DPRK (and Beijing) Day six, part one
05.09.2019 - 05.09.2019
Mansudae Hill - figurative group
After piling everything soft that I could find in our room at the Koryo Hotel (blankets and spare pillows) on to the bed, my back felt a little less painful and I slept OK, apart from when a brief storm woke me up.
We were up early, before 6.30, as we had a tight schedule for the day. Breakfast over, we all gathered in the lobby, dressed rather more smartly than most of us would usually do on a trip overseas. The reason for this ‘dressing up’ will soon become clear!
Life in Pyongyang – some observations
Driving through the city we saw some interesting sights as Pyongyang started work for the day. Women near the station were doing group exercise routines with flags. These Women’s League units come every day to strategic spots such as subway entrances to wave red flags and sometimes play drums or other instruments in a morning ritual that is intended to encourage workers to start their day off with more vigour. Our guide told us that they were typically housewives rather than women with jobs of their own to go to, but I couldn't help thinking that their minds would be more than half on the household chores awaiting them at home, from which this duty was keeping them.
Today, after last night’s storm, even quite small children were out working together to sweep the rain into the drains. As we drove, I found myself reflecting on what I had observed so far. It seemed to me from appearances at least (and yes, appearances can be deceiving) that people for the most part are happy here. They don’t know that their regime is as different from those elsewhere as we perceive it to be, the state looks after the practicalities of their lives such as education, health, housing – although it is well documented that in the 1990s the economic collapse brought on by a combination of the break-up of the Soviet Union and consequent loss of a major ally and trading partner, and systemic failure of now-discontinued agricultural policies, meant that for a period the state was not so well able to care for the people.
Also, people here are brought up believing in the importance of the collective group rather than the individual – country first, then the smaller groups to which they belong (company, school, apartment block etc.) So, everyone does their bit, no one puts themselves first, and perhaps consequently they don’t miss the freedoms that we have. Or maybe some do, but hide it well – from us and, more importantly, from the authorities. I will never know, as talking openly with local people isn’t an option here.
The Great Leaders
The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
~ Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il
I have long maintained that one of the things that travel teaches us is that people the world over have more in common than you might expect if you only read about other countries or watch TV news and documentaries. Everyone wants to feel safe, to be in good health, to have the basic necessities of life. If they have children, they want the same for them and they want them to thrive and do well in their lives.
North Koreans too are not so very different from us in those respects, as we had already started to appreciate while exploring Pyongyang yesterday. But one thing the country and its people don’t have, that many others do, is a prevailing religion. Driving around you see no mosques, churches, temples, shrines or synagogues. However every village, however small, has its Immortality or Eternal Life Tower to remind the people of the immortality of Kim Il Sung (more on these in a later entry) and at least one monument to, or image of, the Great Leaders.
Devotion to the Leaders is not a religion, of course – it doesn’t offer its followers the certainty of an after-life, for instance, and there are no gods in the sense that we might understand the term. But it is a belief system, and it provides its believers with many of the same comforts and certainties that a religion might do. They are confident that the Leaders have always looked after their people and protected them, and continue to do so today - not only the current leader, Kim Jong Un, but also the two previous ones, the Great Leader and President Kim Il Sung (who led the revolution that freed the people from the tyranny of Japanese occupation and repelled the threat of the US during the Korean War) and the Dear Leader, Chairman Kim Jong Il (who reinforced the spirit of the revolution and furthered the country’s self-reliance and independence). These two are considered to be Eternal Leaders, still watching over the people – perhaps for them at least there is a belief in an after-life?
As with a religion, it behoves its believers to show their gratitude to those who watch over and protect them, and to show them proper reverence. And as a visitor in this country you are expected not only to respect the rituals attendant on that, but also participate in them. To do so, I found, not only pleases your hosts but also strengthens enormously your understanding of this country and its people. This morning was all about that participation.
Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
Note: no photos are allowed inside the Palace of the Sun so I have broken up my rather lengthy description of our visit with some images taken later, outside the building, where photography is permitted.
This impressive structure to the north east of the city centre has had several incarnations. It was built in 1976 and served as the Kumsusan Assembly Hall and as Kim Il Sung's official residence. When he died in 1994 his son Kim Jong Il had the building renovated and transformed it into a mausoleum for his father, the Kumsusan Memorial Palace. In December 2011 when Kim Jong Il himself died it was closed down and a year later was reopened as the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, now his mausoleum too.
A visit here is a serous matter, for tourists as well as DPRK citizens. Our guide outlined the rules as we arrived. It isn’t permitted to take anything inside the mausoleum, so all possessions had to be left in the bus apart from cameras, which were collected up by our young guide to be left at the cloakroom – they would be returned to us at the end of the visit so that we could take photos of the exterior of the Palace.
Once inside we lined up in pairs and our guide checked our clothing, tweaking anything out of place, asking that jackets be buttoned and so on. She was clearly very anxious that we didn’t show her up. We went through airport-style security, with staff very thorough in their checks. I noticed that although the female staff here wore dresses in the traditional style, these were not the usual brightly coloured versions but all of black velvet, with their hair immaculately styled and also tied back with black ribbons. They looked so elegant.
All of this happens in a building at some distance from the Palace itself, as though to provide distance between the messy practicalities of a visit and the solemn business of the visit itself. The two are linked by slow-moving travellators on which we stood (no walking allowed), still in our pairs, arms by our sides (I was pulled up when I absent-mindedly put my hands behind my back) and talking only softly. Two of the women in our group were also spoken to when something said by one caused the other to laugh – I’m sure she wasn’t laughing at our surroundings, but it could have been perceived that way. As we travelled solemn music played, building anticipation and setting a calming tone. The walls were lined with photos of the two past Leaders going about their duties – giving field guidance, meeting their people in all sorts of settings (factories, schools, farms) and also meeting with visiting foreign dignitaries. The official guidebook explains:
‘The access corridor has been so designed that the Korean people yearning for their great leaders can visit the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun all the year round, irrespective of climatic conditions. The travellator there will run for ever carrying the Korean and foreign visitors who, with boundless yearning for the benevolent leaders, are streaming to the palace to see them who would be waiting for their dear people.’
I didn’t time it but the ride on the travellators must have taken at least 15 minutes. When we reached the far end there were a number of precautions taken to ensure that no dirt got into the mausoleum. We walked across a system of brushes on rollers which cleaned our shoes, and through a gateway that blew cool air across us, like walking through a giant hairdryer. Finally we were inside, and ascending the very grand staircase.
The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
The first room we entered had massive, but eerily life-like, wax statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il at the far end. Following our guide’s instructions, we walked forwards, lined up in front of them, arms at our sides, and bowed in unison – an action that was to become very familiar over the coming weeks. As I mentioned, no photos were allowed anywhere inside the mausoleum, but you can see a picture of the statues here: https://upi.com/6312887
From here we proceeded solemnly to the chamber holding the embalmed body of Kim Il Sung. This had subdued lighting, with the body itself dressed in military uniform, draped in red and encased in glass, surrounded by flowers. I could only look briefly, and perhaps it did look a bit like a waxwork (as some have claimed), but I was convinced that it was real. Again, we had been given instructions on how to pay our respects. In fours we approached the feet, bowed once, moved to our left to circle the body in a clockwise direction, bowed in our fours at the side, passed the head without bowing, and bowed a final time on the other side, before exiting the chamber.
As we proceeded around the room, I watched out of the corner of my eye how local people were behaving. They were solemn and respectful, but showed no extremes of emotion. For some this would have been a first visit, I guess, especially if they live out of town, but Pyongyang residents tend to come once or twice a year, on significant dates (national anniversaries, around their own wedding or maybe a birthday) and would be used to the ‘routine’. – but all took it very seriously, there was no sense of just going through the motions. Our Regent Holidays guide Carl has since told me however that he has on occasion seen North Korean nationals sobbing almost uncontrollably at the sight of Kim Sung Il.
A marginally more relaxed atmosphere prevailed in the next room we visited, where all the honours (medals, awards etc.) received by Kim Il Sung during his lifetime, both from the DPRK and from around the world, were displayed. Many of course were from the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries but I also noted a fair number from different African countries and elsewhere. It was notable that most came from countries with a similarly authoritarian regime (at least at the time of the award) – Ceauşescu’s Romania, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Castro’s Cuba, Gaddafi’s Libya etc.
Our visit to the chamber containing Kim Jong Il’s body followed the same pattern, and again there was a further room displaying his awards. Beyond this we saw the train carriages in which each Leader had travelled around the country and beyond, some of their cars, and maps which showed all the journeys each had made by plane and by train. It is generally accepted that Kim Jong Il was nervous of flying and certainly it was noticeable that his map had a significantly higher proportion of train journeys to flights than that of his father. In fact, he is said to have died of a heart attack in this very carriage while travelling around the country, and his desk and belongings are left just as they were then. A sign by the carriage reads:
‘Before this carriage the Korean people feel their hearts rending and hot tears rolling down as Chairman Kim Jong Il passed away in it on his way for field guidance for his beloved people. Regarding it as his home and office, he travelled in this carriage, rain or shine, on the forced march of the Songun revolution. On display in this carriage are a parka he wore shouldering the destiny of his country and people and their bright future, a pair of sunglasses he always put on because of his accumulated fatigue, his threadbare gloves and the documents he went over and signed on the last day of his life.’
Taken from the official guidebook
We also saw an electric buggy, like a golf buggy, which Kim Jong Il had used on his field guidance visits in his later years, and the large motorboat he used when his advice needed to be dispensed at sea, e.g. for naval operations.
The Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
After the train carriages, cars and maps there was one final significant room to visit, the Hall of Lamentation – almost empty apart from the large portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on one wall and dramatic relief friezes on the other walls, depicting the grieving people of North Korea. This was where the people came to mourn their Leaders immediately after their deaths. As the guidebook says:
‘The Hall of Lamentation tells of the grief and great loss the Korean and world progressive peoples felt for the sudden death of President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il. As they had been fascinated by the great leaders’ outstanding ideology and ennobling personality, they cried in bitter tears, calling them loudly. It seems that their wails of grief are still heard in this hall.’
We then passed through a final room which set a rather different tone. Around its edges were old fashioned wooden desks, at which important visitors are asked to write in a book of remembrance. It seems that the definition of ‘important visitors’ includes tourist groups, as one of our number was asked to write something on our collective behalf. Unfortunately I forgot once outside to ask what she chose to write!
From here we retraced our steps (or rather stood still) along the travellators back to the entrance building and out into the open air. Here our cameras were restored to us and we were able to take photos as we had a short stroll around the immaculate grounds. An army of gardeners were hard at work keeping them that way and I asked our guide about the status accorded anyone working here. She confirmed my supposition that to be a gardener here, or work here in any capacity, is considered a great honour, the pinnacle of any occupation.
Gardener at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
We had already seen while inside the mausoleum how smartly the North Koreans dress when visiting – the men in military uniform or business suits, the women almost all in their colourful traditional dresses. Now outside, these dresses added lovely splashes of colour in the grounds on this rather dull day.
At one side is this rather impressive sculpture group which appears to be some sort of monument to the soldiers who guard the palace – but that is just a guess on my part as I’ve not been able to find any information about it, even in the guidebook.
Monument at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun
I can’t emphasise enough that this is not a place to come if you are at all uncomfortable about showing respect for the Leaders and for the people’s perceptions of them. You may or may not share their views, but you must accept them. For my part, I found it an absolutely fascinating and unmissable experience, largely because it gave me such a powerful insight into the North Korean culture of devotion to the Leaders. As a Westerner it’s hard not to be cynical (although this is not the place to voice that cynicism) but at the same time I found it also hard not to be impressed, even moved, by that devotion.
I will finish with a final quotation from the guidebook:
‘President Kim Il Sung and Chairman Kim Jong Il, who devoted their all entirely to their country, revolution and people, were peerless patriots, great revolutionaries and benevolent fathers of the people, and as such they will live for ever as the sun of Juche Korea along with their undying exploits. This is why the Palace of the Sun is regarded as a beacon of light for the Korean revolution, an everlasting spiritual mainstay of the Korean people and the supreme sanctuary of Juche symbolic of their victory.’
If you want to read more, or see photographs of the interior, I recommend a look at that guidebook, which the DPRK has made available online: http://www.korean-books.com.kp/KBMbooks/en/album//00000601.pdf
Pyongyang Central Ideals Zoo
On our way to our next stop we passed the Pyongyang Central Zoo. From what I have read this is a very old-fashioned zoo, with basic cages and poor conditions for the animals (although Carl tells me it has improved in recent years while still falling short of Western standards), so I am glad it wasn’t on our itinerary. But I’m also glad that we got just a glimpse of this rather amazing entrance. I couldn’t help thinking that many small children would be scared of visiting if it meant walking through this ginormous tiger mouth!
The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery
Our next stop this morning was at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, where again respectful dress and an equally respectful attitude are required. Despite the name, this is both cemetery and memorial, commemorating those who fought in the revolution against Japanese occupation.
View from the The Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery
The cemetery is located on a hill, Mount Taesong, which offers wonderful views over the city even on a gloomy day such as this. Our guide told us that this site was chosen for the cemetery so that the martyrs who had died during or soon after the struggle could see how the city had developed and what a success was being made of the country they had fought for.
On either side of the approach to the site are massive white granite sculptures depicting groups of revolutionary fighters in the typical brutalist style that always fascinates me.
Left-hand group of revolutionary fighters
Right-hand group of revolutionary fighters
The revolutionary fighters from above
Beyond these on either side are equally massive slabs of the same white granite, engraved in Korean text. The one on the left carries a quote from Kim Il Sung:
‘The noble revolutionary spirit displayed by the anti-Japanese revolutionary martyrs will dwell forever in the hearts of our Party and our people. October 10, 1985’
The quote from Kim Il Sung
The one on the right is, I think, a poem. No doubt our guide told us, but it’s a detail that didn’t stick in my mind as I was too busy taking photos (possibly going a bit over the top in that respect, after the restrictions of the Palace of the Sun).
Memorial stone with (probably) a poem
Next came a large monument with a giant medal in its centre – the collective medal of all the martyrs who are commemorated here. Some visitors had lain flowers in front of this and our guide, who had brought a bunch, selected one of our group to place it with the others while we all lined up in front of the monument. We then bowed solemnly in unison when prompted: ‘Shall we pay our respects?’ This was our guide’s usual phrase on these occasions, but the question was for sure rhetorical!
The medal for the martyrs
On either side of this were more figures, this time of mournful-looking people with drooping flags, and in bronze.
Right-hand group of bronze figures
The main part of the cemetery consists of uniform granite blocks each topped with a bust of one of the martyrs. The busts are based on photographs and are very realistic. The blocks are staggered, ensuring that every martyr has a good view of the city.
The martyrs' view of Pyongyang
As we climbed the steps between the rows our guide pointed out a few of the more interesting memorials. One of these was, she told us, unusual in that she wasn’t a martyr herself but gave her son and daughter to the cause. Later Kim Jong Il adopted her as his mother and looked after her.
The memorial on the left is to the mother mentioned above
At the top of the hill are the most recent memorials. From these it becomes clear that the Korean definition of martyr is different from ours, as these are for people who participated in the revolution but didn’t necessarily die in it – in fact the most recent died less than a year ago from natural causes. They are honoured here nevertheless for the contribution they made to the fight for freedom.
More memorials, including the most recent, above left
Beyond these are the memorials of the highest serving in front of a huge DPRK flag made of red granite. At the centre is the most revered of all, Kim Jong Suk, the first wife of Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. She was born in 1917 (some sources say 1919) and started her fight against the Japanese in 1934 when she joined a partisan unit where she was involved in training Children’s Corp members, including her younger brother Kim Ki Song, despite being still very young herself. She joined Kim Il Sung’s guerrilla forces (most source say as a kitchen-hand) in 1935. She rose through the ranks to become his personal assistant and bodyguard. She is frequently depicted (as at the Grand People’s Study House - photo in my earlier entry about our visit there) fighting off an attack by the Japanese and saving Kim Il Sung’s life, as described in the latter’s official biography:
‘One day, while the unit was marching under the General’s [Kim Il Sung] command, five or six enemies unexpectedly approached through the reeds and aimed at the General. The danger was imminent. Without losing a moment, Comrade Kim Jung Sook [Kim Jong Suk] shielded the General with her own body and shot down an enemy with her revolver. The General also shot down the second enemy. Two revolvers spurted fire in turn and annihilated the enemy in a twinkle. But this was not the only time such dangers occurred, and each time, Comrade Kim Jung Sook rose to the occasion with fury, and protected the Headquarters of the revolution at the risk of her life.’
Courtesy of Wikipedia and widely quoted
The memorial to Kim Jong Suk
Here too we bowed in respect, although I don’t recall that we laid any more flowers – maybe we did, as it is normal practice, and many others had. Then it was time to return to the bus for one final respectful morning visit.
Mansudae Hill Grand Monument
Our final stop of the morning was on Mansudae Hill, at one of the iconic images of North Korea, the bronze statues of the Great Leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Originally only the former stood here. His statue was erected in April 1972 to mark his 60th birthday. It was originally intended to be covered in gold leaf, but this was later changed to bronze. After Kim Jong Il died in 2011 a similar statue of him was erected next to his father. At the same time, Kim Il Sung's statue was altered to show him older and smiling. The statue of Kim Jong Il at first depicted him wearing a long coat but this was shortly afterwards changed to his signature parka after, it is said, the people objected that it wasn’t a typical image of their late Leader.
Mansudae Hill - the Great Leaders
The statues are twenty metres high and appear even taller, thanks to the stone plinth on which they stand, which adds a few more metres, and the fact that you approach them from below. Behind them is the building of the Korean Revolution Museum, on which is a mosaic mural of the Korean sacred mountain, Mount Paektu. It was on its slopes that Kim Il Sung based his guerrilla troops and, according to official DPRK historical accounts, that Kim Jong Il was born. But more of that anon, when we visit Mount Paektu.
We had come here expecting to be asked to buy flowers to lay at their feet and although our guide said that not all of us needed to do so (as long as we had several bouquets between us) Chris and I decided to buy some from the conveniently situated (i.e. right next to where our bus had parked) small booth. We then walked up the hill, approaching the monument from the side (and thus having far fewer steps to climb, for which I for one was grateful).
Chris buying our flowers
On the way we passed a number of ‘wedding parties’. I put the phrase in inverted commas because today was not actually the couples’ wedding day, although they were dressed as if it were. But they had come on an appropriate day close to that of the actual ceremony to pay their respects and have photos taken in front of the statues. Most looked very solemn – this is clearly a big deal for young couples here.
We approached the statues as a group; all of us who had flowers laid them, and then again we bowed in unison when prompted by our guide. After that she told us a little about the statues before we were free to take some photos, obeying the rules not to zoom in on the statues, not to cut off any part, not to make silly poses in front of them.
Mansudae Hill - the Great Leaders
As well as the statues I was also very taken with the immense figurative groups on either side, similar to but larger than those at the Revolutionary Martyrs Cemetery, and in a darker stone, set against backdrops of vast red granite flags. These are soldiers, workers, and farmers, and represent on the left the revolution against the Japanese and on the right the fighting in the Korean War. The human figures are on average 5 metres tall and there are apparently 229 in total, although I didn’t count them!
Left-hand figurative group - revolutionaries
Right-hand figurative group - Korean War
After this we drove back to the hotel for lunch in one of the restaurants there. We then had a bit of free time to change into less formal clothes and finish packing before checking out for the drive to Kaesong. But that is best left to my next 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.