This is what it looks like if you drive through downtown Pyongyang

July 31, 2013

With so many foreign visitors and media organizations flooding into North Korea for its annual "mass games" celebration, a time when the showcase capital is at its most prim and prepped, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate what Pyongyang looks like on a normal day.

This video, taken just over one year ago, was taken by some tourists with Koryo Tours, one of the few groups that brings Westerners into the hermit kingdom. While the version of Pyongyang you might see on television this week is full of life and shows of exuberantly nationalist celebration, the immaculate capital city normally looks very different.

The city is also, and this is something you hear mentioned by almost everyone who goes, eerily quiet. The wide roads are almost totally empty as very few North Koreans are allowed to, or can afford, a car. Even in the middle of the day, with pedestrians filling the sidewalks, the city center is so nearly silent that the creaking of the bus is practically all you can hear.

At about 3:30 into the video, the bus stops just alongside one of Pyongyang's famous metro stops. (The trains, Cold War-era imports from East Berlin, are still covered in German signage.) The moment is striking both for its familiar normality and for what makes it feel different: There's hardly a whisper.

It's worth keeping in mind that Pyongyang is the national showcase, meant to be a big gleaming demonstration of the country's wealth and progress. Other cities, much less rural areas, are said to look and feel far more primitive. And even within Pyongyang, off of the official tourist route, the city can be marked by dirt roads and hollowed out apartment blocks.

This video might not be as glamorous or exciting as the mass games, but it's worth keeping in mind as a closer representation of normal life in the North Korean capital.

(Hat tip to NKNews reporter James Pearson for the video.)

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Max Fisher · July 31, 2013