They say Pyongyang is the cleanest city in the world. Officially, there is no crime in Pyongyang, and there really might not be, since only the elite of the elite are actually allowed to live there. There's mostly no electricity, but there are stores with actual products, including even food, which must make for a pleasant change of pace from life in the countryside.

It would be a pretty nice place to live if the power maintaining all that order weren't the most repressive Stalinist state in history. Nobody's even allowed to live there without permission from the government, which doesn't come without damn good reason; the city's maintained as a showpiece for foreign visitors, the shining capital of the Socialist State of the Future. Must be one crazy future, man.

Tourists who for whatever inexplicable reason choose to visit North Korea will more or less be limited to Pyongyang and the rail line that connects it to the Chinese border. There is one hotel for foreigners in Pyongyang. You will not be allowed to leave after dark without a specific destination. You will not be allowed to go anywhere without the accompaniment of your own friendly government appointed tour guide/handler. You will not be allowed to interact with North Koreans, and if you get fresh with one of the coy ladies of Pyongyang, God have mercy on your soul.


P'yŏngyang ("flat earth") is the capital of North Korea and its largest city. It is located 23 hours by train from Beijing, China, and can also be accessed by Air Koryo or Air China from several cities in Asia.

The official population of Pyongyang is somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million, although nobody is exactly sure. The government has complete control over who moves there, and does not permit elderly or infirm people to live in the city. In fact, until a few years ago, pregnant women were not allowed to live in Pyongyang. Children are in abundance, however, and the younger (unconditioned) ones are generally very friendly to foreigners.

Movement in Pyongyang is very restricted, even for natives, but especially for visitors. It's impossible to even enter the country without holding diplomatic credentials or purchasing a package tour. Diplomats are confined to the immediate area of their compounds in eastern Pyongyang, and tourists are always accompanied by government handlers, who can be easygoing or draconian depending on a number of factors (mainly how many cigarettes you give them).

Most visitors to Pyongyang are put up in the Yanggak International Hotel, which is located on an island in the middle of the Taedong River, a perfect corral for curious foreigners. There are other places to stay, though: the Koryo Hotel is Pyongyang's most luxurious lodging, and a number of cheaper hotels are available for budget travelers.


The 3,000-room Ryugyong Hotel, a concrete pyramid that rises 105 stories over the city, is Pyongyang's most noticable landmark. Although construction suddenly stopped a few years back, leaving it unfinished and uninhabitable, it catches the visitor's eye almost immediately, much to the government's embarrassment.

Then there's the Arch of Triumph, a Korean version of Paris's Arc de Triomphe. It's several feet taller than its European sister, and commemorates Kim Il Sung's triumphant (and mythical) defeat of the Japanese in World War II.

Just down an empty multilane boulevard, you'll find a statue of the Great Leader looking out to the world in front of the Korean Revolution Museum. Nearby is the Mansundae Assembly Hall, where the Korean Workers' Party holds congresses every great now and then (the last was in the 1970's), as well as the Chollima Statue, commemmorating the Chollima economic revitalization campaign. Kim Il Sung Square, a few blocks away, is where the palatial Grand People's Study House is located. The other side of the square is on the river, and directly across the river is the Tower of the Juche Idea in Juche Park.

On the other side of town is Mangyongdae, where Kim Il Sung is said to have been born. There are several monuments to his personality cult here, including the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School.

There are also two stadiums in the northern part of town, built during the North's heyday of the late 70's and early 80's. Kim Il Sung Stadium, near the Arch, and May Day Stadium, on Rungna Island, seat over 100,000 spectators each, making them among the largest sporting venues in the world, although they spend the vast majority of their time empty thanks to failed bids in the 1988 Olympics and 2002 World Cup.


North Korea has a currency (the North Korean won), but you will probably never get to own, touch, or see it, because all visitor commerce is conducted in euros (which recently replaced U.S. dollars as foreign exchange currency). Most of what you can buy there is revolutionary propaganda: books, videos, and music. Of course, these make incredible souvenirs of a visit.

Getting around

Buses, taxis, and private cars are nonexistent in Pyongyang. The only way to get around the city is by riding in a car from the state's Mercedes fleet, or by taking the subway.

The Pyongyang subway is one of the most extravagant in the world. Its stations feature cathedral-like arched ceilings, huge chandeliers, and vast murals of Kim's Great Proletarian Revolution, complete with station names like "Unity," "Victory," and "Triumph," although the rumors surrounding the subway's functionality and purpose deserve a node of their own.

I've never been to this city, but I want to go before bombs or capitalism destroy it. It's a living political fossil of a back-asswards ideology, and I suspect that few people will miss it when it's gone.

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