North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


Our first full day in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was a thorough immersion into the national capital city, Pyongyang.  Following overnight rain, we awoke to see Pyongyang shrouded in thick, grey fog.  However, we needn’t have worried, and as the fog cleared and blue sky revealed itself, the old adage that “the sun always shines more brightly over the liberated areas” seemed likely to hold true for the day to come.In the end, we enjoyed a fine sunny day with a top temperature of 29 degrees Celsius.

After a good buffet breakfast, enjoyed in a large restaurant whose location at first appeared more than obscure, we left the hotel at 8:30 am.  Our first stop was in central Pyongyang at a beautiful open area surrounded by fountains that was named, appropriately, Fountain Square.  The main fountain featured an elegant statue featuring dancing women, looking resplendent against a backdrop of a huge theatre whose exterior walls featured stunning mosaics showing scenes from the famous revolutionary opera, ‘Sea of Blood’.

Before leaving Fountain Square, I bought a bunch of flowers in preparation for our next stop - Mansudae.  Manudae is a hill that overlooks the city of Pyongyang, and it features two 20 metre high bronze statues, one of Kim Il Sung that was erected in 1982 to mark his 70th birthday) and the other of Kim Jong Il that was erected in 2012 following his death in December 2011.  It is customary for visitors to Pyongyang to lay flowers at the feet of the statues and show respect by bowing at the waist.  Our duties of etiquette duly completed, we explored the stunningly well executed bronze reliefs on either side of the two main figures that represent four phases in the struggle for Korean independence from outside forces.

When the first of the two main statues was being planned, it is said that the masses wanted the statue to be gold and 30 metres high.  Apparently, Kim Il Sung demonstrated his humility by insisting that the statue should be only 20 metres high and made of bronze, and the masses reluctantly complied with his wish.

Our third stop involved a short walk to the foot of Mansudae to the Chollima statue.  This tall statue shows a mythical flying horse named “Chollima” who was said to be able to fly 400 kilometres per day.  Chollima became a symbol of rapid industrial and economic progress in North Korea, and many works have been undertaken “at Chollima speed”.  The other great attractions at this location were Pyongyang’s three largest and best street propaganda posters, looking enticingly photogenic in the bright morning sunlight.

Our next stop was a real highlight of the morning’s experiences.  The Grand People’s Study House is a huge, ornately roofed building in central Pyongyang that serves both as the nation’s central library and an adult education centre.  The statistics of the building (600 rooms) and the collection of books (tens of millions of books, 60% of which are in foreign languages) were mind-boggling.  After visiting reading rooms, a lecture hall and other facilities, we were invited into an English class.  After first observing the class, we were encouraged to engage in small group conversations with the students, which was informative, enjoyable and impressive for the high standard of English spoken by many of the students.  We really had put on our thinking caps as we were asked questions such as “what is the difference between a shopping mall and a department store?”, “in what ways are theme parks different from amusement parks or fun fairs?” and “why would someone want an electronic organiser when they have a mobile phone?”.

Our visit to the Grand People’s Study House finished with viewing across Kim Il Sung Square from the balcony on the top floor.  The square looked fabulous, backed by the Taedong River and the Tower of the Juche Idea, and the view was even more impressive as thousands of students filled the front half of the square, forming the shape of the flame from a torch (representing Juche), practising for a torch parade that will be held about six weeks from now on 10th October.

There were still three more places to visit before lunch, although these were all fairly brief.  First we visited the Foreign Languages Bookstore, where many members of the group took the opportunity to purchase magazines, DVDs, badges, flags and of course, books.  The books that articulated the DPRK view of World War II and the Korean War attracted special interest, together with the book “DPRK-US Showdown” which seems to be replacing the increasingly difficult to find classic “The US Imperialists Started the Korean War”.

We took the short walk to Kim Il Sung Square, the large open area that marks the functional centre of Pyongyang which had seen earlier from the balcony of the Grand people’s Study House.  The students were still practising for the torch parade, and looked as though they would be continuing to do so for many hours each day until the 10th October event.

Our final stop before lunch was the Stamps Museum, which included a shop that sells stamps, postcards, philatelic albums, and most surprisingly of all, T-shirts.  This was a popular stop for those who wished to purchase some of the DPRK’s refreshingly vivid postcards to send friends; the DPRK is becoming one of the few countries in the world where it is still possible to buy and send postcards.

Lunch was in the same underground restaurant where we had dinner the previous evening, and indeed the menu was almost identical too.  We had caught up some time despite the packed morning, and we were thus able to have a short time for rest before setting out on the afternoon program at 3:00 pm.

Our first stop after lunch was the Mansudae Arts Studio.  This large complex in suburban Pyongyang produces all the top quality propaganda posters and sculptures for North Korea, and employs hundreds of artists who work for a fixed salary paid by the government (like all North Korean workers).  After inspecting three floors of exhibition rooms, we toured the artists’ work rooms, observing watercolour and oil painting as well as ceramics and pottery.  The quality of the work was stunning, and it was a privilege to observe the artists at their work.

Our second stop continued the fine arts theme with a visit to the Korean Central Art Gallery on Kim Il Sung Square.  The practices were still fully underway for the torch parade, so we made our way through the crowds and into the country’s national art gallery.

There are two main sections in the art gallery, traditional pre-revolutionary Korean art and modern post-revolutionary art.  We received a thorough explanation of the traditional art, and although we did see some of the modern art, we had to miss many of the best works because we had lingered so long in the (much less interesting) traditional section.

Our final stop for the say was the Tower of the Juche Idea.  Juche (which is sometimes also called Kimilsungism) is North Korea’s guiding philosophy, and it is usually translated as “man is the master of his own destiny”, or more simply as “self-reliance”.  The philosophy is celebrated by a 170 metre high tower, comprising a 150 metre high tower of 25,550 granite blocks (one for each day of Kim Il Sung’s life at the time of his 70th birthday when it was built in 1982) topped with a 20 metre high glass ‘flame’ that is lit up at night.

It is possible to take a lift to the base of the flame for great views over Pyongyang, and everyone in the group elected to take this option.  No-one was disappointed, as the air was clear and the views were exceptional to the north, east and south - the views to the west being hazy in the late afternoon sunshine, and restricted a little for security reasons.

As dusk descended, we proceeded to a hotpot restaurant in the diplomatic quarter for dinner.  We were given a choice of fish or pork, and then instructed to prepare our own individual hotpot dinners at the table.

Despite the long day, almost everyone in the group elected to take up the offer of a half-hour evening walk through the streets of Pyongyang.  We began among the new high rise housing blocks on Mansudae Street that were erected to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in 2012, and then continued to the south along Sungri Street, through Kim Il Sung Square (where the torch parade practices were still in full swing) and on to the Pyongyang Theatre.  Many of the public buildings looked very impressive with their floodlighting, and the temperatures in the low 20s made ideal walking conditions.

We finally returned to the hotel at 9:30 pm, a full 13 hours after the day’s program had begun.  It was a long but deeply satisfying day - although for the record, 9:30 pm is a bit late to start the day’s clothes washing and writing this daily diary!

Day 4 - Pyongyang


3 September 2015