DPRK (and Beijing) Day eleven, part one
10.09.2019 - 10.09.2019
Last night we had rearranged our belongings, putting all the essentials for the next three days into the smaller of our two bags. We decided to skip breakfast as lunch would be early, although I did make a coffee in the room, grateful again that I’d been advised to bring instant granules with me.
We checked out and loaded the bus; bags to take with us for the next three days came inside, the rest were stowed in the hold below. Our driver would keep an eye on them and bring them with him when he joined us in Wonsan.
Mirae Scientists Street
Apartment blocks on Mirae Scientists Street
We still had a morning’s sightseeing in Pyongyang before leaving the city for a while. Our first stop was on Mirae Scientists Street. This is one of the newest developments in the capital (officially opened in November 2015) and one of which the Koreans are very proud, as it showcases their ambitions in architectural design, housing for the people (the ‘right sort’ of people in this case) and science and technology. The apartment blocks here have been built to provide homes for employees of the Kim Chaek University of Technology. ‘Mirae’ means ‘Future’ and the designs are indeed futuristic, but the name also promotes the idea that this is a country looking to the future. It was built in just over a year (the Koreans are also very proud of the speed at which they can complete construction projects – see below) under, naturally, the guidance of Kim Jong Un.
On Mirae Scientists Street
We strolled along past some of the most architecturally interesting apartment blocks. One in particular caught my eye and our guide told me it was designed by a 21 year old architecture student. From above, she explained, it has the shape of a flower but at street level it looks like an atom exploding. This is the Mirae Unha Tower, at 53 storeys high the tallest on the street.
The Mirae Unha Tower
All along the street are scientific motifs – stars adorn the lampposts, atoms the sides or tops of buildings, and the footbridge that we climbed for better views towards the end of the walk has a dramatic atom monument at its central point.
But there were also reminders that these are people’s homes – mothers hurrying children to school, a father and son feeding their pigeons, workers waiting for the bus.
Off to school
~ I was surprised that even very young children
walk to school on their own
The local unit of the Women's League were on the street, waving flags and banging drums to encourage those off to work to do their best and work hard for the country and the people.
Exhorting the workers
It was hard to get a good video as they were on the far side of the street (and leaving the group and crossing the road wasn't an option, naturally) but I did my best.
A digression – Chollima and Mallima
Propaganda poster near Moranbong Park
The Koreans have a term for their speedy construction projects – they describe them as being done at ‘Chollima Speed’ or in recent years, ‘Mallima Speed’. Chollima was a mythical flying horse, similar to Pegasus in Greek mythology. The name Chollima translates as a ‘thousand li horse’, with a ‘li’ being a traditional unit of east Asian measurement, equating to 393 metres. Accordingly, Chollima could gallop, or fly, almost 400 kilometres in a single day. At the end of the Second World War the new nation of North Korea was in a desperate state. Cities had been ruined by the bombing and industry destroyed, and the new leader, Kim Il Sung, urgently needed to lift the morale of the people. In 1956 he set out his first Five Year Plan, an ambitious strategy designed to drastically improve the economy. Wanting to motivate the people to devote maximum energy to the fulfilment of his plans he coined the idea of the Chollima Movement. Through this he urged the entire nation to work harder to smash productivity targets, increase output and achieve the unachievable, just like the mythical Chollima horse. It worked – it is estimate that the North Korean GNP nearly doubled between 1956 and 1960, completing the Five Year Plan two years early. As the Bradt guidebook explains, ‘people gave their very all to exceed output, outdo their peers and smash targets by hundreds of percent to try and become ‘Chollima riders’, hero labourers that were glorified across the nation – a rare example in the nation’s history where the people, not their leaders, were celebrated for their tireless efforts.’
Of course the pace could not be maintained and productivity dipped again in future decades, but in 2012 a new movement was announced, the Mallima Movement. Mallima means ‘ten thousand li horse’, that is, ten times faster than its predecessor from the 1950s. Like the Chollima Movement the aim was to spur on the enthusiasm and output of the nation and its workers. But also like Chollima, the results were less than spectacular. From Bradt again: ‘while almost any North Korean would publicly state that he or she would do anything for their leader, increasing one’s already overstretched output ten, nay one hundred fold, is impossible, even for the most sedulous of citizens – still, it’s a good soundbite and slogan with which to try and rouse the masses.’
The Chollima Movement is still recognised, however, as a key element of the country’s post-war recovery and the mythical horse tops a dramatic monument just north of the statues of the great Leaders on Mansudae Hill, as well as appearing on propaganda posters everywhere, urging the people on to ever greater achievements.
The Chollima Monument seen from Mansudae Hill
All about the Fatherland Liberation War
But to return to today’s itinerary. Our main visit of the morning was to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, a fascinating insight into the North Korean psyche as shaped by their history – or perhaps more accurately by their interpretation of that history.
The museum was established in 1953, straight after the end of the Korean War (if indeed that war can be said to have ended). It moved to this site ten years later and was considerably enlarged in 2014. Not being an especial fan of war museums I was surprised at how much I enjoyed (if that’s the right word) this morning’s visit – indeed, reflecting at the end of our holiday, I found myself listing this as one of my highlights (to the surprise, I think, of our Korean guide!)
At the entrance to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Visiting here, as with many other places in North Korea, you need to be prepared to put aside much of what you think you believe about the history of the twentieth century. As they say, ‘history is written by the victors’, and to that you could add ‘and by those who want to believe that they are victors’. The ideology of the DPRK requires that the people believe in the invincibility of the Leaders and the nation, so of course the North won the Korean War – or, as it is known here, the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War. For the duration of your visit you too must accept this as fact, at least outwardly. Doing so will not only please your hosts but also help you to put yourself in the shoes of a North Korean visitor to the museum and see things through their eyes.
At the entrance to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
In case any readers are unaware of the non-DPRK account of the Korean War, here’s a very brief summary of events. It is generally (but not universally – read on) believed that the war started when North Korea invaded South Korea on 25 June 1950, following a series of clashes along the border. Neither of the two countries had readily accepted, understandably, the division of Korea by the US and Soviet Union after World War Two, and both governments felt themselves to be the legitimate leaders of what should be a united Korea. Furthermore, the North Koreans resented (and felt threatened by) the on-going presence of US troops on South Korean (i.e. Korean) soil, which they viewed as an occupation. Their invasion of the South was supported by their main allies, the Soviet Union and China, while the South Koreans could call on the United Nations to come to their aid in repelling the invasion.
At the entrance to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
To start with the North had some considerable successes, pushing south and capturing Seoul. Then the tide turned; UN forces (mainly consisting of US troops) forced the North Koreans to retreat and in October 1950 entered the DPRK and moved quickly towards the border with China. Alerted by this the Chinese entered the war and pushed the southern forces back below the 38th parallel. At this point things on the ground largely stagnated, with only small movements in either direction over the next two years – Seoul itself changed hands four times during that period. In the air things were very different and North Korea was subject to a massive U.S. bombing campaign which continued until the armistice was signed two years later. This, as I said in my earlier post about the DMZ, had a lasting impact on the country both in terms of how it looks today (almost all its major cities were destroyed) and how, collectively, it feels – especially about the US. That anti-US sentiment has softened a fraction in the last year or two, but there is little sign of that yet in how the history of the war is told in this museum. If their version of history grates from time to time, it helps to recall that bombing campaign and reflect on how it has shaped their perceptions. I don’t mean by this that you should suddenly change your own understanding of the war – how it started and why – but simply to try to see why their understanding might be different from yours. After all, perhaps the truth is not that one side or another won the war, but that neither side won.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum
Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation
Entering the museum grounds I was in my element, photographically speaking! In front of the museum is the massive Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation. This is a series of statues depicting soldiers of the various branches of the Korean People's Army in scenes from the Korean War, including ‘Defenders of Altitude 1211’, ‘Heroes of Wolmido’, ‘Moving the Artillery Gun Up’, and ‘War of Liberation of Taejon’.
The Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation
The centrepiece, in front of the museum, is the Victory Statue which depicts a soldier of the KPA raising the flag of North Korea. The entire monument was completed in 1993 to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, and is naturally in the style known as Socialist Realism which holds such an odd fascination for me.
The Victory Statue
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – outside
While I was frantically snapping photos of the statues we were welcomed by a museum guide who proceeded to give us a thorough tour (more thorough, Carl told us later than many tourists receive), starting out here in the grounds.
On either side of the gardens leading to the main museum building are sheds displaying weapons and equipment from the Korean War period and its aftermath. Those on the left are from the DPRK side, those on the right were captured from the US and their allies. It was the latter which we were taken to see, unsurprisingly. Among the exhibits pointed out to us was a captured plane which our guide told us was used to drop ‘germs’ – alleging chemical warfare.
Display of captured weapons and equipment
Another was a US reconnaissance helicopter captured in 1963 which, we were told, demonstrated that the Americans continued to spy on North Korea after the armistice.
The helicopter crew
US reconnaissance helicopter
The USS Pueblo
From here we followed a path designed to look like a trench to the museum’s most famous exhibit, even though it has little if nothing to do with the Korean War itself – the USS Pueblo which is moored here on the Potong Canal.
The USS Pueblo
Local school group
~ being told about the capture of the USS Pueblo, no doubt
And now it is time for another ‘history lesson’! The USS Pueblo was captured on 23 January 1968 by the North Koreans, who accused the crew of spying in their waters. In the battle to capture it one US officer was killed, and the remaining 82 crew members taken prisoner. The North Koreans demanded a full admission of guilt and apology from the US in order to secure their release. The US, under President Lyndon Johnson, refused to comply. They denied the accusation of spying (even though it was clearly the case), claiming that the Pueblo was a scientific research vessel, and also said that they were in international waters (which was indeed probably true, despite DPRK claims to the contrary). They demanded the return of the crew and ship and reinforced their demands with mobilisation of the US Seventh Fleet just off North Korea’s shore. In response Kim Il Sung announced that North Korea was ready to fight and the army had been mobilised.
The US backed off and in December admitted the violation of North Korea’s territorial waters and published a written apology in exchange for the return of the 82 prisoners and the remains of the dead officer, while the crew members wrote ‘confessions’ of guilt. The crew were accordingly released but the ship was not. Today it is shown off here as a war trophy, although to this day it officially remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy.
Our guide at the USS Pueblo
Signing the 'confession', and the apology from the US government
Some of the captured crew
The admission of guilt by the US was of course seen as a massive coup by the North Korean government who continue to maintain that the Pueblo was in their waters when captured, while the US remains clear that it was not, and that the ‘admission’ was written only to secure the crew’s release and safe return. You can imagine which version of events was relayed to us by our tour guide!
On board we were shown a video about the capture of the ship and subsequent events, including the confessions of those on board and, eventually, the apology from the US government which secured their release.
Then we had a tour of some of the main areas, including the communications and cipher rooms. Certainly the evidence presented was a convincing argument in favour of the ship being on an espionage rather than research mission.
Map showing capture
Photo of the crew that first boarded the ship
Equipment used for spying
US spying notes
Cabin and bullet holes in a door
The crew's 'confession'
Back on ‘dry land’ we were introduced to an elderly man in uniform who, we were told, had led the boat with the crew of seven who had actually boarded the Pueblo to capture it. Now eighty he still works at the museum as a guide – although I suspect his main duty is simply posing with tourists as he did for us! No doubt the many local schoolchildren who visit the museum are thrilled to meet a national hero, even though to many from outside the country he would be seen as quite the opposite.
He led the crew that boarded the USS Pueblo
~ the one on the right!
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum – inside
Next it was time to actually enter the museum.
No photos were allowed inside which was such a shame, as we were all itching to photograph the huge waxwork of a youthful Kim Il Sung which stands at the top of an impressive staircase, welcoming all.
The scale of the museum is as impressive as its entrance; we were told it would take three days to see everything and I believe it! We only saw a few highlights, naturally, and weren’t shown any of the rooms which focus on the revolutionary struggle against Japanese occupation – the focus for us was all on the Korean War.
Early on in our tour we were shown a short film entitled ‘Who started the Korean War?’ to which the answer was, naturally, the US. I found it intriguing to see how the selective choice of archive film footage was skilfully edited to back up that argument. If I were a North Korean visitor, I would certainly have believed it! In this version of history, the war was started when the US invaded on 25 June 1950 (the same day on which the rest of the world understands that North Korea mounted its invasion), shattering the peace of a lovely summer’s day. The brave Korean People’s Army repelled the invasion, pushing south to Seoul and beyond, and would have been immediately successful had the US not brought in reinforcements from Japan and the west. As it was, they won numerous battles and in the end were victorious. The fact that ‘the end’ looked much like the beginning, with the border between the two countries more or less where it was, is not mentioned, naturally.
After watching the video, we were led on a tour of a number of the other rooms, although by no means all! We walked through effective reconstructions of military encampments showing summer and winter conditions, which reminded me, in their attention to detail, of the sets we had seen at the opera on the previous day.
Displays in various rooms showed the initial advances of the North Koreans south of the 38th parallel, their retreat when the US strengthen their forces and the fight to hold a strategic high point, Altitude 1211. The focus was very much, in the rooms we visited at least, on the early days of the war when the North enjoyed considerable success.
We were also shown graphic photos of the damage and destruction caused by the US bombs, including dead bodies and weeping children. Of course, there was no mention of any destruction caused on the opposite side of the frontline. There was also almost no mention of any Soviet or Chinese involvement in the war. The tone set here is of a small but heroic nation successfully resisting the aggression of the ‘imperialist US army’.
For sure the most impressive exhibit is the one we finished with, contained in the old circular museum building. A 100 metre 3D panorama depicts the Battle for Taejon, and special effects (again somewhat reminiscent of the opera) recreate the scene with smoke from the bombing, planes flying low overhead and the flash of gunfire. It’s impossible adequately to describe this ‘performance‘; it really needs to be seen, and of course no photos were allowed.
With the ban on taking photos indoors it is perhaps not surprising that when we stopped at the inevitable bookshop on the way out, several of us were persuaded to splash 18 euros on a glossy book about the museum. Maybe there is more than one reason behind these photography restrictions?!
Having splurged on that I have relatively few compunctions about sharing just a few scans of its pages here:
The entrance hall
'Hall displaying materials relating to the outbreak of the Korean War by the US'
Hall dedicated to the second stage of the war
~ 'Kim Il Sung advanced the strategic policy for the second stage of the war and organised a temporary, strategic retreat while frustrating the enemy's attack'
Battle for Taejon panorama
If you are interested to see more I have unearthed an amazing collection of panorama shots online, including interiors: http://www.dprk360.com/360/victorious_fatherland_liberation_war_museum/. Scroll through to find the one of the Grand Lobby and of the Taejon panorama in particular – amazing, aren’t they?!
Monument to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation
On reflection after our visit I started to realise that having a common enemy, the US, helps the leadership to glue the country together and promotes devotion to the Great Leaders. Hence it is useful to maintain the ‘alternative truth’ that the US started the war. But underlying it there does seem to be a real fear that the ‘imperialist’ west could strike again – the natural nervousness of a very small country, with limited resources, in a very strategic spot. The road-block structures we saw around the country and the well-publicised nuclear weapons tests are both products of this fear.
Reliefs on the front of the museum
What I was less sure about was whether it is at the very top level a genuine fear of the US and other world powers, or simply a useful device to unite the people? My conclusion was that it is probably a bit of both, but which drives them more – fear of the US or fear of losing power – I couldn’t say.
Almost time to leave Pyongyang – for now
We had spent longer in the museum than either Carl or our Korean guides had anticipated, as they had been reluctant to rush us when we were all so fascinated by it. We had been warned that lunch would need to be eaten earlier than usual, and so it was, but perhaps not quite as early as had been planned. We ate it in a pizzeria, of all things, with surprisingly good pizzas, but it was rather a rushed affair as we had a plane to catch.
It may not look like a pizzeria ...
But that is a story for my next blog entry …
I travelled to North Korea with Regent Travels 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 all my entries are my own, and I alone am responsible for the content.