Candid look inside North Korea

In this video, Steve Gong goes into a North Korea hair salon and gets his hair cut “Pyongyang style.” Like the city it is named for, Pyongyang style is a largely unchanged fashion. This metropolis on the banks of the Taedong river appears much as it did when the U.S.S.R. was its principal ally many years ago. The ghost of communist Russia hovers over Pyongyang like a specter, and in this light, North Korea is the little brother that never grew up. The stunted growth of communist ambition creates a haunting aesthetic. Massive plazas, ornate subway stations, and dear leaders born out of mountains all speak to the idiosyncrasy of North Korea and its stubbornly unique ideology.

The video provides a long glimpse inside the hermit kingdom. Unlike the Vice Guide to North Korea (my personal favorite North Korean Doc), Steve Gong provides candid HD shots void of commentary. It is like being a voyeur in the most reclusive nation on the planet. If you watch closely, you will even catch a glimpse of the hideous Ryugyong Hotel.

North Korea resumes construction on world’s most hideous hotel

North Korea is the hermit kingdom; a strange land of mass games and dear leaders trapped in a 1950’s communist time warp. While they may not have modern supermarkets or PlayStation 3, North Korea does have one of the tallest hotels in the world, and it looms high above Pyongyang like a tribute to the ill advised whims of dear leader Kim Jong Il.

According to USA Today, The pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel began construction in the late nineteen-eighties and was spearheaded by Orascom – an Egyptian architectural firm. Construction of the abominable structure was halted after the fall of the Soviet Union. Without Soviet subsidies, North Korea could not afford the expensive project. Today, the 105 story building is again under construction and may cost as much as two billion U.S. dollars to complete, or 5% to 10% of estimated North Korean G.D.P. Relative to American G.D.P. terms, it would be like the United States sinking over a trillion dollars into a hotel project.The windowless and hollow structure stood vacant for decades, just towering above the city. It is a metaphorical monument to a country plagued by its own agitprop claims of supremacy and the central lunacy that drives this madness further. The North Koreans even spent years denying the structure’s existence, removing it from photographs and excluding it from maps of Pyongyang. Too much shame, it seems, in the very obvious failure.

When completed, the Ryugyong Hotel will have 3000 rooms and roughly 3.9 million square feet. The original plan entailed three wings rising at 75 degree angles capped by several revolving restaurants and an observation deck at the hotel’s pinnacle. For a country that just opened its first burger spot last year, it is very ambitious stuff.

Many architects in the international community are questioning the suitability of the project. Bruno Giberti, a professor at California Polytechnic State University’s department of architecture, called it “the worst building in the world.” The European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea deemed the structure irreparable almost fifteen years ago, citing curving elevator shafts. From a humanitarian standpoint, a nation filled with malnourished children could probably make better use of the estimated $2 billion project.

With elevator shafts more crooked than Kim Jong Il’s epic golf game and decades of structural decay, the “ghostscraper” faces a long road to accepting its first guests. North Korea plans to open the hotel to coincide with the posthumous 100 year birthday of Eternal President Kim Il Sung in late 2012.

flickr images via John Pavelka

The stinking streets and subways of Seoul

Look, it’s been a long time since I got off the 4 Line at Samgachi Station – a dozen years, in fact – but I remember it being rather clean and pleasant. The train itself was, too. Well, I guess I was wrong. I now have it on good authority saw on the internet that Seoul is “well known to the world as heavily polluted.”

Yep, that’s what you’ll find in North Korean geography textbooks.

According to The Chosun Ilbo:

North Korean geography textbooks, the main source of information for students there about South Korea, distort or disparage South Korea’s economic development by way of exalting the North Korean system, an academic here says.

And it doesn’t stop there. The books accuse South Korea of producing goods at the behest of the United States and Japan. This is a big problem up north, because “[r]elying on others for raw materials and fuel is like leaving your economic fate in their hands.” This stands in stark contrast to the North Korean “Juche” philosophy, which preaches self-reliance.

So, if you head to the “den of reactionaries,” brace yourself for a real stench. But, if you’re planning to go to the place the rest of us know as Seoul, you’ll probably be fine.

[photo by Koshyk via Flickr]

Tip this waitress or she’ll kill you

There are two types of waitress you want to tip. The first will climb onto your lap for an extra $20 while the DJ pushes the sounds of Whitesnake through the speakers, and she’ll earn every dime of it. The other, however, is far more dangerous. She won’t take your money, but she will take your life.

When you enter a North Korean restaurant in Siem Reap, Cambodia, notes The Chosun Ilbo, be careful.

North Korean women dream of becoming waitresses, and the job is only available to those who come from the right families, according to Open Radio for North Korea:

“The waitress probably comes from a privileged background,” said a North Korean defector who used to work as a performer in the North. “Only women from good family backgrounds are given the chance to work abroad.”

The opportunity to work abroad is a rare privilege in this reclusive state. Of course, candidates have to come from politically reliable families, but there are other criteria, including the ability to dance and play a musical instrument and a university degree. Most important, however, is that waitressing is for hotties only. If you’ve been smacked around by the “ugly stick,” you probably won’t be allowed to carry a tray.

Oh, and you need to qualify for a license to kill. Open Radio for North Korea also noted that some of the waitresses are spies.

So, there are two women you don’t want to stiff in this world: a stripper and a North Korean waitress. Wait, maybe you do …

[Via @LiberateLaura, photo by permanently scatterbrained via Flickr]

Which way is up? The travails of travel writing on North Korea

It’s easy to be attracted to news about North Korea- for travel writers and every other type of journalist. So little comes out that even the appearance of information makes it noteworthy. This is why those of us interested in covering the most unusual place on Earth will run with press releases or other announcements that would make us groan if they came from anywhere else (I hope this answers an earlier commenter’s question). But, we have to be careful. So much of what is reported on North Korea comes with a clear bias that it’s impossible to get at the truth – even if you go there.

The issue of blogger and journalistic ethics regarding North Korea has been on my mind for a while, but a recent story I wrote for Gadling – which included a U.S State Department-supplied laundry list of human rights abuses – made me stop and think: can any of this be verified? I then thought back to a remark made in Bradley K. Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader – the author explained that he was unable to publish some of the fruits of his labor because he couldn’t get corroboration.Now, State Department reports are probably tops for reliability, but an interview that U.S. defector Charles Robert Jenkins gave after he escaped from North Korea indicates that he supplied the feds with “immeasurable” intelligence. Yet, Jenkins doesn’t have unassailable credibility. A defector from the U.S. Army, he’d been a deserter for close to 40 years and was facing prison time (ultimately serving 25 days of a 30-day sentence). Was it clemency for an old and sick man who had been punished enough already? Or, did the sentence reflect a reward for the information he provided?

In the documentary Crossing the Line, James Joseph Dresnock, the last known U.S. defector still living in North Korea, notes Jenkins’ tendency to abuse alcohol, which existed prior to his defection. And, he admits to having hit Jenkins (though not to the extent that Jenkins claimed). Yet, Dresnock doesn’t come across as a genius either, and he’s still in North Korea. Yet again, there’s a credibility problem.

Finally, we have the claims of defectors. Chol-hwan Kang wrote The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Soon Ok Lee wrote Eyes of the Tailless Animals, and Hyun Hee Kim, a former spy involved in the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, wrote Tears of My Soul. All three adopted forms of extreme religious worship upon defecting (or, in Hyun Hee Kim’s case, being apprehended). The wild swing can leave room for questions of credibility without assuming a bigoted stance on more intensive faiths.

Other defectors have voiced their views in a variety of settings, the most famous of which, perhaps, is Ahn Myong Chol (not his real name). He used to be a prison guard at Hoeryong Prison No. 22 and defected after he had become a truck driver for the prison and had better access to the means of escape. Now a freelance journalist, he dashes secretly across the border and shoots footage that would be impossible to secure otherwise. His most prominent clip is of an open market in North Korea in which human flesh was alleged to have been sold.

Yet, do you believe a guy who has been a part of the system? Maybe he’s legitimate … or he’s trying to justify any of his actions in the camp. It’s impossible to say without the sort of close look that simply will not happen. I have no reason to doubt Ahn Chol and the other guards who have defected, but there are too many ways their views may have been influenced, whether they realize it or not.

Of course, that leaves the government … the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Have you visited the Korea Central News Agency‘s website? Wow. Clearly, it’s neither unbiased nor, frankly, informative. Among yesterday’s headlines were “Kim Jong Il Sends Spread to Centenarian,” “Important Day of DPRK Marked” and “Korean People’s Just Cause Supported by Brazilian Figure.” Head over to the Korea Friendship Association‘s message boards for a more extreme version, if you can believe it. And, all of the contributors, it seems, are both non-North Korean and have opted in.

I can only speak for myself, but I suspect I’m not alone: we do what we can. North Korea provides interesting subject matter for bloggers and journalists, but there are limits to what he can do. I, for one, encourage a bit more skepticism – in general – regardless of the sources used. It’s the historians, not the journalists, who will sort out the details of live and struggle above the 38 Parallel.

[Photo by Yeowatzup via Flickr]