Pyongyang, North Korea

  - darkometer rating:  7 -

The capital city of North Korea and heart of this Hermit Kingdom. A city like no other. Not pretty as such in any traditional sense, but definitely impressive and full of unique sights. 

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


What there is to see: Pyongyang was basically bombed flat by the USA in the Korean War. So everything is new, built in the post-war period, apart from a few tiny specks of old pre-war remnants (and even some of these are reconstructions rather than original). This gives the city a pretty unique look. Apart from individual sights, the cityscape is dominated by rows of white residential blocks, some older drab boxes, other, newer ones of a pretty impressive scale and even appeal (as long as you don't get too close to see the crumbling concrete and peeling plaster), lining wide boulevards – with very little traffic on them. Here it really still has that old Eastern Bloc characteristic of nearly no private cars.
The city is bisected by the Taedong River, which flows through the city in a kind of S-shape. Many of the main sights are on or near the river. The part on the western side of the river is the larger and generally more interesting portion.
Pyongyang can be considered a "dark" place for two main reasons. One is obvious: simply for what it is – the capital of North Korea, the seat of power in this ultra-Stalinist living relic from the communist era. But Pyongyang is also quite literally dark – at night. Whereas other capital cities have street lights and individual homes are often brightly lit too, here the ongoing energy crisis means frequent power cuts and a general power shortage. So traffic lights, street lights and most other public light is absent, and thus the city's night skyline is indeed eerily pitch-black, only punctuated by the dim 40-watt light bulbs in private homes, when there is no power cut. In stark contrast to this, the grand monuments of the capital (esp. at Mansudae – see below) are always brightly floodlit, guaranteed by a separate power supply, so they remain shining brightly even when the rest of the city is shrouded in darkness.
But now to the actual individual dark sites that Pyongyang has to offer, in the wider sense of 'dark'.
Two particularly extra-special sites/sights are given separate entries here:
In addition there's a plethora of sights that visitors are very likely to be shown, including:
A practically obligatory item will be the famous Mansudae Grand Monument. The towering 65 foot (20 metre) bronze statue of Kim Il Sung, one arm stretched out to point the revolutionary way forward, had already been a famous enough landmark. Now, a second statue, of Kim Il Sung's equally deceased successor son Kim Jong Il, has been erected parallel to his dad's. Kim II, however, abstains from giving the paternal salute to his people in synch with his father. He just stands there, one arm on a hip, the other hanging straight down by his side. What is remarkable, however, is the fact that after less than a year the design was changed: instead of the original jacket, Kim Jong Il's statue now sports the type of anorak that he usually wore on the few occasions he was seen out and about in the country (for "on-the-spot guidance" etc.).
The original single statue was erected for Kim's 60th birthday, and since his death had already become the No. 1 pilgrimage site in North Korea, even out-ranking Kim Il Sung's Mausoleum. This is unlikely to have changed – if anything it is now exactly twice as important and twice as mind-boggling a sight to behold.
Here, visitors are requested to lay down bunches of flowers (available for ca. 5 EUR at a conveniently placed stall) and form a line and then bow in front of the giant Kim(s). You may quickly be ushered to the side if there are more worshipers behind you awaiting their turn. When taking pictures of Kim statues or any other depiction, or indeed any image of the Great Kim, make sure you have all of him in the frame. Just a leg or arm or any incomplete image is considered offensive.
The statues of the two Kims stand in front of a huge mosaic depicting Korea's "holy mountain" Mt Paekdu, flanked by two fabulous examples of socialist realism ensembles.
Aligned with the giant statues' hilltop location is the Korean Workers' Party Foundation Monument across the river, in a straight line. It's a monumental sculpture of three fists holding up an oversized hammer, sickle and calligraphy brush (symbols for workers, farmers and intellectuals, respectively). Here it's sheer size that matters.
North of Mansudae Hill is another showcase of "sizeness": the Arch of Triumph (erected to celebrate Kim Il Sung's 70th birthday). It's a Korean-ized version of the famous Paris one, but obviously a bit higher.
Also constructed on the occasion of the Great Leader's 70th birthday, and back on the eastern bank of the river is the Juche Tower – allegedly the highest stone-built tower in the world. It stands directly by the river opposite Kim Il Sung Square (see below) and is thus one of Pyongyang's most dominating landmarks. It's basically a gigantic torch, i.e. at the top of the nearly 500 foot (153 metre) high slender tower, and adding another 65 feet (20 metres), sits a gigantic red flame sculpture (which on special occasions is lit up from the inside to emit its red revolutionary glow over the city). "Juche", to explain its name, is North Korea's guiding philosophy, a core element of Kim-Il-Sung-ism, and it very roughly translates as 'self-reliance' (partly explaining the country's stubbornly adhered to isolation from the rest of the world). It's also used to refer to years, beginning with, almost predictably, Kim Il Sung's year of birth (1912), so that the year the tower was inaugurated in 1982, was, of course, "Juche 70".  
Kim Il Sung Square, on the opposite side of the river, is the central space used for all manner of mass spectacles (other than the "Arirang" mass games in the May Day Stadium) and for military parades (which foreign tourists cannot attend!). On the tour I was on in 2005, attending a mass dance on KIS Square was part of the programme. Though not as impeccably perfect and intricate in choreography as the "Arirang" Mass Games, it was still quite something, for the sheer number of people involved alone. At other times, esp. in the run-up to mass events, you can often see groups of schoolchildren practising their moves.
Facing the square is the Grand People's Study House, which is another classic item on tourist programmes. You'll be shown language labs, an auditorium, the book retrieval system (producing some English-language publications on demand – maybe a dated engineering manual which was the gift from a US-based (!?!) charity …). In a central hall a white marble Kim Il Sung sits in front of a giant mural of Mt Paekdu – a kind of armchair equivalent of the Mansudae Grand Monument …
Tourists are routinely shown at least one or two stations of the Pyongyang Metro, another engineering feat and indeed impressive. It's the deepest metro system in the world, and the 200 yards plus ride down the escalators can take minutes. The stations are adorned with orgies of grand socialist realism mosaics and splendid chandeliers. You will typically go on a metro ride (note the portraits of the two Kims inside the carriage), but only to the next station where you re-emerge. This has triggered rumours that maybe this is all there is to the metro, but that's certainly unfair. From a dark tourism perspective it is also interesting to note the massive blast doors – as the metro tunnel system doubles up as nuclear bunker!
Firmly back on confrontation course with the great enemy America, a visit to the captured "USS Pueblo" can provide an insight into DPRK thinking. Suspected of being on a spying mission, the boat was captured by the North Korean Navy in 1968 together with its crew, who were held for "ransom" for 11 months – until the North Koreans got what they demanded: an official apology. The crew eventually returned to the USA but North Korea kept the boat … and these days it's shown to foreign visitors as evidence of the Americans' misdemeanour. The boat has recently been moved away from its original mooring on the Taedong River to become part of the expanded war museum – see next paragraph.
An in-depth coverage of the historical roots of the enmity between the DPRK and the USA is given in Pyongyang's Korean War Museum or, to give it its official name, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. Exhibits largely consist of captured weapons and wrecks of shot-down fighter planes, various documents providing evidence of American war crimes, such as the use of biological weapons, and scores of battle dioramas and other heroic depictions of the Korean People's Army and the Great Leader Kim Il Sung. The oddest artefact has to be the charred tree stump – declared a "war hero"! It had provided shelter for many a brave KPA soldier but then was burned down in cold blood by the "Yankee Imperialist Aggressors". This museum has recently been expanded and a whole new wing has been added – opening in July 2013. I'll report back when I hear more about this.
Not in any way war-related, but the single most dominating structure of the whole of Pyongyang, unmissable from practically anywhere in the city due to its sheer height, is the infamous Ryugyong Hotel … a truly gigantic folly, a steep concrete pyramid, well over 1000 feet (305 metres) high, supposed to contain 3000 rooms on 105 floors, crowned by a stack of revolving restaurants – but it's merely a concrete shell ... or so it was until recently. Work was halted in the early 1990s and for over a decade and a half the unfinished building just stood there exposed to the elements with its rusting construction crane at the top looking menacingly precarious. But now work has resumed and the facade is being clad with glass panels. Apparently it is an Egyptian company that's been contracted for this – so Egypt is back in the pyramid construction business, after a brief hiatus of a few millennia, albeit abroad and only doing the glass cladding, but still … For tourists it may mean that this enigmatic and fascinating structure is no longer as off the sightseeing itinerary as it had used to be.
When I was in Pyongyang in 2005, the Ryugyong Hotel was still more or less ignored by the North Korean guides (the typical answer in reply to inquires: "That? Oh, that's nothing …" – quite a massive nothing, though). Only the pretext of visiting an embroidery institute next door allowed for photo ops other than through the windows of the moving tour bus. Rumour had it that the hotel was scheduled for completion in 2012 in time for the 100th birthday of the late eternal president Kim Il Sung ... but it appears that they missed that mark. In the meantime, however, it had already been used as the backdrop for a great fireworks display on May Day (in 2009). Recently, representatives from Koryo Tours were given the special treat of being shown round the site and even went to the very top of the structure. They reckon that indeed a couple of floors might soon be opened to hotel guests. Being clad in glass, the building has lost some of its grey, derelict, eerily dark attraction that it used to have for so many years, but it will probably gain in glory and thus become accessible and no longer remain shrouded in embarrassed silence. Maybe one day it will even fulfil its intended role as a hotel for real. Recently the number of foreign tourists broke through the 2000 per annum mark, just a 1000 short of the 3000 rooms that could be occupied in the hotel ... if it were finished and all the tourists came at once.
There's lots of other imposing architecture of a less ambitious scale but still remarkable. And tours may include visits to (or at least go past) some of them too, e.g. the Schoolchildren's Palace, the East Pyongyang Grand Theatre, the Ice Rink or the modernist concrete dreamscapes of the sports venue buildings on Chongchun Street.  Furthermore, there are plenty of sculptures and monuments of full socialist glory, including the Chollima Statue or those at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery or the Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War.
You will in any case see loads of magnificent socialist realist murals and propaganda posters everywhere in the city – just keep your eyes open. What you won't see is commercial advertising – which makes the city look very much like Eastern Bloc cities during the Cold War. Although, for a few years now, the first billboards have been appearing – here, they're even sights in their own right. Nowhere else on Earth would a car advert on a billboard by the station even warrant the bat of an eyelid – here in the context of grey Pyongyang it's something quite exotic!
Location: in the south-west of North Korea, on the Taedong River.
Google maps locator: [39.02,125.76]
Access and costs: see North Korea – the capital city will for almost all travellers be the first port of call and the main base; as such it is the most accessible place in the entire DPRK. Some shorter tours only cover Pyongyang.
In any case you either arrive by plane or train from Beijing, the price is typically included in tour packages. The same goes for accommodation, meals and getting around. Only drinks, souvenirs and tips come on top of that.
You're not normally allowed to just wander about in the city and have to have two North Korean guides with you all the time. There may be exceptions (e.g. the grounds of the Yanggakdo Hotel, which is located on an island in the Taedong River – which you cannot leave), but generally you will be restricted. If you're with a group (see North Korea), that doesn't actually matter so much and with all the socializing within the group you don't notice the restriction as the handicap it may appear to be. In any case, itineraries tend to be so tight, always go, go, go, that you're unlikely to have the time or feel the need for a leisurely stroll.
Time required: All tours to North Korea will include the main sights of Pyongyang, and these can take up a minimum of two to three days, but up to six days can also easily be filled – if you get the right kind of in-depth tour organized for you.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see North Korea.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: in general see North Korea. Not all of Pyongyang is dark, there are also pleasant parks you may be able to see; and if you're lucky enough to be taken to a show at the Military Circus, you'll be amazed by the sheer skill of the acrobats – but also the clown, who is genuinely funny! Various other sights may be part of an itinerary too, e.g. a brewery, a stamp shop and even a pleasure cruise on the river or a visit to a funfair!


  • Kim Il Sung statue on Mansu HillKim Il Sung statue on Mansu Hill
  • Pyongyang - overlooking Kim Il Sung SquarePyongyang - overlooking Kim Il Sung Square
  • Pyongyang - the Great Leader lurking behind every treePyongyang - the Great Leader lurking behind every tree
  • Pyongyang Grand People Study HousePyongyang Grand People Study House
  • Pyongyang Grand Study HousePyongyang Grand Study House
  • Pyongyang Juche towerPyongyang Juche tower
  • Pyongyang Korean War museumPyongyang Korean War museum
  • Pyongyang Ryugyong hotel shellPyongyang Ryugyong hotel shell
  • Pyongyang USS Pueblo spy boatPyongyang USS Pueblo spy boat
  • Pyongyang USS Pueblo spying equipmentPyongyang USS Pueblo spying equipment
  • Pyongyang Workers Party monumentPyongyang Workers Party monument
  • Pyongyang metro socialist realismPyongyang metro socialist realism
  • Pyongyang metro with Kim portraitsPyongyang metro with Kim portraits
  • Pyongyang reunification monumentPyongyang reunification monument
  • Pyongyang skyline with Ryugyong hotelPyongyang skyline with Ryugyong hotel
  • Pyongyang skylinePyongyang skyline
  • Pyongyang socialist realism 1Pyongyang socialist realism 1
  • Pyongyang socialist realism 2Pyongyang socialist realism 2
  • Pyongyang sooty power stationPyongyang sooty power station
  • Pyongyang traffic lady showing the wayPyongyang traffic lady showing the way
  • Pyongyang traffic lady stopping non-existent trafficPyongyang traffic lady stopping non-existent traffic
  • Pyongyang with Juche Tower and May Day Stadium in the backgroundPyongyang with Juche Tower and May Day Stadium in the background





©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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