Disco but no Democracy

Even in the dark heart of the Hermit Kingdom, dance music entices a skittish party crowd to pass through the secret doors to the only disco in the People's Paradise, where the Great Leader allows the Lambada and Elton John but no liberty

By Ron Gluckman /Pyongyang, North Korea

THE CUBAN WITH THE SHIRT SLIT to the waist unsuccessfully attempts to solicit a dance from a Korea cutie in thick facial paint while two boisterous Russians loudly trade vodka shots with an African diplomat at the bar. The booming sound system switches from turgid Taiwanese pop as several older couples, Germans, Poles and Algerians, rise to shake their sizeable booties to a slow Viennese waltz.

Then, the music swerves from Lambada to Russian rock and back to a slow, schmaltzy number that inspires the couples to press tight together. Elton John's "Nikita" never sounded so fitting.

No other dance hall in the world is quite so eclectic as the secret disco at the Changgwangsan Hotel in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.

In a Stalinist state where party is not a verb but a lifelong commitment, the Changgwangsan Dance Hall has become much more than the wackiest weekend wiggle on Earth. It's the only discotheque in all of North Korea, the isolated socialist stronghold that may be the only place on Earth that still hasn't succumbed to Saturday Night Fever.

The local population has never heard Madonna, tasted a Big Mac, or suffered through a karaoke craze. Yet, behind the hideous glow of the blue and pink neon sign and under the dazzle of an outdated crystal ball, disco has finally penetrated where democracy hasn't.

"Cue up, man," says the Syrian student when we meet on the street and I inquire about the local club scene. My curious look produces an equally unclear explanation, "You know, fix a closet."

As it turns out, he means a cassette. Changgwangsan guests bring their own music tapes, since North Korea has never had a hit list, not the kind related to records, anyway. Radio stations sold within this repressive regime have dials permanently fixed to the two state-run stations, which eschew club mixes in favor of a steady stream of self-congratulatory political propaganda. An intriguing beat, at best, but you cannot dance to it.

The Changgwangsan, near the Potong River, has evolved gradually into Pyongyang's only unregulated nightspot. A few years ago, management boxed off one of the hotel's ballrooms for the use of bored African students, who brought a boom box and gratefully downed beers while the capital city slumbered.

Nowadays, diplomats and members of visiting delegations flock to the joint in limousines or rental cars. North Korea has no taxis, but a dollar or two easily convinces state drivers to deliver passengers on the sly to the unofficial disco.

Another dollar gets guests past the door. Inside, a line of Christmas-tree lights border a big red rose projected on a screen above the stage, strangely reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, one of many western bands that have never been heard in this land that remains locked in the icy grip of the Cold War.

North Koreans are supposedly not permitted inside, but many risk the wrath of the strict socialist state by sneaking in. They are given away by lapel buttons bearing the face of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, which North Koreans must wear at all times.

They are joined by Cubans, Nicaraguans, Czechs, Albanians, Jordanians, Africans and a swarm of Syrian students. "Korea is a nice place to study," says one Syrian acupuncture student. "There's not much to do, though. This is it."

Pyongyang claims a pathetic pick-up scene, too. The only amorous activity observed on a hot Saturday night involves the warm welcome of many Arab males. "We have been here a long time, five years for me," explains one Jordanian in the midst of a major hugging and kissing session with an Palestinian man.

Meanwhile, the Koreans remain sedately on the sidelines, sipping surprisingly tasty North Korean beer or vodka from Poland and the Soviet Union.

They become unusually animated, however, at the sound of western music, which remains a risqué import in this staunch socialistic state. A brief Bon Jovi tune draws cheers, but disco numbers like "It's Raining Men" and "Right On Time," seem more familiar and fill the dance floor. Thunderous applause greets Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean."

"The Moonwalk?" responds a perplexed Korean in cool fedora and full-length coat, replete with requisite Kim Il Sung button. He has, of course, never seen Michael Jackson's dance step. Nor, for that matter, is he aware that men have visited the moon.

North Korea is completely cut off from the western world, hidden behind a wall of hate constructed by Kim Il Sung. On the walls of every museum and train station hang photographs depicting the aggression of American and South Korean forces, referred to respectively as "imperialists" or "hooligans" and "stooges" or "puppets."

Yet the Changgwangsan bar shows a taste for western society, at least in the liquids in stock: Watson's cola, White Horse whiskey, Asashi and Sapporo beer from Japan and Cafe de Paris Champagne. Western cigarettes are revered widely and Marlboros have become the street currency of choice.

An even more extensive inventory of western goods are available at Pyongyang hotels, which are most impressive. The 105-story Ryugyong Hotel dominates the city skyline. But the windows are still boarded in the pyramid-shaped hotel that seems another incredibly expensive Kim Il Sung ego trip that will likely never be finished.

The best hotel in town remains the Koryo, a 47-story hotel with twin towers and revolving restaurants atop each. It has an indoor swimming pool, many bars and restaurants, one of which offers a musical cabaret show nightly for Koreans visiting from abroad, who form the largest group of tourists. Judging from the gold chains and unsightly polyester outfits, the place might qualify as a disco, however the music predates your parents.

Pyongyang is a pretty city of wide, clean boulevards and spacious squares filled with statues and fountains. But it is also a largely deserted, sterile, sexless city. Diplomats say old people and pregnant women have only been allowed inside Pyongyang within the last couple years. The result is a ghost city of empty streets and lovely parks with nobody upon the benches.

It's a soulless city in a soulless state. James Brown wouldn't get past customs and the Blues Brothers would be busted at the border. Nor will they be heard at the Changgwangsan dance club. "Hot Pants" is too hot for the last stronghold of the Cold War.

"It's boring," admits Horsch, a rotund, red-faced German trader who has been working in North Korea a year. "I hate discos. And this is the same scene every weekend."

Then he finishes his beer and unenthusiastically orders another. "But it's all we have."


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter based in Hong Kong, who roams around the nether reaches of Asia for a variety of publications, including Time, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, Discovery, the Sydney Morning Herald, Los Angeles Times and Peak Magazine, which ran this story in 1992. For other stories on North Korea, click on Cinema Stupido, Great Escape, or On the Border.

Five minutes of fame, that's what they say everyone is due. In my case, it's more like XXX minutes. A band in the UK, the Disco Students, released a CD in spring 2004, including a song called, The Last Disco in North Korea, apparently inspired by this story. You can hear the song at  

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