North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


We had an early start today as we had a long drive ahead of us because of the circuitous route we had to take to Sinchon to compensate for the washed out bridge.  We left the hotel at 8am and drove south to the West Sea Barrage.

Located about 18 kilometres south-west of the port city of Nampo, the West Sea Barrage is hailed as one of North Korea’s great engineering achievements.  Constructed between May 1981 and June 1986, the eight kilometre long barrage was built across the Taedong River estuary, joining the northern and southern sides to create a large lake of freshwater in an area that was formerly saline that could be used for city water supplies and farm irrigation.  The barrage contains 36 sluice gates and 3 lock channels for shipping.  As a result of the construction, south-west DPRK now has an additional 2.9 million tonnes of freshwater in the lake behind the barrage.  There is no doubt that the West Sea Barrage is an impressive engineering achievement, and this was reinforced by a video we were shown that emphasised the indomitable spirit of tens of thousands of workers who, under the wise leadership of President Kim Il Sung and Comrade Kim Jong Il, completed the project earlier than predicted.

The West Sea Barrage closes to road traffic between 10am and 6pm each day to allow ships to pass between the West Sea and Nampo port.  We managed to cross the barrage, travelling south, comfortably at 9:50am.

We were supposed to drive to Mount Kuwol to see a Buddhist temple and have lunch, but the driver took a wrong turn and to our surprise, we arrived in Sinchon a couple of hours earlier than expected at 11:30 am.  As were in Sinchon at the invitation of the museum we were to visit, a representative of the museum joined us “for our protection and guidance” and we proceeded to a lovely pavillion overlooking the town of Sinchon.  Judging by the reaction of everyone involved, I suspect we are the only foreigners to have seen the town of Sinchon from his high vantage point since the early 1950s.

Although we had finished lunch by 1pm, we could not descend to the museum for our visit as the museum staff were having their lunches until 2pm.  Finally we made our way down the hill and through to the new museum on the eastern edge of Sinchon.

The new museum replaced an older building that I had visited in 2010.  Although it had only opened in July 2015, I had visited the museum during an earlier visit on 24th August, but this did not dull the impact of the museum.

Known officially as the Sinchon Museum of US War Atrocities, the museum chronicles several atrocities that were allegedly committed by US forces in the area in late 1950.  The area was populated by farmers, many of whom were seen to be Communist sympathisers, and according to accounts that have been supported by photographs and eye witness accounts, some particularly brutal and sadistic actions were taken by the Americans to torture and kill the civilians, including women and children.  The displays in the museum do nothing to dilute or sweeten the atrocities committed - this is a very graphic place.  To western eyes, it is surprising that school groups of children as young as 8 and 9 years old are taken through these displays, but for the North Koreans it is seen as an essential part of the nation’s history.  As George Orwell (I think) said, those who control the past control the present.

I won’t go into too much detail about the atrocities shown.  Suffice to say that they include killing people by hammering nails through their skulls, tying people together and throwing them off bridges into a river to drown, various ways of torturing captives, burying people alive, burning people using red hot iron pokers, and so on.

One of the most horrific incidents occurred in an area just near the front of the museum on 7th December 1950.  About 400 women and 100 children were captured, separated into two nearby storage huts, and left without food or water for four days.  On the fourth day, gasoline was thrown into the middle of the children’s hut.  Some of the children were so thirsty they began to drink it.  Then the US soldiers threw a small ball of fire into the hut, and a raging fire broke out.  The children screamed and tried to escape, but the door was locked and all but three children were burnt to death.  The mothers in the nearby hut, who had heard the screams of their children, were then killed in the same way.  The graves of the women and children are located near the front entrance of the new museum.

The three children who survived managed to do so because they were in the corner of the hut and the number of dead bodies above them shielded them from the flames.  One of the three survivors, Mr Ju Sang Won, was five years old at the time, and is now 70 years old.  We were honoured to meet him and hear his first-hand account of the incident.  I had previously heard a similar account from one of the other survivors, Mr Jong Gun Song, who was 6 years old at the time.  It is impossible to hear their testimonies and not be moved by their stories.  Understandably, several members of the group has tears in their eyes and were shaking their heads as they listened to Mr Ju.

A visit to the Sinchon Museum of US War Atrocities is not an experience for the faint hearted.  About half-way through our visit, our guide Mrs O, who was translating the local guide’s commentary into English, found she could not continue as she was in tears with the intense emotion of the narratives she was translating for us.  Fortunately, our other guide, Mr Kim, was there to take over the duty of translation.

As we walked down hill to the site of the massacre of the women and children, we were able to see several ‘revenge pledging meetings’.  These were conducted as groups of local people assembled in rows in front of the grave mounds of the women and children, and shouted in unison that the deaths of the women and children would be revenged as they pointed their outstretched fists into the sky in unison.

It is said that history is written by the winners.  That is why the common thread of the history learned in schools everywhere in the world is that the ‘goodies’ win; good always seems to triumph over evil.  The Korean War is somewhat different to most conflicts in that governments representing both sides remain to tell their stories.  Therefore, the stories that would normally be suppressed and fade into history don’t disappear on either side in the case of the Korean War.  For those of us who do not live in Korea, it is a rare luxury to be able to hear narratives from both sides of this conflict; I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world where this can happen.

After two and a half hours, our visit to the museum finished, and we left Sinchon for Mount Kuwol.  Korea has six famous mountains, four of which are in North Korea - Mount Paektu, Mount Kumgang, Mount Myohyang and Mount Kuwol.  The mountain has a height of 964 metres, and on the cool sides of the mountain is the Woljong Buddhist temple, our destination.

Started in the year 846 by a monk named Woljong, the temple is a small but beautiful complex of timber buildings, one of which contains a Buddha image that is 1000 years old.  In order to get to the temple, we had to walk 700 metres up a bush track, and as we did so tens of schoolchildren were descending in the opposite direction.  It was quite an experience to have every one of them spontaneously bow and smile to us as they walked past.  At the monastery, we were informed that there are 200 Buddhist monks in North Korea, and 10,000 Buddhists.  This would be an interesting if difficult statistic to verify.

It was almost dark by the time we left the Woljong temple to begin our journey northwards to Mount Myohyang.  Although the guides had arranged dinner for us upon arrival in Mount Myohyang, I suggested that 10:30 pm might be too late for dinner, and after some mobile phone calls, it was agreed that we could stop and have dinner at the Nowana Restaurant in Pyongyang en route. 

As it became more and more obvious that our arrival in Mount Myohyang would not be before midnight, some more negotiations were undertaken, and as a result, it was agreed we could stay at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang for the night, leaving for Mount Myohyang the following morning as a day trip instead.  The change was greeted with gratitude by the group, and after the scheduled dinner at the Nowana Restaurant, we arrived at the Koryo Hotel at 10:30pm - very grateful that we not about to embark on a further two and a half hours drive to Mount Myohyang.

Day 8 - Nampo, Sinchon and Mt Kuwol


7 September 2015