16th Apr 2012, Pyongyang, North Korea
This morning sees us getting up early. We have another special inclusion to the tour programme, a visit to the Grand Monument, on Mansudae Hill. It is a last minute welcomed addition to our itinerary. The Grand Monument is one of the most sacred sites in North Korea, and up till last week, featured the 20m high bronze figure of Kim Il Sung, with his right arm raised to the sky, indicating the way forward. Today however, as part of the celebrations of his 100th birthday, the monument has had an addition. By the elder Kim’s side is the equally impressive bronze statue of the recently departed Kim Jong Il. North Koreans who visit Pyongyang will go to this sacred site at least once, and now have the opportunity to shed twice the amount of tears in due respect of their leaders.
Interestingly, I dug up an older picture of Kim Il Sung’s bronze figure and compared it to the current one. Elder Kim is no longer looking stern. Instead, he now wears glasses and cuts a smiling fatherly figure, alongside a similarly bespectacled, smiling Kim Jong Il. Notice also how the Mao collar has been replaced with a suit and tie. We probably belong to the first batch of tourists to see the upgraded Mansudae Grand Monument, so the guides who got us here this morning deserve a lot of credit. Of course, we carry out the customary respectable bow to the leaders, and the mass of local Koreans around us do the same.
On either side of the two bronze figures are statues that show the everyday Korean’s struggle for freedom, against the Japanese occupation, and the US Imperialists during the Korean War (known as the Fatherland Liberation War here. Also, since the Mansudae monument was up on a hill, our guide points to us the Monument to Party Foundation, visible in the distance. The monument built in 1995 features the typically communist symbols of the hammer and sickle, representing the workers and the peasantry. Additionally, the monument one ups the communists by also having a writing brush, which represents the intellectuals. Over to the right of the two figures of the Kims, you can also see the Chollima steed monument. Chollima was a fabled flying horse that could travel a thousand ri (about 400km) a day. The idea of Chollima was instilled by the Kim Il Sung after the Korean war, when he wanted the citizens to rebuild a flattened Pyongyang rapidly.
Next up, we head for the main event for the day, a visit to the Panmunjom and the DMZ. The demilitiarized zone border. Last year, I visited the southern side of the DMZ, on a half day tour from Seoul, and it will be just as exciting to see North Korea’s take on the DMZ.
But first, we have to take the bus to Kaesong, the southernmost city bordering South Korea. The bus journey gives me a chance to see more of Pyongyang, including the celebratory flags, and the still festively clad citizens. Sure, the sights on the itinerary are interesting, but it is the everyday goings-on of the locals that foreign tourists find more intriguing. And coming to North Korea during a time as important as the 100th birthday of The Great Leader allows for a greater amount of interaction with the celebratory (and thus less inhibited) locals.
We reach Panmunjom and are briefed on the layout of the area by a stern looking soldier. Then we cross a vehicle barrier on foot, before getting back on the bus and making our way to the Joint Security Area. Here is where, deep within the DMZ, soldiers from the South and the North stood face to face, on either side of the demarcation line. On this occasion however, there are no soldiers on the other side. Only here on the North the soldiers stand at alert. There were several buildings: the three blue ones are under North Korean administration and the 4 white ones under the South. We enter the armistice hall, one of the blue buildings, and have a look at the place where negotiations between the North Koreans and the US-led UN forces took place. Since the building straddled the demarcation line, if I crossed over to the other end of the room, I will technically be in South Korea. And of course, I walk across to peer at the flags depicting the aggressor countries. So if anyone asks, I have been to South Korea twice!
Here is an interesting anecdote. Back then, the entire Panmunjom village area was a common neutral area where both North Korean and South Korean could move around freely. This was until in 1976, a group of US-led soldiers went to chop down a poplar tree which was blocking the view from one of the South’s checkpoints. A group of North Korean soldiers appeared and protested against the felling of the tree, and when this was ignored, bizarrely attacked the US and South Korean troops, killing two US soldiers in the process. After that incident, the demarcation line was drawn, guards placed on either side and this arrangement has stood till today.
We drop by a couple of buildings we passed by on the way to the JSA: The armistice talks building and another large hall where the armistice itself was signed. Both were deep in the North, so if you go to Panmunjom from the South Korean side, you will miss out on the exhibits and the posters in this hall.
Enough of DMZ and soldiers. We next head towards the Koryo Museum, a complex of buildings originally built in the 11th century. Known as the Songgyungwan Confucian Academy back then, it was a seowon, the site where aspiring scholars learnt the Confucian classics, then taking the Imperial Examinations, known as the gwageo. If they passed the examinations, they would gain acclaim and obtain high ranking posts in the government. This is very much like the Chinese civil service examination, and probably caught on in Korea from the Song Dynasty.
Nowadays, the complex houses the Koryo Museum. The buildings have been rebuilt in the late 16th century after a fire burned everything down. The museum houses relics and artefacts from the Koryo Dynasty, whose capital back then was right here in present day Kaesong. Architecture, ancient coins, weapons used during the Koryo dynasty, all these were on display. One interesting scroll showed that back then, a cow was worth 4 men. In my opinion, a little sprucing up and some PR could make this site a contender for a UNESCO heritage site, to add on to the lone North Korean entry, the Koguryo Tomb Complex.
Again, as elsewhere, the highlight here is the locals. There seems to be a wedding going on. Well, several weddings actually, the complex apparently attracts newly-minted couples, along with their processions trailing behind. They pose for photographs under ancient architecture, while we eager tourists eagerly use this opportunity to snap away. We watch them perform little rituals and on our way out, we even became part of the welcoming party, as one pair of bride and groom walks out through the gates to enthusiastic clapping.
Next up on the itinerary is a visit to the USS Pueblo. Back in 1968, the US spyship was captured by North Korea and its crew of 82 was held hostage, until they agreed to a written apology and admission that they had been spying on North Korea, and promising that they would never do it again. It sounds like a naughty child being punished, but back then, it was a major incident requiring national attention. They were then released (one guy was killed during the capture) but the ship itself was kept and moved here to Pyongyang, where it currently is moored on the Taedong river.
We arrive at the site of the USS Pueblo, now a tourist attraction, complete with shell holes made by North Korean navy gunners when the Pueblo tried to outrun them. I peek into the so-called Crypto Room, where spying equipment was found. On one of the walls is framed the apology received from the US Government. Also, we sit through a video retelling how the Pueblo was captured, and how the crew finally admitted to spying on the North.
At more than 100 meters underground, the Pyongyang metro is the deepest metro in the world. The ride from Puhung to Yonggwang station is undoubtedly one of the highlights of a visit to North Korea, since it allows the tourist to come into contact with locals waiting for the train. Visually too, the two stations are spectacular, with chandeliers above and walls decorated with murals such as the one depicting Kim Il Sung among workers. I take the escalator down and marvel at the décor, at the same time waving at the locals coming up in the other direction. Inside the train carriage, the North Korean locals are seated, and they are obviously as amused by us as we are by them. Some of us take a few posed shots with a young girl. I thought to myself: I’ve seen some Koreans with their own cameras or even camera phones over the past couple days, so what’s not to let them take photos with the foreigner (not me, I’m Asian so no one ever wants to take a picture with me) with their cameras as a souvenir. I have yet to see this, yet I’m sure, barring a government directive not to bother the tourists, that given a chance the locals would gladly snap a photograph of themselves with a foreign tourist on their cameras.
Anyway, such close unplanned interactions between foreign tourists and locals are rare during these tours. So it is to our advantage that we are here during the 100th birthday of Comrade Kim. Our guide tells us that there will be a mass dance at Kim Il Sung square later this evening, and as usual, we are not privy to it. However, our resourceful guides don’t get to where they are by being useless. They tell us that they will try their best to get us a glimpse of the celebrations, again something out of the normal itinerary. It is a big deal too, we felt, since the next similar celebrations would be a hundred years later!
And so we are treated to a most spectacular mass dance soirée and an extraordinary display of fireworks. We see the mass dance from afar, from one of the side streets leading out from Kim Il Sung Square, but it is the nearest a foreign tourist can get to what is obviously a glorious local celebration.
I include at the end of this lengthy post with a line from one of the below books:
“Kim Il Sung jusongimun chamuro uidaehan gongsanjuitusaisimyo jinjonghan hyongmyongga isimnida.”
Which translates to: President Kim Il Sung is really the greatest communist fighter and true revolutionary.
Crane, C. (2007), Welcome to Pyongyang, London: Chris Boot
Willoughby, R. (2008), North Korea, Bradt Travel Guides