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The furniture in the Ryongwang Coffee Shop looks remarkably like what you’d find beside the pool at a midrange hotel in LA. The coffee’s not bad either. The waitress brings over five serves of the cherry streusel and that’s pretty good too. But really, a Viennese coffee shop? Here? Five of us are sitting around a table, nothing out of the ordinary except for the five “men in black” in suits standing against the wall keeping an eye on us. Our two guides switch their gaze from the men in suits, to us and back again. The noise is building nearby, there’s foot stamping, old engines being gunned and lots of cheering. The men in black gesture to the door, it’s time to go. The crowd is roaring outside and standing somewhere high on a balcony above Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, the tiny figure of Kim Jong Un shuffles to the centre as a hundred thousand North Korean troops move into place with enough hardware to fight World War Three. Such things are celebrated in strange ceremonies in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.
Product Organ Plant Font Automotive tire


Six days ago

On the overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Pyongyang, even in First Class there are four beds. The Chinese call these “hard sleepers” but the reality comes with a mattress and pillows. I’m travelling in a party of six as part of an ideas exchange program which is a euphemism for “come on over and tell us stuff and we won’t return the favour”. It’s part of a food program looking to bolster food security outside the central party and the cities. Satellite photos at night tell the story - South Korea is lit up like a Christmas tree and North Korea is mostly in the dark as the grid fails. Syria and Central Africa look the same. Our aim is to bolster calories out in the provinces without making Dear Leader and his mates any rounder.

Sleeve Gesture Tableware Engineering Event


We cross the Yalu River at Dandong on the Sino Korean Friendship Bridge and clear passport control into DPRK. The high-rise buildings on the Chinese side are in stark contrast to the nothingness on the other side. We meet our two young guides, the girl is Bae and the guy is Bong. Kim is the most common surname like Smith or Jones in English but anybody sharing Dear Leader’s name needs to change it to support the cult of personality. And you can’t have his buzzed haircut either – but the good news is that there are 37 other approved styles to choose from. Our guides are warm and enthusiastic, University students and then there are the dour political minders who read us the riot act on rules. Don’t photograph the military, photos of statues need to show the full statue - no cut-off shots (go figure). Don’t try to go anywhere alone, talk only to the people when we say so. There’s no cellphone network, no email, no internet. We can and will search your camera. Penalties are severe. We ride the train down to Pyonyang – my first impression was one of order – the place looks OK on the surface but that’s deceiving. They’ve created a giant corridor beside the rail line that looks prosperous – farmers, fields, housing but just beyond the next hill it’s poverty alley. A dystopia, carefully stocked with people and props for the visitors. As we pull into Pyongyang, the “Hotel of Doom” or Ryugyong Hotel looms high on the horizon – an insane 105-story Pyramid / stranded spaceship – an engineering folly started in 1987 that’s never hosted a single guest.

Sky Building Skyscraper Cloud Tree


The rolling stock is so ancient on the bulk of the fleet

Train Vehicle Rolling stock Tree Sky


Our hotel in Pyongyang is three-ish stars but we’re the only ones around – as in the only ones in the entire hotel apparently. A bright marble foyer with Dear Leader pics above the desk. Bright, perky hotel staff in natty little suits and the rooms are fine but I imagine that the place is wired for sound. I’m sure there’s black market video available of my bare butt in the shower on the street of Pyongyang. Call if we want to go out, but I decide to scoot down to the foyer to get a coffee and the lights are all out at 7pm and the fountain has been switched off. The men in suits are 30 seconds behind is and its flailing arms and a real s&%t-show as they fire up the lights. No coffee for me and another admonishment. They really need to chill.

At 6am, in the deepest possible sleep, a wailing noise rises up, emanating from the concrete towers of the city. Looking out the window, they’ve fired up every public speaker in the city and are playing a track called “Where are you dear General?” – a tribute to Kim Il-Sung. Sounds a bit like the X-Files theme. Oh god. Pyongyang is after all a company town - part Disneyland, part Truman Show, part concentration camp. Everybody looks healthy, plump and well dressed. Intersections are manned by energetic young women in white ankle socks and dark uniforms who control the traffic with goose-stepping precision. We head out to take in the vista from the top of Juche Tower and gaze over the Soviet style apartment blocks that have been tarted up on Dear Leader’s say so with garish pastel paints. If you look closely at these towers there’s nobody actually in them, no curtains, closed windows and nobody coming and going. We’re loaded back into the van by the men in black, I whisper to my colleagues that this is probably how executions start out. You think? So I now take to calling our transport the ‘execution van’.

From Juche Tower

Sky Building Daytime Property Skyscraper


Choon-Hee is a farmer, she works the land and works in central PR too apparently. She’s 41, teeth like a bottle-opener and thin like a greyhound. We walk into her field and she shows us how to “produce food for the glory of our leader”. There’s nothing growing here but don’t let get in the way of a good story Choon-Hee. Religion is forbidden because they substitute that for political worship. Inside her house, Choon-Hee offers to cook us something “I have so much, I can’t eat it all”. True enough there’s a huge pile of produce, clearly rescued from the state warehouse and I bet a hundred bucks that the food goes back as soon as we leave. Choon-Hee and her kids need a sandwich. We’re traveling as part of a food aid program people – so stop claiming you have too much food already. I get it – PR. I have mixed views on the constant PR show. Intellectually, I know that the minders and locals have to stay on script if they have ambitions of old age. I must be delusional if I think they’ll suddenly spill the beans and encourage me to take subversive photos of starving children and empty factories.

Sky Plant Window Building Land lot


Water Working animal Landscape Wetland Soil


Building Plant Land lot Tree Grass


I’ve spoken to my guides about Moranbong watches. I’m told that the parts come in from China or Switzerland and they’re slapped together here but consumer goods shopping is a difficult subject. We get wheeled into ‘gift stores’ which are stuffed with tatty Chinese made rubbish. I’d be happy with a propaganda poster, but a watch would be much better. One minder promises he’ll find me one but I’m not so sure - they all wear cheap and cheerful Chinese quartz here if they’re lucky. Given their obsession with sticking to time I figured watches would be prized possessions. You can’t buy an Imperialist Coke/Pepsi/Fanta, but you can get a ripped off jar of Nescafe coffee for $22. I try the local yoghurt at one of our stops – it’s pink but it lacks creaminess and tastes very chalky. Turns out that it's filled with chalk dust as a nutritious calcium base – dairy is expensive here. Yuk.

Road surface Motor vehicle Asphalt Tree Atmospheric phenomenon


Air Koryo holds the dubious honour of being rated as the world’s worst airline. That’s a big claim having flown plenty of legs into places like Brazzaville Congo. They have one food staple onboard the aircraft - and only one and I’m dying to try the world famous Koryo Burger that comes with a sesame bun, a white lace doilie underneath it and mystery meat that other intrepid travelers believe may be chicken. And the thing is served cold, stone cold. The Aircraft are ancient Russian Antonov clunkers around 55+ years old and held together with fencing wire. The Airport is cavernous and largely empty except for well dressed young women standing to attention in what looks like food concessions. It’s a theme park atmosphere but supposed to be serious with perky staff trotted out to show the westerners that “we’re all good”. There are six boxes of chocolates on the shelf loaned out from Dear Leader’s bar fridge for the morning.

Food Ingredient Bun Tableware Drink


We fly from Pyongyang up towards Mount Paektu in the far north on the Chinese border to visit a cooking oil factory. Ex Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was supposedly born up here under the golden sun’s rays (he was actually born in a camp in Russia near Khabarosk and was named Yuri at birth) and we’re also reassured that Dear Leader doesn’t need to poop; plus he hit a hole-in-one on his first ever visit to a Golf Course. Clever guy – the pooping part. He also learned to drive by age three, won an Olympic Yacht race at aged 9. His father was no less talented having invented the Hamburger in 2000. These days the kid, Kim Jong Un comes up here before major government announcement and rides a white horse through the snow in typical DPRK press-junket style. The crowning glory was that he got 100% of the votes in the elections and everyone voted. Everyone is free here - you can vote for whatever candidate you like in North Korean elections; you just have to lodge your vote for the other candidate in a separate building… I kid you not.

Back in Pyonyang, I keep chipping away at the guides to take me “somewhere real”, but I understand their predicament. Their words say “we love our dear leaders” but they are so terrified of putting a foot wrong. That’s not entirely right, they do argue passionately that to criticise the leadership is to criticise themselves. They eventually cave in and wheel me into a store that I’m told will sell me a Moranbong watch and a comforting nuclear annihilation poster for the office. I’m feeling very pleased with myself, these guys are a pushover – bring on the horology. “Moranbong” over here says Bae. Crack out the gift bags people, my wallet is exploding with Imperialist dollars. A crackly set of speakers fires up and the sound of a 200 decibel church organ being played by a meth-addict rips through the shop. Bae is clapping the open palms of her hands together and bouncing gleefully as pushes a small pile of CDs and DVDs into my hands – “Here, Moranbong – very good – you see.”

Turns out that Moranbong is the name of a North Korean folk band and I’m welcome to buy up big on their chintzy music. I can get band posters too. But no Moranbong watches. I’ll later find that the music is infused with really danceable lyrics “Let us learn English” and “Let’s make a flower of the science and technology which we are bloom….” What? But my absolute new favourite go-to song for driving with the roof down is “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” aka “A Girl in the Saddle of a Steed” by Moranbong lead singer Hyon Song-Wol. Lyrics for the whole family; "they say I am a virgin on a Stallion...yet again today I was the first to leave for work…” A ripping dance club hit with a thumping organ track in the background about a textile worker – “mounting a stallion my dear leader gave me….” I’m grooving in my seat just thinking about it – Gaga and Gwen Stefani watch out. Kim Jong Un likes a good Moranbong concert.

Click only if you’re ready to dance.


It looks like Moranbong watches were assembled in the Pyongyang Watch Factory or the Daesong Factory depending on who you ask. The factory names here are brilliant, my favourite is the cleverly named Pyongyang Chewing Gum Factory at Rakrang-Guyok. Their Ubangi chewing gum is good for halitosis and ‘cerabration’ - a flashy word for thinking. But not too much thinking. There’s also the Pyongyang Integrated Circuit Factory but I don’t know what they make… . According to the New York Times, Moranbong watches have a ripped-off Swiss Movement - the Sonceboz Caliber ES95 and after the factory was built in 1978, it knocked out cheap hybrid-Frankenwatches until corruption screwed it all up. It was likely that they just whacked the name and the word Pyongyang on the watches to score some national pride for their manufacturing chops, even though they couldn’t really organise a party in knocking-shop. There are some stories about a quartz version now made by the Sinheung trading company but the locals could never buy one.

From ‘Korea Pictorial’ – 1985 – the Moranbong Factory

Black-and-white Style Font Art Monochrome photography


New York Times

Watch Green Analog watch Product Blue


Over a dinner of spicy pickled cabbage, funny looking eggs and rice, Bae says there is a special treat for us tomorrow – so no jeans and be downstairs at ten. We’re thrown into the execution van and driven 45 minutes across town to a precinct that reminds me of those very neat Floridan retirement communities – without the golf carts. It looks like somehwhere Michael Jackson would live – long tree boulevards and fountains. The roads are neat, the grass is perfectly cut, and the bottoms of the trees are painted white. Through the windscreen, we see a white low-slung building a bit like a Golf Course Clubhouse that’s had children with a suburban funeral home surrounded by plenty of bright flowers and cut stone pathways.

Apparently this is (one of) Dear Leader’s place(s) and as usual there are rules. No mobile devices, no belongings at all in fact. Stand where you’re told, no photos, the usual paranoid weirdness. Inside it’s nicely decked out but feels less like a home and more like a function centre. The ceilings are 25 feet high and there are nude statues spread through the joint. The only reason we’re here is that two members of our group are Russian and they’re playing diplomacy and “look how prosperous we are”. Then the security changes, the standard guys are replaced with very tall sharply dressed guys in flashy suits and dark glasses. I can see the blood draining from Bae and Bong’s face and they stand up extra straight – it's not the little tyrant but his sister, possible successor Kim Yo-Jong passing forty feet away at the end of the corridor.

Dear Leader's place (probably) - not my pic

Flower Sky Plant Building Window


Bong passes me a Cranberry Juice at one of Dear Leader's homes and this state secret gets caught on camera by the pool photographer

Hand Bottle Liquid Active tank Fluid


Food Ingredient Recipe Cuisine Natural foods


Based on the photos, Kim Jong Un is clearly not suffering a food crisis. He’s as round as a plum pudding and his face is so puffy it looks like it might explode from his Hennessy Cognac and cheese habit. Such is his shape, five-foot-nothing in every direction, that he wears really unfortunate dark flared pants that completely cover his comically tall platform shoes. The makers of the sequel to the movie Team America should really see this. That’s as close as we got and to this day, I don’t really get the point of the whole exercise. I didn’t even get a chance to ask him how it was he didn’t need to poop. That must be handy and it’s all I really wanted to know.

Bicycle Wheel Tire Building Sky


Driving back into Pyongyang in a state of bewilderment, I spot an old woman sitting on a patch of grass picking it one blade at a time and sticking the pieces in a plastic bag. She’s clearly not in maintenance and I manage to swing the handy cam round long enough to surreptitiously catch a couple of frames. Dear Leader is fat and most people are not. Some people snack on nice green lawn clippings.

She is not mowing the lawn.

Plant Working animal Tree Hat Grass


On our final full day, the execution van drops us at the Airport and we’re funneled towards an ancient Russian helicopter that will fly us 180 kilometres south to the DMZ. The inside of this eggbeater is hilarious – it has a bright floral carpet with lounges and a wooden table with a bayonet airconditioner nailed to the wall. After we clear the city, we track down along the bizarre Reunification Highway towards the demilitarised zone. The highway is huge, probably eight lanes wide, but there are absolutely no cars on it and the smooth road surface looks like it peters out twenty miles outside Pyonyang. Weird but I guess there’s no reunification to provide the cars yet. I notice sets of tall concrete sculptures at intervals along the roadside – but I’m later told that they’re not decorative, but can be toppled over with explosives to block the road if war breaks out - they’re all over the city and backroads.

This is the helicopter but not my pic - if you ever make over that way, you can hire it for 1500 Euros for 30 minutes

Sky Wheel Tire Vehicle Military helicopter


Groovy interior

Property Furniture Comfort Table Interior design


Building Atmosphere Cloud Sky Skyscraper


These 'sculptures' are actually road barriers designed to be toppled in the event of an invasion

Building Sky Infrastructure Road surface Plant


Every so often, the men in black check our cameras and I had been in the habit of running the camera ‘unoficially’. I saved some videos to a separate folder and when they scrolled through the camera, all thay found was the main camera roll. A strict interpretation might have seen some weirdness if they knew what we were all up to but everybody does it in some format. The old helicopter sits us down near a model village that can be seen from the south – all for appearances.

Sky Plant Tree Shade Leisure


The DMZ straddles the border – three blue huts in the centre where the armistice was declared in 1953 and not much has changed - even the old table straddling the border is in the same spot - half the table in the north and half in the south. It took them six months to even agree on where the table went. Our military guides wear spanky ill-fitting uniforms and impossibly big hats and play out a version of history that I’m not familiar with. I bet you didn’t know this; the North Koreans reckon they won the war. Overwhelmingly, and they only let us walk away as a goodwill gesture. Just saying.

Window Building Fixture Composite material Urban design


Bae and Bong remind me that they are not ‘North’ Koreans – just Koreans and their leaders will be returned in time to their rightful place as rulers of the paranoid Peninsula. To reinforce this notion of one Korea, they only stick ‘Pyongyang Korea’ on the Moranbong watch dial. Standing twenty feet short of the border, we’re taking photos of the South Koreans who are taking photos of us, and that goes on everyday in a giant circle. It becomes clear to me that Moranbong watches are not a huge priority in the place that time forgot.

(Most of the photos are mine - a couple are not).
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Thank you for sharing your trip with us. Fascinating and extraordinarily well done. By the way, were you able to purchase the watch?


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No, I never got one. Manufacturing of them died off years ago in mechanical. There’s maybe a quartz one available. NK - the land of broken watch dreams.
 

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In Bae's secret journal written on a grain of rice:
"So strange - an Australian man keeps taking pictures of nothing and trying to buy junk."

Good post/reporting. As one who has lived just below the 38th for the past 8 years, I can tell you that the neighbors to the north are conspicuously inconsequential in most every respect of daily living.
Dear Leader is no worse than the military-industrial-media billionaires of the WEIRD world. Zuckerberg wears the same outfit every day, has a bad haircut, posts video with BBQ sauce riding an eFoil, and basically controls all social interaction. Meanwhile, police body-cams have the reliability of a North Korean sewer system. Oh, wait...
 

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When is your book coming out?
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 ·
In Bae's secret journal written on a grain of rice:
"So strange - an Australian man keeps taking pictures of nothing and trying to buy junk."

Good post/reporting. As one who has lived just below the 38th for the past 8 years, I can tell you that the neighbors to the north are conspicuously inconsequential in most every respect of daily living.
Dear Leader is no worse than the military-industrial-media billionaires of the WEIRD world. Zuckerberg wears the same outfit every day, has a bad haircut, posts video with BBQ sauce riding an eFoil, and basically controls all social interaction. Meanwhile, police body-cams have the reliability of a North Korean sewer system. Oh, wait...
I’m a great fan of Seoul and the odd weekend at Busan. Yeah there’s plenty of crazy on every continent.
 
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Discussion Starter · #12 ·
When is your book coming out?
A draft is in for review and I’m procrastinating and goofing off here instead of reworking the back end of it. Be done soon.
 

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Discussion Starter · #15 ·
Another great write up.

Did you experience Korean BBQ out there? Curious if it differs from what we’re used to here..
No BBQ north of the border. I’ve done it in Seoul but we were fed noodles, chicken, eggs, rice and Kimchi up north. I think the kinds of meat that’d take are quite restricted. Some restaurants cater to wealthy Donju In Pyongyang- party members etc.
 
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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
When did you take this trip? Was it fairly recently?
No it was quite a while back. I’ve not left Australia for a while now due to border issues.
 

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What a great read. Thank you so much for sharing this.
 
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Thank you for another great read, OP!!

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