Dreaming of the DPRK

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


Postcards from North Korea

A few nights ago I fell asleep reading the web about North Korea. Which inspired, in part, a collection of rather weird dreams. It’s so completely surreal. A mixture of simulation and reality, something very modern, and something woefully out of date. The last legacy of the Cold War. A bastion of modern terrorism. Ultimately, though, very sad. And not entirely because of the nuclear overtures their government regularly makes and the weird shit like kidnapping Japanese citizens. It’s sad because there are 22,000,000 North Koreans who can’t get enough to eat, who can’t get what they need to live well, while their government funds lavishly stupid projects and just generally mishandles itself. Citizens who become more and more distant from a reunification with their southern siblings as their economy crumbles to the point where not even the surging South Korean economy could afford to take on reunification costs (far beyond what Germany experienced in the 90s).

That said. From the point of view of a sleepy haze, several things become quite fascinating. That you may not know about. But which paint such a good picture of the absurdity.


Ryugyong Hotel Tower, from here.

Let’s start with the most obvious: The Ryugyong Hotel Tower in Pyongyang. A 105-story, 330m-tall building that has been standing incomplete (with crane still jutting off the top) for over a decade. It apparently would be the 7th tallest building on Earth if they could get it together and finish it. (For reference, the Empire State Building is 102 floors and 380m tall.) But, alas. Intended, I’m sure, to boost the flailing North Korean economy and probably to stick it to the West a bit as had been the Eastern Bloc trend during the Cold War, the infrastructure of Pyongyang — financial and otherwise — just couldn’t support it. And so it stands. A much more appropriate monument to the DPRK than has probably been intended… (DPRK = Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, by the way.)

While we’re on infrastructure… How do people get around in North Korea? Apparently there are about 200,000 automobiles in a population of 22,000,000 or so. Over 100 people per car. In the US, it’s just over one person per car. The metro system in capital city Pyongyang (population about 1,500,000) seems to work sometimes — at least they get a train going between a couple stations when they need to show it off to a westerner. (They have some gorgeous metro stations, though, I must admit.) And they seem to have proudly installed a couple streetcar lines (trams) — one in each 1991, 1992, and 1996 — featuring used trains from former Soviet satellite countries. Bikes were illegal until recently due to some idiosyncratic dislike of them by Kim Il-sung. So what? Walk? Motorbikes? We take public and private transportation so much for granted. This makes me think of living in a city on permanent mass transit strike a la NYC winter 2005. This alone would seem to be able to unbalance even the most otherwise stable economies.

“The most noticeable aspect of the city was how quiet it was. Unlike typical vibrant Asian cities with large crowds that bustle with life and commerce, Pyongyang is very peaceful. People are formally dressed in muted colors. They queue up quietly to wait on busses. Everyone is thin. I did not see an overweight North Korean. People are not talking on cell phones, children are not riding on skateboards and couples are not kissing on the streets — not even holding hands.” — North Korea in 2005


North Korea at night. Power shortages keep it basically dark, especially compared to South Korea and Japan.

Finally, Panmunjeom Joint Security Area (map), what appears to be the last Cold War-style border outpost. I’ll let you read about the Bridge of No Return and the Axe Murder Incident yourself. They’re interesting. The latter begins innocuously enough, with 19 US and South Korean servicemen deciding to trim a tree. After a shocked — shocked! — response from the North leads to one death and much whining, the UN Command decides to cut down the entire tree. Don’t fuck with the UN.


Maybe these little bits are important to keep in mind when considering whether or not North Korea has managed to develop a nuclear weapon. It’s possible, of course. But this is a janky nation that can’t even reliably power the subway system in its capital city and that imports old Soviet-bloc streetcars that even eastern European cities threw out years ago. Can’t build a streetcar. Can build a bomb? I don’t know. I’m hardly an expert, I guess.

Also, I haven’t read all of them through, but these links look interesting:

good sites on North Korea

Posted Tue, February 6, 2007, 10:30pm EST by icar

For those interested, some other good sites on the North Korean situation:



Posted Mon, April 7, 2008, 4:20pm EST by nin