North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


Everyone expressed gratitude that we had changed the hotel arrangements last night to stay in Pyongyang rather than taking the long drive to Mount Myohyang.  We had a very good and highly welcome night’s sleep at the Koryo Hotel, and moreover, it meant that our 130 kilometre drive north to Mount Myohyang could be done in daylight rather than in the dark of night.

And what a drive it was!  We drove through some of the finest and most extensive rice and corn growing areas in North Korea, and the ripening rice padis looked resplendent in the morning sunlight.  It was also interesting for me to note the changes that had occurred since I last travelled to Mount Myohyang in 2010.  The most obvious change was the construction of about half a dozen low level weirs on the Chongchon River to generate hydroelectricity.  In power hungry North Korea, these relatively inexpensive constructions made good sense, as the lakes created behind each weir were set at a level below that of the highway, meaning that the expressway constructed in 1994 could continue to be used without any modifications.

We left the hotel at 7:45 am, and arrived in Mount Myohyang shortly before 10:30 am.  Our first stop was the International Friendship Exhibition, which despite its somewhat bland name, is a site that is unique in the world.  In two underground complexes, the site displays in elaborate fashion the gifts given to the Great Leader President Kim Il Sung, the Dear Leader Comrade Kim Jong Il, Mother Kim Jong Suk, and as a result of the recent changes and additions, the current leader Marshal Kim Jong Un.

Housed in two huge underground palaces, the International Friendship Exhibition displays 113,486 gifts to the fours leaders from political leaders, business corporations and others in 185 countries.  Hall A displays gifts to Kim Il Sung, with a few rooms devoted to Kim Jong Suk and Kim Jong Un, and it contains 100 rooms, having been built in 18 months and completed on 26th August 1978.  Hall B houses gifts to Kim Jong Il, and features 50 rooms.  Both halls are set into twin facing mountains and have elaborate entrances in traditional Korean style, with solid bronze doors guarded by stern-faced soldiers holding silver plated Kalashnikov machine guns.

When we entered Hall A, we had to deposit our cameras and mobile phones at a cloak room after having left all bags back in the bus.  The next step was the cover our shoes with elasticised shoe covers, presumably so the shine on the marble floors would not be diminished by scuff marks from the soles of our shoes.

With a hundred rooms, it would take too long to see everything in Hall A, so we saw a selection of rooms.  Our walk through began in a room showing three armour-plated cars given to Kim Il Sung by the Soviet Union.  One of the cars, a personal gift from Stalin, featured bomb-proof plating underneath and 8cm thick glass.  The vehicle must have used a prodigious quantity of fuel as it weighed six tonnes.

We were then shown through rooms with gifts from Japan and various European nations (with the USSR being the dominant source of European gifts), followed by several smaller Asian nations such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia and Indonesia, and then a small room featuring gifts from less generous nations such as Fiji, the Maldives, Canada, the United States and Australia.

Next we moved to three separate rooms, each containing extraordinarily life-like wax figures given by China where we bowed to show respect first to Kim Il Sung, then to Kim Jong Il, and finally to Kim Jong Suk.

The next two rooms were new additions since my previous visit.  In a huge room, Kim Il Sung’s Ilyushin Il-14 airliner (registation 535) was on display, having been donated by the Soviet Union.  It had been immaculately restored, and looked as though it had just left the factory.  Climbing a small flight of stairs, it was possible to peek inside and see the VIP layout used by Kim Il Sung and his staff.  How I wished I had my camera!

The next room was filled with gifts presented to the current leader Kim Jong Un since he assumed the leadership in 2012.  Pride of place went to a basketball singlet and three basketballs presented by Dennis Rodman during his visit a few years ago.

The final room we visited featured a seated statue of Kim Il Sung and after we dutifully paid our respects in the usual way, we examined several gifts that seemed especially esteemed, such as a bowl donated by US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a sculpture of a Korean heron presented by Billy Graham, and my personal favourite, an upright stuffed crocodile serving drinks on a platter presented by the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.

Having completed our tour of the display rooms, we retrieved our cameras and ascended to a large balcony with stuffed armchairs where we were able to admire the beautiful mountain scenery of Mount Myohyang while sipping an over-priced cup of instant coffee.

We had spent more than two and a half hours exploring the International Friendship Exhibition, so it was not possible to see the largely similar but less spectacular Hall B as well.  We therefore drove the short distance to our other stop in Mount Myohyang, the Pohyon Buddhist Temple.  First built during the Koryo Dynasty in 1042, the temple originally had 30 buildings, but 14 of these were destroyed by US bombing during the Korean War, together with some 10,000 religious relics.  Many of the buildings have now been restored, and the temple complex and grounds are now one of the most beautiful places in all Korea.  During our visit we were able to explore several of the buildings and meet the presiding monk, a gentle man who had done his theological training at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang.

A 10 minute drive took us to the Chongchon Hotel, the hotel where we had originally been booked to sleep last night, where we began our lunch at the fairly late hour of 2pm.  The food was great, and because we were keen to get back to Pyongyang before sunset, we ate speedily and began our return trip at 2:45 pm.

The road to Pyongyang was a fairly good one, and at 5:20 pm we arrived at our last stop for the day, the new Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery on the northern outskirts of Pyongyang.

The cemetery was built in early 2013 under the personal supervision of Kim Jong Un, who gave on-the-spot guidance several times during the construction.  Housing the remains of several hundred heroic martyrs of the Korean War, Kim Jong Un’s on-the-spot guidance resulted in “the wise decision” not to arrange the graves in alphabetical order but in sequence of the date of death.

The entrance to the cemetery is flanked by two large gates, one bearing the year in which the war began (1950) and the other bearing the year in which the war ended (1953).  The focus of the cemetery is a huge stone machine gun wrapped in a red granite flag bearing a Hero’s Medal.  On the hill behind this large monument are the graves of the soldiers, each bearing a photo-like portrait of the person.  I never found out where the bodies of the dead soldiers had been accommodated before the cemetery opened in July 2013.

Dinner tonight at the Rakon Restaurant was judged to be one of the best we have enjoyed in North Korea, and it was a pity that we were sitting down to eat at 6:15pm after having finished our lunch at the late time of 2:45pm.  Nonetheless, this meant we could get an early night (if you were not writing a daily dairy for a website, that is!), a welcome compensation for yesterday’s very long day.

Day 9 - Mt Myohyang


8 September 2015