North Korea 2015

North Korea 2015


After more than a week in North Korea, it might be thought that there is nothing more to see.  After all, people have never been to the country seem to feel there is nothing here to see, and the majority of foreign visitors come for short four day visits.  Our last full day in North Korea was our ninth day in the country, and many members of the group commented that our time seemed to have passed too quickly, as there had never been a dull moment.  There was always something new to see, and it was usually something unexpected.

Our first visit for the day was Mangyongdae, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung.  Situated in Pyongyang’s south-western suburbs, Mangyongdae is a lovingly restored traditional Korean home that belonged to Kim Il Sung’s grandparents.  Although it was originally just one of dozens of similar houses, it is now set alone in beautiful green parklands with music written by Kim Il Sung coming from the trees and bushes in the park.

Kim Il Sung was born on 15th April 1912, and the North Korean calendar dates from that year (2015 is referred to in North Korea as “Juche 104”).Mangyongdae is a place of pilgrimage for North Koreans, and our visit was interspersed with several groups of local people.  We were shown though the house, which was actually a small compound, in which household belongings and photos of Kim Il Sung’s family were on display.  Special note was made of the deformed clay pot that his grandmother had been forced to purchase because she was too poor to buy a well formed one.

Most visitors to Mangyongdae simply visit the house and leave.  Our visit was more extensive, and included a climb up the track leading to two important sites.  Towards the top of the track was a mosaic showing 13 year old Kim Il Sung sitting on the nearby hill, looking over Pyongyang, where he made the decision to leave his grandparents’ home at the age of 14 to go to Manchuria and fight the Japanese occupation by forming the “Down With Imperialism Society” (which probably sounds better in Korean than in English).

The second site was marked by a pavilion with extensive views over Pyongyang and a small stone monument that marked the place where, at the age of 12, Kim Il Sung wrestled with a Japanese bully, and won (of course).  As a result of the fight, the Japanese bully left and never returned.

A 15 minute drive back through central Pyongyang brought us to our second stop for the day, the Three Revolutions Exhibition.  In North Korea, the Three Revolutions are (1) Revolution in Ideology, (2) Revolution in Technology, and (3) Revolution in Culture.  In practice, the Three Revolutions Exhibition is a large 75 hectare complex with six exhibition halls with 80,000 square metres of floor space that showcase progress and achievements in the national economy.  Specifically, the six halls are devoted to heavy industry, new technological developments, electronics and space research, light industry, agriculture and literature about the Juche Idea.  At the head of the complex is a huge red granite sculpture of three flags that is 27.5 metres high and 58 metres wide, with inscriptions featuring each of the three revolutions and the signature of Kim Il Sung.

We visited two of the buildings, the Heavy Industry Hall and the Light Industry Hall, under the guidance of an especially fluent and articulate guide.  The Heavy Industry Hall was the more impressive of the two, with some impressive and surprisingly up-to-date equipment on display, and an very impressive white marble sculpture of Kim Il Sung accompanied by three smiling workers.  Special emphasis was placed on CNC (Computer Numerical Control) equipment, hydro-electric developments, mining for minerals, and North Korea’s own cloth called ‘vinalon’ that is made from limestone.  Three examples of North Korean vehicles were on display, all from the Pyonghua (“Peace”) factory and clearly marked with the company’s logo of two doves, signifying Korea’s wish for reunification.

We spent less time in the Light Industry Hall, although the display of products manufactured in North Korea was interesting and varied - clothes, bicycles, food and beverages, books, household products, furniture, and so on.

A highlight of the visit was seeing a bridal couple and their wedding party arrive in the Heavy Industry Hall.  The wedding party made their way to the statue of Kim Il Sung to bow and pay their respects.  A heavy industry exhibition hall seemed an unlikely place for a wedding, but it turns out that the bride was an employee there.  It was lovely to extend our best wishes to the bride and groom and have our photos taken with them on this most important day for them.

The morning program completed, we headed to the Yanggakdo Hotel where lunch had been arranged in the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor.  The weather was sunny and clear and the views across the Pyongyang skyline and along the Taedong River were excellent.  The food was neither the best quality nor the most plentiful we had experienced, but the views more than compensated for any shortcomings in the food.

We spent almost two hours at the Yanggakdo Hotel and didn’t leave until 3pm, thus allowing time to relax, explore, and shop.  Our first stop for the afternoon was a brief one at the Ragwon (Paradise) Department Store.  Unlike the Kwangbok Department Store the previous day, this was a government-operated shop, but not a normal one as all purchases had to be made in hard currency (US dollars, Euros or Chinese Renminbi).  Overall, prices seemed high, which may explain the lack of buzz and energy that characterised Kwangbok.

Our last stop for the day was a two hour visit to the Pyongyang Schoolchildren’s Palace.  Fronted by a large bronze statue of Kim Il Sung with three children, and topped with a huge Young Pioneers Organisation badge featuring the motto “Always Ready”, this massive building in central Pyongyang provides gifted and talented after school extension programs for children in many co-curricular activities.  Upon our arrival, we were greeted by an extremely confident and articulate ten year old girl who was our local guide for the visit.  We were shown several of the classes, including calligraphy, embroidery, singing, traditional Korean musical instruments, piano accordion and tae kwon do before being shown to a theatre for a performance prepared by the students.

The performance featured instrumental music, singing, dancing, and gymnastics, and it was often difficult to believe that these were young schoolchildren (in some cases, as young as six years old) rather than professional performers.

For our farewell dinner, we were treated to a Korean barbecue duck dinner.  This was a great time, and everyone enjoyed the fun of cooking their own thinly sliced duck meat on the gas grillers in the centre of each table.  The barbecue duck was complemented by some vegetables and soup (duck soup of course) and rice.  It was a lovely finish, not just to the day but to our travels in North Korea.

Day 11 - Pyongyang


10 September 2015