Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore   weecheng.com 
North Korea Homepage

Day 1: Pyongyang


At the Great Leader's feet


Yanggakdo Hotel



Welcome to the Pyongyang Casino!



Poster of the April Festival of the Sun




The Grand Monument 


of Kim Il Sung






"Bodies Formed To Celebrate Day Of The Sun," screamed the headlines of Pyongyang Times, distributed free on the Air Koryo flight.  Something about nudism and the body-beautiful-cult making headways in sunny North Korea?

"Preparatory committees have been set up in many countries worldwide including Russia, Belarus, Mongolia, Austria, Egypt and Guinea and many other countries to celebrate the Day of The Sun, 92nd birthday of Great Leader President Kim Il Sung," the article continued.  “Various countries have broadcast special programs praising the feats he performed for the Korean revolution and humankind's cause of independence… Famous art troupes and artistes from scores of countries are putting on stage beautiful songs and dances reflecting the unanimous reverence of the world progressive people for the President.” 

Welcome to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), more commonly known elsewhere as North Korea.  Founded in the Soviet occupied zone in the northern half of Korea in 1948, the DPRK was led by President Kim Il Sung (known as “Great Leader”) until his death in 1994, and since then, by his son, Kim Jong Il (“Dear Leader”).   

In the DPRK, the Kim’s are worshipped as virtual Gods.  Everything that is good is attributable to the two leaders, and anything bad to the “imperialist Americans and their south Korean puppets in Seoul”.  

Even today, Kim Il Sung remains the “Eternal President” and “Sun” of DPRK, which makes the country the only one in the world with a dead president.  His son, whom the official media proclaimed as “Sun of the 21st Century”, is merely the Secretary of the ruling Korean Workers Party and Chairman of the Central Defence Commission.   

On that fine spring day of Juche 93 (DPRK uses the “Juche” calendar that starts counting from the year Kim Il Sung was born), we arrived in Pyongyang on a rather bumpy Air Koryo flight which had caused more than a few passengers to shed some tears of fear.  Our tourist card was duly stamped and we then met our guides, Mr. Roh and Ms. Park (names altered).   

Over the next week or so, we were to see this country with Mr. Roh and Ms. Park.  Both were wonderful people who tried their best to show us their country, albeit within the stiff constraints imposed by the nation’s rulers.  In this age and time, DPRK remains one of the few countries that only allow visitors on guided package tours.   

Tourists are not allowed to wander about on his or her own unless accompanied by an official tour guide.  Indeed, we had been told that one should request for the guide’s permission before taking photos, something hardly heard of anywhere.  As it turned out, we could pretty much take any pictures we wanted, although most of us did exercise a certain degree of discretion and restraint, particularly at the beginning of the journey.

We were driven to Pyongyang city, through the fresh green, fertile countryside of Taedong River valley.  The highway was good and almost entirely empty.  This is a nation renowned for empty and clean streets.  Few people own cars, but the public transportation network has also collapsed due to the shortage of fuel and foreign exchange to purchase fuel and spare parts.  Indeed we saw people walking alongside highways in the middle of nowhere.  Those who live in the suburbs of Pyongyang probably spend 2 to 3 hours walking to work everyday, each way!   

I wonder if that was in the spirit of Chollima (“qian-li-ma” in Chinese), the legendary horse which was supposed to be able to run 1000 li (about 500 km) a day.  The Chollima was a political campaign waged by Kim Il Sung in the 1960’s to hasten post-war reconstruction and economic development – “Transform Korea at the speed of the Chollima,” he urged nation.   

Communism has the power of mobilising manpower and resources for grandiose projects, due to the low cost of labour and negligible economic rent.  Such power, however, often lead to even worse wastage and inefficient use of resources that Karl Marx thought communism would resolve.  In North Korea, this cumulated in the great famine of 1996/7, in which as many as 2 million people, or about 10% of the population, died. ---- 

Grand Monument of Kim Il Sung - by Peter Deegan

Pyongyang, capital of the DPRK.  At first glance, this looks like a modern city of skyscrapers and massive monuments, towering above the agricultural plains whose flatness gave the city its name (Pyongyang literally means “flat”).   Once you are in the city, you would notice the rough, unpainted walls of most of these ten-to-twenty-storey buildings.  Many flats have broken window planes, some boarded up, others taped up to keep the glass in place.   

Yes, the same kind of degradation, neglect and decay one sees everywhere in cities in the Socialist and former Socialist world.  Because the buildings belong to the state and not the people who live in them, no one takes care of them.  The monolithic state, which has too many things to look after with a limited budget, has not set aside any funds for assets that have no tangible productive value.  Thus the decaying architecture in places such as Havana, Khabarovsk, Murmansk, Odessa and Tirana 

The streets were clean, but had a cold, almost Spartan look.  Commentators often say that Pyongyang looks like a ghost town, with nobody on the streets.  This is an unfair statement.  If you are out during the morning or evening rush hours when people commute to or leave work, you will see crowds on the streets or waiting for buses in military-like disciplined lines.   

The difference with the rest of the world is, people in Pyongyang go to work from home, and back straight from work to home.  They do not get distracted by bright lights of new shops and fancy advertising billboards, simply because in a total socialist system, there are no shops, department stores or public advertising apart from functional state outlets that distribute necessities that come without brands or frills.  And quite possibly, a society with no advertising executives unless you count state propaganda functionaries and artists. 

The super-efficient state budget apparatus decides what everyone in the country need in one year, whether shirts, underwear, tea, pork, toothpaste or pencil, allocate funds for their production, and then distribute them via ration coupons to the glorious working people.  As they say in the Communist world, miners and farmers get the most coupons, but as we all know, it is those guys in the party HQ that get real dollars and spend them on the most unrevolutionary goods from foreign imperialistic countries. 

As we speak, the system is fast evolving.  It has been more than a decade since the Soviet Union had fallen and Eastern Europe is joining the European Union.  China is socialist only in name and perhaps more capitalistic than many countries worldwide.  North Korea, long subsidised by the USSR and China, is now bankrupt.  Struck by famine and gross mismanagement, then by the failures of its experimental special economic zones, the DPRK has now silently begun its economic reforms.   

Indeed, kiosks and carts selling simple merchandise such as sweets and cigarettes have appeared on the streets of Pyongyang.  There aren’t many of them, but a casual observer would notice a few every kilometre or so.  Billboards advertising have appeared in Pyongyang for cars (called Huiparam, or the “Whistle”) to be assembled in North Korea with Fiat-manufactured parts – the very first in this country.  Maybe these are meant for a new elite that have benefited from this tentative economic reform.   

Reports also say that new private markets have been set up though foreigners are forbidden from visiting any, and a mobile network is being set-up by a joint venture with a Thai company.  And deep in the countryside, local governments are allowed to set up import-export companies and retain 70% of the earnings from such ventures.  These are interesting developments.  I wonder, when will we see the first MacDonald’s in DPRK? 


Yanggakdo, the Island of Goat’s Head, lies in the middle of Taedong River which divides Pyongyang into two.  This was where we were to stay in Pyongyang.  One of the three “deluxe” hotel in the country, the Yanggakdo Hotel’s height and location provides a wonderful panoramic view of the city and its many huge monuments.  More importantly for the authorities, its locality on an island means that the tourist cannot easily wander off on his own. 

Two bridges link the island to both sides of Pyongyang but tour programmes are deliberately tight so that nobody has time to wander off during daytime.  During the night, however, the lack of street lights (or rather, the lack of electricity supply) means that one does not want to risk getting knocked down by a car.  Besides, none of us wanted our guides to get into trouble by breaking the rules.   

And so the authorities keeps the tourist preoccupied by having a Macau-run casino with Mainland Chinese staff in the basement of the hotel.  Drop by and you will find plump, middle-age, cigar-smoking Chinese gamblers and working ladies by their side – typical officials and businessmen from Dongbei (i.e., Northeast China) in Pyongyang to launder cash.   

Nearby, there is a large “international cinema hall” nearby that is hardly ever opened.  Look out for the Pyongyang International Film Festival every September, they say.  Perhaps, one could then look forward to Soviet oldies and blockbusters from revolutionary studios in Cuba, Mozambique and Vietnam! 

Our Group

I bought a book on what it calls “famous” North Korean films.  Here are excerpts on some of the country’s most exciting movies: 

“The First Party Commissioner” – The film delineates the struggle for founding the Party right after liberation.  Chol Jin, a former anti-Japanese revolutionary fighter, is sent to a county with the assignment of forming a Party organisation.  The state of affairs is very complex.  The anti-party factional elements and class enemies do various harms and even conspire to kill Chol Jin.  Chol Jin crushes the subversive moves of the reactionaries and succeeds in organising the first Party cell in the smelting works. 

“The Problem of Our Family” – The feature film and its nine sequels criticise all the outdated customs and modes of life and incorrect ideas on the glorious road of revolutionising and working-classising the whole of society and show that only when the families which constitute the cells of society are revolutionised will the revolutionisation and working-classisation of the whole society be successfully realised. 

“The Choe Hak Sins” – This film deals with the tragedy of the family of a clerygyman who worships America like God.  During the temporary strategic retreat in the Fatherland Liberation War American imperialist troops of aggression come to a town in north Korea.  Choe Hak Sin who has lived in the town as a minister for over 30 years has an illusion that the Americans are as good as their noisy words about “philanthropy” and “liberty” and expects them to act from a “humanitarian” standpoint.  But the American imperialist aggressors arrest, jail and murder people without discrimination.  Choe  Hak Sin loses his beloved wife, elder daughter and son at the hands of the murderers.  Only now he opens his eyes and curses himself for having implanted the spirit of flunkeyism towards and worship of America in the minds of his children and believers.  He earnestly calls for wiping away all the American imperialist aggressors. 

“The Story of a Nurse” – During the Fatherland Liberation War Nurse Kang Yon Ok assigned to the medical post of a field unit is picked out for a casualty evacuation team.  She is deeply impressed by the fight of the Party members on the height of the outer perimeter… she finds herself in a difficult position… nevertheless she pushes on looking up at the respected Supreme Commander… One day the hospital is brutally bombed by enemy planes.  She saves a wounded soldier by shielding him with her own body.  She is seriously injured.  Breathing her last, she asks that her Party card and her Party fees be forwarded to the Party Central Committee, and dies a heroic death. 

“The Fate of Gum Hui and Un Hui” – Gum Hui and Hun Hui are twins born when the country is liberated.  On their birth their mother dies.  Their father, too, dies soon later while heading for the north with the twins in his arms…Gum Hui was picked up by painter Ok Hyon San who took her to the North, while Un Hui by fisherman Han Byong Ho who took her to the South.  Gum Hui grows up to be a dancer under the blessed socialist system and gives full play to her artistic talent.  But Un Hui taken to the south grows up suffering from poverty and hunger.  She becomes a singer in the bar.  Scenes of Un Hui’s hard life in south Korea make a strong appeal that Korea must be reunified as early as possible.


Stop One: The Grand Monument of Kim Il Sung.  This is an obligatory stop for every visitor to the DPRK.  Here, a twenty meters’ tall statue of the Man stood on a hill overlooking Pyongyang, with his arm stretched forward pointing the way to Kim-ian paradise.  This was built in 1972 to celebrate his 60th birthday.  Here, we participated for the first time a ritual of the quintessential North Korean personality cult of the Kim’s.  Following instructions, we bought a bouquet of flowers at a unsocialist price of five euros, walked to the front of the monument solemnly, formed a line and then bowed to the Great Leader.   

Of course, if you did not want to do that, nobody would point a pistol at you.  But that would be most un-cool.  It would just upset the guides, and set a negative tone for the rest of the trip.  Fortunately, everyone on the tour saw the whole thing in the spirit of fun and teamwork.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do.  Or don’t bother to come at all! 

Loud military music blaring out loud, small crowds of people – men in formal suit and tie and women in the bright traditional Korean gown - walked here in neat files, up the hill and paid respects to the dead man who remains the president of the country.  The birthday of Kim Il Sung was approaching and it was going to be 10 years since his death.  “It’s a big occasion,” Ms Park said, “and so everyone comes here on his or her own accord to mourn the Great Leader”.   

The sun set over Pyongyang as its citizens laid flowers at the gigantic feet of the humongous statue of the “Sun of DPRK and All Humankind”, so huge that one immediately sympathises with the minuscule men and women who live in this socialist paradise.  A paradise in which the leaders are everything and everyone else mere sidekicks in the many political murals that adorn the otherwise bare walls of this city. 


Juche, meaning self-reliance, is the official ideology of North Korea.  Developed by Kim Il Sung, its main tenant says that man is the master of his own destiny.   

When I asked Ms Park, whether many people in North Korea are believers of religions, she said, “No, we don’t believe in anything superstitious.  We believe in the Juche idea, that man directs his own destiny and decides what he wants to do.  We do not rely on others and it is through our efforts that we change nature as well as the environment, and ultimately shape our own destiny.”   

According to DPRK official sources, people of more than 160 countries have set up study groups and associations to promote the Juche idea, proclaimed in the official press as “the most significant development in the history of philosophy and ideology in human history.”


Dinner time!  Our first dinner was at what was supposed to be a “famous restaurant” in town, though one that merely reads “Restaurant” on the signboard, which once again illustrates the functionality of everything in this country.  There we had lots of wonderful traditional Korean dishes.  And so much that we could hardly finish.  This was to be the trend for most of our meals in North Korea.  What famine? I guess that was the message the regime wanted the world to get, and they would make sure the tourist have more food than they ever wanted.

Karaoke time!  The North Koreans love karaoke, and all of them seemed to sing well.  Mr. Roh and Mrs Park all had a go, and the restaurant waitresses entertained us with the North Korean top of the charts, which included all-time favourites such as “Song of General Kim Il Sung” and “Song of Dear Comrade Kim Jong Il”.  I guess, in a society where the TV – provided the electricity works - contains hardly anything beyond “Dear Leader Visits The Cherry Farm Number Three” or “Concert of The Patriotic Soldiers of Fifth Artillery Division In Honour of the Great Leader”, people indulge in simpler pleasures of life such as singing, dancing and sports.  

View of Pyongyang from Yanggakdo Hotel - by Adrain Tute

Day 2:  Kaesong Needs The Light Of The Great Leader

If You Like This Website,

Click the button above to support TWC's website!

Buy these books! 
Kim Jong-il : North Korea's Dear Leader (Michael Breen) North Korea: The Bradt Travel Guide (Robert Willoughby) Lonely Planet Korea (Korea, 5th Ed) (Robert Storey)


Copyright - Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore, 2004