Glimpses: A Picture of Inefficiency



One of the themes of Kim Jong Un’s leadership has been an attention to sport and leisure. The country has a number of theme parks, mostly in and around Pyongyang and most dating to the Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il era. However, in an infamous incident in May 2012 Kim Jong-un visited the Mangyongdae Funfair several miles out of the city and upbraided its staff for allowing the park to fall into disrepair. No less than Choe Ryong-hae, Director of the General Political Bureau of the Korean People’s Army, was called on to upgrade the park, presumably drawing on military labor. In 2013, the government opened a new water park in Pyongyang; Washington Post coverage by Max Fisher was pitch perfect on—shall we call them—the contradictions of this effort, including a military parade at the unveiling. And the Masik Pass ski project was elevated to the status of ideological exemplar back in 2013 as well.

After several years, a small suite of photos on Imgur of the Taesongsan Fun Fair is making the rounds of social media; NKNews (behind a paywall) picked up the story. Taken in 2012, the photos look like they show a human roller coaster, with lines of people walking on the tracks.

In fact, there is a very much simpler explanation: the picture shows corvée labor—perhaps military—being mobilized to upgrade the facility. Given low labor costs, this could be seen as efficient. But setting aside the question of how much money the regime spends on entertaining the political and military elite, the suite can be interpreted as a picture of inefficiency. If the personnel are military, the pictures are a reminder of the tremendous share of the young working-age population tied up in military service; the peace dividend to the country from demobilization would be substantial. If civilian, it shows a lack of understanding of the division of labor. Why aren’t functions like maintenance of theme parks specialized? Or put differently, why aren’t these people doing something else?

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