REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: What North Korea's Dolphins Say About the Country

by Bill Neely /  / Updated 

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North Korea gave Western journalists rare access to Pyongyang around the 70th anniversary of the founding of the country's ruling Communist Party. NBC News' Bill Neely was there — and shares his observations below.

PYONGYANG, North Korea — Catching a show at North Korea's dolphinarium should be on everyone's bucket list.

First, there's the place itself: a pristine facility that wouldn't look out of place in Florida. A North Korean government official smiled broadly when I told him I'd been to very few dolphinariums as big as this one. I neglected to tell him that in fact I've been to very few dolphinariums — period.

It was huge and — as ever in this state — apparently built on the personal initiative of the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. He was lavishly praised in the introduction to the show and the audience clapped enthusiastically, as if to order.

The dolphins appeared to obey every command, too. They jumped through hoops when ordered, they reacted instantly to every whistle and command. They had clearly been trained from a very young age to do exactly as they were told and not to put a flipper out of place.

Like North Korea's obedient population, they were rewarded when they performed and denied when they did not. And I don't mean to be unkind to ordinary North Koreans, who treated us with kindness, courtesy and a healthy mix of curiosity and suspicion.

Related: Historic North Korean Parade Shows Kim Jong Un's Military Might

The three performing dolphins made sure they played their part what's probably a staple of every dolphin show in North Korea — the ritual humiliation of a Westerner. An unfortunate visiting journalist was picked from his seat and asked to come to the edge of the pool, along with a woman from Pyongyang. The host asked one watching dolphin if it liked the look of the man. The smart dolphin duly shook its head and the arena erupted with laughter.

When asked the same question about the North Korean woman, the canny creature nodded its approval enthusiastically and local pride was satisfied, as the “Western imperialist" vigorously shuffled back to his seat.

It wasn’t only the trained dolphins who seemed intent on showcasing North Korean exceptionalism —the official giving the NBC News team a tour was determined I should know what a feat of engineering the building was.

North Korean trainers direct dolphins at a dolphinarium in Pyongyang in 2014.
North Korean trainers direct dolphins at a dolphinarium in Pyongyang in 2014.Vincent Yu / AP file

"The sea water for the dolphins is pumped through pipes from the coast for sixty miles," he said.

This in a country suffering from a prolonged drought, and where repeated crop failures led to the deaths of an estimated million people in the 1990s. The country is still dependent on international aid, and outside the privileged bubble of the capital Pyongyang, food is not something North Koreans take for granted.

The dolphins were fed often during their performance. I wondered if some in the audience thought this a waste, since fish or meat is a luxury for most of the country. Most of North Korea's population of 24 million are vegetarian by necessity, not choice.

Related: How Paranoid North Korea Is Still Waging War on the United States

Back to the show, which curiously for a country which officially despises America and whose people are taught to hate America from the age of five, contained music from a Hollywood movie. One of the performers, dressed as a mermaid, twirled underwater to the tune of Disney's “Little Mermaid.”

Nobody appeared to sing along, which was perhaps just as well for them as merely listening to songs from the enemy state of South Korea — never mind music from the imperialist-running-dog-capitalists of Detroit and Memphis — could get you months in a forced labor camp.

Inside North Korea

Oct. 8, 201502:41

Fed a daily diet of unceasing propaganda about the great deeds of their genius leaders and heroic comrades, they exist in a state that denies them almost any access to the outside world. No one at the dolphinarium was distracted by surfing the Internet on their cell phone. There is no Internet as we know it in North Korea. Cellphones can make local calls but no one is able to call outside the country. Possession of such a device could result in a stay in a gulag, followed by execution.

Photos: Lavish Parade Marks North Korean Anniversary

But it must be said that at the dolphinarium, the North Koreans put on a good show. They do spectacle well and are among the very best in the world at parades — all that drilling from an early age pays off. They are the world champions at collective goose-stepping and the mass adoration of their leader.

So make sure to add the dolphinarium to your next trip to Pyongyang.

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