North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


Two conflicts seem pivotal in defining North Korea’s identity, or psyche, today.

The first is the period of Japanese occupation (or ‘colonialism’ as it is referred to in North Korea) from 1905 to 1945.  This period is seen by Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel as being a particularly cruel time that ended only with Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II.  In the closing days of World War II, US troops invaded the southern part of the Korean peninsula, while Soviet troops invaded from the North.  Although Koreans had fought against the Japanese during the war, Korea rather than Japan emerged as the divided nation.

According to the North Korean narrative, local guerilla forces under the leadership of Kim Il Sung were pivotal in driving the Japanese out of the Korean peninsula.  When the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established in the northern part of Korea (three weeks after the US-dominated Republic of Korea was established south of the 38th parallel), Kim Il Sung became the first President, having been selected personally by Stalin as a suitable leader.

The second defining conflict was the Korean War, known in North Korea as the Great Victorious Fatherland Liberation War, that lasted from 25th June 1950 until an armistice was signed on 27th July 1953.  Often referred to in the West as the Forgotten War, the Korean War was the first pseudo-conflict between the post war superpowers, the USA and the USSR.  It was a horrific conflict involving carpet bombing and the destruction of most of Korea’s cities and infrastructure, with casualties numbering in the millions.

North Koreans believe that under the leadership of Kim Il Sung the US was defeated in the Korean War, and the date of the signing of the armistice is celebrated in the DPRK each year as a national holiday with fireworks, mass dancing and so on.  Koreans thus describe Kim Il Sung as the genius who defeated the two great imperialisms (Japan and the US) in a single generation.

North Koreans also believe that the US started the war, and did so in a deceptive way that was designed to blame the North for the outbreak of the war.  They have some documentation to support their case, and we saw some of this on our first visit for the day - the newly built Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.  Unlike the old museum, which was housed in huge box-like concrete building, the new building is a huge, impressive, extravagant building in which - unfortunately and somewhat surprisingly - photography is not permitted.

Our visit began in a huge open area lined with large socialist realist sculptures showing the armed forces where photography was, however, permitted.  The open area was lined with aircraft, tracks and artillery used during the Korean War, with captured US equipment on one side (usually showing the aftermath of being shot at, or shot down in the case of the aircraft) and DPRK equipment (in mint condition) on the other.

Having inspected the weapons and vehicles, we moved on to visit the captured American spy ship USS Pueblo.  I still remember the Pueblo incident, which continued from January to December 1968.  In January of that year, the North Koreans captured the Pueblo in North Korean waters as it was undertaking espionage activities while disguised as a civilian marine research vessel.  The crew was finally released in December after the US apologised in writing for the incident and undertook never to violate the DPRK’s territorial integrity again, but the ship was retained as a trophy.  Our visit to the Pueblo began with a very powerfully narrated video detailing the story of the incident, after which we looked through the ship (including the cryptography room) and looked at the crew’s written apologies.

We then walked the short distance to the new main building of the Museum (in which photography is banned).  This huge building is superbly built to an inspired design, and it is puzzling why the authorities would not want photographs taken as a way of promoting the DPRK view of the conflict.  After a brief tour of the entrance area (and being huge in scale this took a while), we saw a video that presented the North Korean case that the US started the Korean War.  The video made a compelling, if somewhat unbalanced case, including some fascinating documentary evidence, much of it captured when North Korean forces overran the US Embassy in Seoul a few days after the start of the conflict.

It would take three days to see the entire museum, so our visit was confined to several significant rooms that showed the course of the war, including some walk through rooms displaying field conditions and the tunnel system used by the DPRK troops.  Our visit to the museum concluded with a 15 minute circuit of a rotating diorama that showed the story of the victorious battle to take the temporary South Korean capital city of Taedong in 1950.  The statistics of the diorama were mind boggling - the circular painting surrounding the diorama is 15 metres high, 132 metres in circumference, it has a diameter of 42 metres and it contains representations of 20,000 people.  Strangely, photography was permitted of the diorama before the recent renovation, so I value the photos I took of this remarkable artifact at that time.

The visit to the Museum caused animated debate among our group as we travelled by bus to our second visit for the day, an extended ride on the Pyongyang Metro (subway).  At 100 metres below ground level, the Pyongyang subway is the world’s deepest underground railway system, and its two lines carry about 45,000 people per weekday, or about 70,000 on Sundays and holidays.

After descending the long escalator, our trip began at Revival Station, which is richly decorated with mosaics showing the DPRK’s reconstruction after the Korean War under the obvious guidance of the Great Leader, President Kim Il Sung.  After boarding a train, the carriages of which were obtained from East Berlin after Germany’s reunification, we travelled one stop and alighted at Glory Station, where the decor featured mosaics showing Pyongyang scenes in springtime with overhead lights designed to resemble exploding celebratory fireworks.

We re-boarded the train and travelled four more stops to Triumph Station, where the central feature of the platform’s decor was a large gold statue showing a young Kim Il Sung making a speech.  The inspiration of the sculpture was Kim Il Sung’s speech that he delivered when he returned to Pyongyang in 1945 after driving out the Japanese from Korea, an event that occurred almost immediately above the station’s underground location.

When we emerged to the surface from the metro, our field of view was dominated by the Arch of Triumph, a huge 60 metre high structure that commemorates Kim Il Sung’s triumphal return to Pyongyang.  Built with granite blocks, decorated by large socialist realist bas reliefs and carved magnolias (the DPRK’s national flower), and engraved with the words of the Song to Comrade Kim Il Sung, the arch was described as being “better proportioned than the Arc de Triomph in Paris, and six metres higher as well”.

It was time for lunch, so we drove to the western end of Liberation Avenue, one of Pyongyang’s widest streets, to the KITC Restaurant No.2 (opposite the newer Schoolchildren’s palace that is currently being renovated).  The general consensus was that this one of the best meals we had yet experienced in North Korea.

Three visits were scheduled for the afternoon.  The first was to a place that is very visited extremely rarely by foreigners, the Jonsong Victory War Revolutionary Site.  Located just to the east of the Pyongyang TV Tower, Jonsong was the underground cave system used by Kim Il Sung when he directed the Korean War from 1951 to 1953.  Surprisingly and frustratingly, no photographs were allowed at Jonsong, either outside or inside, and a large number of soldiers wearing ordinary blue workers’ clothes and standing in shadowy areas throughout the site ensured compliance.  The visit began with some presentations and a video (all in Korean language, as the place is clearly designed for local consumption), followed by a tour through the tunnels and a few above ground huts, all beautifully preserved.  A power blackout during the tunnel tour added a dramatic touch for a while.  Although the visit was interesting, the unwelcoming attitude of the personnel, the lack of English and the ban on photography all contributed to some sense of frustration despite the obvious and huge privilege of seeing a place that almost no foreigners have ever visited or will ever see.

Our second visit for the afternoon was the Embroidery Institute.  This was not on our original schedule, but was offered by the guides as a substitute for our hospital visit, which could no longer occur as the hospital’s administrators have banned all visits by delegations.  I accepted the idea of visiting the Institute because its location was beside the Ryugyong Hotel, a 105-floor mirror-sided, pyramid-shaped building that will be the world’s tallest hotel when it is completed in a few years.  Several members of the group expressed interest in seeing this building at close quarters, and visiting the Embroidery Institute seemed to offer the best opportunity to do so.

This proved to be the case, and the Embroidery Institute itself also showed itself to be highly interesting.  We visited several workshops in which teams of women were doing embroidery, usually copying intricate photographs, displaying an almost unbelievable ability to embroider fine details with breathtaking accuracy and vibrancy.

Our final visit for the day proved to be a real highlight.  This was a visit to Kang Bang Bok Secondary School, named after Kim Il Sung’s mother who had grown up in the area near the school.  Upon arrival and after a short time watching the soccer team practice on the school’s dirt playing field, we received an introductory briefing about the school, followed by a short series of musical performances prepared by the students.

The main part of the visit that followed was the main highlight, as we joined a class of 14 year old students studying English.  After a question-and-answer time that revealed the students’ shyness, we split up and began free conversations with small groups of students that proved much more fun and hopefully helped the students to tune in to native speakers’ accents.  I spoke at length with the English language teacher, and I was delighted to learn that she knew Ronny Mintjens, the Head of Languages at the school in Hong Kong where I was formerly Head, who had continued my annual program of bringing a group of students to North Korea annually after I had left the school to lead a school in the US.  She loved having the students visit from Hong Kong, and looked forward to the next visit whenever that might be.

The day concluded with another excellent dinner, this time at the Nowana Restaurant.  We were quickly learning the lesson that visits to North Korea are filled with activities every day; you don’t visit North Korea to lie back and have a rest.

Day 5 - Pyongyang


4 September 2015