Standing at the foot of Mount Taesong in Pyongyang, construction of the Pyongyang Folklore Park first began back in December 2008 under the instruction of Kim Jong-il. Yet it wasn’t until Kim Jong-il visited in December 2011, shortly before his death, that details were revealed by KCNA about the “exciting” activities the park offered. Visitors, it was said, could enjoy archery, Korean wrestling, swinging and views of both Mount Paektu and Kumgang.
In an unexpected move, many of the park’s buildings are modelled on those of the Shilla Kingdom opposed to the Koguryo Kingdom, despite KCNA specifically stating their focus for this period as the “Koguryo Kingdom (B.C. 277-A.D. 668)”. The Shilla Kingdom is teritorially where South Korea is today, though of course not divided at the DMZ. Despite the heightened anti-South feeling, Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours explains that North Korea has purposely combined the two ancient kingdoms to emphasise the oneness of Korea and the North’s pride in all of Korea’s history. Despite KPA officer Han Chol blaming Lee Myung Bak for the delay, it seems the DPRK are keen to seem like the good guys who are always vying for a unified Korea.
South Korea has several folk parks which have increased in popularity in recent years. Yongin Park in Gyeonggi Province, opened in 1974 and continues to attract a great number of tourists who are eager to explore the park and grounds that have appeared on many TV dramas. Foreign tourists have been reported to be very keen on learning about the Korean way of life and thinking and the demand for this kind of attraction has lead to the opening of other Korean folk parks in popular locations such as Jeju and the Namsan Hanok Folk Village in Seoul. These villages in South Korea have also worked to instil patriotism and pride in their heritage in young Koreans. By emphasising the idea of Korean patriotism, the idea of both countries’ desire for reunification can only please the long separated people.
This will be North Korea’s fourth theme park (others include funfairs and amusement parks) in Pyongyang and the third folk park of all of North Korea, with other folk parks found in Sukchon County, South Phyongan Province and Sariwon, North Hwanghae Province. KCNA reports the purpose of these parks is to ‘reflect the will of the Korean people to carry forward superiority and time-honored traditions of the nation’. But why now -especially when other Pyongyang parks have fallen into disarray?
A report on the 9th May revealed Kim Jong-un’s disgust at the state of Mangyongdae theme park in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-un was reported as saying “I had no idea the park could be so pitiful.” and ordered the park to be modernized at once.
Kaeson Youth Park was the first to undergo renovation under the instruction of Kim Jong-il back in April 2010 and seemed to be a favourite of Kim Jong-il as he visited just 2 weeks before his death last December. It was during this last visit which Kim Jong-il declared the necessity to regularly check the park for safety and maintenance. It would seem that Kim Jong-un’s recent criticism of Mangyongdae is simply carrying out his father’s last instructions.
Taesongsan, the park in perhaps the worst state of disrepair after suffering flooding in 2007 (which has yet to be repaired), doesn’t seem to be a concern to North Korea, because they are reported to welcome over a million visitors per year.
Another reason for the upgrades and building of the new park may be to affirm the Juche idea of self-reliance when reaching the goal of a strong and prosperous nation. The three original Pyongyang theme parks were built with Russian and Chinese money to symbolise progress of the North Korean state during the 1970s and 1980s. However, this new construction seems to be about the pride of being able to build the best theme park yet – better, no doubt, than the Russian and Chinese funded parks. Upgrades to existing parks seem to be motivated not so much by pride as by the desire to demonstrate a financial stability that allows for non-essential spending.
Taking the official line, the new park is not only to provide school children an interactive place to learn about Korean history, but also to compensate for the terrible sadness and yearning of the Korean people for Kim Jong-il. The fact the visit to the new folk park by Kim Jong-un was categorised as a visit to the economic sector also shows the purpose of the park to attract foreign currency spending to help the economically troubled regime. If the people believe their lives are being improved by the building and improvement of recreational places, places which show the strength of the North Korean nation, then perhaps the regime will avoid internal criticism of their failure to manage the food situation just a little bit longer. What’s more, if Kim Jong-un is focusing on visiting places aimed at improving the lives of the citizens, his image, created to resemble a loving father figure like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, can only be strengthened.
NKnews.org asked Simon Cockerell of Koryo tours a few questions about North Korea’s theme parks:
Has the renovation of the Kaeson theme park last year affected the number of visitors to Mangyongdae and Taesongsan?
I don’t think so, those two are not open very often anyway (actually the rides at Taesongsan are almost never used, even if the park itself is used on weekends and holidays), and it is in a different part of town to the other parks so I don’t really think so. Also Taesongsan and Mangyongdae are places people would go during the day, Kaeson is open only in the evening, also Kaeson is small and is now a place for going on rides and eating junk food, the other parks are very large and are mainly used by people hanging around, having picnics, wandering around in nice weather, very different vibes to be honest.
The KCNA report mentioned “Restaurants serving cuisines peculiar to different localities”. Do you have any idea what kind of cuisine they will serve?
No, no idea to be honest. At Kaeson they serve burgers, fried chicken, and some general bready snacks inside the park, and biscuits, drinks etc just outside – but as to what they mean by that phrase I don’t know. There are of course regional differences in the cuisine of the DPRK but I think it is unlikely that they will have a Hamhung noodle shop, a Pyongyang noodle shop, etc. Probably this is a bit of an exaggeration, I would expect the usual snacks and lollies to be sold there.
How much does it cost to visit a park like this? Is it viable for the average Pyongyang citizen to visit? Or is it mainly aimed at foreign visitors?
It’s cheap for locals, often it’s free (or rather their work unit pays for them), funfair rides at Mangyongdae for example cost around 100 – 200 Won, so not much for a Pyongyanger, this is subsidised of course. At Kaeson I don’t know the prices actually, they don’t display them at the rides as they did at the previous incarnation of the Kaeson park. For tourists the price is much higher, 1 – 3 EUR, but then you don’t have to queue so it’s a kind of business class. FYI at Kaeson park if you wear a skirt they don’t let you on the rides, some of the female tour guides ‘forget’ to take trousers so that they can avoid going on the rides, others among them love going on the rides, they don’t have to pay when they take tourists there
How does the Pyongyang folk park differ from the folk village in Sariwon? (Besides obviously the central location!)
It’s much much larger, the Sariwon one is very small. The Pyongyang one looks huge and much better.
Are North Korea leaving Mangyongdae and Taesongsan to decay?
If they were why wouldn’t they just tear them down, or not let people go? I don’t think this is remotely true to be honest, tourists can go to the other parks, nobody seems bothered by them, I don’t think they judge the progress of their state on the condition of a funfair or two!
This article was edited by Megan McHugh ([email protected])