Fewer than 2,000 Westerners visit North Korea each year. That’s the only thing about this surreal, head-shaking place that you won’t find entirely astonishing.”
Discover North Korea
How do you solve a problem like Korea? Not the song you want break into as the tanks roll by in Pyongyang’s main square. And not the kind of problem we’d presume to tackle when global leaders of every political stripe have been banging their heads against it for six decades. That said, who wouldn’t want to visit the last Stalinist state on Earth – a place whose dictators make up in enigmatic pronouncements what they lose to sheer paranoia. What better place for a bespoke adventure than a country with no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, no brands of any kind that might conflict with those of the late Dear Leader and his son, the Great Successor?
Landing at Pyongyang after your flight from China, the first thing you’ll have to do is hand over your cellphone, which will be sealed in a bag and only returned as you leave the country. Throughout your stay, your freedom will be curtailed and your movements closely watched, and any probing questions you direct at your official guide will elicit a Party-approved response. But for a firsthand look at this land controlled by the iron-fisted Kim dynasty since the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, took control in 1948 – well, freedom’s just another word for sorry, but giving that up is the price of admission.
Pyongyang’s official attractions have a uniformly martial aspect. You’ll want to stroll through the subtly named Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, and also spend time at the Arch of Triumph (eastern division), the Fountain Park and the White Tiger Art Studio. It’s also fascinating to ride the Pyongyang metro, which doubles as a nuclear bomb shelter and features revolutionary music piped in for your listening pleasure. You can lay flowers at the tomb of Kim Il Sung, dead since 1994 but still designated constitutionally as the Eternal President. And in the evening, take in a concert of traditional music at the Pyongyang Conservatoire.
While the annual Arirang Games came to an end in 2012, there will likely be comparable events coming up as North Korea celebrates a steady stream of historic milestones, such as the 60th anniversary of the armistice ending the Korean War. The spectacle of thousands of gymnasts marching and dancing in unison in May Day Stadium while crowd members turn flash cards above their heads to create giant animations – well, it may not make you embrace the Modern Socialist Miracle, but it’s pretty damned impressive (and not the kind of thing you could get a crowd to do at Wembley or Cowboys Stadium). Praise to the Democratic People’s Republic! Praise to the Workers’ Party! Praise to the return of your cellphone and the Illustrious Purveyor of No-fat Soy Lattes who awaits your return to the capitalist illusion after a once-in-a-lifetime experience…
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