The Pyongyang Subway and North Korean Stand-up

by Gabriel Mizrahi on November 9, 2011

On the escalator into Pyongyang’s mass-transit underworld, I asked one of our guides why the subway is built so deep.

“Loose soil,” she responded, gripping my elbow.

“Cool in the summer, warm in the winter,” said another guide.

Structural requirements aside, the subway was clearly designed with war in mind. The tunnels double as a massive bomb shelter or vast storage space when the inevitable occurs. We inquired until one of our guides relented.

“Anti-bombing,” she conceded, though I later learned that this is a well-known and openly admitted fact.

We were only allowed to ride the subway between a certain number of stops, and we were only allowed to exit at two stations (“Glory” and “Resurrection,” naturally). Even the subway cars were presided over by the Kims, their austere portraits hovering over the passengers. Outside, pink chandeliers and white marble cast the stations in a rosy glow while locals hurried toward the exits. After a few days of watching the citizens operate, I noticed that they all seemed so mechanically focused on moving. Where are they all going?

Where they’re told. One afternoon we learned that university students, supposedly on summer holiday, had been dismissed from the academic year completely and sent to build homes in the countryside. A gap in the workforce demanded bodies, and the student population was available. The able-bodied are university students one day, conscripted laborers the next, if that is what the DPRK

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The news resurrected a term from my management consulting days: human capital. The eponymous division of the firm I once worked for advised companies on all matters human, from organizational efficiency to employee development. The precursor to that term, “human resources,” is only slightly less severe than the chilling “human capital,” which now feels so utterly… statist.

The same utilitarianism governs the arts. Citizens who show creative promise are chosen from a young age to entertain their fellow citizens. (Imagine that: being chosen to pursue the arts. I confess that in this one respect I warmed to a culture that treats art as more than a whimsy to be indulged or an accident to be stumbled into. My enthusiasm was later tempered during a visit to Pyongyang’s art factory. If art is a noble cause, then it is also a duty.) Consider, for example, the career path for a stand-up comedian in Pyongyang:

“Student must to be funny,” James Bond Villain explained. “Making other kids laughing. Teacher must to notice and recommend. Then they go to the school for the comedy.”

Once a teacher recommends a student for the profession, the student appears

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in front of a panel of judges (think Flashdance, but with jokes). If approved, he will eventually perform in local clubs, where he will make up for the dearth of Kim Jong-il impressions with a solid repertoire of dick jokes, which account for more than

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half of local humor. (Our guides shared the North Korean affinity for phallic quips in the exquisite Songam Cavern, going so far as to ask me which stalagmite “looked like mine.” In the dark, it was hard to tell.) For a country that embraces its Dionysian impulses, there is surprisingly no two-drink minimum—in fact, there is no alcohol served in the comedy clubs at all. Imagine how hard those comedians have to work for a laugh.

What do comedians make fun of, if not religion and politics? Without those pillars of stand-up, what else is there?

Our other tour guide, a porcelain face in

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her twenties, giggled.

“You want to know a joke? OK. There is a boy. And he keeps saying that he has to pee. All day he is saying that he has to pee. So his mother tells him, it is rude to say you have to pee. If you have to pee, just say you have to sing.

“That night he wakes up because he has to pee. So he wakes up his father and he tells him, ‘Father, father, I have to sing.’

“And the father says, ‘OK, but do it quietly in my ear.’”


What’s in the Train Museum? (Hint: Not just trains.) »

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