Faces of Pyongyang, part 2: Behind the scenes

In my previous post I presented a somewhat idyllic version of Pyongyang, which doesn’t match the common perception of a concrete monster where no one smiles. Indeed, the DPRK’s capital has surprisingly attractive sides, and has been steadily renovated over the last couple years, in preparation for the 100th anniversary celebrations.

Yet, the showcase city has its dark sides, many of which may not be immediately visible to the visitor’s untrained eye as they are shuttled from one location to the other. During my April 2012 trip, the situation was a bit hectic in Pyongyang due the record number of visitors and preparations for gatherings and parades. Our plans were disrupted several times. Once, as major arterials were closed, our guide had the driver park the bus while he made frantic phone calls to assess how to reach our next destination. Curious, and perhaps naïve, I asked if maybe we couldn’t just take a detour—it sounded difficult to believe that there was no way to bypass the city center or use side streets. Somehow, it wasn’t an option.

Apartment building

The situation became clearer when, on another day, our driver got somewhat lost and went in circles for a while before turning into narrower streets. Our guide looked tense. When, at the end of the trip, we pooled cash for a tip, our guide declared that the driver didn’t deserve much, because he had made “errors”—a somewhat cryptic statement, taken at face value, as our driver got us everywhere safely and without incidents.

As it turns out, Pyongyang literally has a façade and a back side. Continue reading