What's the Matter with Pyongyang?

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Nothing, according to Yale University senior Jerry Guo, a promising young student studying—don't laugh—North Korean economics. Guo writes in Sunday's Washington Post that, contrary to all that propaganda from the West, the Juche Kingdom ain't all that bad:

"What I did witness: a mother buying a soda for her daughter from a sidewalk snack cart; two older women sitting on a bench, gossiping and eating pears; businessmen coming out of the subway, sans Bluetooth headsets; a grimacing teenage boy getting a haircut at a salon.

This was not the bizarro-land that I've read about in countless magazine articles and history books. No, this could have been Anytown, USA."

[…]

There were delicate blouses and dresses for around 15,000 won (roughly $4 at black market exchange rates), all sorts of fruit—thought to be nearly impossible to find in this mountainous hermit kingdom—and enough varieties of mystery meats to make my high school cafeteria green with envy.

[…]

And the town offers plenty else to do: there's golf, several karaoke bars, the "Kaeson Youth Funfair," a massage house with lots of late-night activity, and a shooting range (no joke: there's a field where you can practice your grenade-throwing).

[…]

And while conditions are certainly grim, the view I had of the countryside from my window suggested that they might not be as stark as all that: young boys giddily waving hello, men leisurely fishing, schoolchildren swimming in irrigation canals.

Take a look at the aerial view of Pyongyang on Google Earth and you will notice only a handful of cars on the street, and almost no people—just like Anytown, USA. It looks something like this:

Oh, and after the karaoke bar and the indoor golf don't forget to check out a public execution!

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  1. Don’t forget that there are no lights at night except for some eternal flame in the middle of the city…

    I highly recommend Pyongyang for a nice look at the city of Pyongyang and the country of North Korea…

  2. Now that’s what I call a well-regulated housing market.

  3. Isn’t the GDP per capita there well under $1000?

  4. Wait… First he makes an awkward reference to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the title and then in the first paragraph he compares North Korea to the set of Austin Powers 4, a movie that doesn’t exist (at least not yet). Is this for real?

  5. It’s not difficult to find streets similar to the above, say on a Sunday at 6am or while everyone’s off berry-picking in the pristine forests or attending a parade in support of the workers.

    Reason’s lies are beginning to wear thin.

  6. Yes, compare Seoul and Pyongyang on Google Earth, the differences are stunning. I’m not sure what this kid is getting at. Did he think there were going to be open firing squads in the streets?

    He did mention his government ‘escort’ right?
    I also believe that if you google earth in the northern mountains, you can find evidence of one of the largest concentration camp fences in the world– guard towers are marked. Check it out.

    A busy intersection in Pyongyang.

  7. I meant “streets similar to the above in the U.S. or other Yankee capitals”.

  8. A slow night in Seoul.

    OLS:

    The difference: you don’t have to ‘look’ for them in Pyongyang. They’re that way ALL the time.

  9. The Vice Guide to North Korea (Vice TV, not a guide to vice in NK)

    Journey Into Kimland

  10. This was not the bizarro-land that I’ve read about in countless magazine articles and history books.

    Amd the reason that is so, is that North Korea has actually taken baby steps to liberalize its economy, market reforms are taking place in many small ways. It’s still a horrible repressive place, but unlike 10 years ago I believe people can now sell clothes and food at open air markets without getting shot.

  11. It was “Team America: World Police” that really started the ball rolling on liberalization.

  12. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465011047/reasonmagazinea-20/

    PS would you live there? why don’t you give it a shot?

  13. The article isn’t as Commie-apologetic as you might have assumed from MCM’s post. The guy is not a Kim fan.

    We’ve seen this slow liberalization happen on the right with Franco and Pinochet, why not with China and North Korea? (Forget Russia, they are, and always have been, a lost cause.)

  14. Another example of religious repression!

  15. Guo was given the same Potemkin tour all visitors to Norkland get.

    http://www.vbs.tv/video.php?id=1442316090

  16. why not with China and North Korea?

    There’s no question China is liberalizing, but there’s also no question N Korea is not.

  17. men leisurely fishing,

    Just like Anytown, USA, with only the tiny difference that catching a fish is the difference between eating and starving.

    I bet Walter Duranty saw lots of Ukrainians leisurely fishing too. Maybe they’ll give Guo a Pulitzer!

  18. Stupid Yalie. Hasn’t he gotten the memo that he is hurting Obama’s chances by making all Ivy league grads look stupid?

    Obama is doing that well enough on his own…he doesn’t need help from other dimwits.

  19. Stupid Yalie. Hasn’t he gotten the memo that he is hurting Obama’s chances by making all Ivy league grads look stupid?

    Stupider than George W. Bush makes them look?

  20. Is it wrong that I looked at that picture and thought, “Wow, I wish Orange County was more like Pyongyang”?

  21. I mean…except for the….public executions, and…well, you know. Stuff.

  22. Joshua Corning,

    North Korea is concerned with Global Warming, they’re saving power. We could learn a little something from Kim.

  23. At least their financial markets didn’t
    melt down today. They’re probably laughing their respective asses off at the capital markets.

  24. Coming as it does on this day of financial crisis in the U.S., this post reminds me of an old Soviet Joke:

    Radio New York asks Armenian Radio – how much does a soviet engineer earn?
    Armenian radio falls silent for three days and than says: and you lynch negroes in the USA!

  25. Michael,
    The article’s a lot more nuanced than you give it credit for. Don’t misrepresent the guy’s work.

  26. They’re probably laughing their respective asses off at the capital markets.

    Well it is night there now….so they are doing it in the dark.

  27. How about a Korean unification ala Germany.

  28. “It looks something like this:”

    St. Paul post-convention?

  29. The article isn’t as Commie-apologetic as you might have assumed from MCM’s post. The guy is not a Kim fan.

    Yeah, I thought it actually captured the absurdity of the visit very well. I was afraid it was going to be another embarrassing Yale moment like the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Taliban student, and the girl who claimed to have induced miscarriages for her senior art project.

    However, he made several glaring omissions that suggest that he wasn’t taking the visit very seriously:

    1) Sure, the Stalinist apparatus seems funny when you’re a pampered American tourist – and in a way it is, the way “Brazil” is funny, or the Bush administration is funny. Absent from the article was any indication that he realized how truly terrifying it must be to live like that.

    2) Sure, the commissars have it good. Party cadres always do. How is this at odds with the stereotyped view of North Korea as having an impoverished post-apocalyptic economy? It just makes the condition of the rest of the populace even more horrific and evil.

    3) The “market” was obviously still a controlled area – probably the part of town inhabited by apparatchiks, who can afford the luxury of shopping. This still proves nothing about the quality of life in North Korea. I’m also sure the farmers along the train route are kept very well fed.

    How about a Korean unification ala Germany.

    On purely economic terms, this would be a decades-long nightmare for South Korea. Germany is still going to be rehabilitating the communist part for at least another decade, and it’s sucked billions of dollars out of an otherwise healthy economy. Their problems now make our Social Security “crisis” look like a blip. It’ll recover eventually, and South Korea is probably strong enough to survive too, but they’d be hurting much worse for a while. The overall total populations are similar, but West Germany was nearly four times larger than the East, while South Korea is only twice as large as the North. I don’t know how the economic situations of the communist states compares, but I can’t imagine that East Germany ever got that bad.

  30. Looks like Kim is missing. Sure hope he died. Painfully.

  31. It seems North Korea has used United States copyright law to take down all dissident videos on Youtube. Land of the free, indeed.

  32. Anyone who knows anything about North Korea knows that Pyongyang is the city of the party apparatchiks, as Nat points out. You can’t live there unless you are a loyal party member and once you’re there you get certain limited benefits and freedoms. Meanwhile everyone else is confined to concentration camps outside of Pyongyang. It’s the least free country in the world, and I don’t believe a street scene in Pyongyang should be counted as a demonstration of North Korea’s economic liberalization.

  33. I did, in fact, get some lulz from that, prohibited or not. I think better lulz might be had by airdropping some barbecued economist into pyongyang and watching the indigenous hermits fight for a piece.

  34. MCM didn’t completely mischaracterize the article. It’s pretty lightweight.

    For example, Guo scoffs at the police officer who was detaining him for taking pictures of a market. Why? The stupid cop didn’t realize it when Guo took the memory card out of his camera and put it in his pocket. It didn’t occur to Guo that the cop had no idea what a memory card was. Guo was basically a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, only he didn’t realize it.

  35. and enough varieties of mystery meats to make my high school cafeteria green with envy.

    Yeah, the mystery meats? Those are people.

  36. They’re probably laughing their respective asses off at the capital markets.

    If they had respective asses. It’s the first thing to go when you’re starving to death.

  37. What’s the Matter with Pyongyang?

    they’re ronery?

  38. It’s 2008, and there are still useful idiots. Amazing.

    (Not Lonewacko. He’s not even close to useful.)

  39. When I was twelve, my grandparents took me on a trip to Prague. That would have been around 1981.

    For much of the day, the streets were deserted. At other times, they were crazy packed. Only later did I realize that, except for predetermined times like lunchtime, being out on the streets marked you as being suspicious. Everyone was supposed to be at work.

  40. Meanwhile everyone else is confined to concentration camps outside of Pyongyang. It’s the least free country in the world, and I don’t believe a street scene in Pyongyang should be counted as a demonstration of North Korea’s economic liberalization.

    But they don’t have much of an illegal immigration problem, so LoneWacko would be happy there. And LouDobbs.

  41. Did he really intend to say “sans Bluetooth headsets”? What’s the relevance of their NOT having Bluetooth headsets? Is North Korean technology so advanced that they have finally progressed to mobile phone receivers implanted into the head? Or does he simply not know the meaning of “sans”? (Hint: It’s opposite of “avec.”)

  42. I suspect he’s one of those trendoids who thinks that bluetooth headsets should be banned and we should regress to a simpler world.

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