North Korea

Korea This Week (June 18 – 24)

A selection of this week’s Korea-related news and commentary

Nuke-free Korea?

Korea’s oldest nuclear power plant, the Kori 1 reactor located in the suburbs of Busan, was permanently shut down last Sunday after 40 years in operation. Commissioned in 1978, the reactor’s initial 30-year life span was extended by ten years in 2008.

Since then, the public mood in Korea has somewhat soured on nuclear power. In March 2011, many Koreans were alarmed by the meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power

Fukushima reactor meltdown

The ruined Fukushima nuclear plant

plant in Japan, which prompted many calls for a review of Korea’s energy policies. And in 2012, the Korean public (and this Busan resident) were again rattled by the revelation that the Gori 1 reactor and others had been supplied with substandard parts backed by forged safety certificates, a major scandal  that resulted in several jail sentences.

President Moon Jae-in has vowed to wean the country off nuclear energy, which currently accounts for 22% of South Korea’s power generation, and to move toward renewables and natural gas. Critics of the plan have claimed that Moon’s move may hurt construction companies who have benefited from technology exports in recent decades. In addition to the example of Fukushima and the 2012 scandals, Moon and other proponents point to the potentially catastrophic combination of Korea’s population density, susceptibility to earthquakes, and a long-standing emphasis on cost and efficiency at the expense of public safety as justification for the push to go nuclear-free.

[Mis]adventure Tourism

Otto Warmbier, a 22-year old former student at the University of Virginia, died on Monday after being released from detention in North Korea, where he had been imprisoned since January 2016 for stealing a poster from a Pyongyang hotel. In response, Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), the company that brought Warmbier to North Korea, has announced that it will no longer accept American passport holders for its North Korea tours, while other tour groups that specialize in North Korea trips are expected to follow suit.

According to their website, YPT specializes in “ destinations that your mother would rather you stayed away from”, including Iraqi Kurdistan, Somaliland, and the site of the Chernobyl disaster. Regarding North Korea, the YPT website claims that it is “probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit provided you follow the laws as provided by our documentation and pre-tour briefings,” though it adds that if you do manage to break the law (even an absurdly minor one like stealing a poster), the consequences can be “severe”, or in other words, you’re totally screwed.

YPT also has a reputation for creating tours with a booze-fueled party atmosphere, and

Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours

YPT founder Gareth Johnson on a 2009 visit to Pyongyang.

for being somewhat lax in the organization of its tours. If you find yourself questioning the wisdom of a business model that encourages excessive alcohol consumption in a country where breaking the most minor law gets you shipped to a gulag for fifteen years, you’re not alone.

Love and Marriage: An Institute You Can Apparently Disparage

Over the past few years, anecdotal evidence has suggested to me that young Koreans are less willing to get married, or to delay marriage to their 30’s. The hard evidence for this trend is provided by Statistics Korea, who report that Korea’s marriage rate has dropped steeply since 1996, and last year recorded the lowest rate since 1970.

Against this backdrop, I was not quite sure what to make of this recent Korea Herald article, which reports that single-person households are now the most common living arrangement (27.8%) in Korea, while also noting that a majority of the people living alone (59.1%) are married.

It’s long been noted that many couples around the world, like this one in England, have found many benefits to sleeping in separate beds or even separate bedrooms.  Are Korean couples taking this marriage-saving trend to the next level by maintaining separate pads, or is it a dark omen that portends a further  weakening of the already battered institution? Stay tuned.

I Love Lucy

Still from the sitcom I Love Lucy. Though Lucy and Ricky’s separate beds were a product of prudish television moral guidelines, today’s viewers may more often see such sleeping arrangements as a crucial component of marital bliss. 

Visualize Whirled Peas

by Chris Tharp

Oh North Korea, such a naughty little thing. How it blazes incandescent in the Western psyche. We just love to hate the place, don’t we? It’s a defiant, inscrutable nation, ruled by a blood succession of grumpy-faced, outlandishly-coiffed chubbies whose constant saber-rattling, fire-breathing, and generally bellicose bellowing raises eyebrows along with military alert levels. That’s right, North Korea talks some serious shit. On multiple occasions they have threatened to turn the South into a “sea of fire.” They have played the race card in the ugliest manner, referring to President Barack Obama as “a monkey,” and “a crossbreed with unclear blood.” More recently they’ve slandered South Korean president Park Geun-hye as “a crafty prostitute” and “America’s comfort woman.” Damn. And in one of their grander rhetorical moments of late, they labeled U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “a wolf” with a “hideous lantern jaw.” As cutting as that is, I’m not sure if I can really disagree; the former senator does indeed rock an insectoid mandible that looks like it could grind gravel into dust. But I’m told he speaks exquisite French.

Being a pariah state carries a certain amount of mystique, so it should come as no surprise that the North attracts its fair share of nutbars and self-aggrandizers. Every few months there is a story of some wide-eyed Christian preacher bum rushing the Stalinist state from the Chinese side of the border, wading across the Yalu River armed only with bags of Bibles and good news. He invariably gets arrested and paraded in front of cameras for a forced confession before the ever-beaming Jimmy Carter flies in to save the day (If he’s busy building houses somewhere, you can always call Bill Clinton). Add naive television journalists, a (probably) mentally-ill ESL teacher, and the “basketball diplomacy” of Dennis Fucking Rodman (who is rumored to have gotten so drunk during his mission to the North that he took a dump in the hallway of his hotel), and you have positive cavalcade of attention seekers who have all figured out that the road to international media coverage runs straight through Pyongyang.

Now we can add Gloria Steinem to this ever-growing list. Ms. Steinem, of course, is famous for her ceaseless agitation for the rights of women from the 1960’s on. For many years she was the face of the feminist movement and I’d like to think has generally been a force of good on this planet. She has fought for equal rights day in and day out and  for this I applaud her. She’s also ceaselessly agitated for peace, which is a good thing, right?

hippie

Peace. It’s such a seductive idea. After all, who is against peace? That’s like being anti-Christmas or hating babies. Everyone wants peace, even North Koreans, so when Ms. Steinem announced that she was co-chairing a “women’s march for peace” on the Korean peninsula, it seemed like a laudable idea, prima facie. After all, this is technically a very dangerous part of the world where hostilities could kick off again at any time, with disastrous results all around. Is there anything wrong with calling attention to that fact?

Women have often been peacemakers. After all, in the wars it is the men who do most of the fighting, leaving the women without husbands, brothers, and sons. In Aristophanes’s famous play Lysistrata, the title character attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing all of the women in the town to withhold sex from their husbands. That’s right, all of the ladies go on a pussy strike and it works. Peace prevails and the people can get back to getting at it again. Thanks, women.

However, when I first read about this women’s march, which was called “Women Cross DMZ” (Someone forgot to take their creativity pills!), I for one didn’t go all tingly inside. In fact, my eyes did a 360 in their sockets. While no expert on intra-Korean relations, I have spent a decade here, read a lot on the subject, and try to keep track of the news. A peace march? Really? What were they possibly  hoping to achieve?

Gloria Steinem and the other organizers said that they wanted to bring an end to the Korean War, which technically never ended since no peace treaty was signed. Really? 65 years of conflict and loggerheads resolved by linked arms and a rousing rendition of “Cumbaya”? Please pass the barf bag.

North Korea was the first to leap at the opportunity to host this march, which should come as no surprise, since these kind of vague calls for peace and reunification are right in their wheelhouse. The North has been clamoring for a peace treaty for a long time now, which was echoed by Women Cross DMZ. The South refuses to sign for myriad reasons, laid out clearly in this excellent, in-depth article on the march over at Korea Expose. South Korea eventually agreed to let the women cross, though from the start the conservative Park government was cool to the idea. Why was that? Because such a superficial, ineffective gesture would only play right into the hands of the regime up North. And that’s just what happened.

In addition to Steinem, two Nobel Peace Prize laureates were on board for this event, Mairead Maguire (1976) from Ireland and Leymah Gbowee (2011) from Liberia, lending the affair some much-needed gravitas. But it was the inclusion of lightning rod Christine Ahn that really set some people off. She is a Korean-American activist who has been often accused of having strong North Korean sympathies. The women of course toured Kim Il-sung’s birthplace when they were up North, and the state’s official paper, the Rodong Shinmun, quotes Ahn as praising the founder, though I suspect it was manufactured. Ahn is no idiot, and it’s unlikely she would spout such nonsense knowing what sort of microscope she was already under, though some of her other quotes featured on this DC-based blog seem pretty damning. Like other Northern-apologists, she seems totally unwilling to criticize or blame the regime for any of its woes. She has also engaged in what is the South Korean left’s version of 9/11 Trutherism: the conspiracy theory that North Korea was in no way responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 44 Southern sailors died.

I don’t think that Gloria Steinem or most the women on this march were pro-North Korea, but I do think their naivete was weapons grade. Yes, they went to North Korea and met with other women (every single one of whom was vetted, coached, and selected by the regime I’m sure) to ‘hear their stories,’ were feted by the government, posed for photos, and then bussed to the DMZ, where they crossed at the Kaeseong Industrial Zone (on buses, not foot) before heading into Seoul for a meeting with fellow activists. They were met with some supporters and plenty of protesters in the South, and, according to reports, their march was met largely with derision in the local media. I wonder why?

From what I read, the people behind Women Cross DMZ believe that person-to-person contact with North Koreans will somehow magically help open up the country. This sounds so reasonable but is, of course, nonsense. Plenty of foreigners visit North Korea, and like Steinem and her sisters, they are ushered to the same spots, surrounded by minders, and only meet ‘approved’ citizens. As a result, there can never be any real, meaningful, person-to-person exchanges. It’s all staged and monitored. These women are also of the predictable Why can’t North and South Korea just sit down and talk? school. They are under the starry-eyed illusion that North Korea can be trusted or reasoned with, which it can’t. The regime has shown time and time again that it only uses negotiations as a way to squeeze concessions from the South while breaking every promise it makes. I have become a hardliner on this issue: don’t talk to North Korea. Isolation and containment must be the only policy. Anything else just rewards the people in charge, who are terrible, terrible human beings. Look no further than abject failure that was the “Sunshine Policy.”

pollyanna

North Korea is probably the most awful regime on earth. We love to hate it because it IS that bad. It’s a paranoid, racist place where one “wrong” thought can have you and and generations of your family killed or sent off to a slave labor camp. Their laundry list of sins and abuses is lengthy, clear, and well-documented. The only way they can bargain anything on the international stage is through threats and fear, though hosting events such as Women Across DMZ help to ameliorate this prickly image. Posing in front of the cameras and treating both Koreas as if they are somehow equal–economically, politically, or morally–IS legitimizing that regime. It is nothing more than a propaganda coup for the pack of gansters that runs the joint. These women gladly played the role of ‘useful idiots’ while wasting everybody else’s time.

Gloria Steinem should know this; after all, this wasn’t her first rodeo. One can’t help but think her involvement in this whole silly affair was one old woman’s desperate cry for relevancy before she fades away for good. It was a condescending move, reeking of entitlement.  Here comes the wise benevolent white woman to save these wretched souls. Lasting peace has only eluded the peninsula for almost 65 years because Gloria Steinem, peace sisters in tow, never deigned to stroll across the DMZ.

And look: They made a quilt.

quilt

Can someone please smother me with it?

Warped Tour

nkclass

by Steve K. Feldman

Suki Kim’s excellent new memoir Without You, There Is No Us: My Year with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite surely ranks as one of the greatest Gonzo journalistic feats ever, right up there with Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, or Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between (about a guy who walked across Afghanistan in the months after 9/11). You think you’ve got a tough teaching gig? To get her story, Kim, a Korean-American, lived for a year in Pyongyang, North Korea, teaching English composition at the Pyongyang University for Science & Technology (PUST), a university run by Christian missionaries.

I mean—just imagine . . . having to live with Christian missionaries for a whole year!

And, sure, I guess living in a repressive totalitarian state was pretty tough, too.

Her remarkable undercover stint has resulted in one of the best books on North Korea in recent years. Without You, There is No Us belongs squarely in the first tier of works that seek to illuminate the darkness of this mysterious, closed society. To be sure, Kim’s access was limited to just a geographic and demographic sliver of North Korea. However, no book, not even the best defector accounts such as The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Nothing to Envy, detail such real, extended, relatively unscripted interaction between real North Koreans and an “enemy” American.

At first glance, there aren’t any big revelations here. Much of what Kim presents should be very familiar to anybody who has read any travel accounts in North Korea: the constant presence of the “minders” who “mind” (spy on) your every move; the “sightseeing” mostly restricted to mind-numbing, eyeball-glazing monuments to the Great Leader and Dear Leader; the endless demonization of America; the grinding poverty of a ruined economy lurking behind the paper-thin façade of modernity. This is all well-trodden territory, but Kim presents the familiar themes of barren / creepy / repressive North Korea with her novelist’s sharp eye for telling detail.

Where the book really breaks new ground, however, is in the author’s day-to-day accounts of teaching—or attempting to teach—the fully indoctrinated young men of the book’s title, the “sons of the elite.” All of her students were sons of Pyongyang’s elite ruling class (though she never talked to, let alone met, any of her students’ parents). How do you teach opinion or persuasive essays to people who have been taught—warned, even— never to argue, never to have an opinion? How do you teach them to back up their ideas with supporting evidence when “facts” or “the truth” have always been simply what the Dear Leader declares them to be? “Their entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking,” Kim writes. In North Korea, “there was no proof, no checks and balances—unless, of course they wanted to prove that the Great Leader had single-handedly written hundreds of operas and thousands of books and saved the nation and done a miraculous number of things.” She sums up trying to teach essay-writing to such blinkered students in one word: “disaster.”

Simple conversations with students in the lunchroom or classroom were just as difficult and fraught with dangers. Every day was a dance through a DMZ minefield of forbidden topics. In answering students’ endless questions about the world outside their hermetically-sealed borders, Kim knew that revealing anything about the wealth, openness and freedom of “out there” was risky, for both herself and the students. A simple, honest answer to an innocuous question like “How many countries have you been to?” would let students plainly see the opportunities available to her that were utterly denied to themselves.

sukikim

Yet as abhorrent and alien as much of their views, behavior  and upbringing are, Kim, like any good teacher, can’t help but  grow attached to them over her two semesters at PUST. She  often calls the students “beautiful” and “lovely” and refers to  them as “her children.” Throughout the book, Kim explores  the wrenching ambivalence of wanting to open up their minds  yet not wanting to get them in trouble—either as students or  in the future when they would supplant their parents as the  top-echelon leadership of the DPRK. In dealing with one  particularly inquisitive student, Kim and her young T.A. Katie realize that saying too much might get themselves deported, but could very well get the student killed. “Until then, I had hoped that perhaps I could change one student, open up one path of understanding,” Kim muses. “But what kind of a future did I envision for the one student I reached? Opening up this country would mean sacrificing these lives. Opening up this country would mean the blood of my beautiful students.”

Her portrait of her students is fascinating, empathetic, and immensely sad. In South Korea, foreign English teachers often bemoan their students’ lives that are equal parts grindstone and pressure cooker, yet the most haggwon-oppressed, sleep-deprived South Korean student would not survive a week in the shoes of Kim’s North Korean students. They are never alone—never, not a single moment. They are partnered up in a “buddy” system for the clear purpose of keeping an eye on one-another. It’s breathtaking how carefully the State raises a population of snitches. Also heart-rending is the physical labor that students are submitted to—most of it either pointless or made pointlessly difficult by the absence of tools or technology: cutting crass with scissors; standing guard in freezing cold weather over the ridiculous shrine to “Kimjongilism;” being carted off during school vacations to work in harvesting or construction sites. Even as sons of high-ranking party members, life is an brutal, endless slog, even if they will never face starvation. For them, attending a weekend math haggwon would be like lounging pool-side with a fruity drink.

Despite the glibness of my lead graph, living with Christian missionaries was, for Kim, its own brand of, well, hell. At times, her evangelical colleagues spur as much forehead-slapping disbelief and anger as the North Korean authorities. When Kim wants to show students a Harry Potter movie, the idea is shot down not by the North Korean officials (who must approve every book and every lesson plan), but by the school’s head teacher who calls it a piece of anti-Christian “filth.” “What would Christians around the world say about our decision to expose our students to such heresy?” the woman rages with staggeringly misguided righteousness.

At one point, a colleague openly talks with Kim about how her reason for being there was to “bring the Lord to this Land,” how “this life here is temporary,” and that the suffering North Koreans “will be received by Him in heaven.” Kim explodes at her, accusing her of delegitimizing the suffering of the North Korean masses: “So are you saying that it’s okay for North Koreans to rot in gulags because in your estimation it isn’t real? . . . If the eternal life waiting for them in heaven is so amazing, should the millions who are suffering here just commit mass suicide? Why don’t you go check out a gulag and then dare to tell me that it’s temporary?”

Kim’s portrayal of the school and its Christian faculty has garnered some controversy. The school has openly expressed hurt and anger over what they call a betrayal by Kim. They deny that they are Christian missionaries at all, and that Kim both misrepresented them in the book and misrepresented herself when she landed the job.

On her website, Kim counters these charges with a simple, powerful statement:

There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place. [….] I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST. Meanwhile, in the six decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger. Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity. So what are our alternatives? How much longer are we going to sit back and watch? To me, it is silence that is indefensible. (read the full statement at http://sukikim.com/ethicsnote)

Given the fact that Kim didn’t hide anything about her past or her career, it’s strange she got the job at PUST in the first place, a point she also makes in the book and in the full text of the above statement. She wrote several articles for Harper’s and The New York Review of Books about previous trips to North Korea, most notably an outstanding account of the New York Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang in 2008. That article, unlike a lot of the accounts in the mainstream press, dug underneath the official North Korea-sanctioned feel-good story of “we’re not here for politics / music can bring us together!” Instead, Kim focused on the pointlessness of interaction with North Korea when the interaction was entirely on their terms. Also, her well-received debut novel, The Interpreter, has enough sex to make a evangelical Christian blush (which is to say, any sex at all). Ten minutes of internet browsing might have suggested to school authorities what Kim had in mind in seeking this job. Equally puzzling was North Korea granting her another Visa after those earlier articles—they even assigned to her one of the same minders from the New York Philharmonic trip.

Indeed, Kim worrying about having her cover blown—by both the North Koreans and her Christian colleagues—makes her day-to-day life even more stressful and adds another layer of dark tension throughout the book. In the end, the tension, the stress, the isolation, the bleakness, the cold, and the unceasing vigilance of the State—Orwell’s Big Brother incarnate—grind down her spirit of resistance, as it all was surely designed to: “The sealed border was not just at the 38th parallel, but everywhere, in each person’s heart, blocking the past and choking off the future. As much as I loved those boys, or because of it, I was becoming convinced that the wall between us was impossible to break down, and not only that, it was permanent.”

However, in an incredible coincidence, on Kim’s very last day at the school—a day filled with the bittersweet teacher-student goodbyes that any of us who have taught for a living might recognize—something happens that suggests just maybe that this wall might one day vanish into history: Kim Jong-il dies. Her final glimpse of her students as she’s leaving for the airport is of them in the cafeteria eating breakfast, refusing to look at her, “their eyes swollen and red, [with] no expression on their faces. It was as though the life had been sucked out of them.” She makes no comment on whether or not these tears are real or forced, or perhaps some of both, but simply wonders if their world will change for the better. Three years later, we’re still asking that question.

dearleaders

Pyongyang Racer – Having a Gas in Virtual North Korea

By John Bocskay

 

fowleandmiller

Fowle (left) and Miller

The North Korean tourist industry, such as it is, got some bad press this year when two American tourists, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, were jailed, Fowle for leaving a Bible in a sailor’s club toilet and Miller for as-yet-unspecified crimes against the reclusive state. They both join Kenneth Bae, a Korean American missionary who last year was sentenced to a 15-year all-expense-paid jaunt to a North Korea labor camp for Bible-related assaults on the North Korean regime. The takeaway from last year’s news for would-be tourists was to either obey North Korea’s draconian laws, stay away from North Korea entirely, or be Dennis Rodman, who was the only visitor who appears to have had a rip-roaring good time.

One may sympathize then with Koryo Tours, a small British travel agency that specializes in tours to North Korea. What do you do when your job is to lure visitors to one of the world’s least enticing places?

You design a video game.

Working with a North Korea-based company called Nosotek, Koryo Tours commissioned a browser game called Pyongyang Racer, the first-ever video game developed in North Korea and released for foreign consumption. Designed by Kim Chaek University of Technology students, released on December 18th, 2012, and hosted by the Koryo Tours website, Pyongyang Racer was described as “a bit of retro fun” that not only gives the player “the chance to drive around Pyongyang” but to do it  “all by yourself”.

ckgf_posterMuch has been written about North Korea, and some films and videos have afforded an occasional state-sanctioned glimpse into the entertainment they produce for domestic consumption – think the Mass Games featured in A State of Mind and kindergartners playing guitar, but films produced by North Koreans have gained scant international exposure. In the early 2000’s, I jumped at the chance to see the North Korean monster film Pulgasari when it opened in Busan, though it was justly panned south of the DMZ and few South Koreans I have ever mentioned it to have even heard of it. In 2012, the film Comrade Kim Goes Flying (which Koryo Tours also co-produced) played at the Toronto Film festival in 2012 and even won over some critics, who called it “fun” while noting its “unabashed kitsch.” While it didn’t set the cinematic world abuzz, it was nonetheless a distinct improvement over previous offerings, like the 2008 documentary The Respected Comrade Supreme Commander Is Our Destiny, and represented another baby step for North Korean culture onto the world stage.

When I heard about Pyongyang Racer, I knew that my own destiny was to give it a spin. Sure, I assumed that “retro fun” was probably just a way of saying “shoddy crap,” but I share the curiosity many people feel whenever the smallest bit of cultural information trickles out from the most isolated country in the world. Combine that with my interest in video games and it was a no-brainer.

I clicked the Pyongyang Racer link and was disappointed, though not surprised, when the game failed to load, though I later found out that the Koryo Tours website had been hacked within a couple days of the game’s debut. After moving to a new host, they eventually got the game running, and I finally had my chance to visit this Potemkinized, pixilated Pyongyang.

 


 

The “About” link on the game site itself explains that Pyongyang Racer “is not intended to be a high-end techological [sic] wonder hit game of the 21st century,” and my first play confirmed that it lives down to its billing. Technologically, the game is a glitch-ridden throwback to the 32-bit era of the early 90’s, though you’re free to think of it as “retro fun” if you prefer.The controls are clunky and unresponsive, the buildings along the road are drab and repetitive, and it’s not even a “race” but an uneventful drive in a Pyonghwa Motors sedan around the mostly deserted streets of Pyongyang, set to an unrelenting soundtrack of bouncy North Korean music oddly reminiscent of the faux North Korean music in Team America: World Police.

However, despite (or because of) its lack of drama or technical brilliance, Pyongyang Racer is loaded with delightful ironies and inadvertent social realism. Unlike American driving games, where the object is usually to compete with other drivers and flout the speed limit without being caught, the two main challenges in gamescreenshotPyongyang Racer are to scrupulously obey the law and not run out of gas, which would seem to mirror the most pressing concerns of actual Pyongyang drivers. One of the city’s iconic female traffic cops randomly appears and warns you to “drive straight” and to avoid hitting three cars or you will be “stopped for bad driving,” and coyly tells you not to stare at her because she’s “on duty.”

As you drive around, your eyes are more likely to be drawn to your fuel gauge, which depletes rapidly (a full tank lasts less than 2 minutes). You replenish it by running over fuel barrels, which lie scattered along the road, sometimes in the oncoming lane. Lest that sound risky, fear not: there’s very little traffic, and the few cars that do appear have no drivers and don’t move at all, perhaps having been abandoned after running out of fuel.

Though it sounds like a fairly simple task, the first time I played I ran out of gas and the game ended. The second time, I was curious to see what would happen if I hit three cars, but there is so little traffic that I ran out of fuel while looking for cars to hit. It wasn’t until my fourth game that I succeeded in keeping the car moving long enough to ram three other cars. Would I be sent to the gulag for working to undermine the safety of the state, I wondered? Nope. After the hitting the third car, the game abruptly ended. Please forgive the “spoiler”, but it was so lame I didn’t think you’d mind.

The only other point of the game is to collect the little icons that appear in the road next to famous landmarks around the city, which are instantly recognizable if only because they are the only buildings rendered in any detail whatsoever. Running over the icons opens a little blurb about that location. For example, the Arch of Triumph icon proudly states, “Without the traffic jams of Paris.”

arch

Gay Pyongyang

Also unlike Paris, there is not a single human being to be seen anywhere on the map, except the cop who constantly watches you and appears out of nowhere. The game makers seem to assume that the thing to do in Pyongyang is to be whisked around gawking at monuments with as little human contact as possible, which again jibes with every anecdotal description of Pyongyang tourism that I’ve ever heard. You also have to remain on the predetermined course. Nobody will shoot you, as happened in 2008 to an unfortunate South Korean tourist who wandered into an unauthorized area at North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang resort, but any attempt to drive off the road or take an unsanctioned turn results in a short screen blackout, after which you reappear pointed in the mandated direction as if nothing had happened.

Despite its failings, the game is actually pretty hard to finish. In ten or so plays, I’ve yet to make a full circuit. The main page has a “Top Ten Champions list” though it doesn’t update automatically; if you get a high score, you are instructed to take a screenshot to prove it, and e-mail it to Koryo Tours, along with your time, the number of fuel barrels and tourist sites collected, and the number of cars you hit. The current high score is held by the improbably named Shinmai McBurrobit, who finished the track in 7 minutes, 17 seconds, while collecting all fuel drums and tourist sites and not hitting a single car – in other words, a perfect game. Move over, Billy Mitchell. There’s a new kid in town.

Pyongyang Racer isn’t going to rock your world, but if you’re desperate for a unique peek into the Hermit Kingdom, go on and check it out.

 

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Editor’s note: A shorter, less interesting, and more poorly-written version of this piece appeared in March 2013 on Outside Looking In.