axisofevil North Korea Story pg. 8, Pyongyang Circus - Axis of Evil World Tour
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Pyongyang Circus

Should a circus be depressing? You wouldn't think so, but that's exactly how I felt before this one even got started. After the long drive back up to Pyongyang from Kaesong and the DMZ everyone, including our guides, was getting a bit tired and road-weary. But what better way to get some energy back than going to the circus with a bunch of excited kids?

Finally the bus pulled up to one of Pyongyang's giant concrete monoliths, with this one identifying itself as belonging to the 'State Circus'. We could see crowds of kids coming up the street and filing in ahead of us. Once inside we passed (as in, we were hurried past) a row of souvenir stands and then made our way to the center auditorium. Unlike Arirang, this time we didn't have to pay extra for seats. We had plush, comfortable seats in the center, right up front, not three meters from the stage.

A quick aside before we go any further. From the design of the building, and the show that followed, calling this place or performance a 'circus' is a bit misleading. There are no animals, rides, carnival games, tents, etc. A more accurate description would probably be something like Pyongyang Acrobatic Performance.

As we sat down I did something I wouldn't normally do even on a bet - I took a seat as close as possible to a group of school kids. Constantly being chaperoned and hemmed in by our guides was driving me a little nuts and I wanted to try talking to someone new and 'unauthorized'. Who better to try and break through the wall with than a bunch of hyped-up kids on a class trip?

Kids at Circus
Trying to talk with some school kids at the circus. Those with the red scarves
have already become 'Young Pioneers', the first rung of party membership.

Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

I started of with a hearty hello that boomed across everyone in the next section. Followed by a goofy, "you guys come here much? This is my first time. I heard it's pretty fun though . . ."

As you can see from the picture above I definitely got a reaction. After some dropped jaws and stunned looks I had the whole group smiling and giggling.

Now, to see if I could get anyone to talk to me.

"Have you guys been here before? Or is this your first time . . ?"

Once they got past my weird, Seoul-style accent all heads swung up toward their teacher to see if they could respond. She's the one in the picture just to the left of my head, fixing her necklace.

No reaction.

So I tried again. "This seems like a pretty nice building. Must be fun to come here with your class. What do you guys think . . ?"

Again, all eyes swung up to the teacher, and again she wasn't having any part of it. I could tell the kids were dying to answer. Or at least say something. But without approval from the teacher, discipline held and they just kept looking and smiling.

Once I figured out what was going on I decided to go right for the source. This time I swiveled around a little further and addressed the teacher directly.


Across the kid's section all eyes swung back up to their teacher, but zero acknowledgment. I didn't exist and this wasn't happening.

By now I was getting irritated. The kids obviously wanted to talk but Ms. Sourpuss was shutting me down.

Once more I stared right at her and said hello. By this point I could tell I was getting to her assistant (the one to her right in the picture). Finally, after some more staring and yet another hello, the assistant whispered something into the teacher's ear and gave a nod in my direction.

Thus somewhat acknowledged, I again gave a nice greeting and followed up with a quick question about the place, just like I'd asked the kids. Finally, with her assistant and all her students staring at her, she was forced to respond.

"The building is for the circus. It's very good."


And with that she turned back toward the students, gave them a sharp look and said something I couldn't hear, but that apparently ended all hope of further response. I was dismissed and our conversation was over. The kids kept glancing at me as if to talk but none of them were willing to risk their teacher's wrath. Another lost opportunity to have an interesting, or in this case, at least a fun, conversation.

That pretty much soured me on the Pyongyang 'circus' before it even began. Would it have been so bad to let the kids talk? Were they so fragile that a simple conversation with a foreigner would pollute them? Only a little over 24 hours and already my time in the North was beginning to irritate me. What kind of place was so tight and structured that even the most simple conversations had to be restricted, monitored and regulated?

Some of the others in our group had seen what happened (you can see one person getting it on video in the picture above) and asked me what was going on. I started to bitch and moan about Ms. Sourpuss, but just then the performance started and it was time to turn our attention to center-stage.

The performers first came out group by group; clowns, acrobats, twirlers, etc, maybe 20-30 performers in all. After some quick introductions the show got under way, so close we could practically touch the performers. Things started out pretty tame but in a short time heated up to some truly stunning acrobatics.

Circus Acrobats
Circus Acrobats
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon
Acrobats flying high
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon
Tower of Acrobats
Tower of Acrobats
Photo courtesy Dan Harmon

The building and equipment were definitely showing their age but the performances were spectacular. People were flipping and flying all over the place. Several of the scenes had performers doing relatively dangerous stunts, as shown by the pictures here, without the aid of a net or safety wire.

The whole show lasted about an hour or so and, while no Arirang, was still quite incredible. The best part though was when some clowns came out into the audience and grabbed a couple of people to join them on stage. Who do you think they chose?

Ms. Sourpuss! After much cajoling and pressuring they finally convinced her to come up on stage. Where, much to the delight of her students and our tour group, she proceeded to get the hell embarrassed out of her. Ah, the sweet justice of karma . . .

After that highlight the show pretty much wound down. The audience gave the performers a huge round of applause and then it was time to head back to the bus. First though, we had a quick mini-fight with the guides to get them to allow us to use the, apparently un-approved for foreigners, restrooms. An irritating fight that presaged a couple of tomorrow's events. Then it was back to the bus for the short ride home to the hotel. Day Two was just about over.

Before we get to tomorrow though I'll close off this page by putting up some typical street scenes of Pyongyang, just basic stuff you can see on any drive. After that though it'll be off to beautiful Mt. Myohyang and the International Friendship Exhibition for some fresh insight on the depth of the Kim cult.

Busy Pyongyang
The busy streets of Pyongyang
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
North Korean SUV
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

Actual non-dull looking building
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John

As it was a Sunday and everyone had the day off the streets were somewhat more crowded than the day before. You could actually see people walking around, plus get a glimpse of the occasional car and SUV/Jeep type vehicle.

Pyongyang has a lot of very clean, beautiful parks, especially along its rivers, and quite a few (for Pyongyang anyway) people could be seen picnicking and enjoying the nice summer weather. The uncrowded, uncluttered and unhurried streets of Pyongyang are a huge contrast to any other city I have ever visited, especially in Asia, and especially on the Korean peninsula

As you can see from the city scenery the architecture of the North can best be described as 'Soviet-drab'. For the most part that is. There are some buildings, like the one here to the right, that pleasantly deviate from the norm and, simply by their sheer rarity, add a nice bit of eclecticism to the city streets.

Some of the city's newer museums (unfortunately not shown here but similar to one shown on tomorrow's trip to Mt. Myohyang), have been done in a much newer, 'Super-Sized Traditional' style. A design method that, while somewhat imposing, does at least have a memorable Korean-style appearance.

Any drive around town also brought along a fair complement of roadside propaganda signs and pictures of one or more of the Kims. I'll put a couple of common examples below.

Kim Il-sung Forever
One of about five billion pictures of Kim Il-sung. Here the caption reads,
"Our revered father Comrade Kim Il-sung will be forever in our hearts."

Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
General Kim Il-sung
"Led by our great general we will win!" Three guesses who the great general is.
Photo courtesy Thomas St. John
7. Traditional Kaesong
Copyright 2006-2007 Scott Fisher and All Rights Reserved.