To be deterred from visiting Pyongyang this weekend by Kim Jong Un’s latest fit of pique is to let the bluster of a 29-year-old — nuclear-backed though it may be — deprive you of seeing one of the world’s strangest cities at its most surreal.
The traditional tourism season in Pyongyang is from August to October, when visitors can attend the famed Arirang games — and it’s true that the spectacle of thousands of brainwashed children doing gymnastics in perfect synchronicity does have its own unique charm.
But this weekend marks the lead up to the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birthday, a chance to get an up-close look at one of the world’s last great personality cults in action. And North Korea is not a country to let a temporary fit of nuclear brinksmanship stand in the way of celebrating the birth of its Eternal President.
Alongside the traditional military parade on April 15 — the actual birthday of the nation’s founder — the weekend features both the Kimilsungia flower festival and, for the sports-inclined, the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon. As an added bonus, the North has a tradition of sorts of staging its most provocative actions to coincide with Kim Il Sung’s birthday. And the founder’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, has just the ticket primed and ready, reportedly having moved his Musudan test missile into launch-ready position. So book now, and don’t miss out on the fireworks.
1. Thrill Rides — Late-night activities start a little earlier than expected in North Korea, which plunges into darkness every evening due to chronic power shortages. But don’t let the state-wide dearth of electricity ruin your first night in the Hermit Kingdom. Head for the Kaeson Youth Park — Pyongyang’s answer to both Times Square and Disneyland — where the government has laid two special cables to ensure a steady supply of power. Originally opened in 1984, the park underwent renovations in 2010, and despite an abundance of sanctions against the country, has reportedly managed to get hold of several Italian-made roller coasters.
If Kaeson isn’t enough to scratch your itch for excitement, it’s just a short walk across Moranbong Park to Pyongyang’s newest amusement park: the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground, where you might be lucky enough to sit in a seat that once graced the backside of Marshal Kim Jong Un himself.
2. The Alcatraz of North Korea
For dinner, check out the Yanggakdo Hotel, the second-tallest building in Pyongyang, and its revolving restaurant on the 47th floor. Its decor may have been described as having "all the glamour of a 1980s airport lounge," and the view, once the rest of the city goes dark for the night, may not be much to write home about. But from here you can rub shoulders with Pyongyang’s jet set — often less-than-sober Russian and Chinese businessmen — and give your government minder a break (the hotel is on its own isolated island and is one of the few places where he doesn’t have to watch your every step).
When you’re finished with dinner, head to the lower floors, where you’ll find a casino and a nightclub. Buy a few glasses of soju for your guide, who’s waiting for you — it never hurts to be in his good graces — and try your luck at a few rounds of slots.
3. Reveille, Pyongyang style
Looking forward to sleeping in? Sorry. The air-raid sirens, which sound off daily at 7 a.m., aren’t quite so accommodating of your soju hangover. Time to rise up with the workers of Pyongyang! Take advantage of the early start with a stroll along the Taedong River to the Mansudae Grand Monument — a must-see, larger-than-life bronze statue of the country’s founder, which now stands alongside a recently unveiled statue of his son, Kim Jong Il. Don’t forget to pick up some flowers to place at the Great Leader’s feet.
4. A Taste of Vienna
Grab a cup of coffee at Pyongyang’s exclusive Helmut Sachers Kaffee, an Austrian-Korean joint venture that pours a mean espresso. Just inside the Museum of Korean History, an imposing Stalinist building, you’ll find the small and somewhat lifeless cafe. The linzer torte and cherry-cheese cake are just the thing to fill your belly in this land of recurring famine.
5. Plaza Mayor
If Paris is the City of Lights, Pyongyang is the City of Monuments to Kim Il Sung, and your tour is just getting started. The massive scale of Kim Il Sung Square, which extends from the Great Peoples’ Study House down to the Taedong River, is designed to gloriously celebrate Juche, the North Korean political philosophy of "self-reliance," attested to by the 560-foot Juche Tower, across the river. Built to commemorate Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday, the tower is made from 25,550 blocks of granite: one for each day of his life. The square also serves a more practical purpose: it is capable of accommodating a rally of more than 100,000 people. (If North Korea successfully test-fires a long-range missile while you’re in country, you’ll want to make your way back here for the subsequent celebrations.)
If you can handle more of the Great Leader, head north to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where Kim Il Sung’s body lies in state, along with his son Kim Jong Il’s. Pay your respects to the two men, then make your way to the last monument of the day, the Arch of Triumph — a dead-ringer for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only a little bit taller and less elegant.
6. Flower Power
North Koreans have been preparing for weeks for the 15th annual Kimilsungia festival, which opens in mid-April and celebrates the bright pink orchid hybrid named after the founding father of the DPRK. Kimjongilias — the lipstick-red Begonias named after his son — will also be on display. The theme of this year’s festival, according to one official of the Kimilsungia-Kimjongilia Committee: "Kimilsungia in Full Bloom in Praise of the Might of the Great Paektusan Nation." Wondering why there isn’t a Kimjongunia yet? That’s probably not a question you want to ask too loudly.
7. Walking the Boulevards
Take a stroll through the city at dusk, when the evening light reflects just so off the gray concrete blocks of buildings. Make sure to look up at the Ryugyong Hotel, which dominates the skyline at 105 stories, and its new glass-clad exterior. Once a lifeless concrete monstrosity dubbed the Hotel of Doom (construction began in 1987, stopped in 1992, then briefly resumed in 2008), it seemed that it would finally open its doors to the public. But once again, it appears to be stillborn, and it’s not clear when progress on the Worst Building in the History of Mankind will pick back up again.
8. Runner’s High
The recent spate of warmongering from the North may have convinced other tourists to keep their distance from the capital — which boosts your odds of catching a glimpse of the 26th annual Pyongyang Marathon. Get up early and try to claim a spot in Kim Il Sung Stadium, among the more than 100,000 spectators expected to watch the start and glorious finish. Athletes come from all over the world to contest this race, including runners from the Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ukraine and Zimbabwe. Last year, two-time winner Pak Song Chol was just barely edged out by Ukrainian challenger Oleksandr Matviichuk in a photo finish, and he’ll surely be looking for redemption. If he’s still alive.
9. River Tour
Make your final stop in Pyongyang lunch on the floating Pyongyang Number One Boat Restaurant, located just off Kim Il Sung Square on the Taedong River. The ship serves up decent meals while cruising up and down the river, providing you with water views of the Juche Tower, and past that famous monument to imperialist arrogance, the U.S.S. Pueblo. Captured by North Korea in 1968, the American ship is now a popular tourist attraction that has brought in more than a quarter of a million visitors.
Yanggakdo Hotel — A massive tower with spacious, comfortable rooms, numerous restaurants, and a whole private island — just don’t try to wander off.
Koryo Hotel — Just a short walk from the Pyongyang train station, the twin-towered Koryo has become a social hub for the 100 or so expats in North Korea. Its revolving restaurant claims to serve the best steak in town — though the competition’s not steep.