DPRK (and Beijing) Day five, part two
04.09.2019 - 04.09.2019
On the streets of Pyongyang, somewhere near the Potang River
A Metro ride
The first activity after our lunch at the Ansan Restaurant (see previous entry) was a ride on the Pyongyang Metro. This fairly modest system has just two lines - the first, Chollima, was opened in 1973, and the second, Hyoksin, in 1975. Rumours circulate outside the DPRK of other secret lines leading to palaces, military installations and massive nuclear bunkers, but if these have any foundation in truth, we of course saw nothing of them. What I can vouch for is that, contrary to some other rumours, there are more than the two stations, Puhung and Yonggwang, which were once the only ones that tourists were permitted to see. We ourselves went through six stations on the Chollima Line, and I am confident the others (17 in total, two of them closed) also exist – indeed, tours on the entire network are occasionally arranged for very keen visitors. Likewise, I am not inclined to give any credence at all to the other rumour that all passengers are actors, there only for the benefit of tourists. North Koreans have better things to do with their time than stand around on stations and ride trains just for show!
Like all public transport in the city the Metro is incredibly cheap to use – just five won (about 1/16th of a US cent at the current exchange rate, or 1/20th of a British penny) per ride, a pretty nominal fare even by local standards. It is one of the deepest subway systems in the world (our guide said the deepest) at over 110 metres below ground level, and is designed to double as a citywide bomb shelter, with blast doors at the foot of each lengthy escalator.
All the stations are named not for their location in the city, as is normal elsewhere, but instead have inspiring patriotic names such as Victory (Sungni), Comrade (Jonu), Paradise (Rakwon) and Golden Fields (Hwanggumbol).
We started our journey at Puhung, which means Rehabilitation. Riding down the escalator I wondered where the famously ornate décor was to be seen, as walls were plain (and devoid, of course, of the advertising I am used to seeing on the London Tube). Music that was both calming and stirring played as we descended to the depths, and once we got to the actual platforms I found that it was indeed, like all the stations we were to see, impressively ornate – all decorations, of course, being linked to the Korean ideology. These include giant murals and statues depicting one or more of the Great Leaders, and mosaics showing the great Pyongyang monuments or happy party members waving flags and carrying flowers.
Here the main features were a huge mural of Kim Il Sung giving field guidance at a factory of some sort (surrounded, as always, by smiling workers, some of whom are carefully taking notes of his advice) and on either side mosaics of equally happy citizens – some walking through fields of rice (in the vivid green I was to come to associate so closely with this country) carrying musical instruments and colourful flags, while others are shown in an industrial setting.
At each end of the platform were some relief sculptures of industrial settings and construction projects. I think the one on the left of my photo below may show the building of the West Sea Barrage.
As at all the stations there were copies of the Rodong Sinmun (‘Workers’ Paper') daily newspaper on display for passengers to read, and staff on duty dressed in military-style uniforms. The patriotic music we had heard on the escalator echoed around the cavernous spaces.
We were allowed plenty of time to take our photos (Pyongyang is proud of its Metro system) before boarding a train. At the next station, Yonggwang (Glory), we got off the train to look around, but didn't go up to street level. This station is dominated by a huge mosaic of Kim Jong Il in a rural setting that I would guess is in the region of Mount Paektu.
The trackside mosaics here are all of sights in Pyongyang, and our guide explained that they are designed as if the platform were the Taedong River and we were travelling along it looking at the view on either side.
From Yonggwang we got on another train to continue in the same direction and alighted at Kaeson (Triumphant Return), named for its proximity to the Arch of Triumph.
Here the dominating feature is a massive bronze statue of Kim Il Sung making that speech. The adoring people are shown in the mosaics on each side, bringing him flowers and waving banners with slogans.
We then ascended an escalator as long as that by which we had descended. I shot some video here at Kaeson which may give some idea of the atmosphere at these stations.
The Arch of Triumph
Emerging from the station we saw the Arch of Triumph dominating the view in front of us, and to our right was the Kim Il Sung Stadium and the Autographic Monument of Triumphal Speech. The latter, along with the Arch itself, commemorates Kim Il Sung's first speech to the people on his return to Pyongyang in October 1945 after the successful Soviet-aided revolution against Japanese occupation and rule. A huge mural nearby shows him making the speech surrounded by the people he was to lead for the next almost fifty years.
The Autographic Monument of Triumphal Speech
Mural at the Autographic Monument of Triumphal Speech
Kim Il Sung Stadium
This is the second tallest triumphal arch in the world and was modelled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris but is 10 metres higher – something of which the Koreans are understandably proud! The tallest, should you be wondering, is the Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City.
The Arch of Triumph
It was built to celebrate Kim Il Sung's role in overthrowing Japanese occupation and his triumphal return to the city in 1945 as the country's new leader. It was inaugurated on the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1982 (another of his ‘birthday presents’ that year), and each of its 25,550 white granite blocks represents a day of his life up to that point, although I believe they forgot to take account of Leap years!
The dates on either side mark the year when Kim Il Sung started his struggle against the Japanese, 1925 (when by my calculation he would have been just 13 years old), and the year of victory, 1945. There are 70 azalea flowers carved around the arch, each representing a year of his life. On one side of the arch, near the top, is a relief of Mount Paektu, close to the Chinese border, on the slopes of which he had his ‘secret camp’ and fought some of his fiercest battles with the Japanese.
The four bronze relief sculptures at the base of the arch depict groups of figures in heroic patriotic poses. These represent the three pillars of the Workers’ Party, workers, farmers and the intelligentsia, plus soldiers who fought for the Korean Revolutionary Army.
Bronze relief sculptures
Local guides - ours on the right
A local guide in traditional costume led us on a tour inside the arch. We took the lift to a room just below the top but had to walk nine (I counted!) flights of steps further to the viewing platform. The views were worth the effort, especially as the clouds cleared briefly while we were here.
View south from the Arch of Triumph
~ the building bottom left with the green roof is Kaeson Metro Station
Kim Il Sung Stadium from the Arch of Triumph
After taking our photos we went back down to the large square room beneath and were shown a short video, in English, about the arch. Of course there was also what we were already coming to recognise as the inevitable gift shop. A few members of the group browsed a little, but I don’t believe any purchases were made.
By now I had started to discover that the overly firm bed had not only disturbed my sleep but also given me a bad back which was only to get worse as the day wore on. It distracted me rather from all the sights of Pyongyang, but I was still having a fascinating day. And there was still more to come!
The Supreme Court
The DPRK Supreme Court
From the Arch we drove to the Supreme Court for a tour – somewhere that relatively few tourists get to visit. We were given a tour by two local guides here, taking in the main courtroom and a smaller one.
These two guides, with our own guide as interpreter, were happy to answer our group’s questions about the legal processes here, the nature of punishments (they still have the death penalty, by shooting which they see as more humane than the electric chair, but think that could change in the near future) and so on.
Sign at the Supreme Court
~ the court's seal
Our Supreme Court guides
The main courtroom
While this was not the most interesting part of the day for me, I did appreciate this opportunity to visit somewhere so off the usual tourist path. And there was a certain morbid fascination in seeing the smaller of the two court rooms where Otto Warmbier was tried in 2016. For those who may have forgotten this case, Warmbier was a student from the US who was accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from the staff-only area of his hotel (the Yanggakdo International) and was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment with hard labour. Soon after sentencing he suffered some sort of brain injury and fell into a coma, from which he never recovered. In June 2017 the Korean authorities released him to return to the US where he died six days later. Understandably there are differing opinions on the DPRK and US sides on what actually happened to him, and like most outsiders I have no way of ascertaining the truth, but what is clear is that his death led to the US ban for their citizens on visiting North Korea and to an increased nervousness about doing so in some travellers of other nationalities. As I have said in a previous entry, I don’t personally think anyone should be nervous of coming here as long as they are prepared to follow the rules, which clearly Warmbier did not, unfortunately.
Smaller courtroom where Warmbier was tried
Our travel companion Michael contemplating
the dock where Warmbier was tried
After our tour we were given a coffee (unfortunately for me it was milky and sweetened) to drink while we watched a video. This was however rather hard to follow as the English subtitles were in white text on an often pale background, were very lengthy and were illogically split across screens.
Kwangbok Department Store and Supermarket
Our final stop of the afternoon was at the one ‘normal’ local shop in which tourists are allowed to make purchases – and what is more, where they can do so using the North Korean currency, the won! The Kwangbok Department Store gave us a rare opportunity to shop alongside regular Pyongyangites – albeit better-off ones who are happy to pay the slightly higher (by local standards) prices in return for a much wider choice than is the norm here.
The Kwangbok Department Store and Supermarket
We changed a few euros at the booth at the back of the store set up for this purpose. We’d been advised not to change too much, as prices are very low compared with what we are used to at home, but even so we found that after making a modest purchase of some bags of sweets to take on the bus journeys to come, we were still left with a lot. We could have gone around again, although there was nothing we really wanted to buy, but my back was really painful by now so I didn’t explore as much as I would otherwise have liked to, preferring instead to rest on a seat just outside and watch all the shoppers coming and going.
Incidentally, no photography is permitted inside the store – had it been I might have overcome my tiredness long enough to take a few shots. Another thing that isn’t permitted is taking Korean currency out of the country, so technically we should have changed our remaining won back into euros as it was unlikely that we would get another chance to spend many, if any. But I believe everyone in our group hung on to them, as we did. At the end of the tour, when it became clear that we wouldn’t need any more, we used the leftovers to top-up a tip to our chambermaids, although it is just possible that a couple of souvenir bank notes may have found their way out of the country in my purse – oops!
Will we get to the Mass Games?
As you will have observed in my photos, we had not been enjoying the best of weather in Pyongyang today. While it was quite warm, it was cloudy and at times wet. We had all been offered, and had all taken up, the option to go to the famous Mass Games this evening, but given the weather there were fears they might be cancelled. Carl assured us that, if that happened, he and our guide would try very hard to arrange it for a later evening in the tour, but obviously it would be better to go tonight as tomorrow we would be leaving the city for a few days, not returning (we thought) until towards the end of our tour.
So we were all on tenterhooks throughout dinner, which was necessarily a quick affair in a restaurant not far from the supermarket, where we had a selection of dishes several of which were already becoming familiar.
Restaurant entrance lobby
When we left the restaurant it was raining steadily, but we started the drive towards the stadium and halfway there our guide got the welcome call to say that the games were on!
As I took loads of photos and videos at the games, which I fancy may be of enough interest to be worth sharing in larger numbers than I would normally do, I propose we take a break here and I cover the games in a separate entry …
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Holidays on their Pioneering Group tour, which takes visitors to the parts that most other tours don’t reach!
Note: when you visit North Korea you do so at the invitation of the DPRK government, and the itinerary you follow is approved by them, as are the sights you see and the information you are given. That information often differs from that disseminated outside the country - there are, as always, two (or more) sides to every story.
This blog should not be seen as a fully balanced picture of the country as it will focus primarily on what I personally saw and heard while there. I will do my best to reflect the experiences I had as presented to me by our Korean guides, although I may touch from time to time on other perspectives. In writing it I hope always to remain respectful of my hosts, and to tempt my readers not to take my word for anything, but to visit and make up their minds for themselves.
Having said that, all views expressed above and in the following entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.