The great social experiment of the latter 20th century that was Communism is finally coming to an end. I’ve just visited the last bastion of Communism – North Korea – for my second time and the changes are dramatic.


Seven years ago there were no traffic lights because there was no traffic. There was no traffic because there were practically no cars. Imagine a 10-lane wide highway running over 100km to the DMZ (separating North and South Korea) with absolutely no vehicles.

Imagine the one North Korean vehicle I did see on a remote and particularly lonely stretch of road. This military truck ran on wood. Yes, wood, as in dead trees. Soldiers in the back of the truck continuously fed chunks of wood into a fuel barrel that propelled the vehicle forward, belching out campfire smoke. It was painfully slow.

2019… some things haven’t changed so much

Now there are lots of cars, so many that the famous “traffic girls” have been replaced with traffic lights. And no one seems to know how to drive.

In 2012, I remember seeing a table set up outside a grey drab concrete block apartment, so typical of Communist countries. An old woman seemed to be selling some sort of snacks. Our guides (you’re required to have two guides at all times) made some excuse about it being authorized by her work unit. Cracks in the system.


Now, shops are everywhere. Outside the subway, multiple stands compete for customers eager to snap up junk food and plastic toys.


Once quiet streets are now lined with barber shops, furniture stores, and supermarkets. The ubiquitous rickety bicycle is still the main means of transport, now joined by a growing number of e-bikes and motorcycles.


It’s hard to imagine the face of a city changing much more quickly. There are so many new skyscrapers and they’re modern, stylish, beautiful.


There’s also electricity. On my first visit, we stayed at a hotel in a small town. Across the street, the two buildings within our view were all lit up at night. But if you looked through the gap between those two buildings, everything was dark.


Much of what you see in North Korea is an illustration. Well, no longer. It’s starting to feel a bit like Dubai.

It must all sound so normal: wearing clothing that isn’t an exact copy of everyone else’s, jeans, shorts, solar panels, street lights, taxis, pet dogs. Pizza. But all of these things are new. So new. They just didn’t exist in North Korea seven years ago.

Kimchi pizza: unexpectedly good
Dinner: squirting ignited gasoline onto clams

What’s the cause of all these changes? I first visited right after the death of Kim Jong Il. Is Kim Jong Un opening up the country? Is it Chinese money pouring in, like this glass factory where all of the German machinery was purchased by the Chinese and 60-90% of the glass produced is sent to China? North Korea is becoming “China’s China”.

Or is it smartphones? Seven years ago most North Koreas were lucky to have a landline powered by a car battery. Now they have their noses stuck in their phones just like we do.

I still have so many questions about this fascinating country. Like, what is happening with the massive amount of gold dredging that is tearing up the country’s rivers? Where does that gold end up going? And who profits from it?

North Korea must be one of the most rapidly changing countries on earth. There is so much economic growth, so many new buildings, cars, shops and smartphones. And freedom?

8 thoughts on “North Korea: Communist No More

  1. 17 Oct. Hi Justin,

    I have just watched the photos you made of North Korea. In 7 years great changes made. I have a hunch that it is Chinese investors poured money into building large complexes for different purposes and many cars driving around, right? Thanks for the photos Justin.


    On Thu, Oct 17, 2019 at 5:14 PM Eating Snow Around the World wrote:

    > Justin posted: “The great social experiment of the latter 20th century > that was Communism is finally coming to an end. I’ve just visited the last > bastion of Communism – North Korea – for my second time and the changes are > dramatic. Seven years ago there were no traf” >

  2. All that gold is being sent to China to pay for this modernization. China has been hoarding gold. They see the writing on the wall that all fiats around the world will collapse and a return to the gold standard is imminent. My guess is some sort of gold backed crypto will emerge and become the new form of money.

    1. That’s insightful, Ray, and I have to agree with you. What a turn of fortunes for North Korea. They’re lucky they have so much gold just sitting in their river beds. Who knew?

  3. Thanks Pam!

    Of all the places I’ve travelled, there’s something about North Korea that just fascinates me. It’s such a mystery and visiting just brought up more questions. On my first trip the Obama administration allowed American citizens to visit and I made friends with quite a few. They were treated well by the Koreans who just wanted to share their rather different point of view. I hope one day relations improve & you’ll be able to visit.

  4. The truth is that NO ONE really knows what’s going on in North Korea because it’s an intentional closed book to journalists, international intervention and even the slightest peak of life inside the secretive state. 25 million people and no info gets out? Impossible. I’m writing about this very topic in length after studying NK for the last 15 years. Ugly place and a gigantic deception is being played out by China, USA and South Korea.

    1. Thanks Ralph. That definitely matches up with my first visit to North Korea in 2012 but the country has changed dramatically since Kim Jong Un took power. It’s a pretty busy place now. There’s lots of traffic, even traffic jams, the streets are full of people going to shops to buy junk food and plastic toys. The subway is jammed to standing-room only, street cars and buses are even more full. I loved visiting North Korea when it was so mysterious that conspiracy theories like this seemed possibly believable. Long gone are those days. It’s just another Asian country, albeit one with a particular culture and political system.

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