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Update June, 2017: Since our visit to North Korea in 2011, the recent death of American tourist Otto Warmbier, who was detained while visiting the country, is a tragic situation that is inexcusable. Accordingly, despite our feelings that tourism in North Korea has positive benefits by exposing the North Korean people to visitors from the outside world, we can no longer recommend that Americans visit the country. It is too easy for the DPRK to make them pawns for continuing tensions between the two countries.
Sights in North Korea scream “look at me,” much like a regime that consistently tries to make news in shocking fashion. Although the country is small—the size of Pennsylvania, with an economy comparable to Kalamazoo, MI—they sport some whoppers: the tallest, biggest, deepest and more.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK) really loves things that are the most-est; they are a country that will go to extremes to get noticed. Here are five unusual sights in North Korea that could be monuments, or just oddities, depending on your viewpoint:
1. World’s tallest Arch of Triumph
At 197 feet, this arch is 30 feet taller than its more well known rival in Paris. It was built to commemorate Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945. Despite its height, however, it will never top Parisian traffic. There are so few cars in Pyongyang that at any given time you can stand in the middle of the road passing through it.
2. Deepest subway on the planet
Burrowing over 330 feet underground, the 2-line Pyongyang Metro was built for protection from enemy attack as well as transportation. Traveling on this system is like taking a sort of Cold War carnival ride: the stations are eerily reminiscent of Stalinist metro stops in Russia, while the subway cars are literally leftovers from 1960s Berlin.
3. The (almost) tallest hotel in the world
That huge Flash Gordon-era structure looming over the Pyongyang skyline? That’s the Ryuogyong Hotel. When it broke ground in 1987 the 105-story hotel was going to be the tallest in the world. Construction stopped in 1992 due to funding problems and, despite a series of fits and starts, it remains unfinished. Time has passed the Ryuogyong by; in 2013 two hotels opened in Dubai that are taller. But it may still be the tallest unfinished hotel in the world.
4. Largest sports stadium anywhere
The Rungrado May Day Stadium is a giant circular arena that can seat a whopping 150,000 people. Throw some temporary bleachers on the playing field and you can cram in another 40,000 or so, as was done for a wrestling match in 1995. The white, multi-arched structure has been compared to an inverted magnolia blossom; to me it looked like a giant white tarantula ready to gobble up downtown Pyongyang. Of course you need a stadium this big when you have the . . .
5. Biggest show on earth
The Arirang Mass Games are a song and dance extravaganza using over 100,000 performers, many of them school-age children. Dubbed as a gymnastics and artistic festival, it runs for about six weeks every August & September. In 2007 Guinness World Records named it the largest show of its kind. Part Super Bowl half-time show, part rhythm gymnastics revue, and all DPRK propaganda, this 90-minute performance is truly a sight to behold. Photos alone cannot do it justice, watch the video for the full effect.
The architecture is designed to dazzle, hoping that visitors will see only the glitz of these unusual sights in North Korea. And that they won’t ask: What lurks beneath the shiny surface of this totalitiarian country?
Note: This article originally appeared on Travel + Escape