SEOUL, South Korea — Ask an informed American about North Korea, and you may hear that it’s a land of suffering where hard laborers toil in prison camps and children survive on tree bark. Its crackpot dictator, Kim Jong Un, runs an army of goose-stepping minions, slinging garish war threats at his sworn enemies, the United States, Japan and South Korea.
That all may be true, but it’s only part of the picture. In fact, the country’s coddled elite lives relatively well.
Speaking with GlobalPost, several former aid workers, business people and diplomats — who for the most part travel freely around the capital (except, strangely, on its subway) — have reported that the city is squeaky clean, low on street crime, and offers microbreweries, coffee shops, film screenings and sporting events.
Pyongyang, of course, isn't for everyone. The government restricts the movement of citizens, and many struggle to gain access to the capital. The regime runs a sort of Stalinist caste system called the songbun, which ranks citizens by their political valor and loyalty, doling out rewards to those who come from favored families and stay faithful to their leaders.
Pyongyang is reserved for what the regime calls the “core class,” the top echelon of cadre who descended from revolutionary families.
Here’s a sampling of the amenities they enjoy in return for loyalty.
Despite its isolation, Pyongyang is home to a surprising microbrewery scene. Locals call the beverage saeng-maekju. Their government loves beer so much that, in 2000, it took apart a 180-year-old British brewery and reassembled it in Pyongyang, where it makes the legendary Taedonggang lager.
German businessman Volker Eloesser, who ran a software company in the garrison state, recounts a beloved brew pub on top of the Rakwon (“Paradise”) Department Store in central Pyongyang. You can buy Adidas shoes and Kentucky whiskey in the shops, and upstairs, pale ales and lagers are on tap.
Coffee shops, burgers, and pizza
Need a good cappuccino? The Viennese Coffee Shop in Kim Il Sung square serves up a nice cup of “Wiener Melange,” a specialty Austrian beverage similar to cappuccino. Visitors can also check out Sungri (“Victory”) street, where new cafes are opening, or grab a cuppa at one of the handful of large hotels.
In 2010, North Korea’s most powerful woman helped open the country’s first burger joint. Locals have put their own spin on the dish, which they have renamed “minced bread and meat,” while a cola is called “carbonated sugar water.” A handful of hangouts also serve up French fries, hot dogs, pizza, and fried chicken. The fad hasn’t spread like McDonald’s, but you can now grab one of these hamburger clones while flying on the national air carrier, Air Koryo.
Pyongyang International Film Festival
Though a popular attraction, “international” may be too strong a word for this event. Yup, believe it or not, the Kim family’s government holds a film festival every two years. Films, of course, are carefully vetted, and certain scenes have been known to disappear from Western movies. Yet visitors can watch all sorts of non-propaganda European and Asian films, along with the usual pro-regime fare out of the elite Pyongyang Film School. American visitors are welcome, provided they can secure tourist visas.
In 2012, the festival showed a rare joint production by North Korean and European filmmakers, Comrade Kim Goes Flying. It’s the story of a North Korean coal miner who dreams of hitting it big as a trapeze artist — the sort of collaboration that signifies the garrison state, while isolated, dabbles in cross border cultural exchanges.
North and South Korea are famous for their hiking trails, and Mount Taesong is one such attraction. On the west side of the 880-foot high mountain is a revolutionary cemetery, where the mother and first wife of North Korea’s founding father, Kim Il Sung, are buried.
The peak is also home to an outdoor ice rink and the national zoo, where visitors can view a menagerie of exotic animals offered by world leaders to the ruling Kim family. Be sure to check out its famous parrot which, according to some reports, can squawk, “Long live the Great Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung!”