Democratic People's Republic of Korea
(North Korea)

February 20, 2017



Invariably, there are five sequential questions:
The first is: “Wait a minute.  I know that there are two Koreas. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? – the DPRK?  That is North Korea, correct? – the one that is actually not democratic, the ‘bad’ one, the ‘crazy’ one, correct?”

Followed by:  “Werent’t you scared for your life?  Didn’t your trip put your family in danger?”

The third:  “But don't they put people in jail unfairly, and isn’t their nuclear weapons program insane?”

The fourth: “Why North Korea?”

And the final: “Tell me more.  Are the reports true?  What is it really like?”


If you want the short answers, here they are. If you want to learn more, read everything below the numbered short answers.

1)     Yes, that one.  But they are more conniving than crazy.

2)     No.  On a day-to-day basis, any tourist with the least bit of wisdom about watching their tongue is, I would argue, safer there than in the US.

3)     Yes, they are unfair and their program is wrong, but the US has no moral high-ground on either one of these subjects.

4)     It is a deeply flawed country, (The Economist refers to it as “a gulag masquerading as a country” (Oct 8, 2016, page 38).  It is economically a disaster, ranked dead last on the planet for democracy and next to last in press freedom, but it is certainly fascinating and unique.

5) Some reports are correct, and many are not. I heartily recommend that you go and see for yourself!


Though North and South Korea started from the same stock, they have radically bifurcated.

The idea was spawned from multiple inputs. A friend had recommended travel in Cuba -- I went and it was a huge eye-opener, an amazing trip ( ). With his great travel-suggestion credit rating, I listened intently as he told me about the DPRK (he has travelled there more than all but a few Americans).


I’ve travelled in over a dozen communist or formerly communist states, and have always found them fascinating, so I was eager to experience the world’s most devout communist state.


I’ve always been interested in frontiers, new places off the beaten path where I could be an early visitor, visiting people who live very different lives.  We travelled to the Arctic Ocean as it was the edge of the continent.  When we first visited Tibet, it was only accessible via a long dirt road – it was high, cold, dusty, extreme, isolated, and very unique.  When we biked the Karakoram highway from extreme western China into Pakistan, it was the essence of the frontier. The Caucasus in 1996 were only newly accessible, in the detritus of the end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union, and the end of their own civil.  I remember the Georgian ambassador telling us:  “Good luck.  Let me know what you find.  This is all very much in flux - in all honesty, if you were here more than a few months earlier, you probably would not have able to pull this off.”   I’ve been to Mongolia three times, and it is a vast frontier with very different people leading very different lives.  Before the early 90’s it was virtually inaccessible for free Westerner travel. It was a nation that had once brutally conquered a good portion of the known world, but it had been transformed into a peaceful state with its heart in the pastoral nomadic countryside.  Mongolia boasts vast, wide-open spaces with few real roads, no fences, and little private property. The DPRK is very different, but it similarly fit the paradigm of a frontier.


The Korean War split was an amazing experiment and created a fascinating dataset: Take a fairly small, fairly homogeneous country, cleave it almost exactly in half with war, and let two vastly different experiments incubate for 60 years – how do those experiments turn out? The South, a small speck of nothing on our planetary scale, nevertheless rose from ashes to create the world’s 13th largest economy, while the North followed a very different set of governmental and economic structures, its people now creating what would generously be described as ‘not much.’  What does this actually look like on the ground?   What does this say about the role of institutions in the maximization – or the minimization - of human potential?


My father was a history major in college and has carried that interest throughout his life, while also transferring that interest it to me. The visit would represent another chapter in my interest in the Cold War and the Soviet Union, which initially led to a six-month bike trip across Central Asia ( ), and a follow-on trip through the Caucasus ( We had briefly visited South Korea during our summer of 2014 family-around-the-world trip - now we would see what life was like on the other side of the DMZ!


The final straw was that we found a tour centered on the Pyongyang marathon. Deborah has been a steady runner, was excited about running the half marathon, and has always been intrigued about the idea of visiting the mystery that is the DPRK. James is an avid sportsman who always rises to the challenge of racing, and he was now old enough to appreciate some of what we would see in the post-race tour. I had not run hard in a few years (I had been troubled by Achilles injuries, but have been on the mend since surgery two years ago), so it would be a great kick in the pants. Now that I was older and had a period in which I could do some focused training with a real goal, exactly what could I do?  Now that I am 46, I frequently wonder how real and intense is this thing called aging? How much off my PR’s could I run?

The die was cast. Deborah, James and I would diligently train for the (half) marathon, and we would go there for a nine-day group tour. 


My write-up and pictures have the following chapters:

  1. National narrative
  2.  Leaders
  3.  Victorious Fatherland Liberation War (aka, the Korean War)
  4. DMZ
  5. Prisons
  6. Economy
  7. Pyongyang, then countryside
  8. National narrative as told through art, banners, mosaics, sculpture, tv, movies, and grand staged events
  9. Nuclear weapons programs
  10. Running and the race
  11. Our tour and group

1). National Narrative

Every person has their story – that which they tell others, or that which they would want others to tell about them. To the side of that story is an underlying truth – sometimes the truth is very similar to the narrative, and sometimes it is amusingly or painfully divergent.


Similarly, every country has its National Narrative, the story of the country’s birth and evolution, what it stands for, its heroes, how it dealt with challenges, and why they ended up where they are today.  Like most National Narratives the DPRK’s is full of inaccuracies, lies, and gross mis-representations. But lets pause for a moment and spend a few seconds looking in the mirror. One could go on-and-on, but a simple example:  “America stands for freedom!” but we are a country founded with slavery and the 3/5ths compromise, the genocide of the continent’s native people, and women weren’t allowed a vote until 1920. Now ConMan Trump is leading a virulent form of racism, sexism, and religious exclusion, all the while completely unhinged from facts.


There are many, many areas in which the DPRK fails. But, I would argue, it is a world champion in its ability to internally tell its national narrative. From the outside, that message is diluted and mocked and often not clear.  But within the country, it is clear, repeated in multiple forms, and is often presented with fabulous theatre, music and artistry.  And it is scripted and delivered relentlessly and didactically.


As a result, and coupled with the fact that the nation is the most closed country on the planet, I would argue that it is very, very difficult to internally determine which way is ‘up’, what is right or wrong, what is true or what is a magnificent lie. Perhaps just as importantly to the citizens of the DPRK, it might not even matter which way is up or down, what is truth or what is a lie: arguably adherence to the narrative can earn you much, whereas discerning where the narrative is divergent from truth breeds significant trouble. Coupled with no press freedom and no real internet access (their ‘Intranet’ is fully closed off fractional subset), the DPRK struggles with ‘Facts.’ Again, this concept is worth a short introspective pause, as Trump’s America is now a country that is sadly inventing a new Orwellian vocabulary in the area of ‘Facts’.


Elements of the narrative: 

A). The country is led by a dynastic chain for sixty-five years. That chain delivered three men of unparalleled vision and talents. These men are revered in god-like terms. They are infallible, they are Jesus-like, they understand everything (sports, business, law, engineering, manufacturing, military tactics, economics, artistry, agriculture,… perfectly). By way of reference, the DPRK is the only example of dynastic leadership in the Communist world. 
B). The country has succeeded, brilliantly, despite the rest of the world’s relentless attempts to ravage it.It is a country of great triumphs.
C). The Fatherland Liberation War (aka, the Korean War) was started by America. 
D). The DPRK was unabashedly victorious in the war. 
E). America (‘The Great Imperialists’) have been working relentlessly and maliciously for sixty-five years to avenge their loss. 
F). The war was a nationalist struggle against imperialism, and it was won largely alone.
G). They are an ‘innocent’ race oppressed by serial abusers - China, Japan, and the US (see: The Cleanest Race, by Brian Myers).  
H). Because of the US presence in South Korea, the DPRK is and always has been on a justifiably never-ending war footing. 
I). Where the country does have ills, the imperialist Americans are to blame.  
J). The citizens of the DPRK are happy!
K). It is marching towards the future. It is a country of great progress. 
L). Its military would win any future engagements. 
M). Its bomb program is proof-positive that no one should engage them in battle, and that they are world-class.
N). It is united / there is minimal internal dissent. 
O). It is a worker’s paradise. 
P). South Koreans are America’s ‘puppets’.
Q). Its messianic leaders unselfishly, slavishly work and sacrifice for the larger good. 
R). There will be a reunification! – and, of course, it will be in the DPRK mold!
S). The ‘Juche’ philosophy is unique and brilliant. (Juche definition: usually translated as "self-reliance", is the official political ideology of North Korea, described by the regime as Kim Il-sung's "original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought".  (See source.)

The national narrative is all-pervasive. One literally wakes up to it as the nationalist music broadcast over public loudspeakers at six in the morning, urging people to work, to sacrifice more for the state! There are said to be 34,000 statues of the great leader.  War is glorified on the morning tv. The Great Leader is shown overseeing military exercises, constantly.  Slogans are more dense than in WWII Germany. Group ceremonies glorify the state.  Their new all-girls band subtly reinforces their narrative:  subjugation of the individual for the state. There is a perma-military presence, with the military spending between 24% and 33% of GDP – over double what any other country in the world spends as a percentage of GDP. Though South Korea spends three times as much on its military as the DPRK, as a percentage of GDP it spends far less (about 2.5% of GDP). (See source.)

2). Leaders

The DPRK is the communist world’s only example of dynastic leadership.  The dynasty has involved three leaders whose combined leadership have spanned almost sixty-five years.  Side by side pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are common in most homes (mandatory?).



Kim Il-sung

“Kim become the sun”

Kim Jong-il

Kim Jong-un





Titles – the DPRK is title rich!

Dear Leader

Supreme Leader Eternal President Eternal Leader

Great leader

Supreme leader Fearless Leader General

Great successor to the Revolutionary Cause

General Secretary of Worker’s Party il's_titles

Marshal of the DPRK

Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea

Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army super-duper-titles/Marshal-of-the-Democratic-People-s-Republic-of-Korea



1941 or 1942. Official legend says at a secret camp on Mount Paekdu. Others say in USSR.

1981 or 1982 or 1983




35 years old in 2017?

Leader From

1948-1994. Put into place at end

of WWII with help of Stalin and


1994 - 2011

2011 to present


Married twice, initially to the

beloved and legendary

Kim Jong-suk

Son of Kim Il-sung. Mother is Kim Jong suk,

his father’s first wife (out of 3?).

Third and youngest son of Kim Jon-il




George Washingotn, Stalin, Jesus, Henry Ford, Patton, Santa Claus all combined into-one. During WWII, commanded a battalion of exiled Koreans, Chinese, and Soviets battling the Japanese. First leader of the modern communist Korean state. Authorized the invasion of S. Korea in 1950. Started ‘Juche’ philosophy.

Established initial cult of personality. Started nuclear weapons program (‘all- fortressization’ hyper militarization). Most citizens wear pins with his picture. An estimated 34,000 statues of him

blanket the country.

When younger, oversaw Propaganda and Agitation Dept – interest in using arts, writers, film. Escalated the nuclear weapons program. Presided over famine (1994-1998, up to 3M died).

Still young. Recently married. No kids. Currently virtually absent from state art. Went to high school in Switzerland.

Basketball fan (Rodman visit!). Promoted Moranbong band. Escalated nuclear weapons programs and international threats.


3). Victorious Fatherland Liberation War (aka, the Korean War)

The DPRK continues to press the idea that South Korea started the war.  The opening days and months of the war were a disaster for South Korea – hardly what would have happened if they had offensively started the war.  South Korea was very poorly prepared for the war – they had no tanks, no anti-tank weapons, no artillery, and the US troops had pulled out in 1949.   Within two days Seoul was evacuated, and within five days the South Korean forces had lost 75% of their men. Within three months, South Korean forces only controlled 10% of the country at the ‘Pusan (city) Perimeter.’  ( )


The Korean War is sold by the DPRK as a bold nationalist victory.  Of course, it was really a proxy war.  The Soviet Union and China both supplied enormous amounts of tanks, guns, soldiers, funding, and advisors.  There was no ‘North Korean’ tank – the DPRK was provided the famed Soviet T34 tanks, which had proved so effective in WWII.


As the DPRK forces were on their heels pressed against the Chinese border, the war was radically shifted through the offensive at the freezing Chosin reservoir. This offensive (which was a bloody disaster for the US and UN troops) was led by 300,000 Chinese ‘volunteers.’


When we brought these discrepancies up to our tour hosts, there were long periods of silence, followed, at most, by .. “well, the Soviets and Chinese might have helped us a little.”  They wanted it to be about them, not their chapter in a much larger narrative so heavily controlled by others.  Importantly as well, an acknowledgement of the massive foreign roles would exist in contradiction to their Juche philosophy, which stresses bold independent actions. 


As to the DPRK’s incessant claims of  ‘victory’, the war is considered a costly ‘draw’ for both sides, with minimal territorial change (but a slight edge to territorial gains by the South – see map below).


We toured their war museum (‘Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum’) – it was world-class.  It was recently remodeled and covered over 1,000,000 square feet.  Strangely, people in our group were the only people in the entire facility, and the power went out several times.  The stated reason was always ‘remodeling!’

Our guide at the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum.


Straight out of central casting, our guide at the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum could not have rattled off a more propaganda rich fusillade:


“We met the imperialists and mowed them down with our brilliant tradition of invincibility and immortal patriotic exploits.  With our amazing victory, all of the world would know that we defeated the American imperialists and their South Korean puppets, and left 400,000 American dead.” Note: actual US dead = 36,000.. (See source.)

Some of the bold and massive monument in the plaza leading up to the museum.

Monuments to the bold and heroic soldiers of the DPRK. Text in the middle picture:  “Sculpture of Jo Kun Sil, Hero of the DPRK, who, though seriously wounded in his two arms in the battle on Height 902.4 in April 1951, killed over 450 enemy soldiers by pressing the trigger of a heavy machine gun with his chin to the last moment of his life.”

Monuments to the bold and heroic soldiers of the DPRK. Text in the middle picture:  “Sculpture of Jo Kun Sil, Hero of the DPRK, who, though seriously wounded in his two arms in the battle on Height 902.4 in April 1951, killed over 450 enemy soldiers by pressing the trigger of a heavy machine gun with his chin to the last moment of his life.”

The USS Pueblo is proudly displayed at the museum. The Pueblo was an American spy ship that the DPRK captured 50 years ago.

From Wikipedia: The taking of Pueblo and the abuse and torture of its crew during the subsequent 11-month prisoner drama became a major Cold War incident, raising tensions between the western democracies and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and People's Republic of China. North Korea stated that Pueblo deliberately entered their territorial waters 7.6 miles away from Ryo Island, and that the logbook shows that they intruded several times. However, the United States maintains that the vessel was in international waters at the time of the incident and that any purported evidence supplied by North Korea to support its statements was fabricated. Pueblo, still held by North Korea today, officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy. Since early 2013, the ship has been moored along the Botong River in Pyongyang, and used there as a museum ship at the Pyongyang Victorious War Museum. Pueblo is the only ship of the U.S. Navy still on the commissioned roster currently being held captive. (See source.)

As I understand this iconic picture, this is ‘proof’ that the US committed war crimes. The DPRK is relentless is its claims of massive US / UN / South Korean war crimes. They claim to have found this sign at an American base:  Bathroom (WC) to the left, Parking (P) to the right, and the always-busy ‘Revenge-Pledging Place.’  Of course, this sign, and the allegation, is absurd.

South Korean buildings at the DMZ, as seen from the DPRK. The blue buildings are for joint negotiations and straddle the border.

“No!”  “No pictures allowed!!!” This picture was proudly taken by one members of our group. Taking pictures of what was not to be photographed was a constant game. Luckily, it never seemed to escalate – the worst we ever experienced was our minder rushing over while scowling, grabbing the phone from our hands, swiping quickly to peruse the photo album, and confidently deleting the ‘inappropriate’ shot. However, they did not seem to be aware that deleted pictures taken with iPhones merely gets them transferred to the ‘Recently Deleted’ folder … and that they can subsequently be promptly and easily be restored!

A DPRK farmer just north of the DMZ. Our minder did not want us to see this sight, or take this picture. The farming methods that we saw were typically antiquated, looking to be very low productivity and with minimal automation or powered equipment. Note the immense flagpole in the background on the left. In this area, the South and the North have engaged in a stupid and wasteful one-upmanship, each continually trying to erect a bigger flagpole. Something tells me that this would not be happening if women were in charge.

5). Prisons

“It’s a stark fact that the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet we have almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population. The numbers today are much higher than they were 30, 40 years ago despite the fact that crime is at historic lows.”  – Hillary Rodham Clinton (D), speech on criminal justice at Columbia University, April 29, 2015. (See source.)


While the DPRK is abhorrent in this area, the US has no moral high ground. “The US has the largest prison population in the world, on a par with Stalin's gulags at their worst. Our incarceration rate has zoomed up 500% since Nixon, and yet we still call ourselves the land of the free -- a testament to the efficiency of our own propaganda. One out of every 100 American adults is incarcerated, a per capita rate five to 10 times higher than that in Western Europe or other democracies. Though the trend has slowed in recent years -- from 2006 to 2011, more than half of states trimmed their prison populations --  in 2012 the United States still stood as the world leader in incarceration by a substantial margin.”  And, of course, our prison population is heavily skewed towards the economically disadvantaged and people of color. ( See also the movie, 13th.)


It is difficult to estimate the DPRK prison population, but the best estimates are that it is similar to that of the US:  “While the United States has 707 incarcerated people per 100,000 citizens, for example, China has 124 to 172 per 100,000 people and Iran 284 per 100,000. North Korea is perhaps the closest, but reliable numbers are hard to find; some estimates suggest 600 to 800 per 100,000. (See "Incarceration rates per 100,000" chart.)  

Prisoner population rate per 100,000 population by country using the inserted color chart: In this graphic, the DPRK is blank. (See source.)

American Otto Warmbier was serving a 15 year sentence with hard labor.  In June 2017 his comatose body (evidently he had been a coma for a year) was returned to the US.  He died one week thereafter, on June 19, 2017 at age 22.  The DPRK’s explanations are absurd and they clearly have blood on their hands.

Of course, we saw none of the DPRK prisons, nor was it discussed prominently. I have no doubt that they are awful places, and that there is little (no?) recourse to the law. I also believe that they have a unique skill in imprisoning people for political reasons.


But for comparison, is one of the below cases any more absurd than the other? Americans are indignant (as they should be) that the ill-advised actions (not exactly clear, but he was probably trying to steal a political banner) of a young American man , Otto Warmbier, (photo below, see source.) would lead to a 15-year jail sentence in the DPRK. While in Pyongyang (we stayed at the Yangakko hotel, where he stayed and was arrested), we heard three different versions of Otto’s story:

  1. He was drunk and did it stupidly, on his own. This was the version that most Western men found most credible.
  2. He was drunk and did it in support of a fraternity challenge / prank. This was also a version that most Westerners found credible.
  3. The CIA had him do it. This was our DPRK guide’s version. Our guide was normally funny, charismatic, and helpful.  But when engaged on the subject of Otto’s imprisonment, we saw a side of her that we had never seen. She was immediately transformed, becoming entirely dogmatic as she barked “He tried to steal our slogans! He planned to use our slogans against us! He was set up by the CIA! Luckily, we caught him!  As far as I’m concerned, he deserves to spend the rest of his life in our jails!”

But how many Americans are equally indignant at our own story -- that of Jacobia Grimes?  Is it any less absurd or wrong? The story happened about the same time as that of Mr. Warmbier.

6). Economy

Interestingly, both North and South Korea showed very similar economic progress for the first twenty years after the war.  Things began to diverge in the mid 1970s, as South Korean has performed spectacularly, whereas the DPRK stagnated, then began to rot.


The DPRK economy is a mess.  The military consumes 25% of the GDP.  When I asked our guide in what areas they excelled, she eagerly said ‘textiles!’  But the country does not farm cotton, nor is it a prominent manufacturer of synthetics.  It is not known for its fine looms or branded cloth.  Most of their ‘textiles’ is the sewing of clothes – a cut rate industry in which they compete against Bangladesh and Vietnam.

The country derives a significant percent of its import revenue from minerals that they ship to China, but this is a commodity market, with currently depressed prices.  Additionally, as part of sanctions, China occasionally stops these imports.

Farming looks to be very low productivity, and I can not imagine that there are any exports.   The farmland looked consistently dry and hilly.  Equipment was typically not more than cows.  Periodically, the country has suffered from famines – which is always blames on aberrant weather, rather than any of their own policies. 

I asked our guide about the possibility of a citizen setting up a small store:  “No, it is impossible.”  Pyongyang is actually a nice city, but it is quiet if not vacuous, lacking the commerce, hustle, and dynamism that so characterize the great cities of the world.

The city of Kaesong has a large, modern-looking industrial park.  It was a joint-effort with South Korea (South Korea supplies technology, $ and professional management, the DPRK supplies cheap labor).   However, as the DPRK saber-rattling reached a fever-pitch, the park was shut down, putting 50,000 out of work.

Laborers are exported to other countries in exchange for hard currency, including loggers to Siberia (sounds awful), construction workers to Dubai, and restaurant workers to China.  Family members at home are typically held in exchange to guarantee appropriate behavior and return. 

            Believe it or not, but the DPRK also makes hard currency from its artist core.  We were continually impressed by the quality and quantity of their work.  Their famed ‘Mansudae Art Studio’ is world class.  Their mosaics are gorgeous, their statues … are well practiced, and the Mass Games are mind-blowing.  If you are an African dictator and want your own massive statue, you can hire the DPRK artist core to make you an incredible statue (see below). 

The African Resistance Monument, Dakar, Senegal.   Of incredible scale (49 meters tall (160 feet)! - by way of reference, the Statue of Liberty is 151 feet from base of pedestal to the torch), an observation deck in the man’s forehead! and bold artistic lines! – look at the protagonist’s chiseled quads erupting out of the chiseled rock!, his abs and biceps lifting his child and his beautiful wind-swept lady!, the angles pointing to the future!

The African Resistance Monument, Dakar, Senegal.

Of incredible scale (49 meters tall (160 feet)! - by way of reference, the Statue of Liberty is 151 feet from base of pedestal to the torch), an observation deck in the man’s forehead! and bold artistic lines! – look at the protagonist’s chiseled quads erupting out of the chiseled rock!, his abs and biceps lifting his child and his beautiful wind-swept lady!, the angles pointing to the future!

Vast differences between the north and the south.

An iconic picture contrasting the light output of the south and the north. There is approximately a 20x difference between per-capita GDP on the south side of the border vs. on the north side. No border in the world boasts such disparity.  By way of reference, East and West Germany had approximately a 3x differential at the fall.


We took Air Koryo -- the DPRK’s only airline – from Beijing to Pyongyang. Though often mocked (some have called it the worst airline in the world (based on service, not on safety),


it was clean and safe.  Mid-tour we returned to the airport for a side-flight (Soviet helicopter charter circumnavigating the city!) and were treated to what was, hands-down, the best meal of the trip (come to think of it, the best meal I have ever had at any airport in the world!).  An amazing 7-course Air Koryo lunch! (See source.)

This board shows ALL of the commercial flights (TWO!) arriving into Pyongyang (and therefore into the entire DPRK) that day.  On another day, we saw it was five.  By way of reference, Cuba just granted 110 landing slots per day, just for flights from the US.

The DPRK is an economically failed state.  If liberated people can be ingenious and the pursuit of their dreams can lead to the amazing economic betterment that the world has seen over the last two centuries, the plight of the citizens of the DPRK would represent the antithesis, with low ability to self-direct or drive towards the fulfillment of their self-potential. 

7). Pyongyang, Then Countryside


“Pyongyang was destroyed during the Korean War and has been entirely rebuilt according to a design reflecting Kim Il-Sung's vision.  His dream was reportedly to create a capital that would boost morale in the post-war years.  The result was a city with wide, tree-lined boulevards and public buildings with terraced landscaping, mosaics and decorated ceilings.  Its Russian-style architecture makes it reminiscent of a Siberian city during winter snowfall, although edifices of traditional Korean design somewhat soften this perception. In summer, it is notable for its rivers, willow trees, flowers and parkland. Many residents occupy high-rise apartment buildings. One of Kim Il-Sung's priorities while designing Pyongyang was to limit the population. Authorities maintain a restrictive regime of movement into the city, making it atypical of East Asia as it is silent, uncrowded and spacious.” 

(See Source.)

8). National Narrative

As told through art, banners, mosaics, sculpture, tv, movies, and grand staged events

The DPRK does a fabulous job of telling its narrative didactically and incessantly using a wide variety of artistic media.




9). Nuclear Weapons Program

While the DPRK nuclear weapons program is destabilizing, potentially horrific, and represents a massive resource-theft from a resource-poor country, the US has no moral high ground when it comes to the military or our nuclear weapons programs.  The US has bombed 22 countries in the last 24 years.

Despite all of our technology and expenditures, we have achieved little in either Afghanistan and Iraq – despite the combined costs of several trillion dollars. 


We, as citizens of the US, would do well to spend time looking in the mirror and solving the wealth of issues created by our own nuclear weapons program.

The US program suffers from a multitude of faults:

            We have knowingly and repeated contaminated, sickened, and killed our own soldiers and workers.

            We have knowingly and repeatedly contaminated the environment.

            There is very little transparency to the program’s cost, and it is FAR more than people realize.

            The size of the arsenal is irrational and far in excess of what we ‘need.’

            Spending is ongoing, if not escalating.

            Our weapons testing is far in excess of the rest of the world combined, and came at a great cost across multiple metrics.

            There have been multiple accidents – we are fortunate that they have not been worse, and the mere existence of our vast arsenal creates all sorts of both direct, and indirect risks. 


         Deadly to Americans:  The NY Times recently ran a series on airmen that were contaminated by our arsenal.  The government knowingly did this, using them as guinea pigs.  It intentionally exploded above-ground nuclear weapons, then walked troops immediately into the fallout.  Its handing of clean-up has been reckless and deadly.  It has refused veterans medical care.  This is beyond shameful.  “The AEC and DOE also did what they could to discourage discussion about these issues, to the point of lying about the dangers to not only the general public but also the workers in its own facilities. As a result, one great irony of the Cold War is that although the United States produced nuclear weapons en masse to destroy the Soviet Union, and vice-versa, the principal victims of each country's nuclear weapons were its own citizens.”


Deadly to the Environment – Both During Production, and Through Their Use:

“Nuclear weapons pose the single biggest threat to the Earth’s environment, scientists have warned.  In a new study of the potential global impacts of nuclear blasts, an American team found even a small-scale war would quickly devastate the world's climate and ecosystems, causing damage that would last for more than a decade.  Speaking at the American Geophysical Union's meeting in San Francisco yesterday, Richard Turco of UCLA said detonating between 50 and 100 bombs - just 0.03% of the world's arsenal - would throw enough soot into the atmosphere to create climactic anomalies unprecedented in human history. He said the effects would be "much greater than what we're talking about with global warming and anything that's happened in history with regards volcanic eruptions".According to the research, tens of millions of people would die, global temperatures would crash and most of the world would be unable to grow crops for more than five years after a conflict.  In addition, the ozone layer, which protects the surface of the Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation, would be depleted by 40% over many inhabited areas and up to 70% at the poles.”

            During their production, nuclear weapons have create remediation liabilities that will continue indefinitely.  This has been well documented and is of a staggering cost.


            Costs Not Clear:  Though nuclear weapons were originally conceived as delivering ‘higher bang for the buck’, that has not been the case.  Neither congress, the armed services the President have had a clear idea what was being spent.  In 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported that even the Department of Defense itself did not know precisely how much the nuclear mission costs.

Costs Massive:  In 1998 it was estimated that the cumulative costs were 5.8 trillion dollars.  Thru 2005, it is estimated to be $7.5 trillion dollars.  If we assume the same rate through 2016, that makes it $10.2 trillion dollars.  By way of reference, the US GDP in 2016 is $18.5 trillion dollars.  This is an ungodly large expenditure, a theft from so many other things that are important.   To put that in perspective, the amount spent through 1996—$5.5 trillion—was 29 percent of all military spending from 1940 through 1996 ($18.7 trillion). This figure is significantly larger than any previous official or unofficial estimate of nuclear weapons expenditures, exceeding all other categories of government spending except non-nuclear national defense ($13.2 trillion) and social security ($7.9 trillion).  This amounted to almost 11 percent of all government expenditures through 1996 ($51.6 trillion). During this period, the United States spent on average nearly $98 billion a year developing and maintaining its nuclear arsenal. It is very difficult to comprehend figures of this magnitude. To provide some perspective, consider the following:

  • $5.8 trillion divided equally among everyone living in the United States equals a bit more than $21,000 per person.
  • $5.8 trillion in one dollar bills stacked one atop another would stretch 459,361 miles (739,117 kilometers), to the Moon and nearly back.
  • If you attempted to count $5.8 trillion at the rate of $1 a second, it would take almost 12 days to reach $1 million, nearly 32 years to reach $1 billion, 31,709 years to reach $1 trillion and thus about 184,579 years to reach $5.8 trillion.  


      Read also: Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, by Stephen Schwartz


      Note that this spending continues now, as there is a push to develop a proliferation of new weapons that are smaller and have ‘dial-a-megaton’ features. 


            Massive Weapons Testing:  As of February 2017, the DPRK has exploded five weapons during testing.  From 1945 until September 1992, the United States conducted 1,030 nuclear tests (215 in the atmosphere and 815 underground).

That is more tests than all the other nuclear powers combined. The peak year for testing came in 1962, when 96 warheads were detonated (39 in the atmosphere) in advance of the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty.  This testing was at a massive cost, polluted the ocean, and the atmosphere. 

10). Running & the Race

The race was humbling.  I’m used to the gun going off and quickly being amongst a small number in the front, and then gradually moving up with endurance and deft pacing.  But not in this race, not in the DPRK.


When I was twelve I could run ten kilometer races at six minute per mile pace.  I am now 46, and I was back to that pace.  When I was twelve, I was a rare breed, I was special.  But in the DPRK was surrounded by swarms of kids who looked very short / small / prepubescent, and they were all running that pace.  I don't think that they were even twelve.  And they ran fast not just for the first half mile, but the whole way.  And a lot of women too.  Women rarely beat me.  Sure, I was significantly off my best, but I still think that their these systems are much more efficient at spotting talent.  Our kids diverge to watching tv, video games, debate society, robotics, … all sorts of things, or simply nothing. I suspect that the DPRK is doing very thorough tests across all their kids finding all sorts of physical skills, and then tracking heavily, with very serious focus ­ like we saw in the GDR (East Germany) - though the GDR was aided by the history’s most effective doping system, and I’m not implying that that is present here).


It was my first race in nine years, I trained diligently for three and a half months.  I was fortunate to have some great training partners - thank you Armen, Jamie, Griffin, Jason, Mike and Steve.  Along the way, it was clear that I was improving, but that I was simply slower and more fragile than I had previously been.  Whereas once I hugged 5:15 miles for track half marathon time trials, I now struggled to get sub six minute pace.  Importantly, the injuries drastically limited by training.  In the final twenty-eight days leading up to the race, my workout were: pool run 8x, spin 10x, and run 12x.  That is a lot of injury-required cross-training.  I really wanted to have more running miles on my legs, but they would not oblige.  Though my Achilles is now better, I had persistent calf pain, and sudden, very unexpected hamstring trouble.  In the last five weeks leading up to the race, I ran 124 miles total.  In comparison, in the five weeks leading up to my 50k record, I ran 351 miles.


I ran the Pyongyang Half Marathon in 1:21. Twelve minutes off of my PR (1:09:15). On the positive side, I toed the line – a modest triumph given that I had given myself a thirty percent chance of being so injured that I would not even start.  I finished third, behind two decent runners: the leader ran 1:20 – he is a former 1:47 800 runner out of Texas A&M, and is now 29 and living in Singapore. - homepage-details


There was a fantastic awards ceremony, and I was fortunate to receive a beautiful vase that made it home.  It is probably the only time that I will have 40,000 people cheering when I get third in 1:21. 


My pace started off modest and got worse.  I pride myself on even splits, but in this case the base simply was not there.  I finished a few minutes slower than what I hoped I could run.  It was not for a lack of effort – I had ample cross-training (exercycle and pool running) but was perpetually caught between the need to run faster and further, and the clear evidence that doing so leads to frequent and painful injuries.  As the race got closer and closer, training simply became a highly constrained equation. 


I created the below graph which presents a very interesting view of the arc of life and the effects of both growing up, evolving, learning, progressing, and then decaying with age. 

A nice graph comparing my half marathon times (in minutes) between 1983 (when I was 13 years old), and 2016 (age 46).  Steady steady improvements until my late 20s, a five-year period bouncing around 69 and 70 minutes then a steady decay almost exactly back to where I started thirty-three years earlier

The marathon was professional and, though we shared the same start and course, it was raced with a demonstrably superior talent pool.  I saw the leaders race by with about a half a mile to go.  At that point it was a runner from Zimbabwe leading the DPRK runner by a few seconds.  He was strong and looked to have the win locked up.  He entered the stadium with a five second lead and went to the left, diligently followed the pace car as he had done every inch of the way to that point …. Only to soon find out that at this point he should NOT follow the pace car.  The DPRK runner deftly went to the right, slipped by, got a few second lead, and held on for the win.  It was truly heartbreaking.  The runner from Zimbabwe was VERY upset.  In true DPRK fashion, we then saw the race on the news (amazingly, they broke away from the regularly scheduled broadcast of war prep / missile launch stock video / artillery successful hits / tanks rolling through the plaza in front of 100,000 people for their revolution celebration day, Š) and it showed the DPRK winner triumphantly crossing the line and devoting his win to the wisdom of their Juche philosophy and KJU¹s inspirational leadership.  There was no mention of how the race actually ended.  All the locals cheered when they saw the segment and the grand DPRK victory.   Either it was a sad, unfortunate ending .. sometimes mistakes happen … or it was all part of a cynical plot.  As with anything in the DPRK, you are never really sure.

Here are two pictures that sum up the race.  In the first one I don¹t exactly look like I¹m flying.  In the other I am humbled by being surrounded by a gazillion small DPRK kids and women.  It was like nothing I have ever seen.  

Controversy about the marathon:

Agent Alleges That Two North Korean Runners Cut The Course At North Korean Marathon To Secure Olympic Qualification

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2016 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

(11-May) — Eleven times over a 12 year period, South African athletes manager Dewald Steyn brought elite runners to the Mangyongdae Prize Pyongyang Marathon North Korea in April.  By his own reckoning, he supplied 60% of the foreign athletes for this event over that time.


But now Steyn doesn’t think he’ll do business with the race again after alleging that two North Korean runners, Ra Hyon-ho and Ri Kwang-bom, cut the course in order to obtain Olympic Games qualifying times.  In the official results, they finished fourth and fifth in 2:15:45 and 2:16:25, respectively, comfortably under the required 2:19:00 minimum mandated by the IAAF.  The race was held on April 10.


“This year I again managed a team of athletes from Africa with my son as co-manager,” Steyn wrote in an e-mail to Race Results Weekly.  “I was stationed at the 30 km refreshment station while my son was stationed at the 35 km refreshment point.”


The course-cutting took place after the 35-K point, Steyn said, after a pack of four runners —Ketema Bekele Negassa of Ethiopia, Morris Murethi Mwange of Kenya, Pak Chol-gwang of of North Korea, and Kelvin Pangiso of Zimbabwe– passed his son.  At the 30-K point, Steyn observed another athlete, Cephas Pasipamire of Zimbabwe, another 15 meters behind, and about 50 meters further back was Mattheews Mutanya of Zambia.  The two North Koreans, Ra and Ri, came past next another 100 meters back, running with Namibia’s Simon Chipangana.


“At 35 kilometers the lead group was still the same, but Pasipamire (had) joined them,” Steyn wrote.  “The rest was still the same and my son reported that my Africa team had six athletes in the top ten.”

However at the finish line, after Pak, Negassa and Mwange had finished one-two-three, Ra and Ri came past the post next in fourth and fifth, despite having never passed either Pangiso or Pasipamire, according to what the athletes told Steyn.  He was outraged, and protested.


“When we complained we were told that they have an electronic chip system that they can investigate,” Steyn continued.  “It took more than three weeks to produce these results, while they just ignored all correspondence to them. It however seems like the chip system failed and they also did not report results further than number seven. Cephas Pasipamire and Kelvin Pangiso, who finished more than 50 meters apart, were given the same time of 2:17:00.”


Steyn also alleged that a marshaling error cost Negassa the victory.  He had been leading the race by a big margin right before the finish, but followed the wrong vehicle when it turned into the stadium.


“Another problem in the race was that except for the time car that appeared into the stadium about 50 meters in front of the leading athlete, another car with officials drove direct in front of the leading athlete and turned left into the stadium,” Steyn wrote.  “With no marshall present to direct the athlete he followed the car. This athlete, Ketema Bekele Negassa, was leading by about 30 meters, but when people started shouting and he looked back, he saw Pak Chol-gwang of the DPRK running the opposite direction and leaving him behind to win the race.”


While Steyn admitted that trying to protect the earnings of his athletes was a concern, he was more worried about the lack of fair play.  Cheating, he said, can’t be overlooked.


“These people saw me as their friend having been responsible for 60 to 80 percent of their foreign athletes over a 12 year period, but this is totally unacceptable while they refuse to communicate with me. They will most probably not ask me to bring athletes again if I reveal this, but to me this is as bad as taking drugs – refusing to accept that their athletes did not run the full race but thereby qualifying for the Olympics.”

10). Our Tour and Group



On the way back home we stopped in Beijing for a day.  It was great to visit the Great Wall and it was amazing to see how much China has changed since I was last there.