This article was originally published on October 13, 2011.
No matter how many blogs I manage to write about North Korea before I die, I'll never be able to hammer home just how much fun it is. And I say that even though I was once held ransom there, and on another occasion blacklisted and threatened by the government after they caught me taking the piss out of them in The Guardian. How could anyone not love the land that's home to the Mangyongdae fun fair, the world's shittiest, most depressing quasi-theme park? Everything in the Western World is so disappointingly competent these days.
OK, at first glance it ain't so bad. Situated Only 12km from Pyongyang's city center, Mangyongdae is a place for thrill-seeking North Koreans to come to and unwind after a hard week of slave labor, relentless scavenging for food, KGB hide and seek, and trimming the imperial lawns with scissors. My guide for the day insisted that the park is open seven days a week and always very, very busy. Which is funny because when we got there stagnant emptiness lingered in the air like a fart in a graveyard filled with the bodies of political dissidents.
Confused as to why we weren't immediately allowed to leave the bus, it was only after about 20 minutes and a lot of frantic arm waving from the woman at the gate that another, far shittier bus turned up and we realized what was going on.
These poor schmucks—or lucky schmucks, perhaps?—were wheeled out with strict orders to constantly remain 20 steps ahead of us and look like they were having A+ fun in the otherwise deserted park, lest anyone get suspicious that we weren't in Disneyland after all. Aside from us Western interlopers, they were the only people there. Strange task, but at least they were being paid a fair and decent wage to prop up one man's delusions of dictatorial grandeur, I thought (very quietly) to myself.
Oh look, a girl on a merry-go-round. Maybe the whole world is wrong about North Korea. Maybe it really is a prosperous, utopian First World funland.
After all, nothing screams "First World" quite as loudly as a boy with a solar panel strapped to his head.
Away from the carnival games, these big, spinny roundabout things would miraculously spring to life if a white person happened to look at them, before shutting back down again when our fickle attentions shifted elsewhere. I used a pocket mirror to check what was going on behind me in the park at any given time, the answer was consistently 'fuck all.'
Remember when the Magic Carpet ride at Chessington World of Adventures disappeared and they replaced it with the Samurai? Now you know what those old UK/NK trade mission shipments were made up of. The Democratic People's Republic still doesn't have a Professor Burp's Bubbleworks though, does it? Suck on that, Kim Jong!
For a short time I was able to break away from the group and see what was going on in a few derelict corners of the park. I found this kind of shrunken Japanese bullet train ride that went against all their anti-Japanese principles…
…a cleaning lady dressed for Ascot sweeping some leaves and imaginary litter into a basket…
…and a zoo consisting of one peacock.
Not quite getting the frontierland thrills I was seeking, in a fit of mad desperation I followed a North Korean man into the toilet and proceeded to embark upon one of my all time journalistic lows:
This 'scoop' is a picture of a North Korean man's shit. That's what it looks like. VICE Exclusive :(
After using feces as a peace dove to inspire trans-cultural humanitarian empathy and bring VICE readers closer to the reality of living in a totalitarian state, I headed off to this authentic gorilla shooting range.
Sorry, no gorilla pics. There were a couple of women staffing the impressive stuffed monkey pen inside, but before I took a picture I foolishly aimed for these slightly less thrilling defunct go-karts instead. Anyway, this made the women freak the fuck out, and they chased me all the way back to my group, bitched about me in Korean to my minder, and I was summarily grounded. Photographing go-karts = big Korean taboo.
The best bit of the park, I was told enthusiastically by our fixer prior to arrival, was the grand, looped roller coaster built under the guidance and inspiration of Kim Il-sung himself. Without his wisdom, the ideologue explained, Korea would never have become the world class nation-state it currently is, as the Korean people would never have known the wonder of being momentarily suspended upside down with a rudimentary chest-bar holding them in place. It is the subtitles of near-death experiences like these that hold the keys to the Korean psyche.
Anyway, of course when we got to the thing it was miserable, crumbling, and broken, and we had to wait for nearly an hour while a guy with a mallet climbed up to the top and bashed a few loose screws back into place.
Kim Il-sung, your roller coaster needs a fucking wash.
It's a shame that North Koreans are treated by their rulers as basically an expendable race of people. Before we were allowed on the ride, the guys in charge sent a few terrified farmers on test runs like a shipment of human flour sacks.
When they got to the top of the track, the men with the holy hammers made them all swear final allegiance to the Kims, and then—ZOOOOOOOM!—off they went. Luckily, they all came back in one piece, so they let us have a go.
If you'd spent your whole life looking at grass and distressed rice paddies and suddenly found yourself strapped into a giant metal tongue with some of those famous white devils you were brought up to loathe, you'd probably look like that guy, too.
And that is why I love North Korea.