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I’ve been on a North Korean rollercoaster and it was awesome

Over the last few months President Kim Jong Un has been photographed and videoed seemingly trying to breathe life into his capital. He visited a basketball court, cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony (admittedly, for The Exhibition of Arms and Equipment of the Korean People’s Army) and politely clapped while dancers dressed as Disney ...

Ray Cunningham
Ray Cunningham

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Over the last few months President Kim Jong Un has been photographed and videoed seemingly trying to breathe life into his capital. He visited a basketball court, cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony (admittedly, for The Exhibition of Arms and Equipment of the Korean People’s Army) and politely clapped while dancers dressed as Disney characters frolicked on stage. But his visits to amusement parks have arguably drawn the most attention. In May, he called an amusement park he visited "pitiful."On Wednesday, North Korean state media announced that Kim Jong Un was visiting yet another amusement park-and announced for the first time, almost casually, that the woman accompanying him was his wife.

Surprisingly, Pyongyang actually has a really good amusement park. As I wrote on this blog in January, on the last night of a September visit to the country, my guides announced with great pleasure that we would be visiting the Kaeson Fun Fair. Pyongyang, with its tall, decrepit buildings, wide boulevards traversed by rotting trolleys, and citizens who seem to be still even when they’re moving, feels like a post-apocalyptic Detroit. Needless to say I had low expectations for the Ferris wheels of Pyongyang.

Boy was I wrong.

The park had brand new rides, allegedly and believably imported from Italy (Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the park Kim Jong Un visited with his wife).  The pirate-ship ride elicited shrieks from the North Koreans and the foreign tourists because it was a genuinely and enjoyably riveting. I also rode the bumper cars and an exhilirating belly down ‘flying’ roller coaster, dubbed the superman ride.

A restaurant sold burgers and soda (though generic versions; there’s still no Coca Cola in North Korea), and stands around the park sold glasses of water for what at the time worked out to be around six cents. In the parts of Pyongyang we were allowed to visit, we saw a lot of dour, unsmiling North Koreans. But those at the park appeared genuinely excited and happy to be on the rides; they screamed in fear as the Pirate Ship dipped and clowned around taking photographs in front of an artificial garden. It was a disarmingly normal experience.

As for that foreigner riding the amusement park ride with Kim Jong Un? It’s possible that he’s a relative of Joe Dresnok, an American who defected to North Korea in 1962 and has lived there ever since, or a foreign diplomat or businessperson living in Pyongyang, of which there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Caucasians. In any case, it wasn’t me.

Over the last few months President Kim Jong Un has been photographed and videoed seemingly trying to breathe life into his capital. He visited a basketball court, cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony (admittedly, for The Exhibition of Arms and Equipment of the Korean People’s Army) and politely clapped while dancers dressed as Disney characters frolicked on stage. But his visits to amusement parks have arguably drawn the most attention. In May, he called an amusement park he visited "pitiful."On Wednesday, North Korean state media announced that Kim Jong Un was visiting yet another amusement park-and announced for the first time, almost casually, that the woman accompanying him was his wife.

Surprisingly, Pyongyang actually has a really good amusement park. As I wrote on this blog in January, on the last night of a September visit to the country, my guides announced with great pleasure that we would be visiting the Kaeson Fun Fair. Pyongyang, with its tall, decrepit buildings, wide boulevards traversed by rotting trolleys, and citizens who seem to be still even when they’re moving, feels like a post-apocalyptic Detroit. Needless to say I had low expectations for the Ferris wheels of Pyongyang.

Boy was I wrong.

The park had brand new rides, allegedly and believably imported from Italy (Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear to be the park Kim Jong Un visited with his wife).  The pirate-ship ride elicited shrieks from the North Koreans and the foreign tourists because it was a genuinely and enjoyably riveting. I also rode the bumper cars and an exhilirating belly down ‘flying’ roller coaster, dubbed the superman ride.

A restaurant sold burgers and soda (though generic versions; there’s still no Coca Cola in North Korea), and stands around the park sold glasses of water for what at the time worked out to be around six cents. In the parts of Pyongyang we were allowed to visit, we saw a lot of dour, unsmiling North Koreans. But those at the park appeared genuinely excited and happy to be on the rides; they screamed in fear as the Pirate Ship dipped and clowned around taking photographs in front of an artificial garden. It was a disarmingly normal experience.

As for that foreigner riding the amusement park ride with Kim Jong Un? It’s possible that he’s a relative of Joe Dresnok, an American who defected to North Korea in 1962 and has lived there ever since, or a foreign diplomat or businessperson living in Pyongyang, of which there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Caucasians. In any case, it wasn’t me.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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