North Korea opened a shiny new water park in east Pyongyang this week, to characteristically over-the-top fanfare. The official unveiling ceremony included the chiefs of the armed forces and top government officials. There was, of course, a full military parade. North Korean state media released several photos of the unveiling, which are posted below.
The photos are, there's no getting around this, a bit creepy. Maybe it's the cartoonishly over-saturated colors in the middle of a country that is, in reality, rife with the drab greens and browns of communist housing blocks, hand-tilled fields and deep poverty. Maybe it's the insistence on celebrating a family amusement park with a military parade. And maybe it's the people in the photos. If you look closely, you'll notice that each shows, in the foreground, a handful of eager-looking young men and women playing in the water while, in the background, a mass of several hundred stern-looking men in dark suits look on silently. It's weird.
Here's the big military parade and ceremony:
Premiere Pak Pong Ju delivered a speech at the ceremony, arguing, in typically North Korean style, that the water park proves that everyone should do whatever Kim Jong Un says at all times. "The water park is the edifice built thanks to Korean Peoples' Army service personnel’s spirit of devotedly carrying out any project and their fighting traits as they are ready to flatten even a high mountain at a go in hearty response to the order of the supreme commander," he said, adding that park employees should "glorify forever Kim Jong Un’s leadership exploits."
The above photo drives home, for me, the degree to which this is all a big performance, a show for the rest of the country. North Korea, and particularly new leader Kim Jong Un, love to put money into these sorts of big, lavish projects. Last year, they opened a dolphinarium. They're also working on a massive ski resort, although sanctions have made it impossible for them to purchase ski lifts.
Projects like this might seem absurd, given how many North Koreans go without electricity or at times food, but there's an internal logic to these obviously wasteful extravagances. They reinforce a sense of both national prosperity and national greatness, a sign that North Korea truly is as rich and advanced as state media routinely claims. For years, the government simply told its citizens they were wealthier than everyone else; the information cordon prevented many from discovering the truth. Now that cordon is breaking down. Every big project like this is a counterpoint to the pirated Chinese and South Korean DVDs trickling into the country, showing fabulous wealth far beyond the North Korean standard.
This message, that the water park is a sign of national greatness, isn't just some unstated subtext: Premier Pak said it explicitly in his speech. He called the part "a leisure complex for the people to be proud of before the world." State media claimed that the ceremony was filled with foreign dignitaries and diplomats – present, it does not need to be stated, to pay tribute.
The conservative swimwear is a reminder of the oft-forgotten fact that North Korea's social norms are among the most strictly conservative in the world; shows of physical beauty are discouraged as shows of individualism. Partly, though, this predates the Kim regime and its Communist-era state ideology; Confucian-style social conservatism has been deeply entrenched in Korea for centuries. In some senses, it's South Korea that has diverged by becoming more socially liberal over the past few decades – although South Korea still has the worst gender gap in the developed world.
In case this wasn't creepy enough for you, the park includes a life-size plaster statue of now-deceased leader Kim Jong Il, in the lobby for an indoor swimming pool. It's quite cold in Pyongyang for much of the year – making the park doubly extravagant – so this is presumably the room that will get the most use. I will say this for the Mansudae Art Studio, which created the sculpture: it got the pants hem exactly right.