I've been on a North Korean rollercoaster and it was awesome

Over the last few months President Kim Jong Un has been photographed and videoed seemingly trying to breathe life into his capital. He visited a basketball court, cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony (admittedly, for The Exhibition of Arms and Equipment of the Korean People's Army) and politely clapped while dancers dressed as Disney characters frolicked on stage. But his visits to amusement parks have arguably drawn the most attention. In May, he called an amusement park he visited "pitiful."On Wednesday, North Korean state media announced that Kim Jong Un was visiting yet another amusement park-and announced for the first time, almost casually, that the woman accompanying him was his wife.

Surprisingly, Pyongyang actually has a really good amusement park. As I wrote on this blog in January, on the last night of a September visit to the country, my guides announced with great pleasure that we would be visiting the Kaeson Fun Fair. Pyongyang, with its tall, decrepit buildings, wide boulevards traversed by rotting trolleys, and citizens who seem to be still even when they're moving, feels like a post-apocalyptic Detroit. Needless to say I had low expectations for the Ferris wheels of Pyongyang.

Boy was I wrong.

The park had brand new rides, allegedly and believably imported from Italy (Unfortunately, this doesn't appear to be the park Kim Jong Un visited with his wife).  The pirate-ship ride elicited shrieks from the North Koreans and the foreign tourists because it was a genuinely and enjoyably riveting. I also rode the bumper cars and an exhilirating belly down ‘flying' roller coaster, dubbed the superman ride.

A restaurant sold burgers and soda (though generic versions; there's still no Coca Cola in North Korea), and stands around the park sold glasses of water for what at the time worked out to be around six cents. In the parts of Pyongyang we were allowed to visit, we saw a lot of dour, unsmiling North Koreans. But those at the park appeared genuinely excited and happy to be on the rides; they screamed in fear as the Pirate Ship dipped and clowned around taking photographs in front of an artificial garden. It was a disarmingly normal experience.

As for that foreigner riding the amusement park ride with Kim Jong Un? It's possible that he's a relative of Joe Dresnok, an American who defected to North Korea in 1962 and has lived there ever since, or a foreign diplomat or businessperson living in Pyongyang, of which there are dozens, if not hundreds, of Caucasians. In any case, it wasn't me.

Ray Cunningham


Researchers test Europe’s sewage for drugs

Researchers from Oslo's Norwegian Institute for Water Research and Milan's Mario Negri Institute revealed results from their collaborative study on European sewage today.

Partnering with eleven other institutions across Europe, they traced illicit drug use across 19 European cities measuring biomarkers of cocaine, amphetamine, ecstasy, methamphetamine and cannabis in each city's sewer system.  In what was essentially a "city-wide urine test," scientists found cocaine usage was highest in Antwerp while Nordics preferred methamphetamines; Amsterdam had the highest use of cannabis (surprise, surprise).

While questionnaire-based studies, police reports, and medical data have been the predominant methods to map drug use in cities, studying sewage might yield the most "accurate and dependable results," according to Kevin Thomas -- one of the project's coordinators. He added that "with the right financing we have the potential for the first time to better understand the hard facts about illicit drug use worldwide."

Gert-Jan Geraeds, the Executive Publisher Environmental Science & Ecology at Elsevier, said:

"The importance of solid academic foundations to develop effective drug policies cannot be underestimated. It all comes together in this study: science and policy, on a local scale with global significance." 

Way to kill Europe's buzz, man.