30 October 2011

Mangyongdae – The Last Funfair in North Korea

Have you ever wondered what there is for entertainment in a totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship with a dead but nevertheless eternal president? It sounds like something Eric Idle might ask in a Monty Python sketch and is an idle thought for us, perhaps. Yet for the people of North Korea the list of answers is hardly as endless as their deceased president’s rule.  Mangyongdae funfair would certainly feature high on the list. Yet from our perspective it is little more than a rusting death trap.

Situated about ten miles from the capital city of Pyongyang, Mangyongdae funfair is at first sight almost a parody of what should be a busy and thriving centre of amusement. Yet visitors from outside the stricken country, where up to 1 in 13 of the population has succumbed to famine over the last ten years have noted how empty the funfair seems to always be. Yet all the fun of the fair can be a deadly business in North Korea.

The rides at the park are so ramshackle that repairs are done on an as and when, ad hoc basis. To avoid the deaths of important North Koreans or overseas visitors (whose foreign currency is rather more important) local farmers are often recruited to test the rides for safety.  This must be the only place in the world where a knock on the door and the words you’re going to the funfair are met with dread.

Workers are often seen traipsing up and down the rides with basic tools, riveting a bolt back in to place here, bashing in a loose screw there. It doesn’t exactly inspire the visitor with confidence. Yet, you might think to yourself, it looks ramshackle, but surely they wouldn't let people on if it was unsafe? Take a closer look.

Other countries have health and safety laws which are bemoaned for their stringency and attention to detail.  Yet a glimpse of the alternative might just convince most people that the unconventional approach of the North Koreans to even the most basic of safety standards would not be a suitable substitute. Harnesses regularly unlock on the rollercoaster leaving terrified passengers bearing down on them and counting the seconds until it is over (one way or another).  This really is a white knuckle ride, without exaggeration.

Or, if you would rather your knuckles the usual color, say hurrah and wave your hands in the air (like you don't care). Easy when there is little to keep you inside and possibly, just possibly, a kind of heaven for mischievous boys with a burgeoning Peter Pan syndrome or a death wish!

For some reason, ordinary North Koreans tend to avoid the park.

Yet when foreign journalists are, perplexingly, taken to see the fair - as if it is something of which to be proud – they are often left waiting for long periods on their bus before they can alight. It takes that long for the North Korean authorities to ship in a few busloads of their own people to make the park look half busy.

Nevertheless, if you can't get the people, you can get the army. Thousands of North Korea's military personnel risk the lives and limbs of their families each year to experience the closest thing they have to Disneyland. Sometimes the queues even get long for the rides which are still working. Yet the moment a foreign visitor, willing to pay thirty times more for a ride comes along, the North Koreans are pushed to the back of the queue, uniform or no.

If you don’t want to have a near death experience on the few rides that actually work there are a few alternatives. One of them is to pay your money and take your chances at the shooting gallery where you can have a go at shooting an imperialist aggressor.

It always seems unnecessarily harsh to chide children from comfortable backgrounds about the sheer luck of their accident of birth. You have probably been confronted with an elderly aunt insisting that you think about the poor children in XYZ when you refused to eat that last piece of cabbage on your plate. Yet for any parent it would be difficult not to point out to their iPhone smudging, tablet grasping, Wii laden children how different life is for their counterparts in North Korea.

So, if you have kids, next time they misbehave tell them that next year, instead of Disneyland it's going to be Mangyongdae. Or, if you can't quite get your tongue around the name, just say that funfair in North Korea. Show them these pictures, they will know what you mean.

Since the publication of this article we have learned that a new funfair has opened in Pyongyang which, while still very basic compared to our own, is a great improvement on Mangyongdae. Thanks to several of the people below for this information.