Friday, August 31, 2012

Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall

I can't believe I skipped this during my last trip to Beijing!

Check out Debra Bruno's review of the Beijing Planning Exhibition Hall. My favorite quotes:

"Try not to focus too long on the soaring music and the sense that a futuristic Beijing looks like Shangri-la mixed with Disney World’s Main Street. One 3D film on the city predicted that one day, 'from anywhere in the city you can find a green space within 500 meters to reconnect with nature.' Judging from the sight of 'the big gray' today, that’s an optimistic vision."

"Even with these costs, it's hard not to feel a little charmed by the planners' vision for a 'harmonious' city where cars move smoothly, trees line actual sidewalks (try finding an actual sidewalk in some parts of the city), and low-flow Western flush toilets grace every apartment and hutong home. Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress couldn’t have done it better."

I've got to get back to Beijing soon...

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Beijing 2013

Check out this video-pitch for next year's SJSU Comm Studies Beijing trip. It's a three week course about communication and culture taught by a departmental colleague (and former student!), Carol-Lynn Perez. 

As in past years, Beijing 2013 will be headquartered at the Communication University of China. But students won't be stuck in the dorms. They'll learn to navigate Beijing's world-class metro system and explore a sprawling city of more than 20 million people. 

As I discovered over the summer, this faculty-led program is fascinating, exhausting, thrilling, overwhelming, humbling, and inspiring. I envy anyone seeing China for the first time, and I can't wait to hear about our students' adventures!

To learn more about Beijing 2013, contact the course instructor!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Beijing AIDS Mural

During a recent visit to Beijing, waiting for a flight to Pyongyang, David Terry and I hunted for street art near the China-Japan Friendship Hospital. I'd already shot plenty of photos there, but I had to come back. Scanning through nearly a dozen close-up shots from that first visit, I realized that I'd utterly missed the big picture: an amazing mural. Luckily I was able to come back just a few weeks later. Here's the photo montage.

Click on image for full-size view

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

North Korean Murals (Part 2 of 2)

Here's another selection of posters and billboards I saw during a recent visit to the DPRK.

Pyongyang Metro

Pyongyang Metro

Pyongyang Metro

Pyongyang Metro

Downtown Pyongyang (near Kim Il Sung Stadium)

Exterior of Schoolchildren’s Palace 

Poster for Sea of Blood, a revolutionary opera

Korean Film Studio

Korean Film Studio

Korean Film Studio

Korean Film Studio

All images © Andrew Wood.

Monday, August 27, 2012

North Korean Murals (Part 1 of 2)

During my recent trip to the DPRK, I was drawn to the country's posters and billboards. In Pyongyang you'll find only one large-scale product advertisement, but you'll find countless examples of eye-catching propaganda extolling the virtues of the Workers' Party of Korea (and, of course, the Kim family).

[A note on translations: These are quickly rendered interpretations from a local guide. They have not yet been checked for accuracy.]

"Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung will always be with us."

Left: "We strengthen the single-hearted unity of the 10 million people
and army-men around the headquarters of our revolution!"
Right: "Go forward for the upsurge under the banner of three revolutions!" 

Kim Il Sung poster in Pyongyang

"Let's become a youth hero in the worthwhile struggle
to glorify the Kim Jung Il era!"

At entrance to Moranbong Senior Middle School

On second floor of Moranbong Senior Middle School

"Push hard/great upsurge for the new victory
under the guidance of the party!"

"Long live great victory of Songun Politics!"

"Go forward for the final victory
under the guidance of the great party!"

"Korea is one!"

Translations are approximate. All images © Andrew Wood.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Seven Days in the DPRK

I've finally finished a seven-day blog series about my recent visit to North Korea - easily the most complicated, most fascinating, most memorable trip I've ever taken. Future posts will feature more pictures of North Korea's murals and an FAQ page (just in case you'd like to visit the Democratic People's Republic of Korea). In the meantime, let's get started...

Day One!

PS: Many thanks to 
Simon Cockerell (Koryo Tours) for helping me address several factual errors in an earlier draft of this blog! If you spot errors - in fact, punctuation, spelling, whatever - please drop me an email at

PPS: Following the recommendation of my colleague Minna Holopainen, I thought you might like to visit the DPRK via Google Map!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 7

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I approached the yellow striped line outside our hotel and froze.

Yellow Line
Since the Yanggakdo Hotel - the so-called “Alcatraz of Fun” - is located on a narrow island in the Taedong River, we’re free to wander without restriction. We just can’t cross the bridges. Even so, I’d never walked outside the Yanggakdo without a guide. The days had been so packed that I got used to sleeping as late as possible. By evenings, I just wanted to shower and watch a little TV. Dave was partial to the Olympics, which meant that I saw lots of table tennis and badminton.

This morning, though, I decided to leave the hotel alone. So I woke early, pulled on my least stinky set of clothes, and took the elevator down. Outside, buses were wheezing in lines, waiting for Chinese tourists (most of the Westerners were gone). The air was damp. The glass doors closed behind me and I strode down the tree-lined road. That's when I saw that painted line.

The border was probably meant for auto traffic, maybe to limit the passage of bus drivers. Still, I was afraid to cross. I thought about all the times we’d been reminded not to get our guides into trouble, and I recalled that second visit to the Mass Games, the panicky prospect that one of our guides might get fired because of my cluelessness. I also flashed back to last night, the fear of being alone outside an amusement park. Transgressing DPRK rules can be dangerous.

Consequently, it’s easy to internalize North Korean discipline. After just a few days I’d composed a mental map that pulsated with yellow neon lines, significations of authorized movement and permissible passage. This line, the one etched on the road, hailed all the others. Someone told me that he’d jogged around the island a few days ago. I could therefore certainly cross the line.

I’d been standing in the middle of the road for the past five minutes.

Now a new anxiety began to metastasize. Was I being watched? Did my odd behavior inspire a supervisor somewhere to pick up a phone? Just what was I doing out here? I needed a rationale, an excuse for standing in the road like this. I fished out my camera and turned around slowly. I’d stepped outside to snap a photo of the Yanggakdo. Of course! Just position the building in my viewfinder, check the vertical alignment, and...


I couldn’t get the entire building in my frame; I was too close. Maybe I could settle for a close-up shot. Perhaps a nice shot of those buses. Then my photographer’s instincts took hold and I turned back around. I was going to get that shot. I started to walk and then to jog, bounding away from the Yanggakdo. No way I’d let some silly traffic border scare me.

Loping toward the island’s edge, I imagined this place as a sort of North Korean Disneyland where each manicured hedge obscures secret machinery [William Gibson once called Singapore “Disneyland with a Death Penalty,” which is nothing compared to this place]. The yellow line had fallen from view when I turned around a second time. There it was: the Yanggakdo Hotel, neatly captured in my frame.

On the road to the Yanggakdo Hotel
I snapped my pictures and hurried back.

Later that morning David and I met our guides and toured the Party Founding Museum. This was the site where Kim Il Sung led his party to establish nearly unbreakable control over the country. We joined our docent, an older woman who regretted that she’d never met the Eternal Leader, and toured the building. We saw Kim’s original office and a drawing for an alternative version of the Workers' Party of Korea hammer-brush-sickle insignia. As usual, the tour was produced solely for us. Of course what we lacked in numbers we augmented with questions.

Party Founding Museum
In the afternoon, we drove to the Pyongyang’s Korean Film Studio to wander the backlots. For days, David and I had traded questions about our experiences. “Front stage or back stage?” I’d ask, using theoretical shorthand to gauge David’s perception of whether we were experiencing a scripted moment or something more (presumably) genuine. Thus we both were jazzed at the prospect of touring a literal backstage transformed into a perfect "front": a reservoir for the construction of ideology.

Here we found near life-sized versions of an ancient Korean village, a Japanese city, and even DPRK versions of European mansions. On many structures, facades are painted and ornamented uniquely, meaning that one backdrop could be transformed into four different buildings for the same movie. Along the edge of the property, corn grows, both as a potential setting for an agriculturally-themed flick and also to help feed studio workers. David whispered to our guides that I study these sorts of places, assuring them that I was probably enjoying this stop more than any tourist they’d ever had. They insisted that I take every picture I could possibly want.

Andy stalks the perfect frame
For almost a couple of hours we drove from lot to lot, each a tightly packed conflation of styles and references, collectively an empire of signs signifying the power to spin out an endless stream of messages. I twisted my cap backward to more easily snap pictures. This place seemed like a great site for HDR post-processing. How else could the Korean Film Studio appear but as a hypersaturated cartoon version of itself? I thought about these pictures as proof of the place I’d visited, and I dreaded the prospect of losing them. With their disappearance, the trip might as well have never happened.

Thumb's up
At one spot, David took a picture of his thumb, mirroring a poster of a guy giving a thumbs-up. I naturally took a picture of David. Just a little Photoshop magic and I could rotate his thumb to more closely reflect the poster. Maybe one day I will. And why not? The studio is a spectacle of simulation for the most earnest of purposes. In the DPRK, words like “propaganda” and “ideology” contain no sense of absurdity or detachment. They are performances of power without a hint of irony.

Korean Film Studio
Before we left, a studio representative allowed us to watch about ten minutes of a movie they’re editing. It’s the story of a woman who refuses to marry a man until he becomes worthy of being photographed with the Dear Leader. Spoiler alert: He smartens up, they marry, and she is blessed. The script is based on a true story. Apparently Kim Jong Il heard about this woman and ordered the production of a movie about her life. And he insisted that she portray herself on the screen.

Backward reels the mind.

Film studio mural
There's just one more major stop: the Grand People’s Study House. Our docent is especially determined to assure us that the library has some books in English. At a computer terminal she says, “We have Mark Twain.” I'm not sure how to respond, so I go for something safely generic: “That’s great," I say.

“Would you like to see?”

“Well, no. I’m sure you have him.”

“Really, it’s easy. I just type in his name...

Now I can confirm that North Korea’s Grand People’s Study House has some Mark Twain. They also have “American Pie" on CD.

Unfortunately it’s the Madonna version.

Grand People's Study Room
Outside a window I catch sight of Kim Il Sung Square. Clouds have rolled in and a drizzle has begun to fall. The place is filled with kids - thousands of them standing and sitting in lines - practicing for the upcoming torchlight parade (“They can go home if the rain gets really bad,” one of our guides assures us).
"Can we take pictures of the Square?"

Of course we can.

Kim Il Sung Square
Before we get dropped off at our hotel, the guides take us to a coffee shop. David and I flip through overstuffed menus featuring cappuccinos and day-glo fruit drinks. One of our guides asks an oddly general question: “When is the happiest day you can remember?” We all pause and think before taking turns. David tells his story and I tell mine. We wait for her to share. She starts, painting broad outlines, setting the scene. Then she stops.

The story might get her in trouble, she explains.

David and I grab dinner back in the hotel before rejoining our guides for beers in the “Teahouse.”
Throughout the afternoon we’ve praised our guides. We’ve thanked them for being so helpful and kind to us. They’ve thanked us for our patience and open-mindedness. But now after so many days in such close quarters, we’re running out of things to say. 

Then the guide flashes a shy smile. 

“I’ll tell you my story... 

... as long as you promise not to tell anyone.”
One last view from the Juche Tower


The next morning [“Day Eight,” technically] we pack and meet our guides one last time. They confirm that we’re checked out of the hotel, and they return our passports. David and I have prepared three innocuous gray envelops, each containing cash. Our goal is to ensure that the driver and each guide receive an envelope without being seen by the others. We have no idea whether we’re following appropriate protocol or just making asses of ourselves. Throughout this trip, that's been a common concern.

Approaching the airport, we cruise by posters and murals of heroic North Koreans standing tall against foreign aggression, praising the brilliance of their Leaders, and building the Pyongyang Worker’s Paradise. I think about another picture I saw years ago: Boris Vallejo’s poster for National Lampoon's Vacation. The image features Chevy Chase atop a marble hill, his muscles glistening with sweat, his legs gripped by scantily clad women. He’s two parts suburban schlub, one part Conan the Barbarian.

Such has been this trip, a labored performance and a performance of labor. We have only spent a week in the DPRK, and we’ve encountered few moments that have not been carefully scripted. A
glow with our own heroic deeds, we will share an epic adventure with friends and colleagues. But we can’t take ourselves too seriously. It wasn't that amazing, really. We filled out applications, paid fees, stood in lines, sat on buses, took pictures, bowed on command, and left without incident. We played our roles. 

Still, I wonder about our guide's secret storyWas it real? Were her words a revelation of something beneath the surface of things? Or were they just another layer of artifice? One last souvenir.

Predictably, David and I put the pieces together differently. David’s no fool. He possesses healthy skepticism about what we’ve seen. But he feels something genuine in these moments too. Me? I remember moments that mattered, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have come here. At the same time, I can never quite get rid of a nagging fear that the entire trip was merely a stage-set for artful storytelling. We'll take a long time sifting through this experience. We agree entirely about one thing, though.

We will never tell the guide’s secret.
Day 6 | Return to Beginning

All photographs - except for "Andy stalks" - © Andrew Wood

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 6

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Some of Buddha’s students laugh in North Korea’s Songbul Buddhist Temple. A few cast inquisitive glances; some look troubled; others just stare blankly. Our guides drove us here this morning, partially to get us out of Pyongyang - and partially to make a point about the DPRK’s tolerance for difference. 

Buddha's students
Turns out that North Korea boasts three independent parties. Along with the Workers' Party of Korea, there’s the Social Democratic Party: once an independent coalition of business interests, now an organ of the WPK. Then there’s the Chondoist Chongu Party: adherents to a Korean brand of Confucianism who also recognize the authority of the WPK. Still, our guides insisted: three parties.

And freedom of religion too!

Songbul Buddhist Temple
That’s why we came to Mount Jongbang, to see proof of North Korea’s thriving Buddhist community and to experience something softer about the DPRK. In this green, leafy place, we met a monk wearing saffron robes who spoke of Songbul’s history, telling of the many times it has been built and rebuilt since 898. He directed our eyes to a tree whose fruit would allow us to live for a thousand years. Then he invited us to pray before the Buddha.

As the monk lit incense and chanted the incantation, I closed my eyes and repeated a mantra. Breathing slowly, I rolled each syllable words like a log on water. I could hear cicadas outside, screeching from the pines, and I could feel sweat drip down my back. Over and over I repeated a tight loop of words. Then David and I stopped and returned to our feet. The monk radiated calm as we left offerings in the tip jar.

Buddha's students
We then walked to another pagoda where we saw Buddha’s students. There were 500 of them, each a painted clay figure expressing a different personality. Each student conveyed one of the multitudes of ways in which people encounter wisdom. Some get it; most don’t. The Buddha has patience for them all. David and I picked out faces we recognized, some from our own classrooms and some from people we’d met. We saw our guides among those faces, too, and they saw us.

We said our goodbyes and started down the mountain. During one of our conversations, a guide said that the North Korean people revere Kim Il Sung as God. This confused me, as Juche philosophy is explicitly atheistic. “How could that be so?” I asked, trying my best to be courteous. “No, we don’t believe in God,” the guide clarified. “We respect him as you Christians respect God.”

Our guides were surprised to learn that David and I don’t consider ourselves to be Christians, at least not in the organized sense of the word. We took turns sharing our individual stories of departure from formal modes of faith. David was once an evangelical; I was once a Mormon. One of the guides couldn’t believe that we abandon our collectives so easily.

“Did you have to fill out forms?”

Sariwon Folk Village
Our next stop was the Sariwon Folk Village, a traditional assemblage of homes, workplaces, and street markets. To the untrained eye, this place might appear as a well-maintained relic. It’s actually a simulacrum, opened in 2008. For the country’s youth, the Village presents a sweep of epic wars and ancient dynasties, a reminder of heritage. For tourists, the Village is a great place to snap photos.

The sun glared overhead as our guides marched us along an array of mosaics. “He was a famous general... This is how families would make kimchi... Here is another famous general.” We covered about 4,000 years in roughly a half hour and then ducked into a tiny restaurant to sip bowls of Makgeolli.

I peered into the milky concoction and thought back to that first night’s encounter with Soju. I remembered that next morning and wasn’t sure I wanted to try any rice wine today. And then there’s the smell. Served at a precise moment of fermentation, Makgeolli stinks like stale cheese. The children sitting nearby were barely suppressing giggles. I took a small sip. And then another.

As we left the restaurant, I slurred something like, “We’ve got to get some more of this stuff!”

Sariwon AK-47 monument
On the edge of town we passed three cool murals and, incredibly, a stone monument shaped like a bayonet-tipped AK-47. I had to take some pictures! “Sorry,” one of the guides said, “The people here aren’t used to foreigners with cameras.” But they were willing to bend the rules a little, asking the driver to stop long enough for me to snap shots through the window.

Our next stop was a model farm, more evidence that North Koreans have marshalled Juche wisdom to solve their hunger problem. Mostly our visit involved waiting for the docent to arrive. One of my guides surveyed the empty parking lot and smiled at me. 

“Feel free to take pictures.” 

I ambled here and there, photographing stalks of corn and wondering if any other tourists would show up. I hoped there’d be air-conditioning inside. Eventually the docent arrived, and we commenced our tour. 

Bas-relief sculpture at farm (click for better view, and check out the TV!)
We learned more about potatoes and apples, but mostly we learned about the blessings of the Kim dynasty. There it was, the obligatory poster detailing each visit through the years. And there were photos, plenty of photos, especially of the Dear Leader staring thoughtfully through dark glasses at mounds of millet and sacks of rice. 

I flashed back to that snarky website Kim Jong Il Looking at Things, and I began to understand something about those images. In nearly each one, the workers and managers standing nearby are awestruck, perhaps a little terrified, that the Dear Leader is staring at all their stuff. In the DPRK, that kind of focused attention is a big, big deal.

Farmhouse interior
We watched and listened, asking a few polite questions, grooving on the cool air, and then we drove to a nearby model home. There we met a family who seemed perfectly delighted to show us their abundant lives: There was a kitchen and a living room, and there was a portrait of the proud family gathered around Kim Jong Il. We gazed at the image and then turned our attention to the television set. David was excited to see that new North Korean musical group that’s got everyone buzzing. I noticed a uniform hanging nearby. The old man who lived here had been a soldier once; he’d earned many medals. Now he was a farmer, content as could be.

Moranbong Park
The afternoon was draining us all. It was time for a break at Moranbong Park. The four of us, David and I and our guides, walked together as if on a double-date. Families were picnicking under trees and folks were splashing in waterfalls. One had stripped off his clothes. Nearby I spotted two dudes beating the shit out of a third guy, kicking his ribs while he rolled on the ground. I snatched a quick peek at one of the guides. She’d noticed too.

“Many people drink Soju here.”

We turned a corner and heard music. An extended group of people were gathered under the trees for a midday party. They were eating and drinking, and dancing to pop versions of Korean folk and patriotic songs that blared from a speaker. I remembered something one of our guides said hours ago, “... and at the park, maybe we’ll dance with the locals!” And there they were. Two or three of them were waving us over. Of course we danced.

Dancing in Moranbong Park
An older woman had chosen me; a younger woman picked David. Both guided us through steps and movements, teaching by repetition (and an occasional wrenching grasp). David seemed to pick up the nonverbal nuances easily enough. My partner gave up on me, though. We settled to take turns mimicking each other. I dredged up my best Pulp Fiction moves, but I could never summon the necessary cool to pull them off. She didn’t seem to mind.

Andy tries to make a friend
One of our guides had taken my camera and was snapping pictures. Establishing shots, two-shots, close-ups. Negotiating sunlight from those dappled leaves. Right then all of Pyongyang seemed to stretch below us, everything aglow under the afternoon sun. I could almost see the Great Leader and Dear Leaders standing at the Mansudae Grand Monument, their red flags transformed into ocean liners plowing through the haze, guiding us to this place. 

Distant leaders
Nightfall drew us to Pyongyang’s “New Street” for dinner, followed by a quick stop at Rungna People's Pleasure Ground. It was a strange thing, being invited to cut the line for bumper cars at this wildly popular new “fun fair” [people were still talking about pictures they’d seen of Respected Marshal Kim Jong Un visiting just a few days ago]. David and I were the only Americans around, so the operator poured more power into the cars and allowed us to ride twice. Our seatbelts worked no better than decorations and we got banged up pretty good.

David at the fun fair
Afterward, grateful we were heading back to our hotel, I momentarily lost sight of the others. I stood by myself for a few moments, surrounded by soldiers and children, and realized that this was the first time I’d ever been alone outside in North Korea. All I could think was, “Where is my guide?”
Day 5 | Day 7 All photographs - except for dancing pix - © Andrew Wood

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Seven days in the DPRK - Day 5

Note: These posts provide a summary of one tourist’s experience in North Korea in summer 2012. This trip was conducted without external financial support, and nothing herein should be construed as condoning or supporting the actions or policies of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“Welcome to the DPRK! It would be best for you to use the hangers.”

Our hotel room cleaners left that greeting a couple days back. Apparently they didn’t approve of David’s travel-kit laundry line. Things have only gotten worse since then, and now a relentless stench permeates our room. David and I aren’t slobs, but we’re not especially fastidious either. The real problem, though, is the utter lack of circulating air. We hand-wash many of our clothes, hanging them up to dry. Yet the dampness never quite goes away. Now all those stagnant smells, and others too, have curdled into something foul.

Pyongyang mass transit
What’s worse, that mildewy smell isn’t confined to our room. It’s everywhere we’ve visited. Air conditioning demands more power than the DPRK can generate these days. So most places do without. Add late summer rains to the fact that some buildings seem custom-built to trap hot air and you’ve got a recipe for endless funk. Every day: New things to see; same smell.

Of course, one thing has changed: most of our fellow tourists are now gone.

Many were scheduled to take the train from Pyongyang to the Chinese border town of Dandong, but monsoon rains wiped out several key roads and bridges, forcing Koryo Tours to patch together a raft of flight options. Throughout the last evening, guides negotiated with folks in our group, offering options and accommodating concerns. Now we were alone. I don’t know how David felt, but I was a little nervous at the prospect of being stuck in a van with two guides and a driver.

Supposedly we were set to drive six hours toward the coast. There we’d visit a nice beach and relax a bit. Then we heard about those wrecked roads, meaning that we’d have to stay near Pyongyang. I could only laugh. Months before, I remember being so stressed about our itinerary. In long email threads I asked questions and double-checked details, hoping to scrape away any stains of ambiguity from this trip. Now I understood how futile that was. Despite the best efforts of Koryo and our guides, touring the DPRK means learning to roll with what you can’t control. 

Pyongyang subway escalator 
David and I were determined to stay positive, which earned high praise from our guides. “Germans are different,” one explained. “Swedes too. They don’t like too many changes. They complain.” We Americans, on the other hand, had developed a reputation for being more easy-going. Thus whenever we’d learn that our schedule had been changed once more, we’d hoist up that same determined smile.

“Sorry, we’re going to the Pyongyang Circus instead of Mt. Myohyang.”


“Sorry, the Kim Il Sung mausoleum is closed. How about a tour of a model farm?”


What we really wanted, just for a little while, was nothing. Really. Just a few hours of nothing to do. The heat, the pace, and the push of this trip, the inexorable slog of stops and starts, had begun to weigh heavily; David and I were bushed. At breakfast I cradled my head and whispered, “I’d pay them extra just to leave us alone for a while.”

At the same time I had to appreciate our guides’ efforts to keep us occupied. When one would report, with some appearance of regret, the addition of an unscheduled hours to our itinerary, asking, “perhaps you wouldn’t mind staying late for lunch?,” we’d offer the same sunny reply.


Three Revolutions Exhibition
Suitably optimistic, we motored to Pyongyang’s Three Revolutions Exhibition this morning. There we could choose from a menu featuring three options: Heavy Industry, Light Industry, and Agriculture. Actually the “three revolutions” refers to Ideology, Technology, and Culture - ideas found throughout the entire Exhibition. I just like the idea of a guide saying, “We celebrate three revolutions. Choose two.” Anyway, we selected Heavy Industry and Agriculture and committed to never regret our decision to skip Light Industry.

We walked into the first pavilion, gazing upward at its soaring chasm of walkways and a cornucopia of gadgets, and we noticed one thing over all others: David and I were the only people here. The building could have packed hundreds of people - thousands 
maybe - and we didn’t see another tourist in the whole place. Our docent didn’t seem to mind. She marched with conviction, showing us miniature power plants and river locks and manufacturing processes. 

Pyongyang tiny town
David was thrilled, amazed that designers could create such an immersive and arresting museum. I was impressed with the vastness of this performance too, but mostly I just couldn’t stop staring at all those tiny towns. There was a mock-up industrial town, a scale-model of Pyongyang, and - oh my goodness... 

Ryugyong Hotel
“Is that a miniature Ryugyong Hotel?”

The docent smiled and sped up her talk. Naturally we could see the model Ryugyong. We’d just have to push through these other exhibits first. Each and every one of them. Our guides kept up the pace. We’d see everything, no matter what. Only, one of the guides seemed to be making a lot of phone calls.

Then it happened, without so much as a jolt. While learning about North Korea’s ambitious plans to pump more electricity to its thousands of factories and farms and workers’ paradise apartments -

The power went out.

No one said a word. We just walked and waited; we were all committed to making this thing work. With such spirit, our group visited the second exhibit to receive the good news about the DPRK’s agricultural bounty. Again, there were models and photos and statistics. But, as ever, the key role in this drama is played by the Great Leader and Dear Leader.

Model farm
Model farm mural
When the Arduous March began to kill its way through the population, it was, after all, the Dear Leader who hurtled bolts of wisdom from the top of Mount Paekdu. I can imagine his words: “What you need to do is plant more crops! And you people need to start eating potatoes! Those things will grow almost anywhere. And use more scientific methods! I can’t stress that last part enough...”

A model of North Korea’s concept of “Progressive Democracy,” Kim Jong Il - inspired by his father’s example - walked among the people, learned from them, and then delivered their collective brilliance back in the form of aphorisms. The people listened and commenced to their Great Tasks, coining revolutionary slogans, hoisting propaganda posters, and building model farms. That’s why North Koreans are now so well-fed. We smiled, took notes, and kept walking. 

Night of the Volunteers
Our afternoon was packed with visits to the Korean Central Art Gallery and the Pyongyang Circus. At both stops we saw paintings and acrobats, all portraying that same Socialist Realist blur of precision and sweat. Only once did we wince, dreading the sad spectacle of circus bears forced to perform jerky pantomimes of intentional behavior. Otherwise we laughed and clapped - no less docile than the bears, I guess. And while we sometimes wondered why one of our guides was always making phone calls, neither of us would dare ask.

At Moranbong Senior Middle School we learned what those calls were all about.

David and I figured this would be another standard tour, this time dedicated to DPRK-style education. And sure enough, an English teacher dutifully marched us through exhibits and classrooms (each graced with twin portraits of the Great Leader and Dear Leader). I was especially drawn to the hallways, showcases for colorful murals depicting the revolutionary potential of North Korean children. We appreciated the teacher’s time; it was summer, after all, and Saturday too. Just one last quick tour and we’d be on our way.

Then our guides led us to an auditorium where a large group of children were waiting. Dozens of kids had been roused from whatever they’d been doing that day to perform for us. For over a half hour, they sang, danced, and played instruments (folks go big for accordions around here). I took a few pictures, but mostly I sat, jaw agape at the idea of all those kids gathered just for the two of us. That’s why our guide had been glued to the phone all day. She’d been working to pull this event together! David and I clapped as loudly as we could after each performance. And we accepted the kids’ invitation to dance. How could we not?

Moranbong Senior Middle School children
That evening, David and I ate dinner at our hotel’s revolving restaurant. Again, we were the only people in the place. While Pyongyang glowed in sunset, we compared our responses to the day. As far as I was concerned, we’d witnessed a masterwork of persuasion, an artfully crafted drama designed to evoke emotional response. David, no less analytical than I, was convinced we’d seen something real. Our guide’s phone calls weren’t part of a script, he said. Those children’s sacrifices weren’t part of a script either.

Our visit with the school children had brought David to tears. He’d come to the DPRK for largely academic reasons: a chance to subject the Mass Games to the rigors of scholarly examination. Already he was casting lines of theory into a sea of ideas about one of the world’s most awe-inspiring performances. Yet the sight of those kids sweating through a show on a Saturday afternoon - in summer, no less! - was real and meaningful to him. I envied David, the day he’d experienced.

I just couldn’t quite shake the sense that it was all a little too perfect.

Day 4 | Day 6 All photographs - except for "Ryugyong Hotel" - © Andrew Wood