[DPRK] Chapter 1: Bright Lights and City Sights
[This is the 2nd installment of a series of blog posts about my adventures in the DPRK from August 11 - August 17 2013. You can read the first here.]
One of the questions I’ve been asked most when someone hears I’ve gone to the DPRK is, “Did you have to bow to statues?”
I bowed. A lot. Initially reluctant about bowing to statues (a Catholic upbringing didn’t help) it was immediately clear at the Grand Monument, the first of the bows, that it wasn’t really about me, or the great and supreme Leaders. It was about the locals around us, and if it was customary for them to bow and present flowers, then I, as a foreigner, would do the same. It was about respect. And that’s something I would definitely do without hesitation.
It was a surreal experience to see hoards of locals – school children, the military (who make up about 20% of the population) and everyone else – filing in to pay their respects to the massive bronze statues that stood before us.
We were told about the statues, and got in on some stories and legends about one of Pyongyang’s biggest attractions.
“How much do the statues weigh?” you might ask.
“As much as the hearts of the people of Korea,” might be your eyebrow-raising answer.
So, we stood in line and, some of us bearing flowers, approached the dominating figures before us. Get back in line, and then we bow. It was probably at this point that the questions really started pouring in for me.
Why are all these people here? Do they really want to be here, or were they sent here? Do they do this all the time – every day, every week? What do they really believe?
I went to the DPRK with loads of questions. And I left with twice as many.
These are questions that I still don’t have the answers to, and I don’t know if I ever will.
On the way to the DMZ, the Demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, is the extremely pretty Reunification Monument. Constructed in 2001 to commemorate the Reunification proposals put forth by Kim Il Sung, these arches tower over the Reunification Highway which leads you all the way to the DMZ.
It’s slightly ironic that something so seemingly peaceful leads you to what is known as the tensest place on earth.
In the time leading up to the trip, I had been most excited about going to the DMZ. I’d heard all about it – the numerous checkpoints along the way, the flags of the North and South that seem to constantly challenge each other in the wind.
Before we got there, we got a bit of a lesson on where the boundaries are by this gentleman.
And then I hung out with these guys.
And here it is, the DMZ. If you look in between the blue houses (which reminded me of Monopoly) you’ll see concrete, a line, then gravel. That little bit in between is the official demarcation between North and South.
On one side, we had DPRK military holding the fort on our side. I imagine on the South side, they’d have exactly the same. Rows of cameras pointing at each other from both ends.
Funnily enough, for such an allegedly tense place, we got a few smiles from the guards, and I even got a photo with this friendly dude. Sure there was tension. But there were lots of smiles too.
One thing you’ll see in the DPRK: lots of artwork featuring weapons, weapons being used violently against their enemies, weapons placed quite randomly onto another picture, and more weapons.
In this War Museum, a real treat for anyone who’s into war history, we see lots of tanks, helicopters, and damaged artillery. What’s even eerier: real and very gruesome photos to complement the remains. No photos from inside, though we had an insanely cool panoramic revolving platform audio visual experience. These guys sure know how to do a museum.
What’s most interesting is hearing the North Korean side of the story, which is remarkably different from the American or South Korean side of the story. There are 2 sides to choose from: North Korea as being cornered into putting up a fearsome defence, or North Korea as the full on aggressors.
Within our group, we talked a lot about where the truth lies between two sides that stand by their story; most of us agreed, the truth is always somewhere in between.
USS Pueblo (AGER-2) is a US navy intelligence ship captured by the North Koreans in 1968. Another story where the truth isn’t really known. Was the ship on international waters, or had it crossed into Korean territory?
Either way, the ship remains along the Taedong River, currently used as a museum. You can have your soldiers back, DPRK said, but we’re keeping the ship. Still a commissioned vessel of the US, Pueblo is the only US Navy ship currently in captivity.
Now, this. This was probably the most surreal experience of all. And unfortunately, not a single photo to show for it – no photography allowed in this building. And when you’re in this building, you don’t mess about.
I’ll do my best to describe it. Everyone had to dress up a bit more today, so we all looked like we’d transformed from tourists to expats who were headed to the office. It’s a massive building, and on the way to the tombs, you’re put on this really long travellator that moves at snail’s pace towards Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body. Along the sides of the walls are photographs and paintings of the Eternal President in various moments of success and happiness. Because of how slow you’re moving, you’ve got time to look at and appreciate all these photos. To set the mood, rousing Korean music is played, all in a great lead-up to what you will soon experience.
Enter a impressive but sparse room – the way many things are in the DPRK – and you’ve got to line up in rows of three. Line by line, you step forward to the foot of the tomb, where you will bow. In silence, you walk over to the Great Leader’s right side, and bow again. Silently walking past the head of the tomb, you come around to the left. And that’s where you bow again.
Somberly filing out of the room, you’re led to a grand hall full of gifts and accomplishments of Kim Il Sung. Gifts from other countries and people, including Che Guevera and US ex-president Jimmy Carter. Some of his belongings and personal accomplishments are also on display, such as a certificate from Kensington University in California.
But there is another leader to see, and you’re soon ushered out to go through the same steps, this time for Kim Jong Il.
As I said. I bowed. A lot.
Tower of the Juche Idea
The Juche idea could be loosely described as a variation of Marxism-Leninism (but better, of course).
It promotes a culture of self-sufficiency non-reliance on external forces.
Resemblant of the Eye of Sauron, the Tower of the Juche Idea stands proudly in the middle of Pyongyang. Completed in 1982, the Tower stands at 170 metres. According to Wikipedia, it is made of 25,550 blocks (365 × 70, one for each day of Kim Il Sung’s life, excluding supplementary days).
All over, there are friendship plaques, and I was
not surprised surprised to find quite a few from Singapore. I asked the Korean guides about it, and they said there were Juche supporters in Singapore. I’m now on a quest to find them.
Right by the Tower is another statue – the peasant, the worker, the intellectual. Their tools form the Worker’s Party of Korea sign.
And those are some of the insanely epic sights and must-see attractions of the DPRK. I’m almost glad I wasn’t able to get as many photos as I wanted to – it wouldn’t even come close to the experience of being there, beholding the grand monuments, the mausoleum, the dignity bestowed, the great big halls. The hoards of people lining up to pay their respects and present flowers.
To be honest, I’m still trying to piece it all together in my head.
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